Many people in the yoga world these days seem to be confused about desire and its relationship to spirituality. A lot of yogis are under the impression that the more you desire, the less spiritual you are, and the more you grow spiritually, the less you’ll desire. According to this logic, sincere yogis should strive to detach themselves from all desires and one day get to the point where they want nothing at all. But do the teachings of yoga really suggest that all desire comes from our “lower nature” or that all our urges must be written off as nonspiritual? Is desire, in the context of spirituality, at best the equivalent of a dog chasing its tail, and at worst, a pathway to spiritual bankruptcy?
To get some clarity on this issue, it may help to ask yourself why you began yoga in the first place. The answer, of course, is desire: You wanted something. Maybe you wanted to get rid of a nagging pain in your lower back or loosen your chronically tight shoulders; maybe a health care professional suggested you do yoga to help you slow down and de-stress.
Perhaps you were seeking to ease some emotional pain or heartache; perhaps you hoped to find more equanimity so you’d be less likely to snap at your children or an annoying coworker. Maybe you even longed for more internal silence so you could hear the quiet voice of intuition and conscience.
More than 2000 years ago the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most beloved and elegant Indian sacred texts, recognized that there were four major reasons that people sought out yoga. From lowest to highest, the Gita ranked these into four categories: the desire to reduce pain, the desire to feel better, the desire to gain power (internal and external) over our lives, and finally, the desire to achieve spiritual discrimination.
Clearly, the Gita implies that desire and the spiritual life are not mutually exclusive. In fact, aspiration is always a necessary step before you can realize a better pose, a better breath, a better you.
Consider the legacies left by Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, none of whom could be called unimpassioned. Each demonstrated how an individual can better the world simply through the power of aspiration and will. All noble acts—and all works of art, both great and not so great—arise out of a deep and sometimes powerful urge. Throughout history, many highly spiritually realized men and women have left keen evidence that a close relationship to God makes one anything but passive and unproductive.
In nature desire is all-pervasive. Note the zeal of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, the growth of giant redwoods reaching for sunlight, the drive of birds migrating thousands of miles.
Below the level of our perception, the material plane is entirely based on molecular and subatomic attraction and repulsion. Desire is the motivating force that endows all beings with the gift of life. After all, neither you nor I would be here if it weren’t for the desire of our parents and the attraction between one egg and one sperm.
The Dharma of Desire
In part, the current widespread disdain toward desire among yogis may come from a somewhat unbalanced focus on certain classical teachings. For example, Patanjali, the revered father of classical yoga, made it clear that ragas and dveshas (likes and dislikes) are two of the five kleshas (the fundamental restrictions that cause suffering) and are born from avidya (ignorance or misapprehension of our true nature). And the fourth patriarch of Zen neatly summed up today’s prevailing attitudes toward desire and spirituality: “The Great Way is easy for those who have no preferences.” But a deeper look into the classical teachings reveals a sophisticated and nuanced approach to understanding desire.
According to the Vedas—the source of yoga science and philosophy, as well as an inspiration for Buddhist teachings—desire is so inextricably interwoven with who you are that if aspiration were ever to completely end, so would your life. Vedic wisdom says that Atman (Soul or Self) has two aspects. On the one hand, it needs or wants nothing and is a constant emanation and revelation of the Absolute; it is inseparable from and equivalent to the source of everything. But this paramatman (supreme soul) describes only half of the story.
Soul also has a second aspect called the jivamatman (individual soul). Jivamatman is your karmic blueprint, containing your precise and particular blend of spirit and matter (spirit’s version of no two thumbprints being exactly alike).
Jiva determines the time and place of your birth, as well as the parents that best allow you to further your evolution so you can play out your role in the infinite web of divine will. The jivamatman dictates your singular strengths and weaknesses, and, at the deepest levels, your aspirations or desires. The jiva is the seed of your Dharma (purpose), of who you are meant to be. Just as a cucumber seed’s Dharma is to be a cucumber plant, every one of us has our own Dharma or destiny, a calling to fully bloom as a unique expression of the Divine.
