THE WIDER DIMENSIONS OF YOGA
Talk given to Yoga Group at Sun City Texas, January 12, 2009
Although this class is mainly focused on the health benefits of stretching and moving into and out of a variety of postures or asanas, as they’re called in Sanskrit,
this general activity of hatha yoga, the yoga of the body, is only part
of a larger endeavor of Yoga that also includes a variety of other
activities. I’ll be talking a bit about those other activities today
and the more general field of yoga, in order to help you feel even more
oriented to the significance, the meaning, of what you’re doing.
Stretching itself is good, and we should all do more, and more
regularly. They should take more time in school for kids to get up and
stretch. But that's only the very surface of what hatha yoga offers. A
little deeper: this approach to yoga is a way to promote more vibrant
health. Now, let’s consider what health and healing is. The words
derive from the ancient word root, hals, arising from a
pre-historic language form called Indo-European. That is to say, the
language roots were born in the people who migrated west from western
and central Asia into Europe in the era before the Celts, before
Stonehenge; and, interestingly, other groups of these folks migrated
south-east. (This group historically was known as the Aryans—from
whence Persia derived the word Iran—into northern India around 1500 BC.
This language evolved also into the aforementioned Sanskrit.
That hals word root of health is also the original word root of
holistic and also holy. Holy meant integrated, whole, bringing together
the different parts. When mind and body and spirit are aligned, then
you’re living in a holy fashion. Now, by using the word "spirit," I
refer not only to the supernatural or immaterial realm, but also to the
sense of energy, infused with liveliness, and visible, for example in
community action. Being spirited suggests an attitude that is
forward-looking, optimistic, cooperative, as also recognized in phrases
like team spirit. Anyway, what I’m suggesting to you is that
hatha yoga is one way of aligning your body with mind and spirit, and
to open you to considering that other things you may do may also
participate in this alignment.
The religious tradition of India recognizes a little more explicitly
than in the West that there are many ways of connecting with or
aligning with spirit and the other dimensions of life, and I’ll be
mentioning some of them.
Yoga in Sanskrit means union, and it refers to the activity of
deepening your connection with Spirit, God, the Greater Wholeness of
Being, or whatever name you prefer to call it. Yoga can be adapted to
other religious traditions with some modifications. It is an
essentially spiritual activity.
By spiritual I mean any activity that develops the relationship between
the person and the greater Wholeness. In yoga or spirituality you build
your sense of connectedness to that Greater Wholeness, whether it be
called that, or God, or designated by other terms.
Spirituality is a personal active function that is often but not
necessarily associated with a religion. I define a religion as the
social organization of the spiritual impulse. The benefits of a social
organization is that it develops a replicable methodology for spiritual
practice, for education, for community celebration or ritual, and so
forth. The disadvantages of religion is that it is prey to all the
weaknesses of any social organization composed of human beings who as a
species are still fairly limited in their consciousness.
So, in the past, most people who were spiritual were also religious;
but there were many more people who were religious without being
particularly spiritual: That is, they weren’t doing that much to develop that connection. They just went through the expected motions.
Some people were neither spiritual nor religious; and a growing number
of people are those who are spiritual without being particularly
affiliated with a religion—or if they are affiliated, approach their
own spiritual development partly or largely separate from the official
doctrine that is sanctioned by the leaders of that religion or
These generalities apply not only to Western religions, but also
Eastern ones. There have been people all over who may be more or less
active in terms of religion who are—sometimes in spite of their
upbringing—really desirous of making that connection.
Other Types of Yoga
Yoga connects you to your body, through breathing—and the yoga of
breathing is called pranayama yoga—, relaxation, posture, some quieting
of the mind, also known as meditation, and the energy channeling and
vigor of the postures, the asanas. Let’s consider some other types.
Jnana Yoga: Have any of you read any books about Yoga?
