In a society obsessed with youth and good looks, women and men put a lot of money into equipment, club memberships, outfits and shoes, trainers, and spas, not to mention time and effort, in order to create beautiful bodies. Some critics dismiss it all as rampant consumerism. But could running, rowing, weightlifting, and popping supplements be valuable for something other than appearances? What if enthusiasm for health and fitness were part of your spiritual orientation?
Since ancient times, religious traditions have encouraged its adherents to take care of and strengthen the body in preparation for meditation and worship, or as the fulfillment of God's commandments. Even as basic a routine as bathing can have a spiritual dimension.
A story is told about Hillel, a renowned Jewish teacher who lived 2,000 years ago. One day, as he was taking leave of his disciples, they asked him, "Master, where are you going?" He replied, "To do a pious deed." They asked, "What might that be?" And he answered, "To take a bath." Because they were curious as to how something so seemingly mundane could be a pious deed, Hillel explained: "If the statues of the king must be kept clean by the person to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of a person to care for the body, since we have been created in God's image and likeness."
The idea of personal cleanliness having religious significance also appears in Islam. In Muslim countries, the hammam, the bathhouse, was traditionally built as a complementary part of the mosque to carry out the purifications demanded by the faith. Building, supporting, or merely frequenting a hammam was a mark of piety.
Although in the West our spas are not attached to houses of worship, we can still use them with spiritual intention. Consider doing the following. Before you meditate, pray, or interact with others, immerse yourself in water, steam, or heat as a conscious act not only to cleanse the body but also to wash away negative thoughts and feelings that might be polluting your mind and heart. Like Native Americans in a sweat lodge, we can make our sweating a sacred prelude to dealing with everything in creation with respect and kindness.
The scriptures of several traditions reflect the spiritual need to attend to the body. In Judaism, taking care of one's physical well-being is a religious obligation. Since life is a gift from God, neglect of one's health can even be a sin. A large proportion of the 613 commandments (the basic 10 are just a warm-up) have hygiene as their intention. The Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish traditions, contains all manner of instructions to prevent illness and regain health--everything from "wash your face, hands, and feet daily in honor of your Maker" and "drink plenty of water with your meals" to exercise, fresh air and sunshine, special diets, herbs and potions, a change of environment, and avoidance of excitement and worry. As the Alexandrian philosopher Philo commented: "Is not the body the soul's house? Then why should we not take care of the house that it fall not into ruins?"
Emphasis on bodily health as part of spiritual health is a time-honored practice in India as well. Hatha yoga originated to develop optimal physical conditioning for those who wanted to deepen spiritual attainment. The postures and breathing techniques serve to ease muscle strain and promote strength and vitality. In turn, this level of physical wellness also helps to revitalize mental capacities and balance emotions. A strong, healthy body enables yogis to sit in meditative stillness for long periods of time. Those who practice hatha yoga with this purpose are not looking for slim hips and waistlines to show off in leotards, but for robust muscles, nerves, bones, lungs, etc., on which they can rely during their spiritual journey.
The Buddha also encouraged his disciples to look after the body, for without it there is no dharma practice. But his reasoning was different from that of the Abrahamic religions. As a non-theistic philosophy, Buddhism doesn't subscribe to a Divine Creator as the source for the human body. However, the Buddha understood that birth in a human body offers an incomparable opportunity for spiritual evolution. As Tibetan lama Yeshe Thubten has said, we can move "from an ordinary, limited, and deluded person trapped within the shell of a petty ego into a fully evolved, totally conscious being of unlimited compassion and insight." According to Buddhist thinking, the odds of gaining a human rebirth with its freedoms and advantages for spiritual practice are even greater than a blind turtle coming up from the depths of the ocean only once every hundred years to put its head by chance through the opening of a wooden yoke tossed around by huge waves on the surface! So the choices we make as to how we handle the body will result in either wasting this great treasure or taking advantage of it.
To make sure that his disciples availed themselves well, the Buddha set up a code of disciplinary guidelines for monks and nuns who wanted to work toward enlightenment. Like the Talmud, the Vinaya includes detailed instructions regarding bathing, sleeping, eating, and other attentions to the body for the purpose of maintaining health, avoiding disease, and regaining health after sickness. Through his own experience, the Buddha learned that bodily extremes hinder the ability to meditate. As a prince, he found that excesses of rich foods and other sensual pleasures didn't elevate him spiritually. Then, as an itinerant ascetic, he never bathed, he let his hair grow long and matted, and refused food and drink to the point of near starvation. The result was that he became weak, frail, and unkempt rather than enlightened
To prevent such obstacles among his followers and to help them on their quest, he not only laid down rules of body care but also taught them a variety of practices. Full-body prostrations developed a strong body. Walking meditation promoted stamina for long journeys and sitting meditation, activated proper digestion, and cultivated concentration.
With these benefits in mind, try an experiment. After you walk for exercise, take some time to meditate and see what effect the walking has on your ability to sit quietly and concentrate.
In China, movement meditations and martial arts originated out of situations similar to those in India. The roots of such practices as Chi Kung and T'ai chi are steeped in legend.Some say that Taoist monks evolved these practices as early as the fifth century B.C.E. to integrate physical exercise appropriate to their meditation and simple existence. They started by imitating animal and bird gestures. Other stories focus on the role of Bodhidharma, who came from South China around 600 C.E. to the Buddhist Shao-lin Monastery and taught the monks martial exercises so they could strengthen themselves to withstand the rigors of meditation.
Today, most of us are not dependent on walking a long way to get our food and water, nor do we spend 18 hours a day engaged in intense meditation. But we can use the examples set by these ancient traditions as a way to orient our fitness regimens. Exercising regularly, eating well, and bathing to be healthy, vigorous, and resilient, as well as to reduce stress, can be unexpectedly vital to our spiritual endeavors. If you consider your body a precious gift--whether from the Great Spirit, the Goddess, God, the Tao, or the Dharma--you might find that climbing the Stairmaster or cooking a meal can be an act of deep gratitude and part of your spiritual discipline rather than a chore.