Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Yoga, Health, and the Self by Gregory P. Fields

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.

(State University of New York Press)

Do you remember why you first took up the practice of yoga? I’d be willing to bet that the majority of us (myself included), while surely aware of yoga’s spiritual intent, began for more down-to-earth reasons involving our physical and mental well-being: a bad back, a gimpy knee, work-related stress, or even a bulging belly or sagging buns. Some purists may sniff at these seemingly mundane concerns, but many traditional texts claim certain therapeutic benefits for yoga that might have been pulled right out of a modern fitness magazine.

Take the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic fourteenth-century instructional manual. It assures us that, among other things, when our energy channels (nadis) are purified through controlled breathing, the “body becomes thin and glows,” and when we practice certain muscular locks (bandhas), “death, old age, and sickness are conquered.”

Many people get into yoga simply because they want to have a nicer body or feel better. There’s nothing wrong with that. Work on the body often serves as basic training for self-awakening; after all, the first stage of hatha yoga is asana, said to engender (again quoting the HYP) “steadiness of body and mind [and] diseaselessness and lightness of the limbs.” It might then be worthwhile, as incarnate beings, to spend some time investigating what we think about our body, the meaning of health and suffering, and the question of how physical health fits into the larger scheme of spiritual practice.

Now a new book by Gregory Fields, an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, takes on these issues with intelligence and insight. Religious Therapeutics: Body and Health in Yoga, Ayurveda, and Tantra (State University of New York Press) delves into the relationship of body, health and healing, and spirituality filtered through three traditional Hindu systems: Ayurveda, the classical yoga of Patanjali and the Yoga Sutra, and Tantra.

This isn’t one of those do-it-yourself yoga therapy books. It’s part of SUNY Press’s excellent “Religious Studies” series, which means it’s pretty serious stuff, although readable enough once you climb over words like “ontological,” “epistemic,” and “soteriology.”

While interest in yoga therapy has been growing recently, the idea that spirituality in general, and yoga in particular, has therapeutic applications for a variety of physical and mental maladies is nothing new. Fifteen hundred years ago Vyasa, Patanjali‘s first extant commentator, likened the process of yoga to a four-stage therapeutic model.

First, he recognized an “illness” to be eliminated, pinpointed as suffering or sorrow (duhkha) in its most universal sense. Next he identified the cause of this sorrow as self-ignorance (avidya)—the misapprehension of the unconditioned, eternal Self (purusha) as our conditioned, limited self—and prescribed the appropriate remedy (in this case correct knowledge of the authentic Self). Finally, he recommended the means to achieve this knowledge: the practice of classical yoga. “Take two asanas and call me in the morning,” he might have said.

Fields’ idea of religious therapeutics “embraces principles and practices that support human well-being with recognition of the common ground and cooperation of health and religiousness.” In his introduction, he cites four major dimensions of this model: religious meanings that inform the philosophy of health and medicine; the religious means of health; conversely, health as a support to religious life; and “religiousness itself as a remedy for the suffering of the human condition.” These dimensions translate concretely into eight branches of religious therapeutics—five of which are based on the well-known eight limbs of classical yoga, which supply an “initial matrix” for the therapy.

Included in Fields’ framework is the metaphysical backdrop: “value theory” and ethics (classical yoga’s yamas, or restraints, and niyamas, or observances); soteriology (the theory of salvation or liberation); physical practice (such as asana and Pranayama); and the “cultivation of consciousness” through concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana), ultimately leading to samadhi (ecstasy), the condition that brings about liberation.

Fields’ sixth branch, not surprisingly, is medicine and health care, which correspond to Ayurveda; the seventh and eighth branches, aesthetics (which Fields treats in the chapter on Tantra) and community (the topic of his conclusion), might seem a little odd in a book on religious therapeutics but actually make good sense once Fields presents his case.

Each of us has a mixed bag of ideas about our body that contribute to our body image, which helps us navigate our way through life. While we’re conscious of some of these ideas, most are tucked away in our unconscious, and while we acquired many of these ideas simply by rubbing shoulders up against the world, many more were inherited from significant others and the culture at large. Not all of these ideas are useful or accurate, and so our body image may be more or less out of kilter.

Fields begins his study proper by investigating the West’s assumptions about the body and how they influence our stance toward health, healing, and religion. Our dominant image of the body is that of a “container” for the self. Depending on whom you talk to, we either despise and reject it as a “prison-house” (Plato’s phrase) or honor it as the temple of the Holy Spirit (Christian gospels).

In either case, the body is regarded as a static entity entirely cut off from the Self. Around the seventeenth century, thanks to the metaphysics of French rationalist Rene Descartes and certain discoveries in anatomy and physiology, the body assumed machine-like characteristics, an outlook that still dominates modern mainstream medicine. This body-mind split, says Fields, makes us all “schizoid” and is used to justify the oppression of women, nature, and any group of people judged as “Other.”

