Spiritual practice with Yoga
My sister is a yoga teacher. Since she became a teacher, I have been exposed to the concepts of energy and yoga movements. According to yogic philosophy, chakras are centers in the body that regulate the flow of energy through us. If we understand how our emotions are related to the energy released from the chakras, we can see the potential to take responsibility for how the energy is released and we can be a positive influence on the world around us. In many ways, the practice of yoga has the same concept and approach as spiritual practice, although one is for the wellbeing of the body and the other for spiritual wellbeing.
The spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. Whatever objects appear in this world of existence are the outer pictures of the world of heaven. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 10)
For example: Our breath comes into the body and it must go out. The energy from the Universe is just like the air we breathe to sustain our spirit, the energy comes into our body and it has to go out too. We “breath energy” from the crown chakra, and it through the other six chakras (third eye chakra, throat chakra, heart chakra, solar plexus chakra, sacral chakra and root chakra) and then it reverses direction to flow out of our body like breathing. When air goes into the body, the cells use the oxygen and it is exhaled out as carbon dioxide. With the energy that enters our body, our mental activity transforms it into love energy or fear energy. The “exhalation” of that energy may appear as “good breath” or “bad breath”. The love energy is just like good breath and the fear energy is like a bad breath of energy. With each breath we feel our physical condition, ease or difficulty, delight or pain. With every “breath” of energy we experience spiritual feelings, sadness or joy, anxiety or relaxing, and all kinds of emotion. When our body is sick, we feel the pain in different parts of our body while we breathe; when our soul is sick, we feel the emotional fluctuation and an uncomfortable burdensome feeling. Awareness of the body’s condition helps us find the locations of pain, and through adjusting our posture we can release the muscle pain. Awareness of our feelings and emotions helps us locate the causes of spiritual pain, such as unsatisfied desire or fears. By adjusting our mindset and attitude we can release these emotions and find the peace within. These two aspects of development, physical and spiritual, can be thought of as two wings of a bird, which must be equally developed for the bird to fly:
Man has two powers; and his development, two aspects. One power is connected with the material world, and by it he is capable of material advancement. The other power is spiritual, and through its development his inner, potential nature is awakened. These powers are like two wings. Both must be developed, for flight is impossible with one wing. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.60)
In yoga, we work out our muscles. In spiritual practice, we “work out” our virtues. Virtues are our spiritual muscles. By adjusting our breathing, we find the balance of air flow within the movements of the body. By receiving the breath of the Holy Spirit, we find the balance of energy flows and mindfulness. For the wellbeing of the body we need to pay attention to every muscle. For the wellbeing of the soul we need to pay attention to every emotion and connect to the virtues which we need to develop. Bodily sensation comes through our nervous system, spiritual sensation is in the perception of emotion and susceptibility. Awareness of both bodily sensation and spiritual sensation is needed for the true yoga practitioner. It requires focus of the mind, awareness of the body and spiritual condition in daily life.
With yoga, according our needs, we can choose the movements and posture which help the muscles we try to strengthen. In spiritual practice, we can contemplate difficult situations in life and cultivate the virtues we try to develop. A physical workout needs effort and commitment, spiritual practice needs effort and commitment too. With one posture in yoga we might exercise several muscles at the same time. With one life experience we might expose several virtues we need to develop. Sometimes we choose yoga postures to focus work on particular muscles. Also in our spiritual practice, we can focus on developing one particular virtue at a time. When we suffer from body pain, acceptance can lead to a better healing process. When we suffer from pain caused by our emotions, acceptance can lead to mindfulness and brings spiritual inspiration for us to solve our problems. The body needs time to heal and the spirit needs time to strengthen. When we rely on God and trust God, over time we will see both the mind and body be healed by God’s power. Patience and endurance while facing a challenge is needed, just like when we hold a position for a long time while we practice yoga. One is for strengthening virtues and one is for strengthening muscles.
In yoga, we can inhale slowly, hold our breath, exhale slowly or have different patterns of breathing for us to observe the sensations of our muscles. In spiritual practice, we can exercise the ability to change our mindset step by step in order to observe how the energy changes and how the emotions dissolve. Through breathing techniques, we experiment with how it affects our movement. We become skillful at strengthening muscles by using breathing techniques. Through adjusting our mindset and attitude we can experiment with how it affects the type of energy released and connection to the emotions and susceptibilities we have. Emotion or susceptibility of our heart is the spiritual sensation. Observing muscles or observing emotions (connected to the virtues) are similar techniques, one is felt by the body senses and the other is feel by spiritual perception. Perception is our spiritual sense.
In yoga, we can open our chest with a certain posture. It helps us open our heart chakra. Similarly, we can open our heart by remembering God, loving God and trusting God, which is faith in God. By adjusting our posture, we move between the spots of muscles we want to work out. By adjusting our attitude toward God in different situations, we move between the types of virtue we need to work on. Our attitude toward God is our spiritual posture. We open our heart by knowing more about God, trusting God and relying on God. Relying on God helps us lay our burden on Him and trusting God help us put down our fear and submerge into His love. We can only follow and be a good servant of God by trusting Him. Physically, we follow our mind to develop muscles. Spiritually, we follow our heart which leads to the Will of God to develop virtues.
By doing yoga, we develop stronger but more flexible muscles to sustain our physical needs in our daily life. By spiritual practice, we develop stronger virtues but a more softened heart to sustain our spiritual need in every challenge we encounter and be more caring of others. Physical strength shows in muscle strength, spirit strength shows in the perfection of virtues we develop. With a strong body, we enjoy the delights of movement and physical freedom. With a strong human soul, we are freed from the constraints of our physical nature rejoice in spiritual freedom. With both physical and spiritual freedom, we reach harmony of body, mind and soul. The movements of yoga might bring us into the harmony of body and mind. But in order to reach the harmony of mind and soul, we need to have spiritual practice. By practicing both, it leads us to become a true practitioner of yoga, a yogi.
The most vital duty, in this day, is to purify your characters, to correct your manners, and improve your conduct. The beloved of the Merciful must show forth such character and conduct among His creatures, that the fragrance of their holiness may be shed upon the whole world, and may quicken the dead, inasmuch as the purpose of the Manifestation of God and the dawning of the limitless lights of the Invisible is to educate the souls of men, and refine the character of every living man—so that blessed individuals, who have freed themselves from the murk of the animal world, shall rise up with those qualities which are the adornings of the reality of man. (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 2.16 )