Can a physical practice get us to a spiritual place?

January 27th, 2011 by Dearbhla Kelly

Flicking through a yoga magazine lately, I came across an article written by a yoga teacher the central premise of which was that “a physical practice cannot get you to a spiritual place.” As a dedicated yoga practitioner and teacher, I was taken aback. It has been my understanding that the whole point of the physical practice is to get us to a spiritual place! When we practice asana we are not just using our bodies, we are using our bodies to refine our sensitivity to ourselves and consequently the world beyond ourselves. In hatha yoga the body and the breath are the means by which we create balance throughout the entire field of being. Sustained asana practice (and controlled breathing) works on every facet of our selves from the gross physical to the energetic, to the machinations of the mind, our habitual reactions, our inner dialogue, our ability to tolerate discomfort.  Doesn’t working on your habitual ways of thinking and responding, many of which adversely affect others (for example, your tendency to bail when the going gets tough) constitute spiritual work? Leading a spiritual life is all about being conscious of the impact we have on others, as the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, mother Theresa and Mandela exemplify.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein says of the physiological benefits of asana “they improve musculoskeletal flexibility, strength, resilience, endurance, cardiovascular and respiratory efficiency, endocrine and gastrointestinal functioning, immunity, sleep, hand-eye coordination, balance. Experiments also have shown various psychological benefits, including improvement of somatic awareness, attention, memory, learning, and mood.” But, he points out the traditional purpose of asana is to assist the Hatha-Yoga practitioner in the creation of a divya-deha, a divine body which is entirely governed by the adept’s will, which is merged with the Divine will. Such a body “is an energy body that, depending on the adept’s wish, is either visible or invisible to the human eye. In this body, the liberated master can carry out benevolent activities with the least possible obstruction.” Feuerstein points out for most of us, this ideal of the realized Hatha-Yoga master is unattainable given the constraints of our lives, but, that doesn’t mean that we can accrue only the physiological affects of asana, rather asana practice is a means to transcend duality and taste non-duality (advaita).  (Feuerstein, The Spectrum of Yoga Practice)

The previous paragraph is somewhat dense, so I’ll break it down a little. Traditionally, asana practice was a means to work on the energy body, to attain mastery over the subtle dimensions of our being via the tools of physical postures with a view to not just refining our connection to ourselves, but also to everything else, and, to become so skillful in control of the physical body as to be able to convert it into pure energy in order to do good deeds unhindered. Clearly, most asana practitioners nowadays are not quite on this page, but the traditional schema may not be as outlandish as it appears at first blush. An important point to get is that the motivating force for the practice was traditionally to transcend the physical limitations imposed on our being, those limitations obtaining on any physical object subject to the laws of physics (for example causality) in the spatiotemporal realm.  Another way of saying this would be that the practice was designed (at least in part) to enable us to experience ourselves as more than our physical bodies. The practice was – and is – a technology for giving us access to the sublime, for creating a pathway by which our limited, finite selves could (can) taste the infinite boundless beyond all form. In Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) this infinite beyond is called Brahman, the ground of all being, formless Reality.

Lets take stock of the conversation so far: hatha yoga teacher asserts that a physical practice cannot lead to a spiritual place, I disagree and use Feuerstein for support citing his explanation of hatha yoga as means for converting our bodies (matter) to energy in order that we may minimize suffering by benevolent acts. The austerities required to master the ability to convert ourselves to energy and become invisible to the human eye are beyond the ken of hatha yogis these days; I agree with Feurestein’s claim that the physical practice of asana gives us an opportunity to merge with the nondual ground of all being.

