I recently participated in a discussion on Mark Whitwell’s Heart of Yoga Facebook page where he posed:
“The Yoga Question: Yoga is not a process of enlightenment or insight - it's a process of relationship. It's through relationship that change happens in the direction of a fuller life. Discuss.”
My first reaction was, “yes, but what’s the question?” (this was, after all, the premise of his book Yoga of Heart where he explains the theme at great length).
After a couple of other people offered their contributions to the discussion I said, “Ok, if the question is, What is your experience of this?, then I would answer: I always wanted the Relationship but was taught that I had to become enlightened before that would happen. As Mark has kindly pointed out, the Relationship already exists and now I am free to experience it. Frankly, I could give a rat's ass about enlightenment anymore.”
People then went on to discuss the topic and many of them (notably the men, for the most part) insisted that enlightenment was indeed an important part of the yogic process. Needless to say, my rat’s ass comment did not get many “likes.”
Until relatively recently I would not have ventured to offer my humble opinion about a matter so weighty as enlightenment since, after all, who am I to say?! But now at 48 years old, I have lived nearly half a century on this planet, and for most of that time I have practiced and taught yoga while seriously and earnestly pursuing enlightenment. Over the years I have had the privilege of studying with many wonderful organizations and teachers, some very well-known and others I am sure you have never heard of, who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog lest I piss somebody off.
It began in childhood when I tried, along with my Trekkie friends, to become a Vulcan, logical, impassive, the master of one’s emotions, with limited success. At 12 or 13 I began an intensive study of the mystical traditions of the East and West including hatha yoga and various forms of meditation, and read lots and lots of books. I wanted to know my Oneness with the universe.
In college at 17 I began teaching hatha yoga to my fellow students and also delved deeper into metaphysics, including White Magick and the Qabalah. I continued my study of yoga and learned tantra and kundalini yoga from an older graduate student with whom I fell in love and got a broken heart, because he said “relationships involve attachment and are therefore bad,” but it was all well worth it. I received initiations in kriya yoga. I chanted with the bhaktas. I ended up getting my B.A. in Philosophy, a completely useless degree although my professors assured me I would be a successful writer (which turned out to be true, if by “successful” you mean “published but never paid”). I went on to get my M.A. in Psychology and wrote my Master’s thesis on “The Psychology of Nonattachment in the Bhagavad Gita” in which I discussed that what the scripture intended as “freedom” was all too often misinterpreted as a cold detachment from life and love.
As part of my search for enlightenment I had hoped to find a suitable tantric partner, but all the men to whom I was really attracted unfortunately were celibate yogis (a waste of a good yogi), and in my desire for Relationship, being unable to find a volunteer to go there with me, I eventually became a Sister in the Community of Francis and Clare. Continuing my yogic practice and living a simple life, I was reasonably happy in my “celibate” vocation for most of 14 years, but still hoped and longed for enlightenment so as to fully realize that Relationship, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt my Oneness with Everything and to finally be at peace. My partner and I found each other about 6 years ago when I wasn’t looking. However, even with our combined efforts enlightenment remained elusive and in fact, began to seem more and more unlikely amidst the trials and complexities of life, although tantra and kriya were supposed to speed up the process, and I had been doing both for a very long time. My partner had actually given up on enlightenment years ago and while I had worked on myself a great deal, I was apparently incorrigible.
So I think I am, after all, rather qualified to discuss yoga and enlightenment, having been a yogini and having studied and pursued enlightenment, unsuccessfully, for most of my life.
In regard to Mark’s non-question/discussion, I did later give it a great deal of thought because it occurred to me that my life had changed dramatically after hearing him speak. Couldn’t that be considered a “process of enlightenment”? Well no, not really, because while I agreed with everything he said, having reached many of the same conclusions myself over the years and very happy to hear somebody else saying them, merely hearing the words did not change anything; e.g., yes, we know God does not have to be found because God is already right here. Duh, everybody knows this. I’d been reading about it since I was a child, but until now had not experienced it with my whole body and soul, at least not consistently, as my everyday Reality. It’s quite a different thing to “know” something intellectually, versus experientially. It was not while I was listening to Mark state the obvious, that my life changed. No, it was later, when he led us in asana and pranayama. A few breaths into the movement my reality was suddenly and profoundly transformed, merely as a result of doing the pranayama correctly along with the asana – which is to say, as a result of relationship with body and breath.
I was already poised on the edge, having done yoga my whole life. But like most modern yogis I had not quite been taught correctly! In many ways my practice was consistent with the classical hatha yoga from Krishnamacharya as taught by Desikachar, but there were certain discrepancies. E.g., significantly, I had been taught to visualize prana rising up the spine on the inhale, whereas in Heart of Yoga it is received from above, and rises on the exhale! I had always felt this was backwards and was quite relieved when Mark corrected it.* Along with this, I had been taught to inhale from the abdomen first and fill the top of the chest last, while the correct classical method the air fills the chest from the top down. Also, the ujjayi breath was slightly different from what I had been taught and I had previously only used it during sitting meditation (kriya) and not during asana. These few adjustments caused everything to fall perfectly into place as I simply moved and breathed. God was here, right here, as close as my own heart. All was well with the universe and I One with it. The monkey-mind ceased its annoying chatter and there was utter Peace and Bliss and Love.
Certainly, this wasn’t the first time I had experienced such a phenomenon. I had known an intensely beautiful state of awareness transiently thanks to the input of great teachers, but when this inevitably wore off my life returned to normal, which is to say, yearning for something beyond. Of course, I had been meditating for many years, and had frequent and exquisite experiences of Oneness, but these were fleeting and unreliable, the techniques to “get there” were a bit awkward, and the temporary samadhi did not translate into real change in my life once I got up from meditation. I had hoped enlightenment would one day fix that. Instead, this simple relationship of body and breath now gave me everything that elusive enlightenment had promised, and much more!
The lifelong pursuit of enlightenment - all that reading, studying, discussing, thinking and not-thinking, pondering and meditating, turning the mind on and off, never did jack shit in terms of changing my life. It did not reduce my level of existential misery one bit. It did not make me a better, more compassionate person; it made me wish I was and regret that I was not. It did not give me abiding peace, love or bliss.
As I continued to do my daily yoga practice with the adjustments learned from Mark, I soon discovered to my wonder and delight that this was no transitory siddhi, but my own natural state. I was completely free, connected with everything, utterly in Love. All my doubts and fears disappeared and I felt totally comfortable in my own skin. I tangibly felt the Bliss in my heart of hearts, where compassion for all beings arose spontaneously. This did not come from “a process of insight,” it came from movement of body and breath, my relationship as an embodied being with Life itself, through the actual yoga practice. This is what yoga is all about, how it was supposed to be all along. I truly now have Everything that I always wanted. And that is why I could give a rat’s ass about enlightenment.
Of course, I can only speak from my own experience and I respect that everybody is different. To those who believe that enlightenment is indeed the goal, go for it, have a great time. I hope it works out for you.
* The direction of spinal breathing depends on the school; e.g. AYP does it the other way, and it is "an argument among friends."