In the healthy debate over the origins and intentions of yoga, please let us not lose sight that – in those first ancient words of the Dao De Jing – The Way that can be spoken is not the True Way.
Hinduism, Yoga, Hatha, Dharma, Asana …. These are all made-up words, first created by seers to aid seekers on their path. Then, others carried those words beyond those first compassionate offerings — some in the same spirit –but others to build walls of ignorance out of fear, walls through which seekers must even now struggle to move through. Either way, the words were never, and even now, are not Truth. At best, they are aids on our journey. At worst, they are sources of division and difficulty.
Let us pray we choose to allow these words to aid…. And may we reaffirm now in our hearts — words are not Truth and cannot contain Truth.
Only We can do that, in how We live, and love and serve one another. This is true regardless of the place, time, and nature of the chosen path.
Whether through athleticism (hatha), devotion (bhakti), song (bhajans and kirtan), service (seva), ritual (tantra), sacrifice (yajna), sensory indulgence (vama), renunciation (sanyaasa), individualism (ahamkara), communism (saamyavada), knowledge (jnana), investigating the mind (raja-yoga), repetition (japa), life science (ayurveda), dance (natya), martial arts (dhanurveda), despair (vishada), fellowship (sangha), spiritual suffering (tapas), laughter (haasa) — all these, and many other approaches, tools and methods — when practiced with the spirit of sincere seeking, have led people in every place and time to awakening, and to people teaching one another how they did it.
Some paths explicitly set out with that aim, but all paths arrive at it eventually, through the inherent virtue of their sincere practitioners. This consistent fact — that people awaken to Light and Peace whenever they honestly try — this is the evidence that there is a Truth, and that It is beyond all words and methods, and is reachable by anyone.
This is as true in America today as it was in ancient India, which is why above I used the English words for these diverse practices first — they are techniques, just as scientists use in the lab. They are not the province of any one culture, but, while they have their historical and cultural roots to some extent in particular places and times, they are our common human heritage.
In America, it is the founding premise of the republic. Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence –
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
America begins speaking of self-evident Truth.
Yoga is ancient India’s name for the process of awakening to this Truth – of coming into Union — whatever the path. But Union with what exactly? A traditional answer is Union with Truth, God, the Infinite, the Universe, or however you call your higher power.
My experience on my path thus far is that when one experiences this Union, it can happen as a sudden intuition of mystic unity with all that Is. I had such a moment when I was 19, in my home near Washington, looking out at evergreen trees, and realizing that we are not separate, that everything is deeply bound together, that even in that moment, I was breathing in the air they had just breathed out, that always, we are in this intimate, interwoven web of life and being.
That experience I cherish, and it led me to my first deep relationship with a spiritual teacher — my great Uncle NC Surya. But I’ve also seen in the years since that the more substantial change occurs gradually, in stages, as the intuition of unity takes a great deal of work to integrate fully, and the more it does, the more the ‘with’ part (of Union) slowly drops away — there is less and less of an other with which to unite. It is a state of completeness or fullness unto itself. In this way, the Self evidences Truth, by direct experience.
In America, reading revolutionaries like Paine or Jefferson, or philosophical forefathers like Locke, one is hard pressed to imagine that these men didn’t also have spiritual experiences and lives. Somewhere, they found the courage to imagine and bring into being a society based on such self-evident Truth as the equal rights of all. Yes, it was deeply flawed — they were not perfect any more than many Indian swamis and yogis who still, at some level even if not publicly, cling to ancient caste, class and gender distinctions.
The beautiful thing is — in America, awareness of self-evident truth is not some rarefied state only some select few attain; it is our birthright. In India, living in this Truth is well understood to be our most universally shared experience — not only with countrymen, but all human beings, other animals, plants, the Earth, Sun and stars.
In any place, we can just forget or ignore it sometimes (or a lot), and separate ourselves from each other, believing how we differ is greater than what we share.
That is a great falsity. We are One.
The ancient Eeshavasya (“Lord’s Abode) Upanishad is a revered mantra which beautifully expresses Union, as that fullness or completeness, which is the Lord’s Abode, the dwelling-place of Truth:
That is complete — This is complete
From That Completeness comes This Completeness
If we take away This Completeness from That Completeness
Only Completeness remains
Click here to download this beautiful recording off Ravi Shankar’s Chants of India. 221 KB
… So … Relax. You are held — in Truth, in Completeness – and so are we all. When that sense of ease arises, then Union with that Truth which cannot be spoken, is possible.
