Should yoga be practiced as a sport or is it the means to deep spiritual experience?

 

by Ramesh Bjonnes

But in studios where there is a clear focus on yoga as a fitness exercise, kirtan artists are generally not invited. This type of body-focused posture yoga has its roots in the tradition developed about a hundred years ago by Krishnamacarya, who mixed ancient yoga with modern gymnastics. This new hatha yoga tradition, in which meditation plays a minimal or non-existent part, has exploded in popularity and multiplicity in recent years in the US and Europe.

The goal of yoga’s physical exercises in Tantra, for example, was to create a healthy body and mind and thus a conducive environment for spiritual practice—for meditation. The physical exercises are part of a nested continuum, from body to mind to spirit. That why it was emphasized in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga should be practiced hand in hand.

And that is perhaps why B. K.S. Iyengar, the modern Hatha Yoga Master par excellence, said that he wished he had started to meditate when he was younger, not at 60 plus.

The body is thus a springboard from which a self-inspired and sustainable spirit can soar. Many of the fitness yogis and yoginis of today may not see it the same way. For them, a beautiful, healthy body and an alert mind is more likely the main goal.

In other words, if yoga makes me more flexible, more relaxed, more beautiful, so that I can be more efficient, more powerful, more attractive, why ask for more? Why ask for more, if the body simply is a springboard from which a dazzlingly successful me will ascend?

Many of the yogis of old, however, did indeed ask for more. The intertwined distinctions they made between body, mind and spirit is a brilliant insight of yoga practice and philosophy.

Yoga teaches us that any improvement on the physical or mental levels can never be perfect, can never be ultimately fulfilling, and will always leave us shortchanged. Truth is, that perfect body will never quite be perfect enough.

But, truth be also told, some yogis of old were as extremely body-negative as many of today’s yogis are extreme in their hedonistic body-positivity.  In other words, there is a lack of ecology, of balance in each of these approaches, in the cult of the Yoga Journal body-sculpting women as well as in the body-negating cult of yogis who deny the body through their sickly display of atrophying arms or legs.

Tantra has attempted a different approach, and has often walked that fine balance beautifully by embracing both body and soul, both Shakti and Shiva, both Prakriti and Purusha, both the inner and outer world.

The physical realm of our existence is indeed limited. The body will finally age. It may start to ache. Disease may come. So some yogis of old would agree with visionary poet William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. But he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

I am not this body, the spiritual yogi would say. I am not this mind. I am That. I am Divine.

Behind the sensuous gloss on the covers of today’s yoga magazines, I do see some glimpses of the deeper, subterranean flow of yogic wisdom and practice.

In yoga studios all over the world, harmoniums and tablas are placed before outstretched yoga mats. Yogis in tight clothing are loosening up their bhakti souls to Indian chants. Some are even dusting off Krishna’s urging by doing selfless service or social change activities.

Ayurvedic massage and herbs are integral healing modalities of many yoga studios. Many yoga teachers end their classes with at least rudimentary forms of meditation.

Popular yogis such as Seane Corn see karma yoga, or service, as a way to heal, express gratitude, and to stay centered.

These are all signs of a holistic tapestry being woven together from all the integrated strands of wisdom yoga can offer. So let these questions linger: Why do yoga? For the body? For the mind? For the soul? For the whole being? Whatever our answer, our practice will reflect it, our lifestyle, our talk and our walk. In that regard, there is nothing new under the yogic sun.

Keeping this perspective in our mind, like a silent mantra behind silent lips, will keep us more balanced, more honest, more authentically yogi-like—both on and off the mat.

As Rumi says, it is indeed important to know what you want. Because, says this wise poet of ecstasy: “There is a subtle truth: whatever you love, you are.”

 


Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. Before he became a yogi, he studied agronomy and co-founded an organic farm with other yogis in Finland. Bjonnes co-founded and is currently Marketing Director of the Prama Institute (www.pramainstitute.org), a holistic retreat center outside Asheville, NC. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

 

This article originally appeared in Elephant Journal