Good. The study of the theories, doctrines, assumptions, all express
the awareness that we can indeed get connected through the mind,
through understanding and contemplation of ideas. This is called Jnana
Karma Yoga: How about selflessly devoting yourself to family
members, friends, community, doing volunteer activities and the like?
You’re doing action—karma—and if you do these with some awareness that
you’re participating in the process of enhancing love in the world, or
carrying the spirit of your religious background, righteousness,
charity, whatever—in yoga that would be called karma yoga.
Of course many people mix and match these various approaches.
Doing karma yoga also feeds into food for thought, meditation, or
contemplation. Your efforts to serve, raise your kids, give to them, be
good, not infrequently don’t work, backfire, get frustrating. How do
you handle your impatience, anger? Do you ever recognize that
inadvertently your unresolved issues, mild neuroses, or stuck attitudes
have contributed to your own problems? So the yoga involves not only
doing helpful things, but mixing that with consciousness expansion, and
recognizing that this not-entirely-easy process is also a kind of
As Diana Ross sang in the song, You Can’t Hurry Love, “Love
don’t come easy, it’s a game of give and take.” Yoga is spiritual, it’s
an activity of developing connectedness, and this involves skill
building. Skill building often involves unlearning old habits of mind,
attitude, reaction patterns, and re-learning new ones. At this point a
kind of self-psychotherapy, contemplation, and spiritual activity merge.
Bhakti Yoga: Here is the most obviously religious part of Yoga. You
don’t have to do Hindu religion. Many sects of Buddhism adopted much
that is in Yoga as a vehicle for furthering their own insights. Really,
you could adapt many of the underlying principles to enhance your
practice of mainstream religions, new religions, alternative religions,
or private, non-affiliated spiritual endeavor. The key in Bhakti yoga
is that of mindfulness, of remembering why you’re doing what you’re
doing. The opposite is just going through the motions.
In the Christian tradition there has been the idea of the seven deadly
sins, and one of these is the sin of sloth. Actually, that sin was
originally called “acedia,”—there’s been a recent book with that word
in the title—and it really relates to ennui, of losing the
enthusiasm—that word means feeling the theos, god, coming through—,
losing the so-what-ness of the activity. It was aimed at monks in the
late first millennium, at trying to help them wake up to what their
prayers were really about. As I said, the point was to reach for the
deeper meaning in the liturgy, the ritual.
If you go to church, the yoga would be to dig a bit, stretch a bit with
your intuition and imagination just as you stretch in your body in this
class. If you don’t go to church, but read spiritual books, stretch a
bit to reach for new meanings. If you serve and touch a measure of
self-less-ness, stretch a bit and lose yourself a bit in the doing, the
In Hinduism, more than many other religions, there is a bit more of an
explicit awareness that different folks with different talents and
temperaments not only find different kinds of work, but they also
relate spiritually in different ways. It’s not as if there’s just one
right way and all the others are, if not wrong, at least second-rate.
The point is that people learn to find which approach helps them to
feel more connected, it allows for individual differences as a key
element in the spiritual quest.
So in Bhakti yoga, there’s a recognition that some folks feel most
connected in ritual, in worship. For example, I met this woman who was
raised in a church that doesn’t offer much ritual, and she converted to
Roman Catholicism because the ritual deeply works for her. She doesn’t
buy much of the doctrine, but less ritual just doesn’t do justice to
what she feels she needs to connect.
Mantra and Yantra Yoga
Let’s not forget the arts. For many who helped build the cathedrals of
yore, or who sew tapestries or other decorations, sing in the chorus,
play instruments, and so forth, the arts offer vehicles for not only
expressing spiritual feelings, but also for exploring them, deepening
them. Again, if you’re just going through the motions, okay, that’s
better than nothing; but it works for you even more, it develops or
deepens your relationship, your connectedness, if you stretch yourself,
take on challenges, wrestle with resistances.
Mantra Yoga is simply the recognition that singing, and the words you
sing, can resonate hypnotically and deepen your feeling state. Certain
phrases are suggestively ambiguous. Again, this insight is prevalent in
many different religions, East and West.
