YOGA: A CULTURE OF THE SOUL

ORIGINS Translated from the Sanskrit, yoga literally means union. While there are many versions of what union really means, my personal favorite is by an early twentieth century yogi, Sri Krishna Prem. He tells us that "yoga is the reuniting of our own individual soul with its eternal essence - universal spirit. "

Where does yoga come from? Although historically it originated over 5000 years ago, the living yoga is reborn fresh in the body, mind and heart of the practitioner. In other words the soul of yoga is always present, here and now. While its cultural roots are in ancient India, its universal origin is the burning desire in the center of each human heart - the yearning to be happy and free of suffering. It is a way of life that combines practice, philosophy and psychology to address the physical, mental and spiritual needs of an aspirant.

The perennial questions “who am I, where did I come from, why am I here, how can I be truly happy, how can I share happiness with others?” inspired souls long ago to search for more than just meaningful answers. Dedicating all their energies and actions to the quest for a direct realization of the source of creation, these unknown ancient ones - men and women - are the original masters of yoga. They discovered that the lack of meaningful and consistent contact with a spiritual core results in a profound sense of loss and isolation. They also found that this sense of being without spirit is the origin of all unhappiness.

An intense inner fire compelled them to do whatever was needed to know this vast spirit of the universe, and all beings in it, as the origin of their own individual soul. Through patience and perseverance they found a way to return home to their true self, and like all good explorers, passed on maps of consciousness to their followers - others who, like themselves, were also drawn to the inner path. It makes no difference whether five millennia ago or today, the longing of a spiritual seeker is timeless. As the 15th century Persian mystic Kabir writes, - “its the intensity of the longing that does all the work”. Or like my friend Lilias Folan once told me, “once the bell has been struck it can’t be unstruck.” Once we feel the fire of awakening has ignited in us, it remains either as a glowing ember or grows into a steady radiance, depending on how we nurture it.

SENSE OF SEPARATION
When those of us who are actively interested in awakening, sharing and deepening happiness sincerely look at our lives, I believe we also find the root of unhappiness to be this state of spiritual separation. Although we may have tried our best to use people, places, things, or accomplishments to fill the void, we find they are at best temporary solutions. In the end, like waking up from an alluring dream, we invariably return to the aloneness of ourselves. Either we learn to find fulfillment through intimacy with our sacred essence, or we suffer repeated cycles of loss and unhappiness as the flow of life inevitably pull us away from our external sources of happiness.

When I am in that state of feeling separated from my core, that loss can subtly pervade every waking moment. It can be an almost imperceptible background irritation that something just isn’t right, or it can occur as a low level nagging, a sense of being disadvantaged or even victimized by others. Later, I may find myself critical and dissatisfied with just about everything and everyone around me, including myself. This nagging irritation can easily be inflamed into anger by another’s innocent mistake or my own inevitable blunders.

At other times, my inner self may feel very disturbed, as if I am the proverbial “stranger in a strange land”. A friend once described it as “I’m the outsider at the family reunion.” This can easily spread into an all-pervading mood of loss accompanied by a looming dread that something bad is about to happen. Physical depletion and lingering sadness cling to us like the flu. At such times morose discontent can alternate with an urgent restlessness to do something, anything, to change it. Eventually nowhere feels safe, and everyone becomes a stranger.

Beneath the surface of these mind-states are the deeper currents such as chronic depression, anxiety attacks, paralyzing confusion, unrelenting grief, emotional numbness, stoic indifference, debilitating anxiety or intense emotional pain. For some, once they have been swept out to sea by one of these emotional rip tides, the fear of it happening again can spur harmful countermeasures as a way to anchor themselves or run away from the pain. Greed, violence, hatred, abuse, manipulation, lying, cheating, stealing can be used to keep the traumatic feeling of being lost, hurt, helpless or alone at bay. Pursuing a spiritual path to avoid pain and transcend difficulties becomes another way to run and hide. Or we may find ways to keep extremely busy, focused on projects and activities that keep our minds turned away from the inner turmoil. Still others of us will collapse inward or simply shut down our emotional life, and do the best we can to cope with and control an out-of-control world.

ACTIVATES AND INTEGRATES
The question quickly becomes, “if this is what I will find within, why bother to apply yoga at a deeper level? After all, who wants to stick their head in the garbage?“ There is an old adage, “what we resist persists”. This process of yoga has the ability to both activate –bring to conscious awareness what has been hidden deep in our core – and integrate – accept with compassion for the purpose of evolving into a more wholistic state – all the disparate parts of ourselves. These are the very components of our vast and complex personality, psychology and emotions that we have the most trouble revealing and healing.

While I am not a psychologist, I have experienced first hand many of these negative emotions. When I am caught in one of these afflicted states, I almost always find an overwhelming sense of isolation, disconnection and dread. Even though I may be able to remember a time in the past when kindness and compassion was my experience, I am unable to access that essence when caught in an intense negative emotion. I know this distinction is not unique to me. Not only have many of my friends shared similar experiences with me, so also do the ancient yogis.

