The Perfection of Yoga

MotherKaulini_RasaAcarya_200903EVRTrip022_350From time to time I remind my yoga students that the goal of yoga is self-realization. And from time to time one of my students asks me if I’ve ever met anyone whom I thought was self-realized. I’m very fortunate to be able to reply, ‘yes, I have’.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna uses the phrase ‘tattva-darśī’ to describe a self-realized sage. Literally meaning ‘one who has seen the truth’, the word ‘tattva’ specifically indicates ‘a truth that is knowable’. Meeting someone whose character radiates the truth confirms for us that the perfection of yoga is attainable if we’re determined to follow in their footsteps. [Read more…]

Self-evident Truth

july-fourth-holiday-independence-day-lady-liberty-fireworks-patrioticAmerica’s Declaration of Independence begins with the proposition of a self-evident truth: that all men are created equal. ‘Self-evident’ is a technical term in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know that we know something: a ‘self-evident’ truth is a truth that proves itself without need of further validation. So, as far as America’s foremost expression of enlightened thinking is concerned, equality is not just true; it’s self-evident.

But ‘equal’ does not mean ‘same’. This came as quite a shock to me as a naïve seventh-grader attending an integrated school for the first time. My parents saw to it that I had a solid theoretical sense of universal equality but, since there weren’t any black families in the neighborhood where I went to elementary school, I didn’t have any first hand experiences that might have revealed the difference between ‘equal’ and ‘same’. As far as I knew, black people were white people with dark skin, something that made white resistance to the self-evidently just civil rights movement all the more incomprehensible to me. [Read more…]

Faith and Knowledge

Escher_SwansWe usually place faith and knowledge in two separate categories: we think of faith as referring to something we may believe whether or not there seems to be any empirical proof or logic to support it. As often as not, the first word we associate with ‘faith’ is “blind”. By contrast, we think of knowledge as something you can prove, something that anyone can experience. Faith is subjective, knowledge is objective, and so we might think that knowledge, the objectively provable, is superior to faith, the subjectively un-provable.

Traditional yoga doesn’t make the same distinction between faith and knowledge; yoga sees faith and knowledge as two sides of the same coin. In fact, yoga considers faith to be the mandatory pre-requisite for knowledge because we don’t pursue a path of knowledge without faith that the path will actually lead to knowledge. In that sense, we might think that faith is more important than knowledge since you can’t have knowledge without faith.

The process of yoga is scientific: there’s a theory (proposed knowledge), an experiment to test the theory (practice), and the results of the experiment (realization of knowledge). Faith in the process is demonstrated by taking up the practice. The result of the practice is that theoretical knowledge is transformed into experiential knowledge, which validates our faith in the process. It’s subjective in that we personally experience a unique validation of our faith and it’s objective in that anyone can take up the practice and do the same experiment.

We go where our hearts take us. According to the disposition of our heart we develop a particular kind of faith. The disposition of one’s heart is affected by the qualities of material nature that we associate with: if we associate with the quality of goodness then our heart will be influenced by the quality of goodness and our faith will follow our heart. If our heart is in the mode of passion, our faith will also be in the mode of passion. And if our heart is in the mode of darkness then our faith will be darkened accordingly. Thus we find varieties of faith throughout the world and a particular kind of faith residing within our own heart.

The experience of yoga is both an evolution of consciousness and a softening of the heart. When the heart is receptive to the possibility of the evolution of consciousness the potential for that evolution awakens within the heart. When the potential for evolution awakens within the heart we feel inspired to work towards the realization of that evolution and with steady practice our evolution is realized. Faith unlocks the potential for knowledge, the potential for knowledge inspires our practice, our practice kindles the fire of realized knowledge, and the illumination radiating from that fire deepens our faith; the process comes full circle.

Yoga invites your faith in the possibility of the attaining the highest knowledge: knowledge of your own true nature.


Image: Swans, M.C. Escher (wood engraving, 1956)


Q&A with Hari-k

keep-calm-and-answer-the-question-yogiLast September I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Bryant, a committed Christian who was taking a course, offered by an international Christian ministry, about constructively engaging with people whose worldview differed from one’s own. The course placed particular emphasis on the importance of gentleness and respect as essential elements of constructive discourse (non-violent communication). Recording and transcribing a collection of such engagements was part of the course and, as our casual conversation about the relationship between yoga and religion evolved, Jesse asked me if I would participate in an interview for his course. I happily consented. His questions echoed the kind of questions I often field in workshops and Yoga Teacher Training sessions. What follows is an edited excerpt from his interview.

JB: What are the roots of yoga? Does the whole “yoga thing” come out of the Hindu culture?

Hkd: The scriptures that form the basis of what we now know as ‘Hinduism’ are called the Vedas but the word ‘Hindu’ does not appear anywhere in the Vedas. ‘Hindu’ is an Anglicized version of a Persian word that describes the people who live on the other side of the Indus River: it originates as a geographical description of people who followed the Vedas and practiced what they themselves called ‘Sanatana Dharma’ or ‘the Eternal Occupation of the Living Being.’ Followers of the Vedas never referred to themselves as Hindus until around the 1500s, when they had to make practical distinctions between themselves, Muslims and, later, European colonials. It is only very recently that ‘Hindu’ has become a word associated with an ethnic, nationalistic or religious designation. [Read more…]

In Defense of Gurus, Part 2

I have a guru. Many years ago, in an elaborate Vedic ritual, I confirmed my commitment to the spiritual practice my guru specified for all of his disciples. My guru, in turn, confirmed his commitment to connect me to the highest truth through a lineage of gurus stretching back to antiquity. The deal between us is simple: I accept his authority as a bona fide representative of an authentic spiritual tradition and he guides my way home.

I do not have a business relationship with my guru. I did not pay thousands of dollars for a yoga teacher training in order to be initiated. There were no workshop tuitions, there was no free labor masquerading as ‘karma yoga’, and I’ve never been his employee. Although it’s customary for a disciple to offer donations, my guru never asked me for any money. The only things my guru asked of me was to chant and be happy and to try my best to help fulfill the mission of his guru, just as his own guru (my grand-guru) had asked him to help fulfill the mission of his guru (my great grand-guru), and so on back to antiquity.

Some members of the modern yoga community think antiquity is precisely where the institution of ‘guru’ belongs. In a rare case of near agreement with my modern yoga colleagues, I’m obliged to agree, albeit conditionally: the institution of ‘guru’ has no place within the framework of modern commerce-driven yoga. The reason is simple: profit motive. The very idea of yoga gurus running business enterprises runs counter to the principles at the core of an authentic guru-disciple relationship. [Read more…]