01 April 2011

Health: Yoga, Embodiment and Avidya

Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived. False identity results when we regard mental activity as the very source of perception. Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness. Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past connected with particular objects and situations. Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

-Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2:5-9
(translation by TKV Desikachar)



With a nod to the Theosophical movement and the works of Aleister Crowley, modern Pagans have been influenced by the philosophy and spirituality of the East (well...since I'm in California, wouldn't that make it the West?). Many of our spiritual practices come from Hinduism and Buddhism - meditation, chanting (mantra) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Yoga has also become a staple in Pagan practice as it provides a unique opportunity to align body, breath, mind and spirit.

The yoga sutras speak of a human affliction - avidya. The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom, or the deep knowledge of the True Self gained through practice and experience. The prefix a modifies the word to mean lacking or without. The word avidya then points to an ignorance of the True Self.

False identity can also present itself as a denial of identity. Many of us are very attached to the notion that we are not our bodies. Recognition of one's mortality can cause deep anxiety so we tend to identify with our personality or spirit in an attempt to only embrace the eternal. Unfortunately, we miss the second half of the equation: we are not only our bodies, but our bodies are part of the whole of ourselves.

Some mistakenly believe that you cannot be spiritual and be embodied simultaneously. Astral travel, pathworking, and trance are all various methods to cast the consciousness out into the world, but when our work is done, we return to a functioning, breathing body. Our body is still part of our spiritual experiences, no matter how hard we try to ignore or minimize it.

Some are so addicted to the feelings of happiness that the body can provide - the taste of sweet wine, a lover's touch, the earthy-sweet melt of chocolate, the soar of emotion when viewing inspiring art and the pull to dance to great music. The temptation is to continue to experience only these pleasurable physical feelings to the neglect of what the body may need. For others, perhaps their bodies were a source of shame. Maybe they were uncoordinated or ridiculed for their appearance. Maybe they experienced pain, injury or illness in such a way as to believe they had been betrayed by their body. Dissociation is a reasonable response to these experiences and we frequently cover or numb these unwanted sensations with a variety of drugs.

The first sutra of the second chapter (of the yoga sutra) tells us: The practice of Yoga must reduce both physical and mental impurities. It must develop our capacity for self-examination and help us to understand that, in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.

Is this not the aim of the magician? The alchemist? Inscribed above a doorway to the temple of Apollo at Delphi was the phrase temet nosce - know thyself. We cannot truly know the whole of ourselves without integrating our bodies and fully inhabiting them. How many of us can truly listen to our own body? How many are so familiar with their physicality that they can accurately interpret their body's signals? While we long to commune with the divine, we must also ground deeply and be fully embodied - only then will we have the proper relationship to ourselves and knowledge of the True Self possible.

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