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

The following is a paper I presented upon completion of spiritual direction training. Due to length it will be divided into several posts. You can find part I here, and part II here


The second level of engagement takes us beyond yoga as primarily a method or technique leading into prayer and silence, and into the place where the movements of the practice become prayer themselves. This is yoga as body prayer. This might be a harder conceptual leap for some, but if the body is an equal part of the soul, then there should be no reason to reject that we can pray and experience God simply with our bodies, just as we can with thoughts or emotions. In fact, such a view would be right in line with the idea of incarnation, with offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1), and with the sacrament of communion—a physical act of eating and drinking that also points to the enfleshment of God through the body and blood of Christ. “The spiritualization that the Bible proposes does not eliminate the external expression of worship but rather grounds it in human nature, which is both ‘spiritual’ and ‘bodily.’”38 Can the body itself be a sufficient expression of the soul? Can we reach that place in our prayer?

Just as many have found the importance of silence in prayer, the use of our bodies as a means of expression can also be a significant growth in prayer. There are times when our body can express what our minds and hearts cannot find the words or feelings for, and that can be helpful to many. Anxious energy, nerves, agitation, etc. can make it difficult to sit in prayer, especially when no words seem sufficient. It is in these times that one can experience the “yoga postures as a kind of body language for prayer.”39 Many may find that engaging in this way is a very freeing experience. “When we use our bodies with spiritual intent, both our bodies and the occasion become sacred. Sometimes these bodily actions accompany spoken prayers; sometimes they are prayers in and of themselves.”40 The body, as an equal part of the soul, has just as much value in expression as prayers coming from the mind or heart. “While yoga prepares one for meditation, it is in itself mediation-in-motion.”41

Beginning to see yoga and the body itself as an expression of prayer is an important step in recognizing the place of the body as part of the soul. It is a move toward our stated goal: the integration of the body into the understanding and spirituality of the soul. Just as with any abstract idea, it is important to pursue application and manifestation in daily life. Integrating the body naturally lends itself to such physical practice, both as a preparation for prayer and as a form of prayer itself. This second point takes us further in the application of our premise, because it is truly beginning to engage the body as a valuable part of the person in prayer and worship of itself—not just as a means to releasing the mind and emotions, an approach that, while acknowledging the importance of the body, still leaves it in an inferior position. However, yoga (or any body prayer) is at its very best when it is successfully engaging all parts of the soul. “The exercises of Yoga clarify the relationship between body and soul, and soul and body. They establish a kind of agreement; and from this interpenetration the spirit, the heart, only stands to gain.”42

This is what makes yoga such a good method, and one of the main reasons we turn to it as the primary way to begin to integrate our bodies into prayer. This is also the reason why many yoga practices involve the use of mantra. While some Christians may have negative associations with it, the word “mantra” itself is just Sanskrit for “mental tool.” “In the poetic phrasing of T.S. Eliot, a mantra is a ‘raid on the ineffable’ … “[that] lifts prayer upward beyond the limits of language and conceptual thought.”43 It is a method of taking words beyond their common dwelling in the mind, our immediate consciousness, and allowing them to penetrate down into the heart and even the body. This goal is sought in many ways throughout Christianity and contemplative prayer: The Jesus Prayer, “Maranatha,” Taize chants to name a few examples. A mantra, or simple phrase, used in the yoga practice, can be a wonderful aid to integration, helping employ more of your whole soul in prayer.

Another crucial element in yoga is breath. Indeed, many yoga teachers say that yoga is all about the breath. Dechanet says that the spirit is first awakened by the postures, but “The principal means, however, used by the yogi to gain command over spiritual energy so as to meditate is that of breath-control.”44 Breath exercises and various techniques have been widely used in meditation, and the topic itself is worthy of its own study. Christians also hold a connection between breath and spirit in scripture, as they share the same word in Hebrew and are sometimes used interchangeably in Greek as well. In this way, breath is important not only in the way that it affects and connects to our bodies—which are numerous, but also in its connection to spirit as a further element in the integration of all parts of the soul through the practice of yoga.

There are many different types of yoga. What most Westerners think of when they refer to “yoga,” is known as Hatha yoga, which focuses primarily on the physical techniques and postures, or asanas. This is what is primarily meant to be understood in this writing when the word “yoga” is used. These postures are generally employed in all forms of yoga, though the different schools have different philosophies and approaches. It may be helpful to return to the metaphor of yoga as music, with its many different styles, when thinking about the different schools of yoga. A deeper study of the different forms will reveal many different philosophies that have grown out of the tradition and practice, often connected to Hindu or Buddhist beliefs. It is at this level that many stumble into yoga and assume that it is something specifically for other religions. Origin is important to remember—that the different ideas later developed around and through yoga are not inextricably tied to the practice itself. Though these schools need not be dismissed altogether. There is truth that can be found in them, just as in any other school of thought or philosophy. Of course as always, discernment is necessary when engaging with other forms of yoga and their traditions and philosophies.

Especially at first, we would not want to overly engage too much in the mind, in what these philosophies could teach us, thus neglecting the primary value that yoga offers us through our bodies’ integration into the soul. We could easily be caught in this pitfall. The mind is our Western refuge and often our prison. The value we seek in this understanding of the soul has come first from a mental understanding, but it must be incorporated through physical practice. It must move beyond the barrier of the mind. We must move it beyond the conceptual level to really “know” it.

Then we are released to find this new depth in integrated prayer. “Given the seamless unity of the human person and God’s incarnational embrace of our totality, one’s spiritual life cannot help but be affected by exercises in which the body and soul are in possession of each other and work together.”45 Our experience of God moves beyond just conceptual knowledge, beyond warm feelings, into something deeper, something more connected. “This holistic union of body, mind, and soul provide the climate, the ‘space’ for a spiritual, intuitive experience of God.”46 This intuition comes from the integration and application of our whole soul in prayer. This is the goal of yoga that must inspire and inform any authentic practice—the growing experience of union of our entire soul with God.


Integrating the body into our understanding of the soul does not just happen at the conceptual level, but in practice as well. Yoga is the most complete and time-tested method for the application of engaging our bodies in prayer, and it offers numerous benefits to our pursuit of attunement with God. It prepares our souls for silence and meditation, and can be an act of prayer in and of itself. The integration of these parts of our soul offers a fuller engagement in prayer with the living God.

We have not been burdened with this world and this flesh in order that we might weasel our way out. Rather, we have been gifted with this world and these bodies because this is where God dwells. All flesh is holy and the ground of all human endeavors is sacred. It is in these bodies that we work out our salvation. This corporeal nature is the place that God chose to call “home.” What we are doing is discovering in yoga a concrete application of our incarnational faith.”47

The body is part of our soul. Thus soul care cannot be complete without caring for and engaging the body in the spiritual life. Deeper prayer and experience of God await for any who seek to bring their whole soul before God in prayer, the body included, able now to walk forward fully and holistically.


Notes

  1. Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. pp. 58-59
  2. Matus, Thomas. Yoga and the Jesus Prayer. Winchester, UK: O Books, 2010. p. 118
  3. Hughes, Louis. Body, Mind & Spirit: To Harmony Through Meditation. Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Pub, 1991. p. 42
  4. O’Brien, Justin, ed. Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2004. p. 41
  5. Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 129
  6. Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. p. 7
  7. Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. pp. 63-64
  8. Dechanet, J.-M. Christian Yoga. London: Burns & Oates, 1965. p. 48
  9. Ryan, Thomas. Prayer of Heart & Body. New York: Paulist Press, 1995. p. 182
  10. Ibid., p. 130
  11. Ibid., pp. 144-145
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