As a long-time yoga practitioner and teacher, I am amused by modern social constructs telling us what yoga is and how we ought to perceive it. My own understanding is based on the old-fashioned definition of yoga as “union” – most often described as “union with the Divine,” or the essence of religion, “re-linking.” For those who dismiss the whole idea of the Divine, yoga could also be interpreted as “union of body and soul,” or simply “unity with all that is.”
When I began practicing hatha yoga at age 13 I didn’t know it was supposed to be union with anything; I thought it was just postures. I did practice Zen meditation with the intent of reaching enlightenment. At that time I was an atheist, and it was only years later in college thanks to the Hare Krishnas that union with the Divine became an all-attractive goal, one which might, perhaps, be realized many lifetimes later if I obeyed all the religious rules. Meanwhile I was only permitted to worship Him at a distance and long for Him. This, they said, was the “highest spiritual experience” – pining for the absent Lord. I was not convinced. I would rather have had Him. Meanwhile I was practicing Kriya yoga with SRF and this was supposed to lead to “enlightenment” although it also seemed unlikely to occur in this lifetime.
Some of my fellow teachers and yogis reject the concept of yoga as union with the Divine, for a couple of different reasons. For one, there is simply the modern denial of the Divine per se. Religion is perceived as something archaic and limiting that would best be abandoned entirely, or which might have been useful for monastic yogis but is, in any case, irrelevant to the needs of modern householders. Personally, as a former monastic, I find union with the Divine even more useful, indeed necessary, now that I am a householder. There is, however, another more fundamental reason for rejection of that definition: namely, it implies a search for attainment of a union which already exists. The Divine is not absent and thus there is nothing to be attained!
The latter objection can be extended to yoga as a practice to attain spiritual enlightenment, psychological integration, or any type of “self improvement” whatsoever, on the basis that we are perfectly fine exactly as we are and nothing can or need be done! U.G. Krishnamurti went so far as to say that spiritual practices such as yoga/meditation are not only useless, they actually make our human condition WORSE by the implication that we are not ok and that there is a better life to be achieved. This view has become popular in some intellectual circles and it certainly appeals to the modern ego. However, let's be honest, it simply does not jive with our actual experience as human beings. If we’re totally fine the way we are, why do we so often feel miserable? Why this existential malaise?
U.G. would say we are miserable only because we’ve been conditioned by religion and society to expect something better, and we need only let go of our expectations. But, we can’t even do that because in reality there is nobody to let anything go. There is no subject or object, experience is all one and there’s nothing to be done and nobody to do it. That’s all well and good, and it may be strictly true from an ontological standpoint, and intellectually tasty, clever, and gratifying to the monkey-mind. It is also completely unhelpful and provides absolutely no hope or comfort to people struggling with the pain of their existence. But to be fair, U.G. explicitly stated that he had no interest in providing hope or help of any kind, as such was impossible.
Some teachers flirt with a modified form of this viewpoint. They will affirm that we are fine just the way we are, and yet at the same time they will recommend that we do our yoga practice, while insisting that the practice be done “without expectation." Krishna Das says, “One of the biggest impediments to our practice is our own expectation.” This is a deliciously ironic sentence because “impediments” implies a goal to be achieved, i.e., our practice is expected to attain something, which our expectation is impeding us from achieving!
Now, it is true that expectation can result in disappointment and thereby contribute to our existential misery. So by not expecting anything, we can conveniently avoid disappointment in life. However, then we are living from a place of avoidance - the desire to avoid disappointment, which is itself just another trap.
We can have reasonable expectations in life. Our lifestyle choices have predictable results. For example, if I eat a healthy meal I can expect to feel satisfied. If I overeat I will feel bloated. If I stay up late drinking too much I can reasonably expect to feel like sh*t the next day. If I sit on my ass watching t.v. and eating junk food I can expect my ass to get bigger, whereas if I work out and eat a healthy diet my body will respond accordingly. If we practice yoga daily it will have a beneficial effect on our body and mind. There is nothing mysterious here, it's how we are hard-wired.
Needless to say, I would feel silly telling my prospective yoga students, "Do your yoga but don't expect it to have any effect on your life." Modern people are very busy and as a general rule, we won't spend our precious time doing something if we don't expect it to benefit us. Of course the whole concept of "benefit" presupposes that it is possible to improve our condition, which U.G. denies.
