To connect or disconnect from the body in yoga?

The church says the body is a sin.

Science says the body is a machine.

Advertising says the body is a business.

My yoga practice says the body is ____________.

Following up on our ‘What Does a Yoga Body Look Like?‘ post from last week, I stumbled across this image over the weekend and felt it too provocative to share. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the artist/photographer cited anywhere, but the quote is from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

Discussion around the body in yoga is certainly not unique to our time; sages have been debating the role of  the body in spiritual practice since time immemorial. Just last week at a Yoga Sutras discussion group I help facilitate, we discussed Patanjali’s concept of saucha in the Yoga Sutras:

2.40 Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (saucha), one develops an
attitude of distancing, or disinterest towards one’s own body, and disinclined towards
contacting the bodies of others.

To be completely honest, I was a little surprised when I finally saw saucha mentioned in its original context. So often I’ve heard the yogic concept of purity/cleanliness referred to as a practice we cultivate in order to make progress in our asana practice or develop a more loving/respectful relationship with our body. I was comforted to hear from others in the group that I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by this verse.

Patanjali almost seems to be implying here that yoga encourages us to distance ourselves from our bodies, to begin to sever the mental attachments we have to our flesh. Woah. So if yoga is all about union, bringing together body and mind, making one of opposites… what the heck is this?

Now mind you, Patanjali was writing from the perspective of the classical yoga tradition, and many believe the Tantric yogis had a significantly attitude toward the flesh. I wonder sometimes if when we lift up these texts– or any spiritual scripture for that matter– as “sacred” or handed down from the Divine… I wonder if we realize the consequences that come from mindlessly applying them to radically different contexts. We live in a different world than the ones Patanjali, Jesus, Mohammed, and others were originally speaking to. That’s not to say that the ancient wisdom texts have no relevance for our modern world– quite the contrary in fact– but I do think it means we have to be especially vigilant about the way we interpret the teachings’ application to our current context.

What happens when a young woman who has come to her mat to begin the process of healing from sexual violence hears her teacher encouraging the class to cultivate purity  in their yoga practice? Or when a 17-year-old girl who’s trying yoga because her therapist recommended it as a way of reconnecting with her body and healing from an eating disorder hears her teacher going on about how boat pose will give her washboard abs? Have no doubt, they’re in there. The question for us, as yogis, is whether we’re willing to talk about it.

We here at Yoga Modern are passionate about shining a light and developing a dialogue around the topics that are often skirted in mainstream discourse. So tell us…what does your yoga practice tell you about your body? What message to you get from the wider yoga community– from your teachers, from Yoga Journal, from your fellow practitioners– and does it differ from your experience on the mat? Does yoga bring you into greater connection with your body or does it make you less interested in your physical self?

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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