The Yoga of Self-Awakening
by Philip Goldberg
I discovered Yoga through books. It was the 1960s, and, like other young people, I was searching for truth and the answers to the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How can I live a fulfilling life? I read Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and other big thinkers who had drunk deeply from the well of Eastern philosophy. They wrote about transcending the mind and ego, enlightenment, Self-realization, and of Yoga as a practical means to achieving those higher states of being. That led me to books published by the Vedanta Society, which clearly described the principles of Yoga and Vedanta for the modern Western mind, to Yoganananda’s seminal Autobiography of a Yogi, and to the primary sources—the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras.
All that reading told me that books about realization are virtually useless without direct experience, and that something called meditation was central to the yogi’s pursuit of higher consciousness. So, in 1968, four months after the Beatles’ famous visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India, I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM). I took to it strongly and eventually was trained as a TM teacher. Not long after taking up the practice, I added pranayama (breathing techniques) and asanas (postures) to my daily routine. My primary motivation was to deepen my meditation; any residual improvements to my physical and mental well-being—while I enjoyed many of them—I considered fringe benefits.
So, my yogic path started with philosophy, led to meditation, then to pranayama and asanas, and onward. That sequence is pretty much the exact opposite of how most people get into Yoga and progress with it nowadays, when asanas dominate studio offerings and are virtually synonymous with Yoga in the public eye. This says a great deal about the versatility and diversity of Yoga, and its adaptability to individual needs, cultures and periods of history. It has always been, and always will be, different things to different people, and it will always accommodate a wide range of lifestyles, values, social customs and applications.
Because of how I discovered it and the nature of my early influences, Yoga has always been, for me, primarily about Self-realization. Yoga resonated with me – especially the descriptions of inner peace, freedom from the limits of conditioned awareness, and union with Ultimate Reality that permeate yogic literature and the commentaries on it. That’s what inspired me. I wanted what the yogis and rishis had. I wanted what the Bhagavad Gita describes as equanimity in pleasure and pain, loss and gain, victory and defeat. I wanted bliss. I wanted cosmic consciousness, unshakable contentment, compassion for all beings, and infinite love. I wanted the permanent state of Unity Consciousness that Patanjali and others described for the ages as the very definition of Yoga.
It was a romantic vision at first—a sublime aspiration that I believed could be achieved in relatively short order. I was wrong about that; the ultimate attainments—that “permanent” piece of the puzzle—proved to be far more distant than I imagined it would be in my youthful zeal. Eventually, I stopped thinking about those Himalayan aspirations and dropped all the goal-seeking. No more eye-on-the-prize long-term objectives. No more imagined finish line. The present, I realized, is challenging and rewarding enough.
Nothing about my practice changed. But now I could better enjoy the path itself and appreciate the mini-awakenings, the fleeting glimpses of Oneness, the temporary states of pure consciousness and bliss, instead of wishing they wouldn’t end. I was more appreciative of Yoga’s immediate impact, and its powerful, tangible and valuable short-term benefits. My practices became as indispensible to daily life as showering and brushing my teeth, and they remain so all these years later. If I neglect them, I feel out of whack. If I don’t stretch and breathe in certain ways, I feel the vacuum in my muscles and tendons. If I don’t make time to meditate, I feel as though a dark hole is burrowing into my soul.
I can’t imagine coming up with one simple answer to the question I was asked to address in this piece, namely what Yoga means to me. It means many things—too many things of too much value to summarize neatly. Perhaps the title of the Smithsonian Institution exhibit, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” says it best, although it could also be called a science of transformation. Art, science, whatever—it transforms bodies, minds, hearts, and souls for the better. Yoga radically changed my life more than four decades ago, and it continues to transform it every day.
|Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than forty years, as both a practitioner and an author. He is the author or co-author of nineteen books, including Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path and his latest, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, which was named one of the top ten religion books of the year by both the Huffington Post and the American Library Association’s Booklist. As a public speaker and workshop leader, he has given presentations at venues throughout the country and has appeared in national media. An ordained Interfaith Minister and spiritual counselor, he blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and Elephant Journal. His websites are www.AmericanVeda.com and www.PhilipGoldberg.com.