My own dear teacher Mark Whitwell, a fan of U.G., has been known to advocate a similar point of view, which I find quite amusing in light of the title of his new book: The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy. How a Simple Breathing Practice Will Enrich Your Life Forever. Why should we “enrich” our life if it’s already perfect? Why do yoga or breathing practices? Why do anything? It’s all good, right?! Except, again, from an experiential standpoint it really ISN’T, which as T.K. Desikachar points out, is why people are motivated by pain and unhappiness to turn to yoga in the hope of improving their lives. And there IS hope!
If yoga is to be done “without expectations” then clearly no “promise” can be made because there can be no expectation of its fulfilment. In fact, however, despite the intellectual assertions or mind games suggesting otherwise, the promise of yoga is genuine: There is an appropriate yoga for each person, and if it is actually practiced daily, it will change your life. I can attest to this from my own personal experience.
Last May, after practicing yoga for 35 years, my life utterly changed 3 minutes into doing Mark’s breathing technique. I assumed it was due to that technique, although perhaps it was mere coincidence; I can't help wondering whether it might have happened much sooner, had I been practicing the Heart of Yoga technique all along. In any case, at that moment, the promise of yoga was fulfilled for me and it has exceeded my wildest expectations. I don’t call it “enlightenment.” (1) I don’t feel particularly “enlightened.” I don’t know anything that I didn’t know before. It feels like “liberation.” In the past I had imagined “enlightenment” as a sort of detached, impassive state without preference or feelings. Instead, in this state that yoga has given me, all human feelings remain and indeed, perhaps more vivid than before, as there is no resistance. The weight of existence has been lifted from my shoulders. There is still pain but nobody is really suffering because this “self” such as it is, has become transparent, merely a function of Life enjoying this particular experience as “me.” The veil has been lifted. Union with the Divine – which was the case all along because, duh, the Lord never actually went anywhere! – is finally realized as an actuality, not an abstract concept.
But, apparently I’m not supposed to say that. You see, there are those who (contrary to U.G.) recommend yoga practices as a means to reach a goal which they call variously “enlightenment” or “liberation” or “divine union.” They assert that yoga is designed to produce this result. But at the same time, they imply that it won’t really work – not for you or me, not in this lifetime, anyway. Maybe for monks in Tibet or Rishikesh, but not for ordinary human beings – especially women. If and when the yoga practice which they recommend actually does work for you, you’re not allowed to SAY that it worked. It’s kind of like an exclusive secret club and the boys in charge are very particular about membership, and silly little rock & roll surfer girls are not allowed. But, never mind me. I actually know several other people for whom this has happened and many others who are obtaining real benefit, although maybe not to that extent (yet). Yoga has been practiced by millions of people over the last several thousand years and it does, in fact, “work.” It is a tried and true system which allows us to experience our natural state, here and now, to feel and celebrate the Divine union which already exists.
So here’s what you can expect, yes, EXPECT: First, if you attend my “Rockin’ Yoga” class (2) at Body Soul Bliss you can expect to have the hell rocked out of you by Led Zep, Jimi Hendrix, Alanis, Motley Crue, Ozzy and friends. If you prefer mellow music you may hear Mark Whitwell’s “Pure Love Project” or some Indian tantric music. Or we can practice in silence. Either way, we will do asanas according to your ability, the movement always contained within and guided by the breath. We can do challenging asanas if you want, but ultimately it’s all about the breath. You will be solo or with a couple of other students. The class ends with a brief “meditation” which is to say, we will do pranayama, maybe chanting, and then sit silently and by grace you may experience meditation. I can’t promise that you will experience Divine union, especially if the Divine is not real to you. But I do promise that you will experience Something. You may experience bliss or ecstasy. At the very least, you will leave here feeling better than you did when you arrived.
If you faithfully continue the yoga practice, as my teacher calls it, this "discipline of pleasure," at home on a daily basis (which is the whole point, after all), over time your life will change. The meditative or unitive state that you experience while doing yoga will begin to spill over into the rest of your daily life. Your relationship with yourself, God/the universe, your spouse/lover, and other people will improve. Problems won’t magically vanish, there will still be pain, but life will flow and you will be able to handle it. You will experience the joy in simple things. You will enjoy your life. Sex will be even more profoundly pleasurable. You may also get more toned and physically look better, but that is a fringe benefit. Don’t take my word for it. Just do it.
(1) (see my previous blog post, “Why I Could Give a Rat’s Ass About Enlightenment”)
(2) Unfortunately we are not allowed to play music anymore because we cannot afford the licenses from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.