Fields then contrasts dualistic Western notions with classical Chinese “polar concepts” (in which the body and mind are in a “symbiotic relation”) and with “iconoclastic concepts” in yoga, Tantra, and the Hindu medical science known as Ayurveda (“knowledge of life”). In the latter, for example, body is the “ground” of well-being, one leg of a “tripod” that includes the mind and Self; the Tantric body is a vehicle that, as we grow in self-understanding, is transformed by that knowledge and ultimately fully shares in self-liberation.

Once he’s fleshed out how the body is understood by West and East, Fields tackles the thorny question, “What is health?” Rather than proposing a single definition, which is nearly impossible, Fields discusses 15 “determinants” of health, based mostly on two key Ayurvedic texts, the Caraka Samhita and its commentary, the Ayurveda Dipika.

Ayurveda approaches health, as we might say, holistically and proactively. It seeks to prevent the onset of illness through a “positive cultivation” of the health of the whole person. The 15 determinants are grouped under four main headings: biological and ecological, medical and psychological, sociocultural and aesthetic, and metaphysical and religious. Some determinants are fairly obvious: We all would agree that a healthy person should live a long time (barring unforeseen accidents), have a capacity to adapt to the environment that is both “self-preserving and accommodating of impinging forces,” and be free from pain. Others, like the abilities to relate successfully with the people around us and sustain our “creative being” throughout our lives, are less obvious but nonetheless important.

The chapter on classical yoga as a religious therapeutic presents one of the best overviews of the system I’ve ever read. Fields opens, in his typically methodical way, with a broad definition of yoga and a brief examination of pre-classical yoga and a few post-classical schools influenced by Tantrism, including Kundalini Yoga and Hatha Yoga. He continues with a step-by-step analysis of the eight classical limbs and their respective therapeutic dimensions.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s Dr. Patanjali‘s diagnosis that all life is sorrowful because of a special kind of self-ignorance (avidya)—at first glance, not exactly an upbeat message. This avidya, literally “not-knowing,” plagues everything we do and will continue to sicken us until it’s cured through extended, persevering spiritual practice (abhyasa) and “non-attachment to materiality” (vairagya). Interestingly, Fields points out that the words “medicine,” “remedy,” and “meditation” all stem from the same Indo-European root, med, which means “to take appropriate measures.”

Classical yoga—a stolid, ascetic, ultimately dualistic system—has been compared to a reducing diet, in which the Self (purusha) gradually starves itself of matter (prakriti) until it attains a state beyond all materiality, aptly called aloneness (kaivalya). Tantrism’s therapeutics, the subject of the last chapter, represents an interesting counterpoint in just about all areas, save that both systems aim at true self-knowledge through meditation. If classical yoga is a fast, then Tantra is a kind of nonstop Thanksgiving feast that celebrates and seeks to integrate all life, including the body, into its dance of liberation. Its central principle and practice is spontaneous activity (kriya), the joyful, free, desireless play (lila) of the devotee distinct from both willful “ethical action” and “neurotic behavior.”

Fields argues that Tantra’s religious therapeutics has an aesthetic foundation. He uses this word “not only in reference to art, but also in its original sense, pertaining to sense perception [Gk. aisthenasthai, ‘to perceive’].” Insentient classical matter is divorced from, and subservient to, the Self; the Tantric world, however, is “sacred creation,” a vast arena of self-revealed vibratory intelligence.

This means that every sense perception, whether visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, is potentially a direct link to the Divine. While he refers to Tantric art forms such as dance, gesture (mudra), and the geometric patterns known as yantra, Fields concentrates his study of Tantric therapeutics on the resonant healing powers of sound, including sacred music, chanted mantra, and “unstruck” (anahata) or subtle (nada) sound.

The conclusion treats the eighth and final branch of religious therapeutics, what Fields calls community relationality. To him “health influences, and is influenced by, community.” Each of us is a small part of an all-encompassing network of life, and we can’t truly be healthy as individuals if our interpersonal relations, our natural environment, and our connection to the divine are in shambles.

Admittedly this book won’t appeal to everyone. So many people nowadays are looking for quick fixes and easy answers when it comes to health and healing, and so few seem genuinely interested in the broader context and concerns of yoga and spiritual practice. But serious practitioners will find this work well worth the time and effort, for Fields helps us understand the roots, relations, and possibilities of our yoga practice and provides us with clear focus and direction for our self-development and the recovery of our “primal unity” with the Self.

Contributing Editor Richard Rosen is deputy director of the Yoga Research and Education Center, in Santa Rosa, California, and teaches public classes in Berkeley and Oakland, California. His book The Yoga of Breath will be published next summer by Shambhala.