The Body and the Soul: Yoga as a Practice of Integration (Part I)

The following is a paper I presented upon completion of spiritual direction training. Due to length it will be divided into several posts. 


While much of the West is moving away from religion, it is not becoming any less spiritual. Spirituality is alive and well, if not a bit scattered and incongruous, in the tradition of emerging post-modernism. At the word “spirituality,” the body is not generally the first thing that comes to mind. Often times the body is seen in direct opposition to, or at least separate from, the spirit and therefore the spiritual life. The division between the body and the spirit, or more traditionally the soul, is one that extends far back into the history and philosophy of the West, if not originating, at least widely spread by Plato. “Spiritual” became connected with the immaterial. This rift has created a division that has done a disservice both to the body and the soul.

Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine who spent the second half of his life in India, went so far as to propose: “There may be another way, but integration of flesh and spirit is Christ’s way for us today.”1 We must begin again to see the body’s connection to the soul, especially within the very act of prayer, as the vital practice along the soul’s pathway to God—drawing specifically from yoga as a rich tradition of freeing the mind and heart to rest with God in uncluttered attunement, and a method of integrating the body with all parts of the soul in prayer.


Quite regularly, the problem has been that the body is ignored or deemed unimportant to the spiritual life. Gnosticism is seen and very often denounced, at least intellectually, in most religious circles. Functionally though, attention to and care of the body through exercise and healthy eating is almost non-existent in most spiritual communities. Those areas are considered individual concerns, for the purpose of good physical health, unrelated to “spiritual” matters. Sure gluttony is a deadly sin, and the body is a temple of the Lord, as I Corinthians 3:16 is often quoted in many churches. Yet the application of these references to the body has so often been highly selective, harping on things such as refraining from smoking or not having premarital sex. Yes, defiling the temple would have been a grave sin to the Hebrews of Jesus’ day and before. More primarily though, the temple was the place where God dwelt, where one could be in communion with God. The temple was holy because it was where God was found. The temple was a place of prayer.

The selective engagement and minimal incorporation of the body into the spiritual life and practice of many believers today has its roots in a poor Christian anthropology. N.T. Wright is one of the foremost scholars and exegetes who have written to correct this error stemming from Platonic dualism and a misinterpretation of select writings of Paul. According to Wright, the problem is not just a misunderstanding of the body, but an entire error in the understanding of the soul. The idea of the soul as the separate part of a human that goes to heaven after death “finds minimal support in the New Testament…The word soul, though rare, reflects…underlying Hebrew or Aramaic words referring not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality” (Emphasis his).2

His full argument and exegesis is extensive and beyond the scope of this present writing. Summary is difficult, in part because of the deep attachment most Westerners have to the Platonic view of the soul. A mental connection to Platonic thought is often made when Paul speaks of the “treasure in jars of clay” or that “the outer nature is wasting away, but the inner is being renewed day by day.” These phrases from I Cor. 4 are often not followed fully though to I Cor. 5 (or the preceding chapter 3, quoted above), where Paul speaks of the new body that will be put on over the present one. This is the leap for our minds. The new pattern Paul is asking us to see with. He is speaking about new creation, but we only see that the physical decays and does not last. We can only imagine completely new material for new bodies that have no connection to our current ones. But Paul does not separate them so much. Wright argues that the new mode of physicality stands in relation to our present body, but “more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body” (Emphasis his).3 It will be put on over our current bodies. This is the future resurrection. The contrast is not between “what we call physical and what we call nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other” (Emphasis his). Wright concludes, “Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess.4

The temple of the body is not just a husk, a surrounding encasement of the real spiritual presence. It is not an “earth-suit” that will be shed after death. In the verses leading up to Paul declaring the body a temple of the Lord, he says the body “is for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” If we understand this with a more biblical anthropology, free of Gnosticism, we will see that “What the New Testament teaches, rather, is the powerful work of God’s spirit bringing about the creation in which the body will be reaffirmed and glorified … The resurrection will give new life to the body, so that what you do with it in the present matters.”5

The body is not just a part of the soul—a proper understanding of the soul will always include the body and its actions, treatment, and care here and now, in this life. The theological implications of this extend to many areas. Physical exercise can be a spiritual discipline. A proper diet is part of soul care. Many spiritual directors implement these ideas already, at least noting the connection intuitively if not also theologically. However, the full implications extend much deeper.

