The Mind-Body Split
Body/Mind splitting is old as the hills. Given the chance, the human mind seems to gravitate towards separation, including the idea that our bodies are separate from our minds. However, the ways in which modern society is structured tends to exasperate the divisions. Jobs are often either almost all head, or all physical activity. “Labor saving devices” have stripped us of basic skills like cooking and handwriting that involve the body more. Those with more financial resources outsource much of the physical labor in their lives, while those in poverty tend to have little time or energy to develop their minds.
The list of ways modern society divides and promotes separation goes on and on. And as a result, our spiritual practices are suffering. We think we are waking up, becoming liberated, but more often than not, we’ve simply ramped up one side or the other.
Given my background in both Zen and yoga, I chose to write about both of them in the essay I have in the new volume, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Entitled “Bifurcated Spiritualities: Examining Mind/Body Splits in the North American Yoga and Zen Communities,” the essay explores ways in which fixations on the body play out for many yoga practitioners, with a corresponding mind fixation amongst many Zen practitioners. Another significant theme is the role of gender, and gender stereotypes, in both communities. And as the essay winds towards a conclusion, the focus expands to demonstrate how the mind/body separations occurring amongst yoga and Zen practitioners represent the commonplace separation so many of us have today with the planet we live on. Here is a teaser to introduce you to the flavor of the essay.
Since I have a fair amount of experience in Iyengar-based practice, I will consider his approach a little more closely. In Light on Life, Iyengar writes “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or has a weak body.” He goes on to explain that this “true meditation” isn’t just “sitting quietly:” it is a practice that leads us to “wisdom and awareness.” One of the ways Iyengar attempts to get around what appears to be a separation of practices is to repeatedly speak of how meditation is contained within all the other limbs of practice, including asana. Indeed, recognizing the interconnectedness of all the yogic limbs is a large part of the reason he has put so much precision and intensity into teaching asana over the years.
Many students, however, simply can’t experience that interconnectedness within the context of an asana-focused class. They are too busy taking in verbal cues, moving their bodies, and responding to physical adjustments. Furthermore, the entire way in which the practice is often framed – as being about exercise, health, or even wellness – adds another blockage. Even as someone who has long studied the spiritual teachings of yoga, my own experience in the classroom tends to be mixed. Sometimes, everything will settle enough to allow my mind to focus on the present. But other times, I am either trying to figure out what is being taught, or my mind is lost in thinking.
The final section of my essay includes introductions to several “Mind/Body Bridge Practices” I have learned and practiced over the past decade. As such, the aim of the writing is not only to introduce the problems, but also to lead readers to potential remedies for the problems.
I encourage everyone interested in yoga practice, and affiliated practices like Zen, to check out 21st Century Yoga. It’s a groundbreaking volume that hopefully will spur on more like it.
Nathan G. Thompson has been practicing yoga, primarily Iyengar-based, for more than a decade. He is also a long time member of Clouds in Water Zen Center, where he received the dharma name Tokugo (Devotion to Enlightenment) in 2008. He is the author of the spiritual and social justice blog Dangerous Harvests and the conscious relationship blog 21st Century Relationships. In addition, he has written articles for a variety of online and print publications, and has a regular column at the webzine Life as a Human. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Photo by: j / f / photos
By Nathan Thompson