“Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.”
Henry David Thoreau
It seems that human beings have spent a lot of time and energy perfecting the “habitat” of the body, cushioning it from all sides with material well-being and comforts. Yet the body itself has been overlooked to such a degree that in spite of increased external comfort, the body seems to be nowadays less comfortable than ever before in the history of man.
If it is true for all things that what is added on one side is chipped off from the other, then it must be that the more the body is cushioned, the more it is robbed of its own native power and resources. Thus, in spite of added security in the outward world, the body itself has become less secure.
Together with this diminished bodily security, having been robbed of its power and resources, it seems to have lost that beauty and grace that is natural in tribal people. This does not mean to say that we have to go back to primitive living conditions. Rather, it may be the right time, now that we have acquired a certain amount of material and habitational security, to turn our eyes back to the primal habitat of the human being, that is, his own body, in which he lives and acts from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
What is the source of our anxiety over bodily security? Looking at ourselves in daily life we can easily see how we have become totally dependent on the “experts,” in whichever form or field. For everything that goes “wrong” in our life, we seek the aid of somebody, or something, else to solve the problem. Thus, gradually, we let ourselves be robbed of that most precious of human resources, creativity, which permeates the totality of us, from the simplest cells of our body to the deepest core of our being.
We all know that, when there is a cut in the flesh, the cells of the body immediately “know” what to do. Given the right conditions, which are to keep the cut clean and the body rested, the cells will busily start to repair the damage and in no time the body will be again as good as new. The key to this bodily restoration work is to surround the body with the right conditions – rest and cleanliness. The body is a self-healing organism: this is the creativity of the cells, the innate intelligence of the body which can deal with most problems that occur on a daily basis.
This creativity is not confined to the body alone. In final analysis, the body itself is the result of creative activity on another level. Day in day out, we build the body to conform to our thoughts and emotions, from the most superficial to the most profound. Each thought, each emotion, is etched on our face, in our body, till these become the book from which others can read us, if they wish.
Not only have we become heavily dependent for our bodily security on the “experts.” In our mental and emotional life as well, we no longer trust our own innate intelligence and creative powers. In other words, we seem to have lost the strength to fully assume our place in this world, standing joyfully alone, face to face with the world. Religions, philosophies and gurus have proliferated to an astounding degree. They teach us how to live in the world, they give us a rule, a measure, by which we are to measure ourselves in relation to the world, and if we fall short of the rule, short of the measure, we are called to account.
We are no longer encouraged to live creatively, using as a measure the world itself and our own relation to it. Our link to the world is bent and looped through a church, a sect, a philosophical concept, to then be re-attached to the world itself, and we look at the world through this loop, and are therefore no longer capable of seeing directly what there is all around us.
Where does yoga and art fit into this? Both yoga and art aim at the same thing, that is, to re-establish our personal connection with the world around us according to our own inner creativity. To render body and mind a conduit through which the creative energy can flow freely, unimpeded by outer restrictions, in the trust that this energy, being part of the universal energy, is ultimately “pure” and joyful.
“Purity” does not meant prudishness, but implies a sense of innocence. The word “innocence” comes from Latin and means “not-harmful.” This is also the first concept in the ancient yoga texts: ahimsa, or nonviolence, non-harmfulness.
True artists, as well as true yogis, have their being in this innocence and joyfulness, which come from standing alone in the world, looking at it with eyes which are empty of rules and measures, and reflecting this innocence and joy in body, mind and emotions. This is the stamp of really great artists. And, in ultimate analysis, each one of us is an artist. The work of art that we create is our own life, our body, our mind, to render it beautiful, graceful, and above all, free. Or, out of fear or timidity, yield to the overwhelming need for security and thus sell our aloneness for the safety of company, whether this is physical or mental.
As such, the path of yoga, if followed in all earnestness, is the same as the path that the artist has to follow. In yoga, each asana is a small work of art, and, like music and dance, it is ephemeral, a small ripple in the vastness of the world, like leaves dancing in the wind, before they fall. Nothing is left but the memory of joy, of a body moving in freedom, alone, with only the Earth and the Sky as witnesses. And yet, something has changed, some perfume lingers in the air, and maybe, some day, that will affect another human being. Someone else may recognize the call, and risking all, may follow it toward freedom.
This freedom is, however, not what most people think. For most people freedom means to throw all restrictions to the wind, to pursue the path of pleasure. This is not what freedom in art or yoga means. Freedom means to pursue perfection for its own sake, without expecting any recompense for it.
Perfection, beauty and grace have their own rules, which have to be obeyed, but this obeying should be done for its own sake, only then will it turn into freedom. Thus the artist and the yogi, scorning recognition from society, will pursue the only worthwhile recompense: the knowledge of having laid their highest creativity on the altar of perfection, with the only aim of serving that same perfection.
To reach this perfection, however, the artist, the yogi, the human being, has to go, like in all good fairy tales, through fire, water, earth and air, before the Universe will open its gates. He has to be purified by the elements, but, like in the fairy tales, these elements are real, not imaginary, not mental. It is not enough to go through some process mentally – the body has to be transformed too. The mundane, ordinary human being has to become a prince in order to be able to claim the princess at the end of the tale. For this, there needs to be a total transformation, involving body, mind and heart.
Fireand Water represent the passions and the unconscious thoughts and emotions, which stand in the way of this transformation. Each of these elements has a positive and a negative side, and the real art is to convert them from negative to positive. Where human passions are often violent and at the service of the ego, passion in itself is a necessary ingredient for the yogi artist, because without passion there is no power. Fire is the driving force that underlies action, but where, in mundane life, fire underlies ambition to achieve something in the world, in art it is the driving force to search for perfection. Without passion there would be no search.
