The yoga that we practice here in North America has a fascinating and complex history and lineage. There are influences from different branches of Hindu religion, Buddhist philosophy, and the maligned wandering Hatha yogins that displayed extreme postures in the streets of India in the late 1800s.
As a result, we can get mixed messages about what it is we are doing in our yoga. For example, sometimes we get the lesson that the world we live in is an illusion, and that we do our yoga practices to separate ourselves from the ignorance we live in, to wake up from the larger dream. If we can still our minds, the theory goes, we will be free of the pain and distraction of being a human a complicated world.
These messages tap into the philosophies of Shankara, a thinker from the 8th century. For Shankara, the world we live in, including our bodies, is simply a manifestation of a great trick called Maya, the illusion. Reality, or God, is somewhere behind the veil. The emotions, joys, sorrows, and needs of the body anchor us to this illusion and prevent us from seeing God. Yoga is a practice to help us transcend the weaknesses of the body and find God on the other side.
For me, yoga has always been a practice that helped return me to my body. Rather than removing me from the world, it’s helped me manage whatever was happening in my life. I never had the urge to renounce the world and go live in a cave to meditate for many years (well, okay, sometimes I’ve had that urge).
The Tantric perspective, on the other hand, holds that everything that exists is Shakti, the essential form of the Goddess as energy. There is no veil to look through, and in fact the experiences of our bodies can give us immediate access to divine experience. Meditation teacher and author Sally Kempton writes:
“Physical and emotional pleasures can be doorways to the divine. Tantrikas believe that pleasure can be sacred. The taste of food, the moment of sexual touch, the transporting joy felt when hearing beautiful music, the blissful experience of losing ourselves in movement or in the sight of beauty—any of these can open us to the divine ecstasy at the heart of life.”
And it’s not just joy that can take us there, either. Kempton continues, “Even more radical and significant is the Tantric view that bliss and presence can be discovered in upheaval, in the play of destructive forces, in sorrow and in sickness—precisely because there is no place where Shakti is not.”
We live in a culture that has a difficult relationship with our bodies and emotions. We have a lot of practices—drinking, smoking, watching TV—hat help us to go numb. Being present isn’t always easy because it can mean sitting with discomfort or pain. But when you do, you come home to the brief and complex gift of having a body.
A simple way to practice this is to close your eyes and focus on your breath. Follow it in to find what you feel. It might be a pain in your lower back, a sense of anxiety, grief in your heart, or anticipation for seeing your lover. Focus on the feeling, knowing that the sensation itself is energy, is Shakti. Don’t judge it, analyze it, try to fix it, or make it go away. Let it anchor you to your body. Let it bring you home.