At the level of physical sensations, the human body is nonsectarian and morally neutral. The nostrils that feel air pass in and out are not Jain, Catholic, or Muslim. The hands that touch another person's body cannot tell whether it is Jewish, Shinto, or Baha'i. Vibrations in the throat that give rise to speech and song are not good or bad. Yet every religious culture envisions and interprets the body through a specific worldview. That perspective is not monolithic but a complex mixture of beliefs and attitudes that have varied through the centuries. The body may be the object of fear, distrust, loathing, condemnation, hostility, and even harsh punishment. Conversely, it may be the object of gratitude, respect, blessing, mindfulness, and tender care. Different traditions may appreciate the body as a gift from God, a holy temple, or a vehicle through which to know absolute reality-they seek liberation in the body. Others may consider it a prison or tomb of the soul, a snare that impedes spiritual progress, or an enemy to be conquered-they seek liberation from the body. Dualistic thinking has given rise to such divergent views. For example,Western philosophical and theological schools generally have explained the human body as inferior in contradistinction to the superior soul, spirit, or mind. Some describe body and soul as not only separate but also antagonistic. Others explain body and soul as both discrete and integral aspects of a whole human being. Dualism consequently shows up as a series of polarities between sacred and secular, spirit and flesh, asceticism and voluptuousness, male and female. There is spirituality that is vertical, ascending, "up there," puritanical, disembodied, and transcendent, versus spirituality that is horizontal, descending, "down here," sensuous, and based in the everyday world.
Eastern traditions generally see the human being as consisting not only of a material body but also of subtle energy "bodies"-a kind of meta-anatomy and physiology. Hindus, for example, distinguish various "sheaths" or "envelopes" (koshas)-physical and psychic layers of graduated refinement that clothe the spirit. Certain techniques involve addressing the centers and channels of these "bodies." Yoga (Sanskrit for "yoke") is more than a set of postures for physical benefits; it is a means for seeking spiritual emancipation and communion with the Divine. Special breath control techniques called pranayama (Sanskrit prana, "life energy") can help awaken kundalini (Sanskrit for "coiled") energy at the base of the spine and move it up through all seven energy centers or "wheels" (chakras) that sit in alignment down the middle of the body. Each one operates on a subtle sensory level related to states of consciousness.
Historically, in Christianity there has been great ambivalence toward the body in general and sexuality in particular. Negative impressions of the body led to painful practices. Ascetics engaged in wearing hair shirts, flagellating themselves, and performing other mortifications to subdue the body's passions. The early church father Origen even castrated himself. St. Francis of Assisi called the body "Brother Ass" and believed that it should be frequently whipped. St. Augustine and St. Thomas of Aquinas were exceptions, asserting that the body is not a prison but reveals the goodness of the Creator. This is a prominent teaching found in the Hebrew Bible.