Is it possible to have a solely physical practice?
You're working too hard - you wake up with a stiff neck. You have a big assignment due - your stomach aches. Your relationship's in crisis - your back goes out. We have all had these experiences. We know there is a connection between our emotional state and our physical one, but most of us don't acknowledge how deep that connection goes.
You may realize that if you go for a run or do any exercise that you feel an emotional shift, but if you want to get into the body, mind, spirit connection, there is no more direct, affective, and lasting way than the Ashtanga Yoga practice. In the Ashtanga practice we use a three pointed focus which yokes our body, mind, and spirit. First we listen to our breathing. The breathing we use is called Ujjayi Pranayama and it has a sound. Our mind stays focused on observing this sound as the breath creates an internal heat, purifying the blood and releasing toxins. Secondly, we focus our eyes on one point. This soft gaze is called drishti. It has numerous benefits for circulation, eye strength and for focusing the mind. Finally we have the actual pose or asana. This shape is supported through use of certain bandhas or locks within the body which redirect our energy upward creating lightness, clarity, and presence. It is impossible to drift away if you are using all three focus points correctly.
The primarily reason the Ashtanga Yoga practice is so affective at connecting mind, body, and spirit is the breathing. The soul and the breath are intimately connected. We express our thoughts and feelings through words which ride on breath. When the breath is "in tune" the right words come out without hesitation, tone is perfectly matched to meaning, and we are heard and understood. When breath is "off" we hear our words coming out and they don't sound right even to us. There is an element of falsehood in what we say and misunderstandings are common.
The problem is, most of us are cut off from our breath. We work in fields requiring the use of our heads, necks and arms, and we use little of our lower bodies. We live in cultures where displays of emotion are not accepted and so we swallow down vibrations and hold our breath causing internal stress which manifests in illness and violent outbursts. With regular yoga practice we begin to breath fully again. When the breath is moving more freely, we start to notice the places it is particularly stuck. Then, using mindfulness we go into those places and create space. As tension is released, and space is created we feel the sensation of the whole shape of our being and an ownership of that form. There is a continuity from the bottom of our feet to the top of our skull and a growing ability to allow emotion or vibration (as I prefer to call it) to run through, rather than get caught inside creating stress, tension and illness.
When you inhabit your form, you become a channel for energy to pass through. You hear others and are heard by others. You unite mind, body, and spirit. When these are united, things like being in the right place at the right time and knowing something you could not possibly have known begin to happen with frequency. You are clear. You are present. You are powerful.
Trying to bipass the body is as futile as expecting to work on the body without affecting the spirit. In this existence we are in physical form. If the body is uncomfortable, weak, or ill, it is silly to ask the mind to be still and calm. How can it? That is why we take up the practice. It may appear solely physical from the outside but there is a whole internal process occurring that is sometimes unknown even to the practitioner. On the flip side, many people fear a practice that goes beyond the physical. They come into the yoga shala very sure about it only being exercise for them. This too is silly. Of course the practice is going to affect you. No one is saying you will become Buddhist or even vegetarian, but you will be affected, in time, and in the right amount for YOU
So, no, there is no such thing as a purely physical practice, because there is no such thing as a purely physical you. Through the act of breathing you are already connecting to your spirit. You can't escape it, so you might as well embrace it and enhance it through correct practice. With the guidance of a teacher and a slow and steady approach which employs all three focal points, you will discover it is easier to let go then to hold on, and you will fortify the connection that is already there: body, mind and spirit.