Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/18/2012

Yielding to gravity and other natural forces

Arjuna Krishna and Chariot

Arjuna Krishna and Chariot

Yesterday I spent three hours in a workshop at the yoga center I belong to. Three hours of practice would be unusual for me under any circumstance, but this was an adventure in becoming aware of my inner strength, an awareness I seldom possess.

I have friends who can practice yoga only in a setting they can call “Christian” because, they say, the traditional concepts and language of yoga are practices from another religion, and one that is somehow idolatrous at that. What I have learned in practicing yoga over the years makes perfect sense to me physically and emotionally (that’s redundant) as well as mentally. I find nothing “religious” about it except that the practice gives me an awareness of myself and the world I’m in at any given moment that I have never been able to achieve another way.

Yesterday’s practice was to make us conscious of the third chakra. (Chakras are areas in the body from which certain functions—physical, mental, and emotional—emanate.) The third chakra is centered in the solar plexus. It relates to one’s personal power in relation to the world. The poses are meant to feel and experience the process of contracting into the body and then extending out to the world. The use of the word “power” is misleading because most of us carry a definition of the word that has to do with force or dominance. However, if my power comes from my awareness of my inner strength and is centered in relaxation and yielding to gravity and other natural forces, it gives me the ability to do what I need and want to do without interfering with anyone else’s power.

For a great many people, I think, the kind of “inner” experience that comes with my yoga practice—and, by extension, the meditation I have begun to do in my own bumbling way—seems like so much hocus-pocus.  None of what I hear, read, and attempt to practice in my classes seems like hocus-pocus to me because, I think, it is so rooted in bodily experience. I may be wrong. Notice I said, “I think.”

In his article “God Is in Your Head”: Neurotheology and Religious Belief,” Ryan McIlhenny, asserts that

“Mounting evidence in neuroscience and psychology requires the abandonment of many traditional ideas about the soul, free will, and immortality.” These various cognitive explorations, however, have barely scratched the surface of the brain’s spiritual frontier and have yet to evolve into a separate discipline. They have nonetheless reopened issues often relegated to the delusional or pathological (1).

I discovered McIlhenny’s article searching for work on Temporal Lobe Epilepsy because he uses as evidence the work of a TLE researcher I know of. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion—based on some rather wild claims the researcher makes and on my own seizure experience—that his work is bogus. I mention that only to demonstrate that there are probably as many opinions as there are researchers and practitioners about what happens in our bodies and brains (neurology) when we practice yoga or meditate, or involve ourselves in any other overtly “spiritual” or “religious” activity.

The question I posed obliquely at the outset is whether religious experience/practice/awareness is a self-possessed phenomenon or a phenomenon that extends us outward into the world around us. The view that spirituality is private is “bolstered by well-known religious injunctions, such as the advice to the yogi in the Bhagavad-Gita to seek solitude in the forest and Jesus’ advice to pray in one’s private room with the door shut. “ That kind of spirituality “is about encouraging awareness of immediacy; it catalyzes relational consciousness.” Public practice of spirituality (prayer or meditation) is likely to “encourage other kinds of motivation, for example reflections on the effect one is having on people nearby. It could lead to self-aggrandizement that obscures immediacy” (2).

Remembering that a little knowledge is a dangerous misleading thing, I continue to read and research other people’s ideas about spiritual/religious (whatever one might want to call it) experience. My continuing personal confusion hardly allows me to do otherwise. I have virtually no conscious “belief” in any religion, yet I experience some kind of “awareness of immediacy” that “catalyzes relational consciousness” often when I practice yoga. I have, it often seems, the same sort of experience when I attend the Eucharist at an Episcopal church (yes, it has to be Episcopal).

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

In my reading and research I often find writing that arrests my attention, not necessarily convincing me of anything, but giving me food for thought. Hays and Socha present such an idea. Their premise is that religious consciousness is innate in homo sapiens and is the result of thousands of years of evolution. It is part of the makeup of our brains.

I will remain agnostic about that idea, but I have to admit it is intriguing. Hays and Socha conclude that both “spiritual” activities such as meditation and “religious” activities such as attending the formal rites of one community of faith can bring about a deep state of consciousness and the

result of attaining this state of consciousness . . . is that in one way or another a person comes to understand themselves as a being transcending the boundaries of space and time. This is . . . the exclusively human process of constructing an absolute reality through spiritual awareness. The sacred element inherent in it seems crucial: this is the central value, the finest achievement of meaning, the goal of the search for significance (3).

They posit the result of this state of consciousness is

a set of cognitive motional constructs producing spiritual transformation—seemingly the process determined by those constructs. What these constructs share is that they provide resources for switching one’s awareness from the mundane to the sacred (whatever is meant by the latter) mode of living (4).

In the spirit of the danger of a little bit of learning, I will add to my own confusion (or certainty—you choose) a discussion of St. Augustine, the 4th-century Church Father. Erica Longfellow says that

Augustine described his experience of conversion as a journey into himself . . . in which he glimpsed the greatness of God as Truth in the remarkable reflexive capacity of his own memory. . .  God could not be understood by focusing the senses outside the self. . . The believer needed to look inward, at the infinite capacity of the human intellect and its implicit memory of truth. . . (5).

Cobra (with cat) Yielding to Gravity

Cobra (with cat) Yielding to Gravity

Longfellow’s understanding comes in part from theologian Phillip Carey, who says that for Augustine

God transcends memory, yet is not found outside it. For we seek him not as one unknown but as our very own life, our long-lost happiness…. Thus within the inner space of the self is located both the origin and goal of human life (6).

Perhaps my practice of yoga, my contraction into myself will eventually lead me to discover how to extend myself into the world around me—perhaps even to God. Not to religion or even spirituality, but to my “long-lost happiness.”
(1) McIlhenny, Ryan. “God Is In Your Head”: Neurotheology And Religious Belief.” American Theological Inquiry 3.2 (2010): 29-44. He quotes Paul Thagard. The Brain and the Meaning of Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2010, xii.
(2) Hay, David and Pawel M. Socha. “Spirituality as a Natural Phenomenon: Bringing Biological and Psychological Perspectives Together.” Zygon 40.3 (September 2005), 589-612.
(3) Hay and Socha, op. cit.
(4) Hay and Socha, op. cit.
(5) Longfellow, Erica. “Poetry, The Self, And Prayer.” Religion & Literature 42.3 (2010): 184-191.
(6) Longfellow, op. cit, quoting Cary, Philip. Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.


  1. Your comments encourage me to explore Yoga again.


  2. Do it! The best thing I’ve done for myself in fifteen years.



%d bloggers like this: