"Why do we practice Yoga?"
I had a teacher once ask that question during a particularly challenging Yoga class, back in New York. We were all bent into these exhausting sideways triangles, and the teacher was making us hold the position longer than any of us would have liked.
"Why do we practice Yoga?" he asked again. "Is it so we can become a little bendier than our neighbors? Or is there perhaps some higher purpose?"
Yoga, in Sanskrit, can be translated as "union." It originally comes from the root word yuj, which means "to yoke," to attach yourself to a task at hand with ox-like discipline. And the task at hand in Yoga is to find union--between mind and body, between the individual and her God, between our thoughts and the source of our thoughts, between teacher and student, and even between ourselves and our sometimes hard-to-bend neighbors. In the West, we've mainly come to know Yoga through its now-famous pretzel-like exercises for the body, but this is only Hatha Yoga, one limb of the philosophy. The ancients developed these physical stretches not for personal fitness, but to loosen up their muscles and minds in order to prepare them for meditation. It is difficult to sit in stillness for many hours, after all, if your hip is aching, keeping you from contemplating your intrinsic divinity because you are too busy contemplating, "Wow . . . my hip really aches."
But Yoga can also mean trying to find God through meditation, through scholarly study, through the practice of silence, through devotional service or through mantra--the repetition of sacred words in Sanskrit. While some of these practices tend to look rather Hindu in their derivation, Yoga is not synonymous with Hinduism, nor are all Hindus Yogis. True Yoga neither competes with nor precludes any other religion. You may use your Yoga--your disciplined practices of sacred union--to get closer to Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha or Yahweh. During my time at the Ashram, I met devotees who identified themselves as practicing Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and even Muslims. I have met others who would rather not talk about their religious affiliation at all, for which, in this contentious world, you can hardly blame them.
The Yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition, which I'm going to over-simply define here as the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment. Different schools of thought over the centuries have found different explanations for man's apparently inherently flawed state. Taoists call it imbalance, Buddism calls it ignorance, Islam blames our misery on rebellion against God, and the Judeo-Christian tradition attributes all our suffering to original sin. Freudians say that unhappiness is the inevitable result of the clash between our natural drives and civilization's needs. (As my friend Deborah the psychologist explains it: "Desire is the design flaw.") The Yogis, however, say that human discontentment is a simple case of mistaken identity. We're miserable because we think that we are mere individuals, alone with our fears and flaws and resentments and mortality. We wrongly believe that our limited little egos constitute our whole entire nature. We have failed to recognize our deeper divine character. We don't realize that, somewhere within us all, there does exist a supreme Self who is eternally at peace. That supreme Self is our true identity, universal and divine. Before you realize this truth, say the Yogis, you will always be in despair, a notion nicely expressed in this exasperated line from the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus: "You bear God within you, poor wretch, and know it not."
Yoga is the effort to experience one's divinity personally and then to hold on to that experience forever. Yoga is about self-mastery and the dedicated effort to haul your attention away from your endless brooding over the past and your nonstop worrying about the future so that you can seek, instead, a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and your surroundings with poise. Only from that point of even- mindedness will the true nature of the world (and yourself) be revealed to you. True Yogis, from their seat of equipoise, see all this world as an equal manifestation of God's creative energy--men, women, children, turnips, bedbugs, coral: it's all God in disguise. But the Yogis believe a human life is a very special opportunity, because only in a human form and only with a human mind can God-realization ever occur. The turnips, the bedbugs, the coral--they never get a chance to find out who they really are. But we do
have that chance.
"Our whole business therefore in this life," wrote Saint Augustine, rather Yogically, "is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen."