The point is that aspiration is no more separate from your soul or essence than wet is from water. Although it’s true that a part of you remains permanently fulfilled and content, needing or wanting nothing, another part, just as significant, is by its nature striving. It is essential to embrace both these parts of Self equally. One is not higher than the other. They are just different expressions of the playfulness of the one presence that pervades the universe: the dance of dynamic and static, of seen and seer, of Shakti (limitless creative power) and Shiva (the static source of everything).
The Vedas teach that there are four types of desires: artha, kama, dharma, and moksha. Artha refers to the desire for material comfort. We all require shelter and security (money, in our culture) to have the freedom to pursue our other needs. Kama refers to pleasure: sensory gratification, comfort, and sensual intimacy. Dharma, as stated earlier, refers to our purpose—the answer we arrive at by asking, “What am I here to do?”
Finally, moksha means spiritual liberation, or freedom. This is the desire that underlies all others, the desire to directly know your source. In order to achieve its unique destiny, the individual soul whispers to us all the time through the spontaneous pull of these four kinds of desires.
Desires Are Not Created Equal
If it’s true that you need not necessarily give up the lease on your BMW, become celibate, and banish all your desires to grow spiritually, why do teachings throughout the yoga tradition insistently caution students to be so circumspect about desire? Because not all desires are created equal. Desires don’t all stream straight from the soul, paving a direct path to enlightenment.
The problem with desires isn’t that we have them; the problem is that it is so difficult to discern those that come from the soul and further your growth from those that are neutral or that enmesh you more and more in confusion, conflict, or pain. How do we know whether the source of a particular desire is soul or whether it is ego (the self-image we create to compensate for the spiritual ignorance of not knowing who we really are)?
How do we know whether the urge to eat that piece of chocolate cake, to start that new relationship, to stay home and not go to yoga class (maybe because of that piece of chocolate cake), or to move across the world is soul leading us toward spiritual evolution or ego distracting itself from the discomfort of its delusions?
This is a deep question, one that philosophers have tried to answer for thousands of years. On the one hand, it’s easy to delude ourselves. This is one reason why a trustworthy teacher, guiding us into appropriate practices, has always been presumed essential to the path of yoga. After all, we all think we know what we want, but few of us know what we need.
On the other hand, the yoga tradition asserts that we should be careful about looking outside of ourselves for answers. We should always remember that yoga is not so much a set of philosophical answers; it is a means to achieve a certain quality of experience, from which flows timeless wisdom and divine love.
The Necessity of Practice
The highest reason for practicing yoga, as the Gita notes, is spiritual discrimination. In the classical context, yoga has nothing to do with physical fitness. Yoga is a means of purification, a way to separate awareness from the fluctuations of the body-mind, gradually allowing you to see your reactive tendencies and bring them under conscious control. As anyone who has practiced consistently for some time can tell you, eventually your clarity and ease spontaneously increase; your life naturally changes for the better; things, habits, and ideas that were less than constructive fall away from your life, often without effort. More and more, what we want becomes what the soul would have us pursue.
It’s no wonder so much of the Gita is dedicated to meditation. Yoga practice is meant to lead us to meditation, where real knowing and truth reside. The last stage of meditation is samadhi, which has been described as the state “where all one’s questions are answered.” The deepest questions about how to live won’t be resolved by intellect alone: It is only the silence of meditation, coupled with the longing to serve a higher purpose, that allows us to be continuously led by Spirit.
My concern is that many yogis today, incredibly passionate and clear about what they want out of physical practice, are much less comfortable, even conflicted, about having desire elsewhere in their lives. This prejudice against desire has the potential to breed confusion and self-doubt, as well as guilt, cynicism, and apathy.
But if desire is the sacred fabric of nature, the force behind all creation and accomplishment, it is vital that each of us who pursues a deeper knowledge of ourselves through yoga asks, “What do I really desire?” The answers may be coming from a Source too important to ignore.