It is also consistent with prehistoric Goddesscentered, Earth-based traditions as well. While many texts of patriarchal religions denigrated the female body as a decided threat to a man's spiritual effort, these earlier traditions considered both the body of a woman and the whole planet sacred. Women, such as the devadasis ("female servants of the deity"), were not barred from sacred rituals because of their bodies, but served in them and enjoyed religious prestige. The devadasis dedicated their lives to song and dance in the temples of India. They married the deity rather than any mortal man. The Hindu worldview understood both erotic and reproductive sexuality as a reflection of the divine, to be channeled in the spirit of transcendence. The contemporary women's spirituality movement has resurrected the sacred feminine and its association with the natural world. Another contrast to ascetic spirituality is an approach to the body that calls for moderation and balance. This is what the Buddha proposed after years of carrying out severe austerities popular among wandering sages in what is now Nepal and India. He realized that starvation and other deprivations did not lead to enlightenment any more than an excess of sensual pleasures did when he was a prince. The result is a path known as "the Middle Way." Mindfulness of the body is central to the Buddha's instructions. He taught that it is possible to know everything about the world through the body and eventually attain spiritual freedom. Whatever a tradition's perception, the body is at the heart of all spiritual teachings, for embodiment is the ground of human experience. Physical existence offers an unparalleled opportunity to participate in spiritual unfolding-what Buddhists call "this precious human birth." All parts of the body, all the senses, and all the postures are put into the service of God, the Great Spirit, Allah, the Great Mother, Enlightenment, the Tao, or the Divine Source. There is also the understanding that a person cannot comprehend or practice the teachings when certain mental or bodily impairments are present.
Some practices for deepening spirituality help build up and sustain the body in a healthy condition. Without such strength it is difficult, if not impossible, to pray, meditate, make pilgrimages, sing, chant, or dance. Tibetan Buddhists follow a rigorous routine of doing prostrations-a minimum of 100,000-to activate the body and its inner energy channels, purify any blockages, imprint wholesome patterns, and build up merit. In the process of moving from a standing position to full-length prostration, practitioners incorporate reflections, prayers, and visualizations. Prostrations are one of four foundational or preliminary practices that prepare them to realize higher insights.
The objective of doing prostrations and other movements impeccably, not mechanically, is for a genuine transformation to occur. All traditions acknowledge reciprocity between external postures and gestures and internal states. Moving or maintaining body parts in a balanced and harmonious way has an impact on the innermost dimension of being. It is the reason for being meticulous and precise in such activities as ritual prayer or meditation. For example, each stage of Islamic worship-from standing with both hands a bit in front and to the sides of the head to full prostration with the forehead on the ground or floor- enacts an aspect of relationship between Creator and creation.
Similarly, inner states are "fleshed out" through the body. Panim, the Hebrew word for face, is related to penim, for "inside, interior, within." The Zohar, a Kabbalistic text, states that what is in a person's heart and mind is visible in the face. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking with God, the skin of his face was luminous (Exodus 34:29). After Jesus went up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, his face was as radiant as the sun (Matthew 17:1-2). On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has pointed out that even people who are handsome look ugly when their faces turn livid with anger.
Intimate physical activities also can serve spiritual purposes. The Jewish tradition, which sees the body as neither intrinsically sacred nor evil, sanctifies every bodily act through blessings-upon seeing a rainbow, washing, engaging in conjugal sex, defecating, and so on. Reciting a blessing is a moment in which to consider, acknowledge, and appreciate God's role in providing everything-eyes that witness beauty or organs that absorb nutrients and eliminate waste. One rabbi said that, when done properly, eating is as much of a gateway to unification with God as prayer is. Thus, all the senses and body parts participate in spiritual practice. Ears listen to sacred music and song, the ringing of church bells, and the cries of muezzins in the minarets of mosques calling the faithful to prayer five times a day. Noses smell the smoke of incense. Mouths savor the taste of wine and good food to fulfill the mitzvah (Hebrew for "commandment") of enjoying and honoring the Sabbath and festivals. Hands cross the body, sprinkle or pour holy water to baptize, anoint with oil, and perform mudra-s (Sanskrit for "sign"), ritual gestures that convey spiritual ideas. Feet stamp the ground in traditional Native American ceremonies and spin Mevlevi - Su-f i-s ("whirling" dervishes) around and around their leader in ecstatic dance to seek mystical union with the Divine.
As the Jewish liturgical poem Nishmat kol hai ("The soul of all living") teaches, every limb, every fiber of a human being is to be used in praise of the holy. Without the concrete reality of the body, there would be no access to the experience of ultimate peace and happiness, to the realization of any tradition's spiritual goals.