Woman doing yoga
Supple body, supple mind

One of the perks of yoga is...perkiness. Anyone taking up this ancient discipline knows the sudden discovery of new muscles and aches. Over time, yoga develops strong, supple, agile bodies. Perhaps this is why the exercise is so popular: the dream of firm flesh. As model and yogini Christy Turlington put it: ‘I have friends who simply want to have a yoga butt.’

But there is more to yoga classes than asses. First of all, this kind of slow, mindful stretching can make us more aware of our bodies. And, in this, yoga is one way to reflect on our lifestyles, and the marks they inscribe in our flesh. For example, in the Warrior pose I notice my hips and thighs, my shoulders as I stretch and pivot my arms. My shoulders are weak from an old Judo injury and years of hunching over pen and paper. And my neck throbs from awkward summer nights' sleep.

Yoga's Vinyasa sequences amplify these feelings by engaging complementary muscles. ‘Every turn, every spiral, every extension, has to be tempered by a counterturn, a counterspiral,’ writes Richard Freeman in The Mirror of Yoga. ‘Every instruction or technique, at the right time, will need a counterinstruction or technique to find openness and balance.’ This need not be an esoteric metaphysical labour. Instead, it can be sociological: analysing the ways in which society shapes us to be functional. Yoga is like an inventory of the body's habits.

Alongside this heightened awareness of disciplined selves, yoga is also an imaginative practice. I put it this way in How to Think About Exercise:

[In yoga,] the body is treated as a microcosm of universal forces: its development echoes the physical and metaphysical levels of the cosmos. For example, in the eyes, says the Advaya-Taraka-Upanishad, ‘there is a replica of the sun and the moon’. Likewise in t’ai chi, with its talk of chi, the Taoist notion of life force. The same principles that flow throughout the universe are also at work in the body. And knowledge of one’s guts and limbs provides an intimacy with the laws of politics, ethics and statecraft. ‘He who values his body more than dominion over the empire,’ wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, ‘can be entrusted with the empire.’

The point is not that these traditional philosophies and exercises are accurate descriptions of the cosmos; that there really are forces like prana or chi, and the ‘organs’ or ‘meridians’ they pool within. The point is that this increased sensitivity to one’s body is also a mental exercise: a labour of imagination. By stretching meticulously and patiently, and meditating on the body’s tensions, we can engage in a creative act. As we contort ourselves, and then meditate upon our flesh, we conceive a more elaborate idea of usually forgotten organs and tissue. This should not, and need not, replace proper physiological knowledge. Instead, it is a kind of interior decoration, only the ‘home’ is our own viscera. It is ours, not simply through accident, but through physical and mental labour. We are making ourselves at home in our insides.

Another mental reward of yoga is the joy of meditation: the bliss that many gurus speak of. This is more than the buzz of a good stretch. The Sanskrit word, samadhi, refers to wholeness--a oneness, which is common to many forms of meditation.

Yoga on a mountain
The high of oneness

While various schools of yoga understand this experience in different ways, they all have in common a transcendence of the individual self; a feeling that the 'I' has rejoined with some larger being. ‘Just as ghee poured into ghee is still only ghee, or milk into milk,’ says the Goraksha-Paddhati, or ‘Tracks of Goraksha’, ‘so the yogin is but Reality.’

The basic idea is that, during meditation, we cease to perceive the boundaries between self and other, subject and object, I and thou. The roots of the word yoga, the same as 'yoke' in English, suggest this: the individual is being reined in, back to reality. 

As it happens, this is exactly what many yoga practitioners experience, as well as students of tai chi and other exercises that involve slow stretching and breathing. Again, from How to Think About Exercise:

In one study, physician Andrew Newberg and colleagues reported that meditators had busy frontal lobes – suggesting high concentration – but lazier parietal lobes. Like the pre-frontal cortex, the parietal lobe is a coordinator. But it brings together sensory information, rather than dealing with planning and concepts. It is responsible for what Newberg and d’Aquili, in The Mystical Mind, call ‘the self-world distinction’. [...] Victims of damage to the parietal lobe often have trouble identifying objects in space – they might see my towel, for example, but not know where it is. They are not in the world as we are.

This ‘spacelessness’ is exactly what meditation can cause – and pleasantly so. The decreased blood flow to the parietal lobes coincides with a very common part of samadhi: the impression that one has transcended the division of subject and object. So the meditator has no sense of things in the room; of being one object amongst others: towels, clocks, speakers playing New Age sounds of waves and rain. She has, quite literally, lost her perception of space, and everything in it. Newberg and d’Aquili describe this as ‘the obliteration of the distinction between self and other.’ It is a goodbye to things – including ourselves.

The point is not that we have literally touched ultimate reality; that we have special knowledge of the cosmos. Instead, this state of mind is a break from ordinary perception: for a little while, we can leave our ordinary categories behind. The experience of being ‘unborn, unchanging, and unsullied by all objects’, as the Katha Upanishad puts it, is a relief from our ties to the world.

Reaching for the sky
Touching the cosmos (metaphorically)

This, in turn, can be extraordinarily therapeutic. We leave the yoga school, not simply with better core muscles or flexible joints, but with a little distance from our everyday assumptions. The usual stressors, to which we are so tightly attached, are loosened.

In short, yoga and other meditations (these needn't be religious) allow us to step back and reconsider things. But instead of simply affording the abstract idea of distance, they encourage a rich experience of it. Yoga is a holiday from the rut.

Images:  

lululemon athletica - salutation. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

 © Jarek Tuszynski / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Dave Rosenblum/Flickr 

by Kennguru - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - 

You are reading

How to Think About Exercise

Plato Said Knock You Out

The philosophical value of martial arts

There's More to Yoga Than a Yoga Butt

The mental rewards of meditation

Why Swimming Is Sublime

The awesomeness of moving in water