The Symbolic Appeal of Hatha Yoga & the Problem of Symptom Substitution

How can one explain the ever-growing popularity of hatha yoga? What does it reveal about the zeitgeist that millions of people are seeking to bend, turn and twist themselves, like a pretzel, into a variety of odd positions?

There is the ostensible explanation offered by hatha yoga practitioners: holding certain yoga poses (asanas) is an effective way to relieve or prevent bodily aches and pains, to eliminate stress, to improve posture and balance, and to maintain good health. Furthermore, some practitioners contend that yoga benefits them spiritually. Maybe yoga offers these benefits, but people rarely pursue an activity for merely practical reasons. Hatha yoga, no doubt, has a certain symbolic appeal. What might it be?

Many people sense that they are psychologically stiff, inflexible and rigid. They suspect, quite rightly, that they are creatures of habit. Indeed, they see themselves as conditioned to certain cues, as is Pavlov’s dog. For example, whenever their friend brings up politics, they get upset, even though they vowed to stay calm. Furthermore, there are times when they suspect that their attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and ideologies — which, quite ironically, they usually fiercely defend — are the source of their imprisonment.

Now here is the curious thing: They picture their inner stiffness and inflexibility on the physical level! Thus they imagine that the cure for their psychological rigidity would be to become physically flexible. Of course, the whole thing is absurd, for physical flexibility doesn’t equate to psychologically flexibility. Indeed, one could be a very advanced hatha yogi and still be extremely rigid, psychologically speaking.

Apropos of the symbolic appeal of hatha yoga is its feminine quality, which would explain why it’s a good deal more popular with women than with men. Masculine reality subscribes to the reality of form, identity, law and structure. Feminine reality, by contrast, seeks a release from form, identity, law and structure. Needless to say, this is a feminine age, for a great many people no longer regard form as the route to true reality, but as an obstacle to reality. Rather than cleaving to values, ideals and principles, many people seek to “go with the flow,” i.e., do what’s expedient. It’s not surprising, then — that in an age when form, law and structure is regarded as nothing more than a limit — that flexibility is valorized.

Yoga practitioners imagine that the temporary release of the tensions endemic to their ego-driven sense of self, coupled with their newfound flexibility, allows them to attain a kind of feminine fluidity and formlessness. To attain true fluidity and formlessness is a significant spiritual accomplishment. It requires self-knowledge and self-overcoming. Performing hatha yoga offers no more than a symbolic enactment, on a physical level, of that attainment.

It is similarly the case that people experience conflicts and anxieties from being in the world and contending with other people. Yoga enthusiasts believe that practicing the asanas, coupled with meditation and breathing exercises, can help them to dissolve their ego, which they understand to be the source of their suffering. It is true that when one is breathing regularly that one can experience a sense of calmness, free from the incessant desires, anxieties and perturbations that derive from ego-consciousness. Alas, this state of calmness is transient, because it doesn’t derive from deep insight into the nature of ego-consciousness, but merely from a behavioral change induced by an alteration in breathing patterns, from shallow and irregular to deep and regular. Consequently, when they find themselves inevitably falling down, from their yoga high, into the Earth’s atmosphere, the reentry burns them out.

Outer Balance Cannot Improve Inner

Hatha yoga can improve a person’s physical balance and posture, and there is much to be said for that. But it cannot improve a person’s inner balance. We came to that conclusion in our essay on Philip Petite, the tightrope walker who walked from tower to tower of the World Trade Center. As the documentary film about him illustrated, he had an incredible sense of physical balance, but was emotionally unbalanced at the time. The same is true of many practitioners of hatha yoga: They are outwardly balanced, but emotionally unstable.

Indeed, they are not centered in God, the Self, or Eternity. They do not possess a moral and spiritual compass. For the most part, they are merely self-centered, which means that they lack the type of secure foundation and center that would allow them to face the stresses of the day with equanimity. Becoming a truly balanced person requires a journey inward. It requires a purgation of all that is false and empty. Seeking the physical balance that practicing yoga provides is useful in itself, but it is not a surrogate for what is needed most of all: inner balance.

Sweating Out the Impurities

A recent phenomenon is the popularity of “Hot Yoga,” which consists of a yoga class in which the temperature in the room is at least 100 degrees. Apparently, there is an effort here to lose weight by sweating, which is not very effective. After all, what is lost is merely water weight, which is quickly regained. Here, again, there is likely something symbolic at issue. Sweating, while engaging in the supposedly spiritual activity of yoga, has the symbolic appeal of sweating out one’s impurities. On this level of consciousness, one’s egotism is viewed as an impurity, as is evidenced by any fat on one’s body. One then seeks to become pure by sweating it out. Needless to say, one can sweat till one is completely dehydrated, but it will not rid one of the feelings of defilement that belong to an egotistical existence.

Symptom Substitution

As we have argued, we are enslaved by our attitudes, which derive from our outlook on life. Our attitudes find bodily expression as a system of tensions. Now here is the curious thing: to be who we are, we must hold ourselves in a certain way. If we do not maintain these tensions — unpleasant though they may be — we will experience a curious sense of not being ourselves, of having lost contact with some fundamental reality, or truth about life. The fact that we return to who we are, after seeking any physical change — from becoming more relaxed to losing weight — is not simply due to a lack of mindfulness, but to an attachment to who we are, as well as a fear of the uncanny, of losing touch with the familiar signposts of who reality, of entering into “…the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

In any case, the tensions that make us who we are reside in our face, stomach, arms — anywhere. They are usually subtle, but they can lead to all sorts of aches and pains and physical maladies. Of course, there is nothing controversial in our thesis. We might correctly surmise, for example, that if we are angry most of the time that it can cause everything from backaches to high blood pressure.

The problem with hatha yoga, as a form of relaxation therapy, is that its treatment is behavioral. It attempts to eliminate one’s stress, by means of a change of behavior, without seeking its real source, i.e., the underlying attitudes, sense of self and worldview that creates the stress. Thus hatha yoga leads to what Freud called “symptom substitution.” If, for example, we manage to cure our backache, a different malady will soon ensue. Only penetrating insight into the nature of selfhood can free us from suffering.

As a route to that, it might prove useful to seek to connect each tension in one’s body, subtle though it may be, as well as certain breathing irregularities, to particular thoughts. For example, one might connect a certain tension in one’s neck with one’s ex-spouse or a tension in one’s lower back whenever one thinks of the IRS. This way one can gain insight into the incarnate dimension of selfhood, as well as a deeper level of mindfulness.

Addendum: The Real Yoga

We have been critical of hatha yoga, but hatha yoga is far afield of the yoga to be found in the Bhagavad Gita, and as espoused by a tradition of profound Hindu philosophers, from Shankara to Vivekananda, up to the present.

On the other hand, the physical forms of yoga should not be dismissed. When seen as expressions of certain metaphysical truths, the asanas are profound indeed. Mircea Eliade, in his book, “Yoga, Freedom and Immortality,” (Princeton, 1969) contends that the headstand, for example, is a physical representation of a deep truth, one on which Plato would agree: The world is upside down, meaning that people value and pursue the wrong things, while ignoring that which has true value. Thus if one wishes to see the world aright, one must stand on one’s head. Thus when the metaphysical meaning of the asanas is deeply understood, they become a kind of full-bodied meditative prayer. Then they can become psychologically transformative.

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