Down through time, seekers and gurus have trespassed across the ordinary and cultivated paths to wisdom. Across traditions, deep in our ancestry, wisdom teachings have been passed like folk cures from teacher to debutante. Every single holy book there is is a collection and transcription of an oral tradition going back thousands of years before the things were written down. Yoga stands there, in half lit hallways of time, where individual soldiers of life have sometimes found a thing that worked for them, throwing open the doors of perception.
We know this. Yet, strangely, a bit wonderfully, yoga is popular. You can take classes in libraries, college gyms, retirement centers and vacation line cruises. You can download teacher wisdom. Yoga is a practice of books, DVDs, and the world wide web. NBA and NFL players do it. Sexy popstars do it. Suddenly, practices handed down across centuries are available at WalMart.
We are, ahead of anything else, practical people. Understanding that makes the increasing popularity of yoga an obvious thing: yoga is a very practical endeavor. It cultivates cardiovascular health. It builds musculoskeletal strength and flexibility without the grind and shock of high impact aerobics or sport. It peaks every organ system – the respiratory, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, lymphatic, and nervous. It cultivates the capacity to relax and dramatically cuts away at the negatives of stress. Yoga instantly makes us feel better, breathe better, sleep better. We digest better. Many claim easing or healing of long entrenched illness. You do not need long years of apprenticeship or training. The effects of yoga are immediate and profound.
Still, the physical and practical benefits of yoga may mask, or at least be a superficial version of, something more. Hang around any yoga studio for a bit and you’ll hear stories of remarkable self transformation. People report a profound rediscovery of self and purpose. Some claim their capacities of concentration, creativity, and intuition blossom strangely. People start talking like believers or religious. “Chronic” illnesses wither. People find focus, purpose, and meaning in their lives. Some trespass across the common world of the ordinary and find the doors of perception flung wide.
It can be hard to know what to make of this, or what it means. Is that stuff ‘yoga’? And which yoga? Any exploration or basic google search turns up such a wealth of philosophies and interpretations the neophyte can be overwhelmed. There are rumors of enlightenment, hints of change. But the incomprehensible stew of every conceivable philosophy, psychology, metaphysic is bewildering. The ancient and the modern, the esoteric and the practical, the magical and the scientific fuse. Or, they don’t. The deeper, promised secrets of yoga are not easily had.
As I came to yoga, I had intimations of the something else, something deeper, something profound, but very little idea if those things applied to me. My practice involved the ‘gross physical body’: I was a hardbitten atheist, strongly attached to reason, struggling to make sense of a hurricane life. I found that there was something in the practice that I deeply, physically, needed. In the beginning, it was simply about hanging on and feeling better.
When I began to look into the deeper aspects of yoga, I had difficulty knowing what to make of it all. There are a plethora of how-to books to teach the asana and breathing techniques. And there are treasure troves of lore: mythic adventures of gods speaking to nearly godly men; fascinating accounts of levitation, knowledge of former births, bilocation, states of nirvanic bliss. The wash and swell of Hindu texts elucidate ecstasy. Union with the One. Knowledge of the Absolute. Cosmic consciousness. Pulling back the veils of deception and the phenomena of the material world. But it is hard to know what those things mean to me. Are those the same descriptions of what’s happening during a lunch hour flow series? Where is the transformation story of a neurotic Western agnostic like me? Is this supposed to be my story?
The questions I have – and hear from others – sometimes seem quaint or simplistic, making us wonder if we’re just not getting the point. We come to yoga hoping it will help. It usually does. It usually does in unexpected and stunning ways. But it remains hard to know what that means, or to answer the questions. ‘Can a Christian practice yoga’ sounds like a ridiculous rant out of a t.v. evangelist’s mouth, and it is, but it is also a valid question. Where do I begin? How much do I have to do? What is kundalini, chakra, ayurveda? What is supposed to happen in meditation? If you stick with this, do you end up vegetarian, wearing mala beads, annoying your friends? Do I have to give up french fries?