Now what is the aim of this Union and the peace that comes with awakening to It?
When an ox, famer and plow are yoked together, they create a new life-giving entity that prepares the field to issue its bounty. The point is not merely to learn intellectually how to unite the ox and plow, or even to do it just once; that is but the beginning of the useful work that happens. Once united, the ox, farmer and plow have their ultimate purpose fulfilled in the harvest, and that bounty is also dependent on their careful cooperation with nature, and grace of Earth and Sun to provide life-giving conditions.
Similarly, yoga is the work of plowing the field of life, of staying connected to Truth, and serving It. So it is with all forms of sincere seeking – growing in a deep, heartfelt, intuitive way into one’s right relation to the universe and oneself — as a part of a whole, as a part that can see and know the whole, and thereby honor it and make the conscious choice to align with it. This work naturally, gradually gives rise to the life of service that results from such Union.
Just as there are many processes by which one may experience such Union, there are even more ways in which this knowledge in turn issues out in action — through love, service, generosity, devotion, art, inquiry, scholarship — these are but a few ways of honoring one’s own Truth, of enjoying the experience of It while fulfilling one’s duty to abide It.
Being a yogi is in fact our natural condition. It is our choice, whether to invite all the words, ideas, and practices either to lead us astray into confusion, conflict and harm, both internal and external – or to lead us back home into our Selves, our Truth.
So, once again — we must remember always, the Way that can be spoken is not the True Way. The True Way is found only in our own experience on our own path, and it is our personal Truth. One way I feel I have drawn closer to It is when I can recognize deeply, intuitively know, that my experience of It is the same Truth that others have found, that there is but One.
Along the way, I’ve long felt there’s no great mystery to awakening people once I learned what — usually, they are deeply humble, non-judging, and forgiving, ever growing in dignity, in their capacity to love themselves and others, in laughter and joy, in their ability to behold beauty, and in being true to their heartfelt calling in life. To me, this is the real-life four-dimensional moving picture of yoga. It knows every country and language and every era.
So finally, with the frame in which we are asking the question on firm ground — we can meaningfully turn to the debate of Dr. Shukla and Dr. Chopra – is yoga as practiced in America aware enough of its roots in Hinduism?
My view is that I say this is not a good question to ask, for three reasons. Two I’ve already addressed — first, the falsity of discursive, verbal truths, and Truth of direct experience — and second, the understanding that the essence of yoga is universal — that yogis have been in every era, in every place.
So the answer for each of us on a personal level depends entirely on whether we have yet come to know what is our personal yogic path, and whether we are called to the ancient Vedic, Buddhist or Christian roots, or to the modern, diverse global branches of every kind. None are wrong; they are simply preferences for an entry point to a Universal journey. They all lead to the same place, even if they are not trying to lead anywhere, if we are sincere seekers, the needed path will reveal itself. The Truth is that powerful.
If you are called to the Vedas or asceticism or rigorous hatha practice, wonderful! These are tried and true ancient paths. They are often slow, but sure. If you are called to modern teachers and teachings, that’s wonderful too.
Even drug abuse or gluttony or sexual addiction can serve the intention to find freedom from suffering, if one has turned to those things sincerely seeking a way out of suffering and into the light, even those clearly harmful paths will reveal Truth in due course, by demonstrating the wisdom of abstinence or moderation as appropriate for you, and leading you to people who can help you along such a path. Needless to say, those are far riskier and more painful roads, and the suffering you endure may overwhelm this body you inhabit, before the needed moment of clarity and awakening arrives in this lifetime.
But the awakening to Truth can also come much more decisively and quickly, if one chooses to use the pain of their path as fuel for spiritual growth. I have seen many, many people come into direct and deep communion with their Higher Power in just such a way, of healing the pain of various self-imposed harms, then leading the way to healing the pain of all our life experiences, our past karma.
In the end, yoga is the universal inner calling to seek and find and grow into Truth — there is no wrong choice, no universally right method — there is just the next step on a wonderful path opening out before us in the present moment. Any tradition, any experience can enrich and inform us — whether the preserved words of ancient Avatars like Krishna, or an interaction with a homeless person, or yet another moment of our routines of life — if only we allow it.
Om Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May we humbly pray that all beings everywhere be happy and free
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
Humbly we pray for peace, peace, peace
Om Shree Gurubhyo Namaha
Humbly we bow in reverence to all those who have removed darkness from our path
To that Truth which Sustains All, we pray humbly