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Why Yoga Really is All About the Body

in YD News, Yogitorials
"Balasana" oil on canvas courtesy Sebastian Alappat

“Balasana” oil on canvas courtesy Sebastian Alappat

by Charlotte Bell

Another Way of Looking at Body-Positive Yoga 

“It is through the body that everything comes to the mind. It is through and with your body that you have to reach realization of being a spark of divinity. How can we neglect the temple of the spirit?” — B.K.S. Iyengar, “Sparks of Divinity” (Rodmell Press, 2012)

This quote frequently shows up on Facebook and in various blogs. When I first read it many years ago I interpreted this way: It is through our practice of asana, at those times when we lose the struggle and become the asana, that we see into our true nature, the undefined spaciousness that connects us all. This still rings true for me. Asana, if we practice with complete commitment to being fully in each moment, can offer a glimpse into the the free and settled mind that is intrinsic to all of us.

I’m reminded of all this because of the many recent blogs both extolling and excoriating modern yoga as a body-centered practice. Asana is a body-centered practice, but it has nothing to do with the age, weight, flexibility or general appearance of the bodies we bring to practice.

The body-positive yoga conversation is an important one. I’ve enjoyed watching it unfold, and I’ve added my two cents to it. It is important that no one feel excluded from practice because of his/her age, weight, body type, injuries, genetics, flexibility or inflexibility, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. As I wrote in my body-positive piece, anyone in a body who practices yoga is living in a “yoga body.”

It’s a positive development that the larger yoga community is starting to question the popular images of Yoga as the domain of young, white, thin, bendy, fashionable women. The reduction of popular yoga to Madison Avenue-friendly images has only served to reinforce our already ingrained cultural neuroses about physical appearance, the completely arbitrary guidelines as to what is or is not officially attractive that have caused so much suffering for so many people. Isn’t the purpose of Yoga practice to free us from the ideas and beliefs that imprison us?

Important as it is, I sometimes wonder if the body-positive conversation is still not quite connecting with the deeper relationship between yoga practice and our bodies. Despite all its positives, the body-positive conversation explores our relationship to the physical appearance of the body rather than our direct relationship to the experience of living inside our bodies.

Which brings me back to Iyengar’s quote, which can be understood not only as a philosophy about practice, but as a practice instruction. I also read the quote as a call to mindfulness. The first of what are called the “four foundations of mindfulness” is mindfulness of the body. Sometimes meditation practitioners misinterpret the body as being subservient to the mind. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that awareness of the body is the key to the freedom of the mind.

The body is not just a gross vehicle that transports our minds from one place to another. The body is the window to everything we experience—everything. We perceive the world around us through our bodies, through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Everything we encounter, whether or not we’re conscious of it—registers as a sensation in our bodies. If we are ever to be mindful, we must drop below the level of thinking about our experience to being directly present with our actual experience. In order to do this, we must direct our bare attention to our bodies.
Here’s another point: Our bodies are always in the present. They can not be otherwise. If you want to be present, tune into your body.

It Ain’t Easy

It’s incredibly simple, but I will never claim that it’s easy. Most of us have practiced thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, our entire lives. As anyone who has sat down to meditate knows, our minds are constantly flitting from one thought to another like the Buddha’s metaphor, a wild monkey leaping from tree to tree.

It’s mindfulness of the body that provides the anchor for awareness. We can tune into the sensations in our bodies and propel ourselves right back into the present, even when the thought tapes are running at full volume. When you notice you’re lost in thought, try this: Don’t try to banish the thoughts. Just let them be. Instead, redirect your awareness to your body. Then notice what happens to the mental drama that was so compelling just moments ago.

If You’ve Got a Body, You Can Be Present

Through our sense experiences, we connect directly to each moment. In each moment that we fully connect, we are temporarily free of the thoughts and beliefs that disconnect us from the measureless infinity that we are. All this because we live in these bodies. And the best thing about this is that we all have one; living in a body is not just for the privileged few. It doesn’t matter whether we’re old, young, small, large, healthy or unhealthy.

In his classic book, “Being Peace,” Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a body awareness meditation based on these phrases:

“Breathing in, I calm my body.
 Breathing out, I smile.
 Dwelling in the present moment. 
I know this is a wonderful moment.”

Here’s a link to more info about this wonderful practice.

Reflect on how fortunate you are to live in the body you inhabit. It carries you from one place to another. It gives you access to everything that is without and everything that is within—the beauty of this Earth, the pleasure of music and art, the practice of interpersonal relationships, the joy of a satisfying asana practice, the passing joys and sorrows that teach us about living in this world. And here’s the great thing: You can enjoy all the wonders your body gives you access to no matter what it looks like. Through the moment-to-moment experience of inhabiting your body, you might realize you are a spark of divinity.


Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.



9 comments… add one
  • “It is through the body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.” — BKS Iyengar
    That is SO brilliant. Thank you so much for posting this article.

  • “Important as it is, I sometimes wonder if the body-positive conversation is still not quite connecting with the deeper relationship between yoga practice and our bodies. Despite all its positives, the body-positive conversation explores our relationship to the physical appearance of the body rather than our direct relationship to the experience of living inside our bodies.”

    Agree 100%. Thanks for stating it so succinctly.

    • Thanks for your comment, Carol. I do feel that yoga culture hadn’t adopted the larger culture’s obsession over how our bodies look, the whole body-positive convo would be moot. It seems that in order for vast numbers of people to become attracted to yoga practice, its intention had to be changed to be in sync with our cultural neurosis about body image. This has completely shifted the way we practice because the intention to practice in order to free ourselves from our attachments to worldly acquisition and the intention to practice in order to accomplish fancy poses are basically 180 degrees apart.

  • Thank you for what is a constant reminder, as I urge those who resist yoga to participate, even for an hour of sitting and breathing – that IS yoga – though in our competitive society, no one would do it. I have a wonderful range of ages, sizes and diversity of all kinds.
    This conversation should continue.
    Thanks again,

  • Frank

    This is so confused. Iyengar made up so much stuff around yoga philosophy and grafted it on to the body, thereby confusing the vast lot of modern practitioners about the practice it is not funny- at all. The main issue around this approach, especially around someone like Iyengar who was not an enlightened being is that you can actually reinforce your energy in highly controlled and static ways, creating all sorts of weird psychological games in the guise of spirituality that you see in that ” tradition”. Really, if all you’ve done is asana and some pranayama you haven’t even entered into practice of yoga, let alone being able to pretend what it might mean. But then people go throwing Buddhist “mindfulness” into the mix and confuse themselves even further. Yogic meditation is very different form “mindfullness”. I’ve had my most powerful spiritual experiences including full blown kundalini episodes without a shred of asana or “mindfulness”. So much to this story, but really folks you got a lot more homework to do…

  • Thank you for this fantastic writing, description, thoughts, insight. Truly. Bless, Natalie

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