Thomas Merton writes, “The whole man, his body and his soul, what is within him and what is without, has to belong to God … It is not enough to sanctify the soul alone, still less the body alone” (emphasis his).6 This discernment can bring about the transformation not of body and soul as two separate parts, but of them together. They are not separated. They are connected. This is not a new thought. It has been most commonly practiced within Christianity in the form of asceticism. But mostly that effort was backwards. Instead of affirming the connection of the soul and the body, the extreme ascetic attacked his/her own humanness in an effort to get at pure spirit. Merton continues, “The gravity of that error ought to be immediately apparent from the fact that man’s spiritual and psychological health depends on the right order and balance of his whole being—body and soul.”7

The true idea behind asceticism, or at least its fundamental meaning, is not misguided. The root of the word itself is from the Greek “askein,” which simply means, “to work,” or “exercise.”8 The body is not to be rejected, but used well. Thomas Ryan writes,

Christianity insists on the body’s role in the spiritual quest. The starting point is human nature as it is, so corporal asceticism is a practical necessity. There is an inherent tension in the union of spirit and matter in our nature; we are engaged in a gradual process of transformation of the material component and the attainment of a more perfect union of these two poles. We unambiguously declare our faith in the resurrection of the body, and it is in this dynamism of resurrection and transformation into spirit that the body is seen to have a key role. We speak about ‘the spiritual life’ but we know our embodied nature is an important part of the project.9

The key here is the connection, the integration. Not just external bodily practices on one hand and internal spiritual practices on the other, but holistic engagement of the entire soul, acknowledging interconnectivity. Do we not already know and experience this connection in small ways? Do we not take shorter breaths when we are anxious? Do we not bite our nails or tap our foot quickly if we are nervous or agitated? “Your body is like a map of your spirit. If you want to know what is happening in your mind, your emotions, your innermost being—then just look at and become aware of your body.”10 But we can also draw that map. Bodily actions are not just results, but the connection works the other way too. Do we not find that simply taking a walk can clear our head and settle a troubled spirit? Do we not find calm if we pause a moment to close our eyes and take a deep breath? Would it be that much of a leap to see that certain practices using our bodies could have even deeper effect on our spirits? The connection is intuitive, yet foreign. We know the body affects the spirit and that the spirit can directly affect the body—but the long history of Platonic dualism so often keeps them separate in our minds and practices.

One of our tasks in the journey of spiritual growth today can and should be this reintegration of the body into the understanding and care of our souls. True spiritual life cannot be complete without it. Bede Griffiths, explains: “That by which we fall is that by which we rise. We have to use the body, senses, appetites, feelings, etc., as a way to return to God.”11 How do we seek this integration, this way of return?

It can be done in a number of ways, and is already often done in part, but perhaps not primarily in the most important way—in attunement to God, in prayer. Prayer is mostly seen as an action of the spirit, of the “soul.” First, it is important to recognize and affirm the ways that the body is already more traditionally involved. Engaging the senses is perhaps the most familiar: symbol, poetry, music, and incense are all ways commonly found in modern worship that incorporate the body. In prayer, the most regular connection to the body is posture, most universally the posture of kneeling. Many have found that the simple act cultivates an attitude of reverence, a deference of humility toward the one to whom they pray. This connection can be a helpful link in opening up to further use of the body. Raising ones hands can be another gesture, both in prayer and worship. These forms of connection are perhaps a little stilted though. They are a good start, but they really only minimally employ the body. Dancing is a more expressive use of the body and is occasionally found in worship settings—though perhaps its not surprising that many westerners have had difficulty with accepting it, for one reason or another. Theological issues with it don’t stand up to scrutiny, but inhibitions may keep many from dancing, especially in front of others. A lack of ability can also be a deterrent. Still, dancing may be one of the better ways to engage the body in worship and foster a connection to the spirit. It may or may not be helpful in prayer and attunement, depending on the individual.


Notes

  1. Quoted in Matus, Thomas. Yoga and the Jesus Prayer. Winchester, UK: O Books, 2010. p. 1
  2. Wright, N.T., Surprised by Hope. New York: Harper Collins, 2008, p. 28.
  3. Ibid., p. 154
  4. Ibid., p. 156
  5. Wright, N.T. “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All – Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in his Complex Contexts.” NTWrightPage. March 2011. Society of Christian Philosophers: Regional Meeting, Fordham University.
  6. Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951. pp. 112-113
  7. Ibid., p. 109
  8. Roth, Nancy. An Invetation to Christian Yoga. Boston: Cowley, 2001. p. 2
  9. Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. pp. 216-217
  10. Hughes, Louis. Body, Mind & Spirit: To Harmony Through Meditation. Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Pub, 1991. p. 14
  11. Quoted in Dechanet, J.M. Yoga – A Path to God. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1997. p. 153
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