Over the past decade the image of yoga has become predominantly about physical beauty and prowess. I won’t deny that this has agitated me to no end for it portrays yoga as merely a physical practice which alienates potential students who perceive themselves lacking in agility and flexibly while simultaneously neglecting to reveal the other many benefits to human life, self and others, which come with a dedicated practice. My awareness of this gap in the mass marketing of yoga and the true value of the practice has gotten me into a habit of proclaiming while teaching that “the expression of the asana is not a measure of one’s value as a person.” And though my agita at the image of yoga being presented as merely a way to get the body in shape provokes such statements, I cannot reject the fact that there is value in seeking a beautiful physical expression of an asana and physical countenance in general.
The body is after all one’s vehicle for life experience. It provides the fundamental expression and ritual of spiritual journey; being limited in its absolute nature and simultaneously transformable by thought and action the body invites us to surrender who we are while making steps toward what we are becoming. Unlike the consciousness it houses the body moves slower through varying changes of form. A thought can change in a moments time, but the body takes longer. Learning to respect the process of the body is, in itself, one of the most valuable practices for any spiritual seeker. Such a practice invites acceptance, patience, love, willingness, receptivity, and gentle persistence toward a more radiant expression of life, on all levels, body included. Venerating the body requires one to pursue activities such as exercising, eating, resting, playing, and indulging in pleasure with respect to its needs and responding with the bodies highest value in mind. The highest value of the body of course is the life it provides to the consciousness which resides within it and its contributions to the life which dwells beyond it.
The gift of life is not taken from a paralyzed body, but the gift of physical mobility is. A healthy and mobile body provides a certain kind of freedom to mind and spirit that is far more challenging to cultivate when the body is under duress. Physical practices such as Hatha Yoga have value in their culminating gain of physical health, mobility, and energetic vibrancy. Yet time on Earth, life experiences beyond one’s control, environmental impact, and age will also play a role in the bodies journey and the relationship to that body of the consciousness which resides within it. Yoga asana invites introspection, good listening and respectful response which in turn enables one to cultivate other strengths of character such as courage, fortitude, surrender, and compassion. Yet it’s the deeper work related to listening and respectful responding that eventually measure one’s value as a person. For if you have the great gift to live a long life your physical prowess will be taken from you, as will your body eventually, and all that will remain are the meaningful works and gifts you have left behind for posterity.
Richard Frederick Smith recently gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College. The “self-made” billionaire spoke on the pronounced and vital opportunity given to him in his childhood – School Bus #13 – which carried him across town from his home in an underprivileged African American neighborhood in Denver to a highly resourced grade school in a wealthy white neighborhood from first through fifth grades. This opportunity created by forward thinking and goodhearted community members was pivotal in the creation of the educational foundation that enabled him to make the choices which have led to his financial wealth and social well-being today. During that commencement speech Mr Smith pledged to pay off the student loans of the graduating class of 2019 at Morehouse College.
The common impression of wealth in our society is much like the common impression of yoga. We so often mistake a wealthy person for a person of merit and value. Mr Smith is not only a wealth man but has demonstrated that he is also a man of character. Not only did he make a philanthropic gift to the class of graduates he was addressing he also made a lifelong impact on said graduates and the rest of the world with his action as reminder that we are not measured by the money we have or the positions we hold in life; we are measured by what we give and how that shapes what we leave behind. “More than the money we make, the awards, or recognition, or titles we earn, each of us will be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us” Frederick said. “True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people.” And, as far as I’m concerned, the true value of nailing a handstand does too.
On the purely physical plane learning to do a handstand will teach one about courage and strength, fortitude and patience. But yoga is about more than the handstands and one’s physical prowess. Like using one’s wealth to leave the world a better place than you found it, learning to love your body whether it can do a handstand or not translates to respect and compassion. All aspects of the practice serve; physical, mental, emotional, energetic, spiritual. All have a time and a place. When cultivated honestly and mindfully all nourish stronger relationships and healthier communities; all enable us to leave the world a better place than we found it.