I’ve written before about Hatha-Yoga and its uses, so I won’t retread that ground here. But a commonly stated “goal of yoga” found in popular publications and classes on the topic has been coming more and more to the forefront, or at least more and more to my attention, of late: the goal of “uniting” mind and body or, occasionally, mind, body, and spirit. “Yoga” famously refers to a unitive experience and the practices which can get you there, but this is often left vague enough that people fill in the blanks of exactly what is being united with what, and stressed Americans have every reason to desire bringing their bodies, intellects, and emotions into some sort of parity, so naturally enough the confusion starts that this must be what we mean by “yoga”. Here, however, we have a limited and limiting redefinition of a term and a set of techniques with much broader and deeper application. It isn’t wrong so much as it is self-constraining.
Trendy money-makers like “hot yoga”, “acro-yoga”, “competitive yoga”, and what seems like the new cool kid, “embodied yoga”, all focus to some extent on drawing the mind and body together or recognizing them as an inextricable whole. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this view — for as long as we are in bodies, we do best to treat our whole apparatus as a unity so as to keep everything functioning as well as possible. But no traditional school of Yoga philosophy places much emphasis on this idea; it’s almost assumed at the outset that you already believe in such a unity. Consider that India, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, and China did not (bless their good fortune!) have to deal with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, or Descarte. The dualistic philosophies of India and China were never dualistic in the way that Western philosophies were (and are).
Instead, the emphasis in much traditional Yoga — perhaps especially the “classical” Yoga of Sage Patanjali — is the deliberate separation of consciousness and body. The process of Patanjali’s Yoga is of gradually and carefully teasing apart the various layers of individual selfhood starting with the brute physicality of the elements and moving inward to the subtle ego at the heart of the individual’s experience of Nature Herself. A variety of practical methods are presented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and detailed further in its more well-known commentaries (often published with it in its better editions and translations). All of this may seem to the modern eye as quite anti-body or even anti-cosmic.
Though Patanjala and Vedic purists might disagree, Yoga is inextricably Tantric: it is rooted in the experience of freedom inherent in the individual. Yet Tantra is not at all anti-body or anti-cosmic. Where, then, does Patanjali’s dualism come from?
I assert as a practitioner of many of Patanjali’s techniques that the dualism of Samkhya and of Patanjali’s Sutras is provisional rather than absolute; it is a phenomenological conceit rather than an ontological absolute and is presented as a conceptual tool for discursive meditation. In the religio-philosophical milieu of Sage Kapila — the first to codify classical Samkhya metaphysics, though certainly not its originator — and Sage Patanjali, mind-body unity would have been the baseline assumption and the common experience. It was necessary, therefore, to provide the prospective sadhaka with a set of mental tools allowing them to tease apart the layers of their own experience in order to find the seed-consciousness at their own core. This is still an extraordinarily powerful toolkit for the practitioner!
My own Natha tradition, however, includes methods which are much more apparently friendly toward physicality. Sri Gurudev Matsyendranath (known also as Maccendranath and, especially among Buddhists, as Minapa) is explicitly associated with Kaula Tantra, a ritual-heavy form of Vama Tantra which can include the consumption of “forbidden” substances (meat, liquor, etc.) and absorption in meditative and worshipful sex; Sri Gorakhnath (aka Gorakshanath), Matsyendra’s close disciple, presented a view of Hatha-Yoga emphasizing not the mere physicality of the body but the nondual spirituality of the whole of Creation — in which he did not include the body so much as he included the whole cosmos into the body of the individual itself! Future writings will explore this idea more in its practical implications and applications, but for now I let it stand in all its starkness.
On the surface, this seems like a contradiction in the Yogi Sampradaya — some of our forebears presenting an anti-cosmic approach and others a life-affirming one. But in the practice of Yoga we find the solution, quite literally as the distinctions dissolve in the open experience of what we may as well call Buddha Nature, the Power of Siva, or the Infinite Space of the Unconditioned Self. For so long as we are subject to Karma, for so long as we are within patterns left to play out, our minds will have different needs at different times. If I am caught within a pit of mind/body dualism, I may escape it by way of physically-oriented practices which demonstrate their energetic union; if I am instead trapped by a misunderstanding of my body as a mere shell or prison, I may make better progress by experiencing my consciousness as formless consciousness. I hasten to add that neither of these is absolute, neither captures Reality, yet experience shows that neither can be denied.