First of all, the title is sort of a joke (and sort of not). I don’t really intend to talk about the “zen” of yoga.
Though by the time I get through, you may feel I did.
Here’s the way I see it: If there is a spiritual world (and I think there is), it’s the same world as the “fleshly” world. Almost all God-centered religions make a distinction between the world of the “spirit,” and the world of the “flesh” (which is often, in the Bible, I suppose for simplicity’s sake, referred to merely as “the world”). I think that’s an unnecessary dualism.
I think they are one and the same world. How can there be more than one? This is it. If spiritual things happen, they happen in the same world that physical things happen. I think the “mind/body” distinction is unnecessary and in fact extremely misleading. It invents concepts that do not apply.
If we, as a species, through science, learn more about this world we will also be learning more about the spirit. Again, as I say, that’s my opinion.
I don’t think we have souls any more than “the grass of the fields” in
Ecclesiastes. I suspect we may become souls, by living our lives. I have no idea whether those souls are immortal, and will not try to say here.
With respect to yoga, if you practice it, there is a very real sense in which you are practicing godly behavior. One cannot gradually understand more and more about the body without beginning to understand more and more about the mind, or spirit. It’s not that the two are inseparable. It’s that they’re the same thing. If we insist on treating them as two separate undertakings, our efforts will result in confusion, and sometimes even in despair.
My mentor in yoga described teaching yoga to Baptists once, and how they insisted on being taught merely the “physical” side of the discipline, and not the “spiritual” side, which they found theologically dangerous. It isn’t possible to teach the two separately, but she knew what they meant, and delivered herself of no theological observations while teaching them.
But the fact that someone is not talking to you about the “spiritual” with relevance to yoga does not mean nothing spiritual is happening.
A discipline that shows you how to control your body’s reactions so well that you are practically immune to fear cannot possibly be “merely” physical. If the spiritual and the physical were not one and the same, how could “merely” physical action take care of that hysterical tyrant, fear? How, if the two did not exist in the same world, could you possibly govern your own emotions by learning to govern your typical physical reactions to that emotion?
To account for that fact without assuming the spiritual and the physical are one and the same, you have to invent all sorts of preposterous and untestable arrangements. You’d have to be able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” as I think either Humpty-Dumpty or the Red Queen claimed the ability to do in Through the Looking Glass.
What sorts of things can you learn about “the spiritual world” by doing yoga? Well there’s probably an infinity of learnings to get on with. All you have to do is pay attention. The knowledge won’t come to you as theological assertion, though. It’s more a matter of understanding how things are connected, of understanding the relative importance of behaviors. I don’t claim to be all that advanced in the practice of yoga. But I can see already the sorts of awareness it stimulates. Awareness is simply awareness. It does not carry “true/false” valences. Things simply are the way they are, and you are aware if you are aware of them.
I’m not saying all this to proselytize—I grew up Southern Baptist, and I learned to hate proselytizing. By me, it’s the Ponzi scheme of “religion.” You have to “witness” in order to prove your faith. You have to keep bringing new people in, not only to still your personal fears, but to keep the whole enterprise going kaput. I’m saying this to give you a heads-up, so when the effects start happening—and they will, if you keep practicing–you’ll know what they are and what to do with them (let them keep on happening, basically, and pay attention).
I’m well aware of the instant dismissal of yoga your typical citizen displays (even citizens who go to the gym). Many (and maybe most) people treat yoga as just more highfalutin nonsense, as “navel-gazing,” as just an other esoteric fad, “Eastern” silliness, nothing a practical person would bother with.
I’ve been there. I’m here to tell you that if you think of yoga that way, the reason is in your own make-up, and not in the practice.
You don’t have to be afraid of the spiritual characteristics of yoga. Why should you be? Yoga does not judge, does not punish. It just teaches. The choice to keep on learning is with you, not the teacher.
If you feel judged or punished, the feeling is coming from you, or perhaps from some wannabe “expert,” some vociferously “practical” person. Sometimes even your yoga instructor. I have known more than a few instructors who were aware of yoga only as a physical competition. They could yoga rings around me, it’s true. But they started as assholes, and they are assholes still.
Here’s how it is for me: There’s damn few arts or disciplines or behaviors or activities, or whatever you want to call them, that actually deliver. This is a crooked old world, all right, and W. T. Barnum was right.
So if I’m gonna believe anything in this crooked and confusing old world, it’s gonna be a practice that has actually, observably, and in my own personal experience, delivered the goods.