Yantra Yoga involves the visual realm, painting, sculpting, making
diagrams, and contemplating what you draw. What does the symbol of a
cross say to you? Is it only the sign of the crucifixion, or are there
other more subtle meanings? The yogis of south Asia have really
developed these arenas, exploring many geometric forms. Those of you
who have sat behind me in lectures may have noticed me drawing some of
these designs, which I find centers me and invites me into a more
meditative state. (Some examples of yantras are available on other webpages.)
This is a category that involves stilling the mind, relaxing your
thinking. It recognizes that our tendencies to think about thinks, to
need to classify, label, and attempt to figure out abstractions can
clutter the mind and heart. There’s a slight place for this in Jnana
Yoga, but there’s also a place to then sweep all those concepts aside
and go for no-thing. The phrase, a Still, Small Voice, as the
expression of God, was mentioned in the story of Elijah in the Bible’s
book of Kings. It’s a nice poetic way of saying that sometimes the
deepest insights come when the monkey mind chatter can cease. There are
moments of sweetness and deepening in relationship when nothing much is
happening from the viewpoint of an outsider, just a couple people
fishing or cuddling or walking together.
Contemplation is slightly different: It involves relative quiet, but
there is a focus, an issue. One may contemplate one’s own angry
feelings the night before—what was that all about? Or one’s feeling of
spiritual doubt? What is it that doesn’t make sense to you?
Meditation is no-thing, is letting the empty space be filled with an
idea, an insight, and then letting go even of that. It takes practice,
but what happens is that you begin to feel beyond words your simplicity
of existence, and it’s hard to express what that tastes like. Probably
most of you have had moments in the course of outwardly doing your
Meditation can be a part of all of the other parts of yoga, and it can
also be exercised by itself with some time set aside just for sitting.
Maybe 20 minutes a day. Even that isn’t easy.
This is a word for a more focused program. It turns out that many other
kinds of yoga can be pursued within tantra, just as you might work out
on a number of different machines, plus use the pool, plus other stuff.
Mantra, yantra, meditation, hatha yoga, all of these. Some of you have
heard about a not-all-that-widely used category of sexual yoga, because
it’s so taboo in the West. But suffice it to say that sex is a great
mystery, and pursuing what that energy is all about is not really
theoretically different than pursuing what art or ritual is about. But
Tantric sexual yoga is not a big component conceptually.
These approaches overlap. Tantra is also associated with imagery, and
particularly the mythic theory of kundalini, the idea that
enlightenment or at least spiritual progress is associated with the
idea of raising psychic energy from the base of the spine near the
bottom up through a series of chakras or spiritual energy centers along
the spine towards the top of the crown. Breathing exercises, mantras
for each challenge, meditation, contemplation, and the like are all
Kundalini Yoga, the psycho-spiritual and quasi-imaginal map of
consciousness-development. This approach is also mentioned in the last of my lectures on Deep Maturity
given last Fall in our program. More important, though, and a good
psychological insight, to boot, is a recognition that this kind of yoga
gives a bit of form to what maturation is really about:
The child needs to learn to trust being in the world, which roughly
correlates with the first chakra at the base of the spine; and then to
opening to and engaging in healthy relationships. That’s where most
humans begin to have difficulties and blocks, because our parents and
their parents had lots of hang-ups, and so few people are quite free of
at least a few unresolved issues. The point here is that it’s worth
giving some time, to realizing that cleaning up our deepest ideas about
what relationship is about, is in fact also part of the spiritual
In the West, psychology and spirituality has been (or seemed to most
people) to be separate kinds of business. In fact, though, they’re
intimately involved with each other, inseparable, in fact. To do half
the things Jesus taught requires a process of self-psychotherapy and
purification, so that it’s possible to remain serene when challenged by
one who might from the outside be considered an enemy. The process of
forgiveness could fill several lectures in itself and even then it has
to get down to personal experience and practice. So raising energy
through the spine involves some heavy consciousness raising, too.