When we practice asana, we use the body to transcend the body. Granted, most of us didn’t begin to practice hatha yoga because we wanted to transcend our limited selves! We began because our friends told us it was cool, or we wanted to improve our flexibility, or we heard it was a great workout, or we knew that it helps to manage stress. And yes, the physical practice of yoga yields the aforementioned benefits and so much more besides. Though fleeting and impossible to choreograph, it can also lead to moments where we lose ourselves in the rhythm of our breath and the of flow of the poses, body, breath, awareness and movement merge into one. THIS is advaita, this is the taste of the ineffable. In these exquisite moments our finite selves merge into the infinite Self. This is the real reward. Describing our true nature as part of the eternal Self (or ultimate Reality) Kabir, the great mystic poet said “all know that the drop merges into the ocean. Few know that the ocean also merges into the drop.”

Hatha yoga offers us a set of tools to work with the mind, and the subtle energy body via the gross physical body, and to experience ourselves as beyond form, however fleeting that experience may be. By taking many different physical forms (asanas), we actually merge with the formless. Isn’t this ‘spirituality’? All of the great traditions, from the monotheistic religions to mystical teachings from every tradition, tell us that an essential component of living a spiritual life is choosing to identify not with our limited selves, but rather that aspect of ourselves that has commonalities with something bigger than us.

In addition to being a doorway to transcending our limited selves, asana practice is an ideal forum to cultivate and refine our practice of the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances), the ethical guidlines which form the first two limbs of yoga in the traditional ashtanga system. Ahimsa (non-violence, refraining from harm/injury in action or thought) is the first yama. Asana practice is a great place to practice this. How many of us can identify with having practiced while injured, or pushed further into a pose even though it hurt our bodies, because we really wanted to get the pose, or because the person beside us/in front of us was doing the pose? For years I was in pain every time I practiced because of an injury I sustained when I was 19 years old. During my first teacher training with Ana Forrest she pointed out to me that it was a really childish way to practice. As yoga teachers, we wouldn’t let our students practice through their pain, we would give them an alternative pose, or a modification, so why as yoga teachers would we not apply that same principle to ourselves? Ahimsa begins with oneself. It took me years to learn this, I was really learning to love myself unconditionally. Many of the great ones have told us “learn to see God in yourself, then you can see God everywhere.” Isn’t unconditional love fundamental to a spiritual life?

We also get to work with aparigraha (non-hoarding) and santosha (contentment) in our hatha yoga practice, particularly those of us who have type A personalities! Sometimes we just have to let go and realize that we won’t get all the way into hanumanasana (full splits) today and be content with where we’re at. On a more substantive level I had a very visceral experience of aparigraha with relation to death about 8 years ago while taking a yoga class in Chicago. It was approaching the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death from cancer at a young age. I was very close to her and my world collapsed when she died. I was dreading her anniversary, but in an instant during that class (I don’t remember what pose) I realized that, rather than mourning her death on the day of her anniversary, I should celebrate the fact that on that day she was released from suffering.

It seems to me that commitment to refrain from causing harm, un-clutching and being satisfied with one’s life are hallmarks of a spiritual outlook and practice and are values central to all spiritual paths. Sustained and regular practice of hatha yoga can without doubt help us to embody these virtues. Yes, we fail to observe them all the time, just as we fail to do a perfect handstand, or to balance in tree pose all the time, but this should not alarm us. We simply get back on our mats with a renewed commitment, not just to our physical practice, but also to the person we are becoming because of that practice.

3 Responses to “Can a physical practice get us to a spiritual place?”

  1. sam says:

    wow Dearbhla,

    Not just a pretty face ah!!! Love it….

  2. julian walker says:

    (thought to cross post my response on the FB version of this article here too!)

    fantastic, concise, well-organized piece of writing – i am humbled my friend!

    i agree with your position re: physical practice as being a legitimately spiritual process… BUT i would go even one step further.

    as you know, i have arrived in a… a naturalist/humanist philosophical position – for me there has been an erasing of the pernicious dualism between “spiritual” and “physical” and also between “physical” and “energetic.”

    i don’t think there is a literal energy body distinct from the physical body, any more than there is a mind distinct from the brain, rather my sense is that it is a case of two different modes of knowing….