Historically, yoga is a wisdom tradition. It is a story of journey and transformation. It belongs to the families of ‘whispered wisdom’. Deep down in history, these are things that were passed from one who had been there to debutante. Ultimately, the ‘secret’ has less to do with what is whispered than the fact of whispering: if it were just getting the answers, we could just read a textbook and have done. There would not be thousands of texts, nor millions of practitioners. Truthfully, journeys are made with teachers and maps and guides. We suffer from a lack of mentorship, a not quite knowing what we’re supposed to do, no clear route of initiation. We’re not terribly sure that we even want initiation, but the wisdom is tempting.
I am coming to believe that the ‘whispered wisdom’ is a slant truth, a cunning little word play. The texts, teachers, and mentors are helpers. Historically they have been the lights. In the end, though, I believe we start to hear a whispering, haunting voice inside. The texts, the practice, and the philosophies are not the end product, not the prize: they are maps to the prize. Maps themselves are not the terrain covered. They are representations. Translations. Metaphors.
Happiness, they say, is not a thing you find one day or a constitution you are born with, even if some of us are more predisposed than others. Happiness comes not from any specific thing, but from the building of a life in which happiness has room to come in. Create, cultivate, the conditions, and the thing appears. Remove obstacles. Clear spaces. Recognize barriers and work through them. Give time to the things that contribute to happiness: friendships, family, intellectual expansion, spiritual growth, play. Give priority to reflection, regeneration, commitments and slow and steady growth.
Yoga is a creeping, haunting thing. With any exposure to it, and half-assed effort, a kind of inner whispering begins. We find there is simply more of us than we thought. A great deal more. More consciousness, more energy, more equanimity, more life in the body, more connection in the emotions, more fire in the depth of our emotions, good and bad.
I have always had voices in my head. Most of my life, they have been conflicting. There have been a number of them that echo the judgement, critique, or down right abuse I’ve taken in from elsewhere. I began to notice a year or two ago that those voices, all that conflict and resultant paralysis, began to fade. This in itself seemed a wonderful thing, and I was unsure exactly what had happened.
But in the last year, a different thing has begun to happen. There is still more there – an astonishing amount of more. More consciousness, still. More and deeper empathy. More energy. More equanamity, more depth. I continue to spy into the practices and philosophies and metaphysics. I soak it in. I have begun to take that happiness approach: make room, establish the conditions, let go. The conditions mean I look for gurus and mentors. I practice listening. I give time and priority where it seems most appropriate. I try to apply the ethics, restraints, observances. I get frustrated and then I let go, go deeper.
There is suddenly a voice. Suddenly is not the right word: I am aware that this voice was one of those earlier voices. Some of the themes are familiar. The songs. There is a clarity and a surety that was never, ever there before. An authenticity. But it is more than just ‘my true self’, more than ‘clarity’: it’s also a tremendous and haunting reserve of beauty and wisdom. So much wisdom, I am baffled. Things that seemed difficult aren’t difficult any more. I am not afraid any longer. Situations that seemed hopeless, or hopelessly complicated, suddenly are not. I hear voices: I am walking the dog at midnight, thinking of any random string of things, and I suddenly hear a voice ten leagues deeper than that conscious stream of thought tell me exactly what I need to do about some other thing, that I wasn’t even thinking of. I am driving midmorning, anxious and listening to the world news on NPR, running between bank and grocery and vet, and suddenly two words sink in and everything sinks magically into perfect places. As if magnetized. As if tethered by strings and drawn in. I move to a sudden understanding of world and myself. Am changed by the understanding.
A haunting, resonant voice. A steady knowledge that this yoga is not just practical, not purely popular. There are strange questions and stranger answers out there. America is suffering a crush on yoga, and like any love affair, there are ups and downs. Any mature relationship to yoga has to acknowledge those dark places and low points. The pushing the physical too far. The commercialization. The idealization of gurus. The trade in of spiritual path for monthly membership fees. The weird attempts to transcend realities of work, intimacy, identity.
Ultimately, the yogic path is about work, intimacy, and identity. It goes as deep and as pithy as psychoanalysis. It can ask questions and leave us hanging for lack of good answers. Not transcendence, but depth. Not overcoming, but going deeper in.
But there is that voice. It surfaces. It becomes more clear. It keeps us company on the journey, through wild goose chase and moments of inner calm. It knows why we are there. It, too, is determined to save the only life we really can save. When the sages say the wisdom is whispered, they mean it’s a thing you have to listen to hear. That the listening changes who you are.