Is Yoga ‘Spiritual’?

I was recently interviewed by a journalist for a magazine and was asked the question ‘Is yoga a spiritual activity?’ I thought this was an interesting question. As a yoga and meditation teacher I often come across the word ‘spiritual’. People I meet may think of me as someone who is spiritual, particularly as I have a Buddhist name.

Spiritual may mean different things to different people so, to begin with, we need to clarify what is actually meant by the term ‘spiritual’. The dictionary defines it as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things,’ which I think may be helpful. It alludes to transcendence, moving beyond the mundane and material world, to something or someone concerned with higher matters. Personally I am not very keen on the word spiritual, as I feel it encourages a potential tendency for aloofness, seeing spiritual practice as escape, cut off from our lived experience and engagement with the everyday world. Sometimes this tendency can lead to a desire to repress aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. I think the late Jungian psychologist James Hillman captures this well when he says “The Spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior, and operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes.”

This Spiritual view can express itself with ideas like drinking a pint of beer down the pub or enjoying fish and chips for your supper are not very ‘spiritual’ activities, whereas going on retreat, meditating and practicing yoga are somehow higher or more spiritual activities. A view like this, I feel, has an aspect of Spiritual arrogance and is not very helpful, as it can potentially lead to a cutting off from the ordinariness of human life.

Hillman draws out a counter-balance to this aspect of Spirit or Spiritual. He calls this Soul. He sees Spirit as concerned with transcendence, to move beyond, to distance oneself, the realm of ideas, clarity, masculinity. Soul in Hillman’s sense is not used in the way we sometimes think of it, as an eternal part of us that will be liberated from the body after death. Soul in this sense is not a thing but a quality: dark, mysterious, moist, associated with the earth, the body, imagination and the feminine. Soul by its very nature is relational and is very much about being in the world.

I believe that spiritual traditions can have, by their very nature, a view of transcendence. As someone who has spent the last 20 years exploring Buddhism, this has been my own personal experience. For me, I have found a healthy balance is needed between these two qualities of Soul and Spirit. We all need spirit in our lives to enable us to see beyond the horizon, a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, but we also need soul, to remind us of our bodies and the earth beneath our feet. I think during my first 10 years of practicing Buddhism I had a view that I wanted to transcend the world in some way, partly because my experience of being in the world and my own inner life were at times painful or difficult. Now I feel rather than trying to transcend the world I am more interested in making my way through it.

I am reminded of the words by the American poet Wallace Stephens:

“The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it

 

The Woodpecker & Connecting to Life

I recently spent a week teaching on a yoga and meditation retreat at Dhanakosa, a Buddhist retreat centre in Scotland located next to Loch Voil & the Trossachs National Park. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit Dhanakosa will know It provides a quiet and beautiful setting for retreats.

During my stay I became aware of the chorus of bird song that would surround me every day. When we would meditate in the shrine room in the afternoon I particularly loved hearing the sound of a Woodpecker in the nearby trees, tapping away. I noticed that when I listened to sound of the Woodpecker it acted as a reminder to stay embedded in my body whist also staying connected with the world.

I reflected on how often we can lose our sense of belonging and connection to our environment and the world. The meditation teacher Paramananda wrote about this in his book, ‘The Body’ where he described watching a television programme about the culture of Indigenous Australian peoples.

“I was struck by their intimacy with the world around them. I was impressed not only by their vast knowledge of plants and animals, but also by their sense of care and appreciation for their environment, a profound sense of belonging within the landscape that brought forth a feeling of reverence and responsibility for the world that sustained them. They seemed totally at home in the world, in a deep, yet relaxed, intimacy with everything around them”.

How can we find our own way to connect more deeply with the environment and our world? This may not come naturally to us, we may not live directly in nature or be able to visit beautiful landscapes all the time.  However, I think that in our daily lives our meditation and yoga practice can help us towards this goal.

