Yoga is for everyone!
In my previous blog on the many dimensions of a human being I talked about the Ana Maya as the body of food as the most gross, rudimentary fabric making up a human being. I talked about the more subtle layers, such as the Prana Maya, Mano Maya, Vijnana and Ananda Mayas, the energetic bodies, which animate the physical body. I described the Pancha Maya Kosha model from the Eastern perspective, moving from the more subtle layers to the more tangible ones, with the Ana Maya being last. However, when presenting each Maya in this blog in the next few weeks, I want to switch again back to the Western style and begin with the body.
A certain idea has been coming together in my mind for several years now: cultivating a healthy attitude towards one's body can actually be made more difficult in Yoga, both its ancient, original form, and in its modern form.
When Yoga first arose five thousand years ago, ascetism and self-denial was a way to sublimate the body, to transcend beyond it into a spiritual realm. Yoga at that time included a lot of esoteric practices such as starvation, achievement of difficult postures and the ability to sustain some terribly uncomfortable and potentially harmful Asana. The less important the body became, the more evolved spiritually the adept was considered to be.
In the modern times the reverse seems to be more prevalent in our society - the more attractive the body (according to our subjective modern standards, such as thin, with muscular abdomen), the more advanced the practice is perceived to be. You can probably guess where I am going with this - both extremes do not necessarily represent a healthy, balanced attitude towards the body.
Both of these extremes can actually be observed today in our population - there are people who think they need to "accept" their body the way it is, with the extra rolls of fat, saggy body parts, unattractive posture. "I am perfectly happy with the I way am," they say, and demonstrate their acceptance by ignoring and mistreating the body. Then there are those who weigh themselves daily, who monitor closely BMI ratios, loudly bemoan every single ounce here or there, can talk for hours about their special diet, and celebrate their "goals" with exhibitionism in the form of cropped tops, extra low rise pants, etc.
There is a physical and a sensual dimension to consider here, when a person is both a subject, (when he/she is the perceiver), and the object (when a person can imagine what others must be seeing, when looking at him/her). In other words, a subject is someone who is looking at another body, admires it or not, and an object is the person who is being looked at, and who is aware of the fact. When there is a lack of objectivity, when we have a distorted view of ourselves, the so-called Avidya, or ignorance of the reality of things, often the Self is being obscured from view, and in a sense, becomes "lost".
For a healthy body image we need to find a middle ground here - an ability to combine the subject and the object, to move freely between the two states, without being stuck in either one. When there is too much subjectivity, it is easy to get stuck in a kind of ego-centric, closed mind set where everyone's glances become a source of irritation, that everyone is judging, thinks of one's body as "meat", and even a positive evaluation can be unwelcome. It is at this stage that a false kind of "body positive" is born, one where the person "transcends" the body by neglecting or dismissing it, and through that find a false sense of "full self-acceptance." These people will go on to tell everybody that they accept themselves "as they are, warts and all", and truly believe it. They embody their beliefs by feeding the body junk, depriving it of pleasure, dressing it in rags, and presenting it to the world as the least significant part of themselves.
But that is denies the body its significance. People who fall into this trap lose vital energy, sensual appreciation for the things that life has to offer, are often brooding, apathetic, see everything in negative terms, because they lack the physical energy for optimism and action, they are in the "energy-saving mode." When others mention that the body in question is falling apart, that it is diseased and unattractive, they will be rebuffed with fury: "do not impose on me your standards, I find this glamour-obsessed aesthetics disgusting," etc. Arguably, this reaction can be justified as it most often comes from those who have made their body "a temple".
But to occupy the opposite place on this spectrum is just as destructive and unfulfilling in the end as the other. The body in this case can become something separate from the person who lives in it, an object that replaces the subject, it is a "thing" that now exists only when the owner or others bestow approval, admiration and attention on it. They embody the very thing that the "acceptance with warts and all" people are most afraid of: dependency on the external validation also saps vital energy and quickly makes one a slave and an exercise addict.
Somewhere between these two extremes lies the balance: where both the subject (the person) and the object (the body) have equal importance, both are recognized as interlinked parts of an integral whole. One can feel happy with their body and take pleasure in taking good care of it with proper nutrition and exercise, while at the same time without becoming obsessed with perfection that simply does not exist, and without becoming too closely identified with the way things look. The body is not separate from the person, there is an understanding that beauty is more than just physical attributes. We can include here individual unique quirks (one way to re-frame flaws - name them your quirks), personal charm, style, posture, a certain synthesis of form and content charged with energy that creates a sense of harmony. Not without certain physical/material component, but so much more. Small defects and flaws are just that - small, they do not disturb the overall balance, yet at the same time motivate the person to continue self-improvement, development, not just of the body, but of the mind through learning, of the emotional resilience through strengthening networks of support and cultivating personal charm and appeal. The person is motivated to stay "plugged into" the current of life.
When our own faults and flaws seem too large and we feel a lack of energy to overcome them, when we become upset because of it, this means that our objective view of the Self is not receiving enough love (Self-love or love from others), it is too easy to start seeing oneself as a "thing", something bulky, ungainly, and to suffer from it. That's when the temptation to veer into the extreme of body-denial becomes great, but by running from one extreme we promptly find ourselves stuck in the other. We will talk about Love/Prana in the next blog, the Prana Maya.
Preserving a balance takes vigilance, but if we see our body as a resource which, when cultivated brings us dividends, when we can relate to it with equal share of objectivity and subjectivity, to take pleasure in it, take joy in the sensual nature of things without becoming obsessed with it, then we can nurture ourselves with this physical energy and at the same time govern it without suppressing it, then the Ananda Maya will be fulfilled. Taking care of the body is the province of Ana Maya, but the reasons for doing so are born in the other layers, which we will talk about over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!