The word soul probably has limitless meanings and interpretations. Depending on the philosophical or religious background the ideas can range from the non-existence of a soul to having multiple souls or even evil souls. From a yogic perspective the word soul can be described with different terms, and thus the concept becomes more refined. Two that are commonly referred to in literature are jīva and ātman. Jīva is considered to be the individual soul and ātman the cosmic soul.
The individual soul could be seen as the vehicle for the cosmic soul. The vehicle has a physical body and senses that can discover and explore this world using feelings and sensations. It is also bound by Māyā (illusion). It has forms, names and qualities and is dependent on time and space. The jīva allows us to be happy and sad, to feel pain, to be angry and to be afraid.
The ātman is limitless and boundless, but it can only be realized while being incarnated in a physical body. That is also what usually differentiates from the term Brahman, which is absolute, omnipresent, and one-without-a-second. Our cosmic soul could be considered to be our eternal self, that core of our being that was never born and will never die. Often times ancient literature interprets ātman as what we would just call “soul” in English.
Some people claim that they can “heal the soul.” How can the soul be healed? Isn’t the soul always whole and complete? I feel that what is really meant by this is we remember our soul and learn to access it while at the same time being very well aware of its physical container and vehicle. The idea that something needs to be fixed or treated seems to be deeply ingrained in our present culture. Where is this addiction coming from to make things better, brighter and bolder? Especially something like our true Self that is love and light itself. Sharon Gannon reminded us in of her essays to remember Goodness. This is what true “soul healing” means to me. To find ways and use the practices of Yoga to enable ourselves to see, feel and experience Goodness within and without. If we would indeed be able to enjoy the divine sweetness with all of our senses in ourselves and others, there is nothing left to be healed.
As far as the cosmic idea of ātman, it might work for some of us if the karmic seeds are ripe enough for it. Exploring the layers of the soul’s vehicle might be just as important, especially while living. Only through an in-depth understanding of all the different coverings of our being as well as how they are all connected can we reach the state of the jīvanmukta, a being that is liberated while living. We should neither deny our divine self nor our worldly self if we genuinely want to understand how Yoga, union works. The first step for embarking on the adventure of remembering our soul is to be aware of it and to accept its existence. Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati basically said that the first step towards Yoga is that we should really want it!
At the same time, we should honor the soul’s airplane – our physical body. Imagine the soul being the pilot for this plane. Practices like asana and pranayama are perfect for this and should not be considered to be less advanced or less important to reach enlightenment.
Once we begin to be in touch with our soul, it can be frightening to allow it to guide us. Just like sitting in an airplane where the door to the cockpit is tightly locked and can only be opened with the right security code by an authorized crew member. Up in the air, we can just surrender to the decisions the pilot is making. Even though we might ‘know’ where we are going, we can never be 100% sure, let alone have the opportunity to actually interfere and control the direction, the speed or the altitude. The most logical option is to learn to let go and trust.
But what if we make an effort to peacefully find our way into the cockpit, talk to the pilot and together in a deep and friendly relationship work together and fly along the adventurous path of our destiny? Wouldn’t that harmonious relationship make it a lot easier to go back to your seat, enjoy the view out of the window and relax? This metaphor has obviously nothing to do with the reality in most planes we fly nowadays (for good reasons) but sometimes imagining something far-fetched can help us to go beyond our regular thoughts. In that way we might be able to ultimately enjoy the unity of our physical and worldly aspects (the passengers) and our soul (the pilot), instead of focusing just on one or the other.