Adam Blatner

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 denomination.

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 yoga.

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 spiritual discipline.

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 giving.

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 yoga.

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.

Tantric Yoga

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 involved.

The Chakras

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 journey.

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 books.

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 similar.

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 Greater Wholeness.

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 your name.

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 small g-gods?

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.