“Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness” – Edward Stanley
The process of Bhakti yoga is independent of any external situations, including physical exercises. And a devotee of Krishna aspires to always remember and serve the Lord in every situation of his or her life.
At the same time, physical well-being is important to our practise of Krishna consciousness in general and to chanting of Holy Names in particular.
If we spend at least half hour daily on bodily exercise, then we have the physical fitness to take on the temptations and distractions that threatens to pull us away from Krishna. Every sportsman knows the importance of physical fitness. We too play a game of choice daily. We face the choice of connection to Krishna or a diversion to illusion, maya. For example during the middle of your early morning chanting, your mind may protest that you are tired and you need rest. The legs ache, the body seems heavy, and the japa session is a long drag. But if you have a culture of daily exercise and a regulated dinner, then it’s likely that you would avoid this needless struggle. You would feel fit and during chanting you could instead focus your energy on listening to the Holy Names of Krishna. The legendary American Boxer of the early twentieth century, Gene Tunney said aptly, “Exercise should be regarded as a tribute to the heart”
A cricket player sometimes bats the whole day, for eight hours under the hot sun. Those who lack physical fitness get dehydrated, or succumb to the pressure, and throw away their wicket. A Hare Krishna chanter is also like a batsman who makes choices every moment of the day. Physical fitness gives us the mental agility to make the right choices. Let’s say you eat a heavy meal before you sit to chant Hare Krishna. It’s like a batsman going for the palate before his innings. Most likely he’d struggle to bat and could lose his wicket early on in the innings. Similarly if you chant the Holy Names by neglecting the bodily fitness, you may soon struggle to chant, and find it difficult to pull the mind back as it hurls one distracting thought after another.
Often devotees doubt if we are promoting bodily identification by emphasizing yoga or exercise. Srila Rupa Goswami, the foremost of Vaishnava teachers has explained that the first of the symptoms of surrender to God is to accept things that are favourable for our spiritual lives. And if exercise helps us chant Hare Krishna better, inculcating it in our daily practise is showing God our loving surrender.
If you are to drive from Mumbai to Delhi, you could drive really fast, and thereby ignore the basic needs of the car. Or you could meticulously take care of the vehicle’s tyres, seats and engine every ten minutes. The former approach could cause a fatal accident and the latter method may not even begin your journey. A balanced approach would be to focus on the destination and at the same time, take care of the car’s needs to ensure it helps you reach Delhi safely. Likewise the body, which is like a car, could help us connect to God. If we absorb ourselves in our spiritual practises so much that we ignore proper rest, diet and exercise- the basic needs of the ‘car’- we may not really connect to God. Our neglected body could abort the soul’s journey. On the other hand an obsession to take care of our physical well-being would distract us from a sacred human life that offers us a chance to go beyond the basic animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending.
The balance here would be to do the needful for the body. A good six to seven hours of rest, a healthy diet of vegetables and fruits and a regular exercise helps us stay fit to chant our rounds daily. If however we artificially claim to not waste any time on material activities and instead absorb fully in chanting and other devotional activities, what would happen? Sooner or later the body would react to the neglect and abuse, and then our absorption would be less on God, but instead on the body.
The great Christian teacher, Hugh Blair of Scotland said, “Reflect first upon that great law of our nature, that exercise is the chief source of improvement in all our faculties”