THE BODY AS CHARIOT OF THE SPIRIT: HATHA YOG A COMES TO AMERICA
The spellbound intimacy between Yogi and radiant God who, in the somatic context of Tantra is called Shiva, “transforming God: or Kundalini, “Mothering Goddess,” draws them ever-closer. Limb-stretching and spinal-twisting longings and fulfillments emerge as the bodily asanas and mudras (Yoga postures and “delight gestures”), permeated by a fundament of ever maturing virtues (yama-niyamas.) Awe-struck breathing becomes pranayama (carefully savored or extended breath) or anahata-nad (ecstatic utterances, inaudible sighs.) A transfixed attentiveness, dhyana (meditation), merges all This into a singular unity of source-consciousness, samadhi. Such is the mystical passion of inspired Hatha Yoga, as buried in every human body as the puberty of a ten year-old, or the labor contractions of a woman who has yet to give birth.
And such is the (largely hidden) physio-spiritual depth of the mostly fitness-focused Yoga that has proliferated in the US in thousands of Yoga studios with over 18 million Americans “doing Yoga.” While shaktipat Swamis Muktananda, Kripalvananda and others often awakened such profoundly inspired Hatha Yoga in Americans who met them in the 1970s and 80s, nearly all other Yogis taught the formalized postures as described in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, Vishnudevananda’s The Complete IllustratedBook of Yoga, and a flood of other how-to books. Iyengar’s guru, Krishnamacharya (1891-1989) sought a modernization of Yoga via the rigors of European gymnastics while his own instruction drew from the pedagogical aesthetics of European ballet, complete with balancing props, mirrored walls, hardwood floors, and an emphasis on correct anatomical alignment. By 2000, over 500 teachers in North America would bring “Iyengar Yoga” to athletes, pregnant mothers, the elderly, the incarcerated, and millions of others world-wide, while also inspiring the creation in 1975 of the popular newsstand magazine, Yoga Journal, with a 2006 circulation of 280,000, a tripling since 1999. [needs to be updated]
Another Krishnamacharya student, Pattabhi Jois based his teaching on the Yoga Korunta, an ancient text describing vinyasa, chained-together asana sequences, an allusion to the inspired Yoga described above. Likewise, but with specific pedagogical design, Amrit Desai, a disciple of Kripalvanand, developed his “posture-flows” as a step toward the devotional worship of Sahaja (inspired) Yoga. Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, a physician turned Yogi, trained many other teachers who came to the US from 1954 on, including Swamis Vishnudevananda, and Sivananda Radha (nee, Sylvia Hellman), the first Western female Swami, and Chidananda, whose student, Lilias Folan would bring yoga to some 200 television stations by 1977. Sixteen years earlier, the greatest of all Western popularizers, Richard Hittleman began his widely televised Yoga classes. His mass market Yoga books would sell over ten million copies, as Jess Stearn’s breezy Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation (1965) also hit the best-seller’s lists, with two million sold.
Swami Satchidananda, another Sivananda disciple, had just opened his Integral Yoga Institute in 1969 when he was invited to lead the invocation of the legendary Woodstock Festival, the first “American Kumbha-mela.” In 1986, he founded his Yogaville and currently leads some 40 centers worldwide. Paramahansa Yogananda’s brother, Bishnu Charan Gosh became the “Holywood guru” with the physical culture Yoga he taught from 1938-68. His student, Bikram Choudhury further developed a dynamically aerobic Hatha Yoga, typically conducted in a sauna-like heated room, an externalized simulation of the spiritually transformative inner heat of tapas. With thousands of teachers, Bikram Yoga is perhaps the most widely practiced and exoteric of the many contemporary styles of Yoga.
THE CHARIOT TURNS THIS WAY, THEN THAT WAY, AND EAST AND WEST BLURR UNRECOGNIZABLY TOGETHER
Could the postmodern intermingling of categories of “East” and “West” become any more hybridized than in the life and Integral spirituality of Sri Aurobindo? Disinterested in his own Indic tradition, the young Aurobindo excels at Greek and Latin at Oxford while also reading of Nietzsche’s (himself influenced by the Manusmirti) Super-man and Darwin’s evolutionary descent of man. Returning to India, he protests British rule, is imprisoned and, in rediscovering Sanatana Dharma, he integrates its profuse variations in several massive tomes. The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, and Savitri, among them while fashioning a vision of a spiritually evolving humanity via a “descent of the Supra-mind.” Along with his French cohort, Mira Richards (The Mother), he founds an Ashram in 1929 that leads to the creation of Auroville in 1968, an international community that models the gender-balanced eco-sustainability and in-the-world enlightenment of the new humanity. Aurobindo influenced the work of Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber while the first US graduate school devoted to Euro-Hinduism, the California Institute of Integral Studies, was his inspiration, as was Michael Murphy’s Esalen Institute.
In 1994, Jagannatha’s Ordering Way even swayed the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-IV, to differentiate healthy meditative states from the dismissive “depersonalization” and “dissociation” states with which they had been confused for nearly one hundred years. Going further, we must ask: Why is it that “voluntarily induced experiences of depersonalization or de-realization [do, in fact] form part of meditative and trance practices that are prevalent in many religions and cultures?” ( DSM IV, p. 488) Perhaps because their transfixing power reflects the overwhelming profundity of the new personhood or reality they reveal, that within the ego is Atman, and within That, is Brahman.
Indeed, from Assagioli’s higher-self therapy described in Psychosynthesis (1965) to Tart’s state-specific knowledge set forth in Transpersonal Psychologies (1975) and Wilber’s voluminous integral psychology of hierarchically nested “holons,” an evermore sophisticated literature in “spiritual,”East/West” or “transpersonal” Psychology has emerged. Likewise, physician Deepak Chopra’s mind-body medicine maintains that we all have the profound yet typically undeveloped capabilities of Yogis to revitalize and heal our bodies. Along with works by David Frawley, Vasant. Lad, and Maharishi’s published studies, his popular works on Ayurveda’s extensive herbal pharmacopia and highly individualized diagnostic and treatment regimes are bringing traditional Hindu medicine into America’s $27 billion “holistic health” revolution.
THIS RATHA-YATRA WILL BE FOLLOWED BY ANOTHER AND ANOTHER, AS THE CHARIOT WHIRS ENDLESSLY ON AND ON . . .
Much more can be said about the Euro-Hinduism of American popular culture and academic discourse, for example, “Hindu Motifs in Star Wars” or “Themes From Shakuntala in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.” Medical research has yet to fully evaluate Ayurvedic treatments and we await 40,000 full-time TM’ers supported by one billion dollars to induce world peace. And, beyond all such outer displays of Jagannatha’s power, there is the vast inner array of wondrous, poignant, and silencing awes, the rasa or personal feel of The Eternal Ordering Way coursing through this fleeting life and into the next and the next, propelled by indeterminate karmic forces.
For example, in 1977, while telling a rapt group of us Euro-Hindus the story of Buddha’s arduous spiritual search and final attainment, my guru (2500 years later), humbled by this utterly human story of a man distraught by the limited succor available to those suffering around him, inhaled hard, and began to weep. He had, himself, spent some ten hours a day for thirty years in inspired Yogic worship in achieving such an end. Years later, while telling me the story of my (by then deceased) guru’s rare Yogic attainments, his eldest disciple stopped suddenly and drew his hands to his lips, choked up, and (too) could not go on. And, now, I too gasp and pass this story on, yet again.
As Hindu philosophies and Yogas continue to spread throughout the world, may such depths of where we tread give us pause. For, only in such compelling, meditative silences does another, and another dimension of The Eternal Ordering Way emerge.