I've been practicing yoga now for almost two months. In addition to participating in the classes (and practicing postures and breathing on my own), I've been reading a book by a teacher/practitioner that has allowed me to learn more about the philosophy and spirituality undergirding the physical practice.
I'll say at the outset that my practice of yoga has been a profoundly spiritual experience. I have had a number of startling and powerful spiritual experiences, on the mat, in the classroom. And my practice of yoga has also deepened my prayer life and my spirituality off the mat, in my personal prayer life and in my day-to-day living.
I'll also add that I see a broad correspondence between the fundamental principles of yoga and Latter-day Saint teaching/belief. Mormons are profoundly committed to the principle of the fundamental unity of spirit and body. We recognize that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15) and that "spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy" (D&C 93:33). Yoga honors this connection between the physical and the spiritual. And it links the physical practices to spiritual principles, the "Yamas" and the "Niyamas." The physical practices are intended to develop the kind of discipline and spiritual insight that will better enable the five moral restraints of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation and nonhoarding (noncovetousness?), and the five observances of purity, contentment, zeal/austerity, self-study and devotion to God. I have found yoga as a discipline has been helping me to clear away many physical and mental and moral distractions that inhibit my prayer life and interfere with my ability to live the teachings of the Church. It has granted me greater insight into some of my own limitations, and has offered me a format for working on those limitations, and thereby deepening my love and commitment to my Savior and my Heavenly Father. So for me, yoga has actually provided me some spiritual tools to deepen my faith as a Latter-day Saint.
Yoga has been doing that partly by teaching me about my relationship with my own body. This has been invaluable to me. I have begun to experience some incredible healing of deep, deep injuries in the intersection between physical and spiritual.
For instance, one of the first things I became aware of through the practice of yoga was how my everyday posture was fundamentally fearful and protective. I began to realize that I walk and sit and stand in a way that is sort of drawn into myself, hunched over. Head down, shoulders drawn in, slightly bent forward. I've always sat with my legs tightly crossed, my hands or arms crossed. As if my whole life I've been trying to make myself smaller and less visible; and as if I've been trying to cover or protect my vitals. Standing up tall with my spine at its full height, with my head high and my shoulders back, I realized, has always made me feel vulnerable, so I've basically spent my whole life ducking, trying to avoid being seen.
The physicality of yoga has brought me in touch with something else more fundamental and profound. I've always had an aversion to sports, to physicality. I've never liked sports -- either watching or playing sports. And though I've always enjoyed physical exercise, I have never engaged in the kind of discipline that would actually build physical strength. Yoga does that. In two months of practicing yoga, I am slowly finding myself able to accomplish certain physical feats I never would have dreamed possible. I am finding my body has physical strength and flexibility I never dreamed I could have -- even when I was twenty-five years younger! And for the first time ever in my life, yoga is putting me in touch with the power of my physical body.
This, I realized, is what I've spent much of my life protecting myself from, hiding from. I was afraid of my own body, and the power in my body. I was afraid of the sexuality that was connected to that physicality and that strength. And I'm beginning to be aware of the distortions that that fear created. Because we can try to hide from our physicality, but it won't go away. And if we're hiding from our physical selves, we're not developing a healthy relationship to our physical selves.
So, for instance, I've always, since teenager-hood, struggled with masturbation. I honestly don't think the masturbation was a bad thing. It was the one connection I really had to my own physicality, my physical body. And I think at some level, through masturbation I was trying to figure myself out, figure out the link between the spiritual and the physical. It was also, I now realize, a way of closing myself off from what seemed very threatening and frightening to me: relational sexuality. I've always felt like, in or out of relationship, I had to have this private sexuality, this private relationship with my own body.
But as I've developed my yoga practice, I've found the urgent need I'd always felt for masturbation sort of evaporating away. I don't know how to say it other than that I find myself developing a different kind of relationship with my body, as I've begun to appreciate the goodness and power and strength inherent in my body. I don't know how to describe it other than to say that I feel like I'm finally furnishing the house of my body and fully living in it, and it feels very, very good. It's enabling me to let go of physical compulsions and anxieties and just be me. I feel like I'm really breathing for the first time ever.
And that's another example... My asthma is going away. Maybe it's just that the breathing exercises in yoga are expanding my lung capacity, so the asthma affects me less? I don't know. But I am breathing more fully and deeply than I ever have before in my life. And that alone feels like a physical miracle to me.
Yoga probably isn't for everyone. I'm not necessarily recommending it to everyone. I think what is fundamental is finding some kind of practice that permits us to deepen our relationship with our physical bodies. Last night, I met with my gay Mormon Family Home Evening Group, and D. was saying how important dance had been to him as a way of exploring that physical/spiritual connection. So people might find that connection through dance, or football, or whatever.
But I am incredibly grateful that I have found that connection, that I am finding that connection and continuing to deepen it and learn from it. It's not something I have to force myself to do, like going to the gym. Going to the gym was a chore. But this I hunger for, and I am incredible grateful for.