Like all great philosophical ideas, this one is simple to understand but virtually impossible to imbibe. OK--so we are all one, and divinity abides within us all equally. No problem. Understood. But now try living from that place. Try putting that understanding into practice twenty-four hours a day. It's not so easy. Which is why in India it is considered a given that you need a teacher for your Yoga. Unless you were born one of those rare shimmering saints who come into life already fully actualized, you're going to need some guidance along your journey toward enlightenment. If you're lucky enough, you will find a living Guru. This is what pilgrims have been coming to India to seek for ages. Alexander the Great sent an ambassador to India in the fourth century BC, with a request to find one of these famous Yogis and return with him to court. (The ambassador did report finding a Yogi, but couldn't convince the gentleman to travel.) In the first century AD, Apollonius of Tyrana, another Greek ambassador, wrote of his journey through India: "I saw Indian Brahmans living upon the earth and yet not on it, and fortified without fortifications, and possessing nothing, yet having the richness of all men." Gandhi himself always wanted to study with a Guru, but never, to his regret, had the time or opportunity to find one. "I think there is a great deal of truth," he wrote, "in the doctrine that true knowledge is impossible without a Guru."
A great Yogi is anyone who has achieved the permanent state of enlightened bliss. A Guru is a great Yogi who can actually pass that state on to others. The word Guru is composed of two Sanskrit syllables. The first means "darkness," the second means "light." Out of the darkness and into the light. What passes from the master into the disciple is something called mantravirya: "The potency of the enlightened consciousness." You come to your Guru, then, not only to receive lessons, as from any teacher, but to actually receive the Guru's state of grace.
Such transfers of grace can occur in even the most fleeting of encounters with a great being. I once went to see the great Vietnamese monk, poet and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh speak in New York. It was a characteristically hectic weeknight in the city, and as the crowd pushed and shoved its way into the auditorium, the very air in the place was whisked into a nerve-racking urgency of everyone's collective stress. Then the monk came on stage. He sat in stillness for a good while before he began to speak, and the audience--you could feel it happening, one row of high-strung New Yorkers at a time-- became colonized by his stillness. Soon, there was not a flutter in the place. In the space of maybe ten minutes, this small Vietnamese man had drawn every single one of us into his silence. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that he drew us each into our own silence, into that peace which we each inherently possessed, but had not yet discovered or claimed. His ability to bring forth this state in all of us, merely by his presence in the room--this is divine power. And this is why you come to a Guru: with the hope that the merits of your master will reveal to you your own hidden greatness.
The classical Indian sages wrote that there are three factors which indicate whether a soul has been blessed with the highest and most auspicious luck in the universe:
1. To have been born a human being, capable of conscious inquiry.
2. To have been born with--or to have developed--a yearning to understand the nature of the universe.
3. To have found a living spiritual master.
There is a theory that if you yearn sincerely enough for a Guru, you will find one. The universe will shift, destiny's molecules will get themselves organized and your path will soon intersect with the path of the master you need. It was only one month after my first night of desperate prayer on my bathroom floor--a night spent tearfully begging God for answers--that I found mine, having walked into David's apartment and encountered a photograph of this stunning Indian woman. Of course, I was more than a bit ambivalent about the concept of having a Guru. As a general rule, Westerners aren't comfortable with that word. We have a kind of sketchy recent history with it. In the 1970s a number of wealthy, eager, susceptible young Western seekers collided with a handful of charismatic but dubious Indian Gurus. Most of the chaos has settled down now, but the echoes of mistrust still resonate. Even for me, even after all this time, I still find myself sometimes balking at the word Guru. This is not a problem for my friends in India; they grew up with the Guru principle, they're relaxed with it. As one young Indian girl told me, "Everybody in India almost has a Guru!" I know what she meant to say (that almost everyone in India has a Guru) but I related more to her unintentional statement, because that's how I feel sometimes--like I almost have a Guru. Sometimes I just can't seem to admit it because, as a good New Englander, skepticism and pragmatism are my intellectual heritage. Anyhow, it's not like I consciously went shopping for a Guru. She just arrived. And the first time I saw her, it was as though she looked at me through her photograph--those dark eyes smoldering with intelligent compassion--and she said, "You called for me and now I'm here. So do you want to do this thing, or not?"
Setting aside all nervous jokes and cross-cultural discomforts, I must always remember what I replied that night: a straightforward and bottomless YES.