One of my all time favorites on this topic is chapter one of the Bhagavad Gita, written around 300 AD. It is entitled “the Despair of Arjuna” and describes the suffering of Arjuna – the main protagonist and also a metaphor for the life of the soul - as he struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. A world in which he feels hopelessly lost, alienated from all that he holds dear. Moreover he is confronted with life and death choices on behalf of loved ones, relatives and former friends that plunge him into agony and despair.

RE-MEMBERING OURSELVES
I believe that until we meet and befriend ourselves at every level of our being with kind awareness, we will continue to play hide and seek with our hearts. As the saying goes, “you can run but you cant hide” – from yourself. Authentic yogis will invariably say that this process of revealing our hidden, fragmented aspects is a reuniting or literally re-membering of ourselves. It is a return to the harmonious oneness that is our true nature. And to generously extend that kindness out to others is the soul of the yogic path.

Just as we are all connected to the same sphere of life, and we all participate to some degree or other in the same plane of suffering, so also we all share the same possibility of transforming sorrow into happiness. Our shared humanity is the ground for both our emotional traumas and our spiritual upliftment. The teachings, practices, and examples of realized masters have given us both the map and the methods to assist us in making our own personal journey back to our natural, open, integrated self. In order to open into the larger reality they have clearly pointed out the necessity for surrendering our cherished, carefully planned points of view.

As practical thinkers, our internal view of the world is utilitarian, conditioned and habitual. Utilitarian in that we use our rational skills to take care of our tangible needs – sometimes our greed as well- at a daily survival level. Conditioned in that the culture we are born into, the family that raised us, and the personal set of successes and failures that have shaped our lives has trained us how and what to think. Habitual in that as creatures of habit all too often we would rather stay in the same comfortable familiar groove than venture out and risk loosing the familiar safety that comes with believing - without question – our selective opinions of life.

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell tell us that in practically all world myths, in order to find and reclaim our true self, it is necessary to dive beneath the surface waves of our repeating thoughts, leave the familiar world behind and search for awakening experiences in the deeper waters of our own hearts, dreams and intuition. Only in this way do we find what really motivates and moves us, carries and challenges us, evolves and teaches us from the cradle to the grave. This is also the path of yoga. It is both mythic and personal, ancient and in-the-moment


AFFLICTIONS OF THE HEART
The original yogis, dedicated to the emancipation of spirit explored and - by virtue of one pointed dedication, inspiration and intuition -understood how to dive deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence. Not only did they learn how to go all the way to their core, they also learned how to return, integrate and offer their insights to others. They both discovered the source of their afflictions, and developed methods for how to alleviate them.

These afflictions or negative patterns the yogis call ignorance, avidya. This awareness of ignorance is not imbued with a judgmental tone of “how can you be so stupid?” instead it is viewed as a compassionate, sober, acknowledgement of a deeply ingrained pattern – the false sense of a lost self, the lifetime of striving for substitutions that don’t last, and the anguish that always issues from the disheartening return to separation. Developing a healing relationship to avidya – acknowledging its presence, understanding how it arises, learning how it can be dispelled, and committing to the practices that can awaken wisdom - is a central theme in all genuine yoga teaching traditions.

Yogis, then, are primarily concerned with removing the obstructions that prevent the uninterrupted awareness of ourselves as Universal Spirit. Calling these obstructions ignorance - ignorance of our true nature at the deepest level of reality – the practices are aimed at removing that ignorance and awakening us to our true divine self. To awaken these deeper levels of self awareness a middle path approach - balancing personal with universal, contemporary with traditional, internal with external - gives freshness, vitality and lightness to our awareness.

A CULTURE OF THE SOUL
Using the psycho-spiritual instruments of yoga such as asana, and pranayama, the original yogis were able to access meditative states that brought them to a new level of awareness, a oneness beyond the usual thinking processes of ordinary mind. These various practices are able to develop strength, sensitivity, awareness and flexibility - not only in the physical body, but also in the energy, emotions, heart, mind and consciousness of a sincere practitioner.

While I personally cannot claim to be very far along in this process, I have had enough personal experience to know that it works. I am also deeply persuaded by the fact that the knowledge of yoga - in a wide variety of forms and styles - has survived longer than any civilization, country or empire. This alone is a remarkable testimony to the enduring power and efficacy of yoga. Its response to the human quest for wisdom and happiness is as alive today as it was over 5000 years ago. Even with a small amount of practice we can taste the benefits, and recognize to some degree the wisdom teachings, and practices passed down to us by unknown, unnamed ones over the millennia.

Yoga, in essence, is a culture of the soul. Developed over countless generations and carried through various lineages of teacher/practitioners up to the present day, it still radiates the energy of transformation and the wisdom of compassionate awareness.

Christopher Baxter

June 2005