Professional Student of Life
Musings from the path of personal growth
No matter how great the breadth of your knowledge, it is completely inadequate for awakening to the genuine principles of life unless you feel and realize them through your body. ~ Taoist master Ilchi Lee
As a writer and someone in love with ideas, I spend a lot of time in my head. I was never one for school sports, gym memberships (at least ones that I used), or even Zumba videos. However, I’ve recently discovered what might be the missing link in my spiritual practice – the body.
What sparked this realization was reading the book The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope, the director of yoga at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. I had done yoga before, in classes at those mostly unattended gyms, but it never seemed like anything more than fancy stretching to me. I knew that people spoke of yoga as a spiritual practice, but I just wasn’t seeing it. Cope’s book is about the philosophy that underlies yogic practice, with origins in the Bhagavad Gita, and how that has played out in various famous and not-so-famous lives (not necessarily yogis, but people who embodied the spirit of the practice, like Gandhi and even Harriet Tubman). Inspired by that, I joined a spiritually oriented yoga studio a month ago and fell head over heels for the practice – pun intended!
So, what’s different about this kind of yoga? On the surface it looks very much like what I did before, but with a huge difference in intention and focus. The intention is to use this physical practice to center myself in the present moment, and the focus – on breathing and the flow of energy in my body – effectively quiets my mind down for the length of the class (and increasingly long after).
And what do I get from it that I can’t get from my regular meditation practice? I use intention and focus in that as well, but with the addition of physical effort the learning seems to take place at a more fundamental level, as if even the cells of my body are absorbing it. There’s a big difference between grasping a concept intellectually (even believing it wholeheartedly) and being able to live it in real life. I can think a topic to death, but unless it drops down into my body so that I actually experience it in my life, it remains just a concept to me.
Meditating with my body, which is essentially what this kind of yoga is, teaches me presence and groundedness that I carry around with me on the cellular level, not just in my head. I think that virtually any activity that incorporates these three ingredients (intention, focus and physical effort) can also be an effective spiritual practice. My brother describes reaching a meditative state when kayaking alone for several weeks. Long-distance runners famously report a feeling of spiritual euphoria. We are physical beings, even those of us who are most comfortable in our minds. Moving my spiritual practice into my body feels like discovering a crucial missing piece of the puzzle.