Whether one seeks the meaning or purpose of yoga from ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or Hatha Yoga Pradipika or looks to more modern or contemporary sources for guidance and inspiration, awakening to or cultivating conscious awareness, more awakened being and a better, healthier life are constants. Standing on the edge of the mythical battlefield of the Mahabharata War, Prince Arjuna was frozen in inaction due to misunderstanding the nature of his being; in finding his path (dharma) he would become clear in his awareness and thereby able to act consciously and forthrightly in his life. Patanjali similarly identifies the source of human suffering (klesha) that motivates yoga in ignorance of one’s true nature (avidya) that is rooted in a confused bodymind, offering an eight-step approach to betterment that includes moral and practical observances, asana, pranayama, pratyahara (relieving the senses of their external distractions), and meditation as a defined path to blissful being (samadhi). Eleven hundred years later – in the mid-14th century CE – Swatmarama elaborated a specific regimen of self-purification techniques to be followed sequentially by asana (he describes fifteen, mostly sitting), pranayama, mudra and bandha practices designed to enhance health, curtail mental confusion and open to liberation (moksha).
Seemingly a world away, the Greek philosopher Plato pleaded for “an equal and healthy balance between [body and mind]” as his teacher Socrates, who said “no citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training...what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable,” trained in dance to refine his bodymind in keeping with the embodied philosophical practice of the time. “Even in the act of thinking,” Socrates affirmed, “which is supposed to require least assistance from the body, everyone knows that serious mistakes happen through physical ill-health.” While imbued with a dualist perspective consonant with the dualism found in classical yoga that posits the material world as an illusion (maya in the Vedas and Upanishads, “ideal forms” in Plato’s thinking), we no less find here the path to a clearer, freer, happier, better life through body-mind integration, clarification and transformation practices.
While most of the ensuing development of Western philosophy would deny the importance of the physical realm – certainly in Cartesian, Kantian, and Hegelian forms of dualism that guaranteed conceptual space for the authority of religious doctrine and social forces that typically denigrate the body, much as in renunciate forms of fundamentalist yoga – by the late 19th century we begin to find recognition that embodied intelligence matters in understanding experience and improving one’s life. The pragmatist philosopher and pioneering psychologist William James (1976, 86; 1890, 306-311 passim) affirmed the body’s pervasive influence on awareness and the bodily dimension of thought and emotion, even if in keeping with the Western dualist tradition that situated the ultimate source of consciousness outside the organic human being. In his view, we do embody experience, and the meliorative project of pragmatic philosophy and psychology – to make life better – must address how emotion and thought are inextricably interwoven in our tissues and expressed in every aspect of bodily posture and language.
The American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1981-1990, 29-30) drew from James’ thinking and went farther in advocating the integration of the body-mind in experiential ways as “the most practical question we can ask of our civilization.” Offering a holistic perspective in a spiritual and philosophical universe dominated by dualist thinking and various forms of theological pre-determinism in which an autonomous ego or supernatural force manifests everything, Dewey boldly charted a different path, asserting that we have real choices in our lives – even if the realities of our lives are powerfully conditioned by habits of being which in traditional yoga philosophy are explained as samskaras inherited from past lives and embodied in the totality of our being. “Habits,” Dewey writes, “are demands for certain kinds of activity…” the “…predisposition…” of which are “…an immensely more intimate and fundamental part of ourselves than are vague, general, conscious choices” (1976-1983, 21-22). Put differently, Dewey builds upon and moves beyond James’ idea that mental and emotional life are embodied by fully situating consciousness in the bodymind and its environmental context, including our social relationships, giving us the idea of reflective body consciousness that is open to constant evolution through deliberate effort. He calls for “conscious practice” not in pursuit of an idealized notion of some primordial being, but in the reality of this being, right here and now. Dewey’s daily practice, taught to him by Frederick M. Alexander (Alexander Technique), focused on recognizing and releasing habitual, unhealthy, self-limiting patterns in the bodymind.
Here take a different path: Hatha yoga in the 21st century.
The evolution of one’s awareness is an integral aspect of yoga as a transformative process, and in Hatha yoga – the big umbrella over all styles, brands, and lineages utilizing postural and movement techniques – this process is one of awakening and integrating on the path to a more holistic, congruent and healthy experience in being alive. Put differently, doing yoga is a practice for awakening to our embodiment as organic humans that happens the moment one is present to the experience of breathing and being in this bodymind. For many this is and always will be a spiritual path that is about “being in” (a oneness perspective) or “connecting to” (a dualist perspective) a sense of the infinite or consciousness beyond the bodymind. For others – even if not specifically describing yoga – it’s about fully awakening to the spirit and reality of being a human being, finding meaning, as Mark Johnson (2007, 10) proposes, “within the flow of experience that cannot exist without a biological organism engaging its environment.” Rather than human thought and experience being essentially illusional or somehow “cut off from the world,” Johnson (2007, 271-278) points us toward an “embodied, experiential view of meaning” expressed through this “phenomenal body” – not the folk concept of the body that’s reduced to biological functioning, but one in which the bodymind is whole.