For the practice of yoga, even as a path to the eternal and sacred, good health and personal well-being are considered at least eminently desirable, if not absolutely critical.
Ancient tradition likens yoga to a kalpa-vriksa, or a wish-fulfilling tree. A kalpa-vriksa can produce any kind of fruit according to our desires. So also the tree of yoga can bear many different kinds of fruit, and we may pick and choose according to desire. If, for example, we desire physical perfection, then that may certainly be achieved, primarily through the practice of hatha, or physical yoga. If subtler perfections in terms of the mystic capabilities are desired, that also can be achieved. Of the possible perfections to be gained through yoga, however, both of these – based as they are on either the gross or subtle aspects of our physical nature – might be considered low-hanging fruit. For those willing to pay the price, yoga can deliver higher perfections still. Final perfection – based on our soul nature – can elevate us beyond the material sphere itself. On the spiritual plane we may even resume our original life, one of pure spiritual form comprised of eternity, knowledge and bliss.
Undoubtedly therefore we may regard physical and mental self-improvement as a legitimate outcome and aspiration of yoga practice. In fact, if we were to consider yoga as a ladder leading to ultimate spiritual perfection we might consider the attainment of physical health and emotional well-being as important rungs on that ladder. Far from these goals being insignificant, or irrelevant to higher attainment, we should certainly recognise and respect their importance. In any case, if we were to practise physical yoga, or hatha yoga, as part of a comprehensive approach to spiritual perfection – as a means to the end – then, as much as the end may be ‘spiritual’, the means must also be accepted as spiritual.
What is it that really distinguishes the mundane from the transcendent? What really defines the difference between matter and spirit? What is it that actually causes something to be ‘material’ as opposed to something else being ‘spiritual’? The classic and seminal yoga text, the Bhagavad-gita, the foundation of all yoga practice and spiritualityaddresses it as follows, “thosewho can perceive spirit in matter and matter in spirit are actually intelligent among men; by dint of their mature vision they are situated in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities” [B/G 4.18].
Even an apparently mundane activity, if it is genuinely performed for a higher purpose, and without consideration of personal gratification or self-interest, becomes, by definition, spiritual.
When we engage in the physical practice of yoga, if our motivation is to purify or perfect ourselves for the sake of a higher good, then it becomes a spiritual activity. On the other hand, even overtly spiritual activities – such as worship and prayer – lose their divine status if engaged in with a view to self-interest or personal benefit. Any act, any ‘thing’, becomes material if the intention connecting us with it is mundane or self-centred. If the end is material then, so are the means; if the ends are spiritual, then so also are the means.
Returning to our question then, is the real purpose or benefit of yoga physical or spiritual? The short answer is that it could be both, or neither. In other words there is no inherent contradiction between the physical and the spiritual, between matter and spirit. If we practise yoga, any kind of yoga, for purposes of personal or material gratification, then it is a material activity. But if we practise yoga, even our physical hathayoga for a higher purpose, for a spiritual outcome, then it becomes a spiritual activity.
As innately spiritual beings our eternal state is one of ineffable good health and happiness, and that should naturally be reflected in our physical selves. It would be inconsistent were it otherwise, poor health and unhappiness being symptomatic of what is ultimately a condition of spiritual disease.
So while at present we may objectively inhabit a form comprised of gross matter, that in itself does not define our existence as material. What truly defines us as material or spiritual is our state of consciousness, our vision and our intent. If we learn how to conform all these to the spiritual, then everything of which we are made reverts to the spiritual, including our physical selves and our physical practice.
Rather than life – or yoga – being thus a choice between the physical and the spiritual, we will come to see them as one and the same, and learn to live our life in a harmonised way, as an integrated whole being. Then (and at the risk of mixing our metaphors), rather than having to pick and choose between the various fruits on the tree of yoga, we will be able to ‘have our cake and eat it too’.
Andre Melis is the director of YOGAVISION, a non-profit entity dedicated to the promotion and teaching of yoga. He is also the director of the Govinda Valley yoga retreat in Otford, south of Sydney. Andre has been practising and teaching yoga since 1975.
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