Some of us come to yoga in a quest to resolve problems with pain, to reduce stress, or to explore our fascination with the body. Others come as part of a spiritual journey, in a quest for greater meaning and personal transcendence. Still others come to yoga seeking emotional balance, freedom from negative emotions, and liberation from a karmic inheritance. Because yoga is a profound discipline, wherever we begin our journey, we eventually find ourselves addressing all these dimensions of healing: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
I was introduced to yoga in 1975 when I was a young professor of philosophy, through the renowned philosopher Mircea Eliade’s classic book, written in 1936, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Yoga, as Eliade described it, is the pathway to direct knowledge, or the ability to liberate ourselves from illusion. But if ultimate wisdom and the freedom it brings is the goal of yoga, why and how must we use the body to get there? What is it that we are looking for through bodily exploration, beyond greater strength, stability, focus, and alignment? And why can bodily self-awareness lead us to the truth with a big capital “T”? The challenges I faced in my own life led me to explore those questions. The answers to those questions all revolve around one thing: the body is the seat of what is unconscious ourselves. What lies beyond consciousness includes both our restrictions and limitations (all the forms that ego takes), and our higher self. The path into the body brings what is unconscious to light in order to let go of what binds us and become free.
My own life took me out of a purely intellectual journey as a philosopher and into intensive somatic self-exploration. In 1976 I began to suffer from severe chronic pain. No amount of hospitalization or conventional medical care helped me. Over the years I came to realize that my dis-ease was the result of a combination of factors: on the physical level, scoliosis and a tight ligamentous structure; on the mental level, a hard-driving, self-critical type A personality; and on the karmic level, buried emotional conflicts dating to infancy and before. I was tied up in knots, and it was my body, not my mind, that was showing me that.
I spent years studying meditation with an Indian spiritual teacher, all of which helped. Then I discovered the Alexander Technique in the late 1980s and its study opened the door to a complete change in understanding of who we are and how to heal. The Alexander Technique is a specific approach to learning how to identify and release unconscious physiological tension. While this tension is physical, it affects every aspect of our being: our thought processes, emotional reactions, and so on. You can’t change those thought processes or emotional reactions more than marginally through mental analysis or psychotherapy, because ultimately the body rules the mind. FM Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, showed that all of us carry excess physiological tension all the time, and demonstrated that this unconscious tension underlies physical disease, as well as mental and emotional stress. He developed ingenious methods for helping people identify, observe, and release this tension. The consequence of putting your primary attention on noticing, feeling,and releasing physiological tension is that life as a whole becomes increasingly effortless, the mind becomes more peaceful, perception becomes more accurate, health improves, and it becomes easier to stay detached in the face of life’s bumps.Does this sound like yoga? It is. It’s not the same as yoga, but it shares a lot of yoga’s ultimate aims. It just uses different tools, a different terminology, and comes from a different culture.
The path into the subtle body in yoga is the path into more and more refined sensation and perception. It’s a path toward effortlessness. We move from the grosser to the subtler sensations and perceptions. As we learn to do this, we are increasingly able to release negative karmic issues, tied to heavier and grosser sensations (being more tamasic or rajasic), and move toward lighter, more expansive and sattvic states. This process of refinement can only happen if we make effortlessness—softening and letting go—more important than achieving, being right, or any other ego issue. The deeper we move into refined physiological sensation, the more we let go of outer compulsions and reactions. The commitment to the exploration of lighter and lighter states of being is a very important aspect of higher yogic practice. This is a process of ever subtler physiological awareness.
The quest for effortlessness, with everything it implies, both mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, has been a guiding force in my understanding, study, and teaching of both the Alexander Technique, craniosacral therapy (which I have practiced and taught internationally since 1994), and yoga. It has also been the focus of my three books on self-healing: The Art of Effortless Living, Effortless Pain Relief, and Fear-Less Now.
The practice of yoga extends far beyond our workout on the mat, in which most of our attention is on strengthening, stabilizing,and expanding the body. As yogis, we all seek to release our own samskaras (grosser physical, spiritual, and emotional restrictions) and become more attuned to our more refined, sattvic selves. And this is a process that takes place every moment of every day. The conscious pursuit of physiological effortlessness, which is identical with deepening peace, can be a great adjunct to the yogi’s journey, and can help deepen one’s understanding of the core meaning of ancient yogic practices.