When I mediate or do my yoga practice in the morning I try and come into a simple relationship with my body, feeling through my senses where my body meets the floor and when I do this I give myself the opportunity to notice any sensations through my pelvis, my back or my legs. Then, I open my awareness out to include any sounds around me in the room such as a ticking clock or the hum of a radiator.  From there, I focus on the sounds outside of the room. For example, I have a neighbour who is a talented musician and I can often hear them practicing their guitar.  Sometimes I hear children playing in the gardens outside my room. Rather than interpreting these sounds in my environment as an intrusion on my practice, I try and see them in the same way as I saw the Woodpecker – as a calling bringing me deeper into life and my connection with the world. If I can relax and open to the experience, I often feel more connected and embedded in the world and my life. From this, a natural desire to want to care for my community and the world around me comes alive and I feel less isolated.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

E. M. Foster – ‘Howards End’

The Obsession with Yoga Asana

A friend recently shared a photo with me on Twitter of a young woman performing a very elaborate yoga posture, she was doing a headstand while in full lotus. As if this wasn’t enough, she was also doing this whilst only balancing on her head with her arms not touching the ground!

Over the years I have attended many classes and workshops and, as part of the wider yoga community, I have come into contact with many teachers of different yoga traditions. One of the things that I have noticed in the modern world of yoga is that it is very fixated on asana, the physical postures. It seems to me that the implicit aim or goal of a lot of modern yoga classes is one of physical gymnastics which, enjoyable as this may be, kind of misses the point. Perhaps it is helpful to be reminded that in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra of the eight limbs of training, asana is only one limb – there are actually another seven that explore ethics, meditation, etc. Patanjali places a lot more emphasis on using the body as a vehicle to support and explore meditative states of consciousness than he does in mastering an impressive back bend.

This over-emphasis and obsession on physical yoga postures can be seen regularly on social media. The majority of the photos shared by yoga teachers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are showing mastery of elaborate yoga poses. I feel there is a danger in this, as it gives a strong message that the attainment of physical asana is the goal of a yoga practice.

Like a lot of yoga practitioners, I enjoy a physical yoga practice and the benefits that it gives, so my comments are not an attack on yoga asana, but a call for balance and an awareness of the wider context in which it is held.

The modern hatha yoga tradition as we know it originated in ancient India and was heavily influenced by Hindu Brahmanism. There was also a cross-fertilisation of ideas occurring over hundreds of years between Hindu thought and Buddhism. The problem I feel is that the modern yoga we may come across has been removed from the context that supported it. The original goal of yoga is a far cry from what we find in most yoga studios today. I would go as far as to say that what passes for yoga in most gyms and yoga studios is a physical gymnastic body routine, with a liberal sprinkling of vague new-age ideas or a dash of Hinduism.

I often give an example to my students that if you are in a busy supermarket after a day at work and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, being able to balance on your head is not much help!. But if you are able to work with your mind and connect to a quality of spacious, open awareness and relax, then you are going to be more able to respond creatively to the challenges that life offers us.

“In recent times the practice of asana or hatha yoga has become synonymous with the practice of Yoga. This is unfortunate. The perfection of asana was never meant as the goal of Yoga, nor will standing on our head for an hour signal some major achievement on our spiritual path. This misconception is understandable given our obsession with form and our desire to have some kind of concrete evidence of attainment.”

Donna Farhi – yoga teacher

The pursuit of Happiness

When was the last time you felt an emotion that you did not want to feel? 

In a recent TED talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” Psychologist Susan David explored our flexibility with the emotions we feel in our lives.  She mentioned a survey she conducted with over 70,000 people where a third of those people judged themselves for having, ‘bad emotions’ like sadness, anger or grief, or made attempts to push these emotions away. She went on to say, “…normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’…”  Susan argued that by becoming emotionally agile and allowing ourselves to feel, acknowledge and talk about the full spectrum of our emotions we allow ourselves to live more fully than if we are rigid.  For example, trying to push away less appealing emotional states or distract ourselves from them by embracing a false positivity. Susan said something I really liked, “…being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.”