    the energy body is how the physical body feels from the inside when we are in a certain biochemical state which we can train ourselves to enter, just as our states of mind are (almost certainly, i would wager) how certain brain states are experienced from the inside – and it is is from the deep and highly developed embodied subjectivity that spiritual practice cultivates, that we are able to enter into states of consciousness (brain states) in which more subtle awareness of the nervous system and the sacred biochemistry of the endocrine system arises in such delightful and profuond splendor.

    in these states (as andrew newberg has demonstrated with fMRI scans on experienced meditators) the brain enters a specific way of being conscious, in which instinctive and emotive concerns (location in time and space, duration of time, the edges between me and the rest of the world, identifications with my plans and memories, self-protective strategies, scanning the perimeter for possible threats etc..) are suspended and i bathe in the sense of a powerful, healing and (in a certain sense) transcendent experience of consciousness beyond my ordinary ego-constraints and reptilian/limbic (and even to an extent over-active neocortical) activity.

    my sense is that as physical yogis, we can develop a heightened sense of how to work with our life force via breath; how to dissolve tension, release trauma, engage neuroplastic change in the brain and come into heightened states that subjectively feel like the physical body dissolving into energy, so nuanced and finely attuned are we, and so fluid and unrestricted has the experience of being embodied become… BUT as beautiful and unique as this is – it is still 100% a body/brain process going on at the level of biochemistry, neural activity etc.. because that is what we ARE.

    personally i think the oft floated suggestion that given enough time and context we would somehow be able to go beyond the body or attain to some paranormal abilities, or make contact with a supernatural reality or presence – because this is what the mythic yogis of old could do, perpetuates both the dualism of “spiritual” and “physical” as well as an unrealistic romanticizing of an exotic and ancient time.

    for me it is both more empowering to consider all human beings (regardless of time or culture or even belief system) as equally capable and equally limited in terms of the factual realities of our biological nature, as well as to consider all spiritual experience as an expression of our biological nature, and therefore as the body itself as innately spiritual and our mortal, vulnerable, imperfect dance across this cosmic stage as inherently sacred.

    thanks so much for this thought provoking note – i hope you don’t mind me offering my perspective!


  3. Yes, you are right.It does go way beyond the body.I started Yoga at 60 and it is not just romantic ancient Yogis of days gone by that reach incredible spaces.What was said thousands of years before are very relevant today if not even more. Yoga is what you want it to be.If it is just to be brain and body then that’s where you stay.

    Having been so ill with supposed no future the door of Yoga opened and I crawled through.I am pragmatic and was prepared to enter any discipline that was on offer.

    Three years of Yoga class,,Chanting, Kirtan. and learning every breath control practice and meditation has changed me.To awake before dawn and connect with an ancient mantras is not a brain space.There are no words.It is not to be missed.You connect, and it is” with that person you are becoming’ and all those that were before.”

    My journey back to being me started with simple Asanas.My specialists and doctors are intrigued and finally accept I have gone beyond the simple yoga class.They no longer joke when they ask about what I am doing.They see the results after 3 near death episodes they know I am serious about living and serious about Yoga and its many paths.It is realistic.Wellness is not about miracles of the body and mind it is something else…..It is that ELSENESS that we all search for..

    Dearbhla I am so pleased to hear the challenging spirit in your articles and all those individuals who know it is not just mind and body feel Santosha.It is a journey like any learning and it is my experience you may not be floating but who cares if you feel your there..
    One night while doing Yoga a very physical gentleman found it impossible to do Tree Pose and all other balancing postures.He asked me how I could do it.I told him to listen to the Teacher; Breathe and Focus she’ll guide you.After many weeks he exclaimed he had done ‘transandental yoga and all that ‘shi—-‘ and never floated.I wondered if he had ever listened to a Teacher. He stopped coming to class but I know he’ll be back..I often see him pumping those gym things they use and think to myself one day he’ll get beyond mind and body.

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Photos by Robert Sturman.