The third chakra, third from the bottom, raises the mythical image of
the snake that was coiled at the bottom of the spine up to the solar
plexus. Here the game is to raise your consciousness, too, so that you
can participate in the world, feel effective, and yet not get hung up
in false pride in its many forms. Again, this topic could fill many
The fourth chakra is one you’re wrestling with at this point, and the
country and world is wrestling with: How can we open our hearts and be
inclusive, especially inclusive of all the folks who are different, who
we think don’t like us, hate us, don’t respect us, don’t treat us
right, don’t—it seems—deserve our respect or help, and so forth. Not
easy. So bringing spiritual energy up to this point is in a way a
reflection of what we’re asking our kids to do as they mature.
The fifth chakra is in the throat and is another challenge many of you
hardly know you have— and others do know. Have you learned what’s
special about you, your natural talents? Have you learned to let your
little light shine, or do you still keep it hidden under a bushel
basket. The wisdom of self-expression, of giving your talent to your
higher power to use through you, this is also a kind of yoga.
The sixth chakra isn’t pursued by many. It’s located at the third eye
mythic function, the awareness that is balanced in the middle of your
forehead low down. It involves letting go, the art of surrender,
going with the flow, emptying yourselves of your preferences, of not
wanting this to be that way, of wanting more of that, of being
dissatisfied because I’ve forgotten to mention this, of feeling
offended because it seemed that I may have done disservice to that, of
fussing and fighting. You all want to reach true peace of mind, and
that’s what’s required. Not getting what you want, but rather learning
to want what you get, or at least let be what you get. The illusion of
desire and the way desire generates illusion is the focus of this part,
mainly addressed through meditation. This is why Buddhism and Yoga are
The seventh chakra is only for those who really want to go on the
journey to mystic consciousness. Each chakra advance is in some ways
harder, more complex, requiring more maturity than the ones below it.
Again, many books.
Yoga and Culture
I’ll share my bias by noting my thinking that humanity as a species is
only partly evolved. We’re nowhere near our fullest potential, really,
quite below half-way there, or arguable below 20 %. Many spiritual
teachers have spoken about how people can seem awake but in fact are
closer to sleep than true awaken-ness. No matter, the point is that I’m
in the game to foster consciousness-development in a variety of ways,
and in participating in this class, to some extent you are, too.
Another aspect of yoga is that it is a product of the increase in world
travel in the last two centuries, the opening of the influence of one
culture on another. In many of our childhoods anything from the orient
was exotic, quaint, amusing, but also disrespected as childish,
heathen, misguided. In the last fifty years there’s been more of a
trend towards inter-faith spirituality. Last year I gave a lecture series
on this theme through the Senior University Georgetown, and hope you’ll
check out my website. Just Google Adam Blatner. The trend toward
interfaith spirituality reflects the increasingly common search for
what different spiritual traditions have in common, looks at the
psychology of religion, comparative mythology, and so forth.
Another trend paralleling inter-spirituality is what I call Deep
Maturity. I mentioned above in describing the chakras of yoga this
series, but you might want to peruse the whole series on this website.
Doing yoga is part of your general program of life enhancement, and my
talk today is a reminder that what you’re doing is more than the
superficial activity of mere exercise, but rather also connecting with
your body, and connecting your body with your soul.
In turn, your soul, or your unconscious mind, is connected to the
mystery of what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the ground of
being.” You may or may not be inclined to attribute conventional
religious associations with this, but the key is the respect of
yourself that you do have depth, and drawing that depth forward into
your life, and in turn living so that your depth and your surface are
more comfortably aligned, this is part of the spirit of yoga.
Connection and Bonding
I have a profound respect for the need and drive of humans to connect.
