Embodied Knowledge of the Divine

“…It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine.”

-Aldous Huxley as quoted by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets, A History of Collective Joy


Although both Huxley and Ehrenreich are talking about ritual, collective dance in the quote above, it’s meaningful to me on an individual level as well. I feel most alive when full embodied…and most connected to the feeling of something greater than myself, something divine.

There are two concepts in the yoga philosophy this reminds me of.  One is Isvara pranidhaha. The other is asana.

Let’s start with Isvara pranidhana.

Isvara pranidhana (pronounced Ish-vara) translates as surrender to a higher power, or surrender to God. For the more secular among us,  I’ve also seen it translated as surrender to humanity.

Let me back up, because I don’t want to dive into a god convo without proper context. I’ll say it here at the get-go…there’s nothing dogmatic that follows. It’s just important to explore this yoga thing we practice together a bit deeper from time to time. After all, it’s got a much more significant history than the mindful calisthenics that many modern American practitioners know and love.

So…the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is our primary source to answer the question “What exactly is yoga?” and it’s where these philosophical concepts are explained. The Yoga Sutras is a collection of short, highly meaningful aphorisms that was written no later than 500 CE.  Yoga was being practiced before this, but Patanjali was the first to compile it all in one place.

sutra is a particular style of writing where the most possible meaning is packed into the least number of syllables. Many of the sutras require further explanation to understand. Translations you read may include traditional commentary or something in the New Age variety. People receive great benefit from both.

Out of respect for South Asian culture and the yoga practice, I try my best to understand the long-established tradition. In my own private contemplation, I apply these concepts in ways that make personal sense to me.

One thing I’ve always found so interesting about the Yoga Sutras, besides the philosophy, is that they’re written in a non-dogmatic way. Patanjali isn’t trying to convert the practitioner into any particular religion…one can choose their own understanding of “higher power” no problem. The Sutras don’t favor any particular idea of god. But they do say a yogi must surrender to one.

To be clear, one can practice yoga without going all-in. There’s no need to give up your yoga classes because you’re not into the Isvara pranidhana concept.

Besides, given a practitioner doesn’t have to choose a certain higher power, and expanding the idea of higher power to include humanity, there seems to be something in this that could resonate with just about everyone…whether you’re more inclined towards belief or towards more easily observable worldly phenomena.

Which brings me back to the quote…

“…It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine.”

100% agree.

I come to an understanding, a knowledge of the divine, in my body. Perhaps you do, too.

In moments where I’ve faced death, it’s the weight of that reality I feel in my body that connects me more with my own humanity, and with that of those suffering alongside me.

At weddings I’m brought to tears, a bodily reaction I often avoid but can’t quite control in the presence of expectant and delighted joy.

The soft and floppy body of a newborn baby in my arms makes me feel awe at the helplessness and need of the baby along with the dizzying recognition of a lifetime’s potential.

For me each of these moments are experiences of the divine. They comprise something bigger than myself, something so completely out of my control. In these moments I better understand Isvara pranidhana. I can’t help but surrender to the divine. And it’s actually a relief.

How do I do it? How do I surrender?

With my muscles, with my body. I shudder. I smile. I cry. I embrace. I relax.

All told, I feel. It’s not a thinking thing.

This is where the second concept, asana, comes in.

Asana means posture. Patanjali talks about eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga SutrasAsana is the third limb, the one about the body. Asana is what we practice most in class. We contract and soften our muscles as we move through practice to feel more and feel better; to become stronger, more flexible, and to relax. Asana prepares the body and mind to sit in meditation, the seventh limb of yoga. (I’ll go through the eight limbs for you another time.)

My mind gets so carried away that the easiest way back to the moment is through my body. And when I’m there, sometimes…sometimes I experience the Sutras’ surrender, or Huxley’s knowledge of the divine. Have you ever had a blissed out savasana? You know the feeling.

Pivotal life experiences and daily yoga practice—milestones and the mundane. Each, for me, pathways to embracing humanity. Others might put it another way–pathways to embracing God. Whatever works for your sensibilities.

I hope you’ll join me for an asana practice this week. An hour on Tuesday or 30 minutes on Friday.



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