Similarly, Water symbolizes that part of us with which we do not deal on a daily level, but which nevertheless conditions all our life, from the simplest physical actions to our deepest thoughts and feelings. This part has to be brought to the surface, so that we can look at it, and deal with it directly. This can be an extremely painful process – which human being does not have a closet full of skeletons? Yet, without dealing with this part of himself, the yogi artist cannot proceed on his path, and will be caught forever in the maze of his own making.
Luckily, instead of dealing with each unconscious thought or feeling separately – something that would take years – one can go directly to the root. This root feeling, that underlies all human thoughts, feelings and acts, is a real sense of alienation, an unbearable longing for “home.” As we do not recognize this, or do not want to deal with it directly, we express this longing in many different ways, from broken marriages and friendships, to a desperate grasping after money, position, power, and violence, even to madness and suicide. Not until we consciously recognize this sense of alienation and longing can we embark on the path of yoga, or art.
Like in the fairy tales, at the end of the road there is the princess, but she has to be won, not conquered. And she can only be won after a journey of transformation. This is the ultimate message of the element of Water.
Once the yogi artist has kindled that passion and recognized that he needs to go “home,” he encounters the next element, Earth. Part of the alienation that human beings feel lies in the fact that we have placed ourselves outside nature, so to speak. We have split the world into nature and us, the Earth and us, thus placing ourselves outside and above all other creatures and things that the Earth has produced, even placing ourselves above the Earth itself.
This, in final analysis, cannot be. Like all other creatures that crawl, walk, swim, and fly on the Earth, we are a product of the Earth. We are all children of the same mother. All that we are and have belongs to the Earth, to nature.
The yogi artist has to, first and foremost, seek to regain his place in nature. Foregoing all philosophies and theories that tempt him to consider himself removed from the Earth, he has to place his body here again, reconnecting his energy to that of the Earth. Whether it is in dance, music, or yoga, our energy, once it is reconnected to the energy of the Earth, draws its power from the Earth.
Where the hands reach out on a horizontal level to grasp the things of the world, the feet are rooted in the Earth and draw power vertically up through the soles. Once that connecting link is established, that power is stored in the center of gravity, the hara, in the lower abdomen, at the height of the sacred bone, the sacrum. This center of gravity is the true center of humility, the midpoint between Earth and Sky, where the energies of the Earth and Sky meet.
Humility and being humble are not the same thing. All religions, all philosophies, all gurus advocate that one has to “be humble,” without realizing that the very fact that one “is humble” is a grotesque form of arrogance. It is another form of being “something,” a more cunning way of wanting to be recognized as separate, unique, special.
True humility is that moment in time and space when the yogi artist, having re-established his connecting link to the Earth and recognizing himself as an integral part of nature, joyfully re-aligns the spinal column on the vertical line of energy. The sagging or bragging posture is abandoned, and the body lifts up with the energy flowing in through its roots, the soles of the feet.
At the same time that the body lifts up, the eyes are also lifted from an inward gaze to an outward one. For the first time the yogi artist begins to see the world, not as something alien, different, separate, but as part of himself. Or rather, he sees himself as a child of the world, with all the rights and all the duties that any child has towards its mother.
It is only when the yogi artist has thus taken his rightful place in nature, and has aligned the spinal column on the energy flowing upwards from the earth, that he can proceed to the fourth purification, that of the element of Air. This is the moment when, instead of abandoning the body like many religions advocate, the yogi artist has to start transforming the gross physical body into a body of air, a Body of Light. As the feet have again made contact with the energy of the Earth, the rest of the body should again make contact with the surrounding energies.
The skin, which over the years has become a formidable barrier, has to lose its hard edge. Instead of keeping the internal energy locked up inside and the external energy locked out, the skin has to again become a membrane which allows free exchange between those inner and outer energies. The more the skin becomes, as it were, transparent, the more there can be an intermingling between the inner and outer energies as the inner energy, locked within the tightness of the skin, can expand and flow out freely into the space surrounding the physical body.
As this energy is allowed to expand, it will loosen the very atoms of the physical body, until the whole body feels as if it is expanding. Thus, gradually, the body will lose its sense of separation from the surrounding space, as the dividing edge between body and space is dissolved, and the body is transformed into a body of air, of energy, of Light.
At this point the yogi artist is ready to open the last gate, the one at the top of the head, at the very end of the spinal column. This opening is called the fontanel, or little fountain. It is the gate that, in upright human beings, points straight up to the sky; a lens through which the human being looks up at the rest of the Universe. It is through this lens that the yogi artist finally realizes that he is not only a child of the Earth, but, in final analysis, a child of the Universe itself, and thus takes his rightful place in this vaster “home.”
Having taken his rightful place in nature, and having kindled the internal energy and re-connected it to the Earth, the Sky, and the four cardinal directions, he now arrives at the most important point. That is, he now has to find out what his role is in this vast Universe.
Each human being has, as it were, pre-programmed on some kind of psychic DNA, a particular task, a particular talent, a particular destiny. Kindling the energy itself has no great significance, unless it is connected to the fulfilment of this destiny.
What is this destiny? It is a particular talent, a particular bent for something. For one person it may be painting, for another it may be music, for another yoga. If this particular talent is not recognized, or worse, not taken into consideration, the person will spend all his life in activities that have nothing to do with his deepest core. His whole life will remain out of alignment.
To bring one’s life in alignment with the Universe means that we have to recognize and respect that particular bent or talent, and employ all the energy that we have previously kindled towards the fulfilment of this talent.
The ultimate task of fulfilling one’s potential, and travelling one’s own unique path, is something that is each person’s individual responsibility.