We start as newborn infants with instincts to cling, to bond to our
maternal. Many of the higher animals share this bonding instinct, and
parents and grandparents and other family also reciprocate in wanting
to nurture. What is this instinct about? I suggest that though it
becomes more dilute as the child grows and it extends to teachers,
friends, and eventually even tribe or nation, it can also be channeled
towards the cosmos, our relationship to again what I called the Greater
Wholeness of Things or God. Religion, spirituality, connectedness,
bonding, they’re all related.
Let me get ahead of myself and talk about why these ideas may be useful
to you. I am hoping that knowing some of these things can help you
enjoy your yoga more, use your feelings as you stretch and open to help
you connect with your body, and use that connection to also help you
connect to your deeper mind, and beyond, to deeper mind that is not
yours, though you can have access to it to some extent.
Enjoying the Way Your Body Enjoys You
Here’s a fun thought. The forty or so quatrillion cells in your body,
imagine them as having a little rather simple consciousness. Imagine
that they only know that they are supported in terms of food and oxygen
and connective tissue to do their work. They have their stresses and
strains, and they are born and die. Imagine that in their simplicity,
their only joy is in functioning, doing what in India is called
“dharma.” Liver cells do the various things they do, heart cells beat
and to a surprising degree keep in rhythm with their fellows.
Being a physician, I have learned many of the wonders of the body.
Preserving my child-like-ness, I have continued to enjoy and celebrate
the feeling of wonder. And in my own odd spirituality, I see in my own
and your breath, the sparkle of your eyes, the vibration of my voice,
the astonish-mentality of being able to raise an arm, the miracles of
being able to see you and make any sense at all of what I’m seeing. And
I see something greater that for me helps me feel connected to the
When I come to fitness and work out, I feel that I’m taking the kids on
holiday, swimming, fishing, whatever is fun. I feel my muscles working
and I hear them saying “whee!” I feel my lung cells breathing and
toasting, as if to say, “this breath is for you,” the way they do in
the Budweiser Beer ads. I hear in my imagination all my cells singing
their national anthem, “We’re helping Adam be alive!” It’s their joyous
mantra. And I hear all your cells singing the same anthem, substituting
They don’t know about the issues in your life, but they are devoted,
fiercely loyal, delighted to be alive and serving something so
marvelously constructed and coordinated. They don’t know—and perhaps
you forget, too—that just as they are part of you, that you have a
similarly dim awareness that you are part of something greater, perhaps
several things greater, perhaps several levels of things that are part
of things greater. It’s sort of the reverse of the saying by the 18th
century writer Jonathan Swift that, made into a doggerel, “Big things
have little things upon their backs to bite ‘em, and little things have
littler things, and so ad infinitum.” What if big things are
participating not as parasites but as cells within larger what we call
ecosystems of varying kinds, social as well as biological, and these
systems are part of bigger, more inclusive systems? What if this is
also what mystics intuited when they spoke of a hierarchy of angels or
In Hatha Yoga, stretching, relaxing into a posture, breathing and
watching yourself breathe, making a transition to the next posture
fluid, each facet of this complex practice—and there are scores if not
hundreds of different styles of hatha yoga, different teachers, levels
of rigor, etc.— each facet can serve your spiritual growth.
In summary, I’m suggesting that you can use hatha yoga not only as a
pleasant way to stretch— and the need to stretch is not sufficiently
emphasized in our culture; it is so good for us!— but also it’s a way
to bring your attention to nothing other than the profound richness in
subtle feelings that are a microcosm and hint of the way we are all
connected with each other and with the greater Cosmos.
If you bring this attention to such daily simplicities as movement and
breath, you will live more deeply, and die feeling more certain that
you have lived deeply. Other benefits are plentiful, of course, but in
addition, remember that yoga is opening to yoking yourself, connecting
yourself, with your body and the amazing and subtle, holy forces that
enliven that body. We really don’t know what life is, you know. But
that need not stop us from enjoying it, wondering at it, experiencing
reverence for ourselves, for others, and for our journey as a species.