One night, I was sitting in front of the television, eating stir-fried broccoli and eggplant and watching a rerun of "Star Trek: Voyager" with my husband. I can honestly say that I never watched "Voyager" before I got married; in fact, up until about two years ago, I boasted that I'd never owned a television, a trait I thought a credit on my karmic report card. But for Lou, "Voyager" is a weekly ritual, and so I've made a point of adding it to my personal practice as well. In the episode we were watching, the Starship Voyager received a distress call from a sentient hologram on an abandoned space vessel--a computer-generated being who claimed that his entire crew had been wiped out by a mysterious virus. But when Voyager's rescue team--consisting of the Doctor (Voyager's own sentient hologram) and a part-Klingon, part-human woman named B'Elanna--arrived on the stranded ship, they began to suspect that the hologram that summoned them had actually killed the crew himself in a demented rage. Quivering with revulsion, the hologram informs B'Elanna that as an organic life form, she is disgusting. She oozes through the world shedding skin, leaving her oily secretions on everything she touches; she grinds up dead animals and plants, stuffing them into her body to survive; she is filthy, disease-prone, and decaying. Ultimately, she will die. How much better, he cries, to be a hologram--aseptic, disembodied, and pure! From the point of view of a long-time yogi, there was something eerily familiar about the hologram's rant. "From the crown of your heads to the soles of your feet, you are nothing more than bags of skin filled with blood, pus, and filth," the Buddha told a bevy of beautiful young women who were attempting to test his enlightenment by seducing him. To prove their scorn for the body, yogis in India practice ascetic rites that go back thousands of years: dangling small stones from their penises, holding one arm in the air for years at a stretch until it withers, meditating in pits of glowing coals.
It's hard to imagine the stone-from-the-penis trick being taught on the morning yoga show on Oprah's Oxygen channel. Fortunately for Western practitioners lured by the contemporary yoga boom, there's another current in the vast river of yoga: Tantric teachings, a radical and influential movement that emerged in both Hindu and Buddhist yoga around 1,000 C.D. Out of Tantra emerged the practice of hatha yoga, in which the physical body is used as a vehicle for enlightenment. Through our bones, blood, and flesh, we can touch the infinite. But even in hatha yoga, the body can easily get cast as the enemy. As we strive to fit our imperfect bodies into the shape of a perfect pose, we can find ourselves believing that the body somehow gets in the way of our yoga practice. "If it weren't for my hips," we say, "I could do that pose properly." "If my hamstrings weren't so tight, my forward bends would be better." This attitude can subtly carry over into the rest of our life. If it weren't for my job, we say, I'd have time for spiritual practice. If it weren't for my kids, I could go on a 10-day vipassana retreat. If it weren't for my "Star Trek"-addicted husband, I'd be spending my evenings meditating.
And yet if we don't do our spiritual practice in this body, in this life, where will we do it? What causes us suffering, ultimately, is not the fact that our bodies get sick, droop, wither, and die, or that our lives are filled with clang and bustle; it is our longing that things be otherwise. Heaps of unwashed towels, tight hamstrings, long commutes in fume-spewing autos, a crooked spine, children throwing up popcorn and jellybeans; these are not obstacles to spiritual awakening but fuel for it. Thus, we can use our practice to push away our bodies or we can use practice to open our hearts to the messy parts of our lives. Knowing their nature, we can cherish them. Many mornings, I practice yoga in the pale gold sun on our redwood deck, my mat littered with the needles that drop from a 70-foot deodar pine. Bending forward, arcing backward, I feel the joy of being a body--as fleeting and beautiful as the jewel-throated hummingbirds that dart through the fronds of my bottle-brush bush.
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