Joy: Every morning and evening, David and I go on walks around our northern Philadelphia concrete neighborhood. Its a neighborhood full of poverty level Americans either struggling to find work or in many cases they've given up working. With all of its trash, abandoned basketball courts, lack of trees, and lost hope we try to find beauty on these walk. Often this means talking about yoga. Lately, you've been receiving many emails from students discussing how hard the practice is both physically and mentally but there is no mention of the spiritual dimension. How do you feel about this?
David: Well, for one, the spiritual part is elusive but I think of it like this. I break health down into three categories. Physical, mental and spiritual health. Having one does not guarantee you'll have the other. So, you can be physically healthy and not mentally…mentally but not physically…you get it. And certain things are more conducive to those categories.
And yoga done in a deep way, like Hatha Yoga that is very seriously practiced, is for your spiritual health. That is its main objective. Its to provide spiritual development. Its a vehicle or a machine and that's what that machine produces. And so it doesn't necessarily develop you physically or psychologically.
Its interesting because I also see those three categories having a gross and a subtle aspect. Gross physical, subtle physical, gross spiritual, subtle spiritual, etc, and so in that sense you can see in people their different strengths and weaknesses if you look in these categories.
Joy: Now everyone is asking themselves which category their stronger or weaker in.
David: Its not always easy to identify. So if someone is trying to get physical health from Hatha Yoga then they are using an improper vehicle. Or if you are trying to become psychologically healthy in yoga you're going at a slower rate. Its for spiritual health. And people are trying to do the yoga to get physically healthy or mentally healthy.
Joy: Wait a minute—that's extreme.
David: Its not extreme. It doesn't mean there aren't physical or mental benefits but its like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. If you are trying to use a deep yoga practice to be physically healthy then you are putting a square peg in a round hole. And the same with the mental health. It won't work. In fact, you know what will happen you'll end up at the physical therapist office or the acupuncture table or at the counselor. Because you can do yoga for years and you will not get physically or mentally healthy. And in fact you'll hold yourself back from getting them because you're trying to put the square peg in the round hole.
Now if you use the yoga for a spiritual practice, and know that's what you're using it for and what its designed for, then you're putting a round peg through a round hole. The interference then drops away and you don't end up in the physical therapist office because you aren't trying to make it something that its not.
Its a very important point.
You know my saying, "Every system of knowledge is also a system of ignorance." This is why a big part of my teaching is giving very detailed technical information about the physical aspects of the practice because I understand when you're trying to develop yourself spiritually it is a kind of madness to hurt your body along the way and to hurt your mind.
And you can hurt your mind by neglecting its psychological development even if its in the service of your spiritual growth. And so there's a built in ignorance to a spiritual system because its very common for the body not to be taken into consideration enough in the pursuit of spiritual objectives like meditation, one pointed consciousness, or the opposite can happen and you can take the body so literally in its physical beauty that you omit the spirituality. Since I spend so much time on protecting the body and clarifying the mind then people seem to solely focus on the body and/or the mind as if that's the end point. As if aligning your body in the position is yoga.
But there's more to it.
Often people believe having a very good forward bend or backbend or I can jump back is a sign that the body is healthy. And if I can't jump back or I'm weak because I can't push up in a backbend those are signs that they aren't healthy.
Joy: Right but that's a mistake.
David: Its a mistake that's a costly one spiritually.
Joy: Right, because they may be way more spiritually developed then the person who can do tic tacs.
David: Right and there's so much harm in seeing the yoga in that way. As in I'm flexible in a backbend therefore I'm healthy. So, it can actually stand as an obstacle to spiritual growth and to having a perfection in body. Right? The yoga sutras talk about it. One of the benefits that you get from concentrating the mind in a spiritual way is you get Kaya Siddhi. What is that? Mastery of the body, perfection of the body and it even goes further to tell you what that looks like.
Joy: What chapter?
David: Chapter 3: 46. It says, beauty, gracefulness, strength and adamantine firmness is the perfection of the body.
Joy: But doesn't that imply?
David: No!! You don't get that by doing 400 chaturangas. You don't get it that way. You get it by eliminating klesas. The root causes of pain. By observing your relationship to attachment, aversion, egoism and fear. And by understanding your inherent spirituality and your tendency to ignore it.
You want to withdraw your energy from an imbalance of a physical emphasis. Its an interesting proposition. It means if you have your priorities straight, if you use your yoga practice for its spiritual practice then you can understand how to use it for its optimal physical benefits which are many.
That is why I emphasis the fundamentals…Surya Namaskara, standing postures and inversions. I emphasize them because those are the ones that you can work on to access your inherent spiritual nature as well as get physical benefits.
If you do highlight the physical benefits of the practice then from a physical perspective you would need moderate other activities to round out your physical health which would include moderate walking, moderate weight training, dancing, there's these little supplemental human activities that would help to ensure your physical health.
Joy: So your saying I don't necessarily need Viparita Shalabhasana to have a healthy spine? I'm joking.
David: But its serious in a way because every person's body is different. And so for some people viparita shalabhasana can be a rejuvenating thing for their spine. Not many, but for some it is.
Lastly, we haven't touched on the mental part and it is key. Working with the body, the klesas, in order to concentrate the mind brings up material that can lead to psychological growth or to avoidance of psychological and emotional issues but a relationship needs to be cultivated with that material that comes up and to expect that you just do your practice and then go about your day is not dealing with the material.
Joy: Just to clarify we aren't talking about the folks who have been practicing for less than four years and are in their surge of growth physically, psychologically and spiritually. Correct?
David: Yes, you're right. Initially, there is this amazing surge of physical, mental and spiritual health. We are talking about what happens beyond that surge. And that might mean some years into your practice and you see examples of it so frequently. You see someone with an amazing advanced practice but then look at how angry they are or emotionally unavailable in terms of responding to a situation. And that's what I'm talking about. There's a lag and that's because Ashtanga is trying to forge spiritual development. Its not necessarily forging psychological development and you can find yourself in debt psychologically if you don't take care of your psychological health too. Just like you can find yourself in physical health debt as well, hurt knees, shoulders, etc. For example you could suffer from depression and do Hatha Yoga for years and not make significant progress in overcoming that depression because it needs supplemental treatment.
Its so fascinating to me because I think the mental health is the hardest to win. Hatha yoga is perhaps the most deficient in that category.
Joy: It explains a lot right? You often hear people say, "Well, I now know an advanced practice doesn't make a nice person…"
David: Yes! The spiritual and the physical are more of a fit in the yoga practice. As far as the Ashtanga practice goes its just so darn physical that you can match up the physical and the spiritual parts easier. Its harder to win your psychological health from the practice. And so you have to take extra care for that area of growth in your life.
Joy: Any last words?
David: I think we went all the way around the circle.
Joy: Good talk David.
David: Ah, here are my last words…Bhakti is best but take care of your mind and body along the way.