I found it really refreshing to hear this. I feel as a society we have placed a strong emphasis on having a positive attitude. I have noticed this to be even more prevalent in the modern yoga world, where there appears to be a heavy focus on the goals of happiness and positivity (and their corresponding emotions) almost as if they are solid and fixed states.  My experience of life however has been that these states are a more ephemeral experience; maybe they last a few hours, a day or week, even a month, but at some point it changes and something else emerges.

As my practice of yoga and meditation deepened, I noticed that by being in the world and in relation to life itself our states and emotions are in a constant state of movement.  We hear news that touches us, and we feel sad; then maybe later a friend makes us laugh and a lightness enters our experience; a little later on we hear something that makes our blood boil. So, I am inclined to believe that these aspirational states of emotional positivity (we might be able to achieve if we just work hard enough) can be a very misleading view and I wonder if it might cause us to reject our more challenging emotions, wanting certain feelings to just go away.  Susan described this as ‘Dead People Goals’.

“Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.”

Learning to deal with the world how it is and not how we want it to be is challenging. You could say in a nutshell, life is very much a bitter-sweet experience and the emotions we feel on a day to day basis reflect this.  The sooner we can truly begin to understand how important it is to be emotionally agile instead of chasing a fixed idea of ‘positivity’ or ‘happiness’ the easier our way in the world may be.

 

Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life

Susan David Psychologist

 

Vision & Belief

Sir Roger Bannister, died peacefully in Oxford on 3 March, aged 88, surrounded by his family.

On the 6th May 1954 as a 25 year old medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Pandemonium broke out within the crowd of 3,000 spectators when news spread that he had officially beaten the four minute mile. What is interesting about this story, apart from his athletic achievement is that up until that point it was considered impossible for a human to run the mile in under four minutes. After that day things changed and a new belief was held that it was now possible to do so. After a while it became normal for world class athletes in competition to run the mile under four minutes.

What this story beautifully illustrates is the power of belief and the nature of our minds and capabilities. The idea that somebody before has performed a certain action allows us to feel that maybe we could do the same. I feel that when we glimpse a vision of our potential, we are then able to move towards that vision knowing that others have done so before us.

There have been many times in my life when stories about people overcoming great difficulties and obstacles, together with a belief in my human potential, have given me the confidence to step into the unknown and embrace my potential. Maybe you can think of events in your own life when you have done the same? It may be giving up smoking after many years, or leaving a job to explore something that feels more of a vocation to you.  However big or small our steps are in life we can hold the vision that we are much more than we could possibly imagine.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell, Mythologist

The last time I saw Richard

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe”.

The haunting opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song, “The last time I saw Richard” from her 1971 LP ‘Blue’.  Anyone familiar with this album will know it contains doses of both confessional longing and romantic disillusionment. I once heard it described as, “…beautiful pain.”

When I was in my twenties, a friend of mine used to like to tease me because I was a hopeless romantic and they joked that one day I too would meet a similar fate to the character in the song. In more recent years I have begun to wonder if maybe they were right?  I may have avoided becoming a drunk but I have noticed developing in myself a deeper sense of disillusionment and at times, cynicism towards life.

In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell said of ‘Blue’:

“There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”

The emotional rawness on ‘Blue’ is something I can relate to. After the death of my girlfriend Elaine, I found it was an album that I played continuously. It was as if the songs on ‘Blue’ mirrored my own desolate inner landscape of feeling broken hearted and disillusioned by life.

As we engage with our lives we will all undergo a journey from naive innocence to mature experience and this seems part of a natural process of becoming an adult in the world.  As I look at my own life, I often ask myself the question: Can I stay open hearted in relationship to the world, or is living with a certain level of disillusionment and cynicism just a part of getting older?

The answer is, I like to believe it is possible to carry the wounds that come from being in the world, but that we can also simultaneously step into life feeling connected to others.  Allowing ourselves to be seen, to love and be loved, to be vulnerable, strong and to get things right and make mistakes.  Embracing our lives more fully, building a deeper relationship with what it is to be fully human and alive.