Back when I first started taking yoga classes, I was preoccupied with whether I could meet the concrete physical challenges they presented. Coming in feeling proud that I could touch my toes (having long considered this a feat of flexibility), I’d experience some angst mixed with the thrill of new ambition when instructed to do some previously unimagined variation such as Padahastasana (“hand-to-foot pose,” a standing forward fold with feet on top of palms.) And that’s what I thought it was all about. Could I “do it” – that is, achieve some particular physical posture – or not??
It’s funny for me to think back on those days. Because when I get on my mat now, I’m much more absorbed in working with my emotional and energetic bodies than in honing my physical practice per se. While I still try to learn new poses and believe that that’s a valuable process, nailing them is far from my primary aim. Instead, I’m much more immediately concerned with the psychological and spiritual dimensions of practice. The visible physical practice is the vehicle, but what really matters to me is invisible – at least to the untrained eye.
Just as I feel my own life force revitalized by asana practice, I have as a teacher “seen” students’ Prana visibly amplify. Which is a strange and wondrous and inspiring “sight” – a vision seen with some intuitive capacity of mind that I previously didn’t even know existed. But it’s also a difficult one to translate into the empiricist rigor and cultural limitations of words like I’m trying to do now – really, I’d have to be a poet to do it justice.
But that’s OK. Because even though I’m not a poet, I do value the process of translation – taking experiences processed through that non-verbal, extra-rational, intuitive right hemisphere of my brain and representing them through the medium of its linguistically structured, rational, analytic counterpart. Trying, in other words, to write in a more-or-less straightforward way about some of the more mysterious and esoteric dimensions of yoga.
In fact, I’ve come to see this kind of writing as part of my own personal practice. Because if yoga is about union, then doesn’t using all of our mental capacities – creating an integrated dialog between those left and right hemispheres – make perfect yogic sense? Sure, I’ve heard a lot of “turn off your mind” directives during my years in the yoga community. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to turn anything off. Process and drain off accumulated mental and emotional crap? Yes. But “turn off” the innate and incredible human capacity to think? No.
As I see it, yoga is not about turning any part of ourselves “off,” most certainly including our brains. Rather, it’s about learning to work with the multi-dimensionality of our minds and beings more adeptly and fluidly. Yes, I want to dial down the distracting thoughts and hopefully (eventually) root out all that negative internal chatter. But I also want to amp up both my ability to think and my capacity to intuit – sometimes serially, and other times more in tandem.
Through practicing yoga, I’ve gradually come to realize that our brains and the larger bodymind in which they’re embedded offer us much, much more to work with than we’ve been habituated to believe in our culture.
Before I got heavily into yoga, I was super-invested in learning via what we normally call “thinking” – which, put in more precise terms, is really analytic rationality. So I spent a lot of time reading and studying, interviewing and analyzing, taking notes and writing outlines. Learning through asana, meditation, synchronicities, and dreams was most certainly not on the agenda.
And while I could certainly see that the “big questions” couldn’t be answered that way (recognizing what Kant called “the limits of practical reason”) – I didn’t have anything else in my life to enable me to work in an alternative way. So I believed that questions that took us beyond the limits of rational consciousness (as we used to jokingly say in grad school, “why is there air and what’s the meaning of life”), put us squarely into the realm of either existentialism or religion.
We might hope and hazard that God would speak to us there – and there were periods in my life where I was convinced that He Did. But I also always remembered – and respected – the heart-felt anguish of a friend who confessed to me that while he wanted to believe in God, and wanted God to speak to him, he couldn’t and He Didn’t.
Now I’m not at all interested in pronouncing on any ultimate questions. Some of the people that I respect most are serious Christians. Others are nontraditional Buddhists, observant Jews, and/or Leftist intellectuals. Many are simply life-affirming souls who don’t necessarily care to grapple with vexing theological or existential issues. So if I’m committed to any religious/spiritual view, it’s that there are many paths up the mountain, that the mountain is a metaphor that resonates with us deeply even if we can’t categorize and explain it, and that those tracks have been forged in ways that confound all our culturally-bound categories of atheist, agnostic, or believer.
But what I think is so profoundly valuable about yoga and meditation is that they are accessible practices designed (among other things) to train our minds in ways that allow us to access both the left and right hemispheres of our brains – the rational and the extra-rational, the logical and the artistic, the analytic and the intuitive. This was not a skill that I was taught – or even led to believe might exist – in grad school.
Since the 2000s, however, there’s been lots of interest in connecting Buddhist-based mindfulness practices with contemporary neuroscience. And there’s more and more empirical evidence coming out everyday that the claim that yoga and meditation can, in fact, “change your brain” is not some airy-fairy, woo woo, New Age-y notion. The fact of the matter is that practiced properly, these methods work.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean that we get our ultimate questions answered on our mats and/or cushions. But it does mean that we have tools for working with the mind that are capable of bringing us to a state of consciousness that’s bigger than any such question/answer dichotomies allow. This is, I think, what the yogic tradition points to when teaching about Samadhi – a state of realization in which human consciousness becomes integrated into and one with all that is.
Now yoga traditionalists might insist that attaining (and remaining in) this state is the only true aim of yoga, but I don’t agree. While that may be the right aim for unique individuals, I don’t believe that there’s ever been a time in human history when such an absolutely ambitious goal made sense as a mass movement. And today, of course, we have millions and millions of people who practice yoga and meditation but are not devoted to Realization. On the contrary, they spend most of their time fully engaged in the super-demanding practicalities of everyday life.
Not to mention, of course, that most contemporary practitioners have never even heard of Samadhi.
But if I disagree with those hard-core purists who insist that if practitioners don’t set their sights that high, they’re not really practicing yoga, I do agree that most of us are setting our sights too low.
Once you move beyond the purely physical, essentially athletic dimensions of yoga, most of us today are in it for stress relief. Which is deeply, and often desperately needed, and shouldn’t be disparaged in any way. Yoga (and meditation) give millions a means of siphoning off stress in order to function in an increasingly psycho society. But surely we need to set our sights higher than this? Because if stress reduction is vital for coping, ultimately it would be much better to go beyond coping to positive change.
What about viewing yoga and meditation as practices that allow us to develop our human capacities to both reason and intuit – to value both science and spirituality – to care about teaching our children both math and art? What if we insisted that this is not some post-hippie flaky fantasy, but rather grounded in what some of our most sophisticated neuroscientists are discovering about the innate capacities of mind?
What if we got hard-headedly rational and insistent about the intrinsic value of our heart-felt, extra-rational experiences and revolutionized our world?
Because if there’s one thing that most people today can agree on, it’s that we need to radically change the dominant paradigm. And based on what I’ve learned through yoga, I believe that this might best be done by learning to equally develop and value the capacities of both sides of our brains.
Carol Horton has been practicing yoga for 15 years and is a Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). Currently, she’s working on a new book tentatively entitled “21st Century Yoga: A Sociological Memoir.” You can read more of her work on Think Body Electric and Elephant Journal, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.