Exercising the Spirit: Yoga and the Mind-Body Conundrum

 “With its emphasis on strength and flexibility, power yoga brought yoga into the gyms of America, as people began to see yoga as a way to work out.”

So says a response to an inquiry about “power yoga”—a form of vigorous, extreme effort hatha yoga—on ask.com.

“A way to work out.”

As indeed it is.

Get that body to the studio.

Work it out.

Feel good.

Look toned.

Pat your yoga butt as you walk into the cafe to pick up a protein shake.


I don’t know exactly when yoga began to suffer the first fissures from those who would separate it from its profound spiritual roots. It’s a 5,000-year-old discipline, after all, and it was probably 4,999+ years ago that an enterprising Indian merchant wove together some special yoga garment or drew a posture or two on parchment that he traded for a persimmon or a bowl of soup at his friend’s stand down a dusty road.

Eventually, everything worth a whit attracts a market and spawns commercialization, because all of us need to eat.

Dear “Lululemon sweat-wicking breathable gear to keep us comfortable when things get hot”: You go for it, girlfriends! Make your millions!



No, it’s not commercialization that has me pondering this “power yoga” matter. It’s that old conundrum of body and spirit, and the idea that yoga is all about employing the former to achieve the ideal latter.

The very notion that yoga has “spiritual” roots as opposed to some other kind is a misnomer that I want to correct here and now, if by “spiritual” we mean anything resembling “ethereal” or “transcendent.”

What could be less ethereal and transcendent than bringing all of your attention into your body and your breath as you carefully, consciously, move one limb at a time from here to there? (And then maybe—maybe!—just a wee bit farther and now pull back just a tad, wait, hold it, right there, and breathe, breathe…there you are!)

The act of prostitution perfectly demonstrates this dissociation, the engagement willfully, intentionally and purely mercantile, sensate, the body disengaged wholly from spirit.

This separation of matter (our bodies) from spirit (or “mind” in its largest sense, which animates us to look closely, feel deeply and love fully), is folly. It is proven nowhere more than by yoga, which covers every one of those looking, feeling and loving bases in such thoroughly elaborated fashion as to make every cliched reference to the word “holistic” sound empty. (“Holistic select dog food,” anyone? That turned up at No. 6 when I typed “holistic” into my Google search bar just now.)

Not that I want to diss anyone’s development of toned abs or a nice compact tush. But none of the effort and intention toward those ends can (or at least should) be separated from all of the spiritual components that have undergirded yoga for the past 5,000 years.

This does not mean yoga practitioners must convert to Hinduism and start on a vigorous memorization program of the Yoga Sutras. The words and rituals of ancient religions must always be adapted to our modern ways. But those ancient yoga practitioners saw and learned a thing or two about human development and character. They understood that when you inhabit your body mindfully and pursue a discipline regularly, it is not only your spirit or body that changes, because via that discipline, the two are revealed more and more as one. As goes the inner so goes the outer.


However much it may be nicely shaped calves you’re after, the mindful pursuit of yoga to achieve them will take you places you may not even be able to readily elaborate to yourself. But there they are anyway, showing up in the way you carry yourself, the way you breathe and take in experience, in the studied silence of your postures and the ripples emanating from them outwards to your life.

And as much as you may see yoga as “a way to work out,” yoga will very likely be turning the tables and working in on you, because your spirit can’t help but be dragged along with your body to that place where they both share the collective goodies of a life lived with intention, attention and care.

“Seepage,” is what it is, and it happens despite our best efforts to separate body from spirit, earth from sky, secular from sacred.

None of this is any less true in perhaps that greatest of all spirit-body delights/conundrums: sex.

Despite the advent in recent years of supposedly uncomplicated “friends with benefits” arrangements and the rather more crass nomenclature of “sportfucking” to denote a purely physical exchange of sensations and fluids, sex inevitably carries within itself the seeds of inner exploration. It also adds a rather large dollop of engagement with an other. (Talk about “holistic”…) Sex without such exploration and engagement actually requires a willful effort to dissociate from those deeper, more vulnerable and thus more fulfilling currents roiling around inside us.


The act of prostitution perfectly demonstrates this dissociation, the engagement willfully, intentionally and purely mercantile, sensate, the body disengaged wholly from spirit. But woe awaits those otherwise well-meaning people seeking to achieve the same dissociated stance in recreational sex with willing but equally disengaged partners. That is a very difficult road to hoe. (Prostitutes are pros, after all, in more ways than one.)

The effort  to inhibit the natural seepage of spiritual longing and emotion into such a powerful forum for their expression inevitably breaks down.

“I didn’t mean to get involved…”

“I don’t know—something happened that I didn’t expect.”

“O.K., so you meant something to me, all right??”

These are the wages of any attempt to disentangle the body-spirit connection we are all trying to harness and make sense of as it appears to us in the fragmented ways it sometimes does.

It is as if we cannot run from the reality that we are both body and spirit, one hopelessly wedded to the other, seeking completion while experiencing the fragmentation that this riven world and these sometimes riven selves present to us.

As if God and the gods (take your pick on that theological construct) are saying, “Settle in, my child. Breathe. You are one, as we are one with you. Stop running.”

For periodic and brief posts of inspiring words from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by the usual lovely photography as exemplified here, see my public Facebook page  at: http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Twitter: @AndrewHidas

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/

Deep appreciation as always to the photographers:

Rotating banner photos at top of page and gulls photo just above courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Small photo of yoga posture near top of page by Joel Nilsson Nelson, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joel_nilsson/

Photo of woman in forward bend from Lululemon website at www.lululemon.com

Triangle stones photo by Jos van Wunnik, Schinveld, The Netherlands, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kristalberg/

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