A few months ago I was having a conversation about the difference between some forms of Western Spirituality and Eastern Spirituality, and why some Westerners are so attracted to forms of Eastern Spirituality. In the end, we reached the conclusion that it might be due to some forms of Eastern Spirituality focusing on being present in the body and most forms of Western Spirituality essentially viewing the body as an evil necessity before you move onto the afterlife.
This then tied into some thoughts I had about yoga, and then some more thoughts I had when my yoga instructor told the class to be and feel heavy, to let our weight sink into the floor, and to let our legs and feet support us, not our shoulders or neck. The mindfullness meditation that I do from time to time, also focuses on being in the body, on being present in the moment, and focusing on the breath, on the sensations of sitting or lying still for a period.
This blog post, which I will attempt to selectively quote from, pretty much sums up my experience of Christian teachings (Catholic for the most part) in relation to the body versus the soul:
Many of the early church Fathers were educated in Greek philosophy or came under its influence. The result was an amalgamation of Christian theology with Greek philosophy.
The theology of the early Middle Ages was dominated by the towering figure of Augustine of Hippo, who completed the fusion of the Pauline emphasis of sin and grace through faith with a Neoplatonic view of man that stressed the imprisonment of the soul in the body. This dualism led to an increasing asceticism in the life of the medieval church, which meant an attitude of indifference or even outright hostility toward the body. The official theology of the church concentrated on getting the soul of the believer into heaven, through the Sacraments, or at least on saving it from hell, as the doctrine of purgatory developed. —James N. Lapsley, Salvation and Health, p.39.
Coming down to the medieval period, Lapsley continues:
If the health of the body was not forgotten, it was once again generally relegated to the status of a matter of relative indifference, which might as well be sacrificed to gain eternal bliss. This was the situation that obtained as Martin Luther grew toward manhood at the turn of the sixteenth century. —Ibid., p.41.
The medieval church did not understand what the New Testament meant by “flesh” and “spirit.” In real Greek fashion she understood these terms to designate two parts of man — the higher and lower natures. Since things like body, work, eating and sexuality belonged to the “flesh,” they were regarded as inferior functions, if not tainted with evil. On the other hand, prayers, fasting, celibacy and religious tasks were regarded as “spiritual” and therefore superior, if not meritorious.
Or a concept of “soul-salvation” which is not a “whole-salvation” can lead people to think that since God is not very concerned with the body, neither should they be too concerned about how they treat the body. It is amazing how many Christians think that they display their spirituality by neglecting the body. If they hasten a coronary by bad living habits, they think that this will be a good testimony of their dedication to the Lord’s work.
It makes sense then that those people attracted to religions and forms of spirituality that focus on being present in your own body, treating it well, and stepping gently on the world around you, are not going to be attracted to Christianity necessarily. It makes sense that people who want to look after themselves, their environment, and their planet are attracted to forms of belief, exercise and spirituality that support those things.
This is, in part, why I do yoga as a form of exercise. It’s one that recognises my body, my journey through life, my ability, and is patient with where I am at today. I am not after the spiritual aspects of yoga, but being a form of meditation and exercise that developed from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophy, it is differently grounded to the philosophies that I grew up with. When I did ballet as a child, we were not taught to move with our breath, to ground ourselves and be connected to the ground we stood on, and we were not taught how to breathe properly (being a singer helped there). Instead we were taught to be as light as air (which is funny in retrospect), to glide, gracefully above the earth as if we were not made from it. Fencing, my preferred form of competitive sport, is again a sport about being light, and nimble – and one not designed so well for women, but that’s a different story.
To take up room, to be heavy, to be your body are radical notions in Western Christian philosophy where the body is seen as something that carries around the soul while you do enough good deeds to get into your deity’s good books before being allowed to be rewarded with heaven after you die.
Oh, and I chose the title of this blog, as one of the worst lines in the Bible – the need to sleep, to eat, to live are seen as a weakness versus things that actually need to be addressed.