I have always been quite the unrepentant and unyielding empiricist: I want solid proof to back up any assertion and tangible evidence to give weight to any professed statement or idea. I love logic and adore pragmatism. Some may find this strange, but this rationalistic mindset led me to my first Yoga experience. This happened several years back, around four years ago…
Bold letters reading What’s In Your Mind accompanied a photograph of a Buddhist monk with his head encased in hundreds of electrodes on the cover of the National Geographic magazine. Needless to say I was quite intrigued. I flipped the magazine open and read the twenty-eight-page article with keen interest. It detailed some of the fascinating recent advances in neuroscience. The feature consisted of various shorter articles, one of which discussed a series of cognitive studies conducted by Professor Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One study showed that people with a negativistic attitude toward life displayed a persistent pattern of activity in the right prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Those with a happier, more positive outlook, showed brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex. When the group of neuroscientists tested a master Tibetan Buddhist monk his baseline of brain activity showed to be much farther to the left of anyone previously tested. As the article states: “Judging from this one study, at least, he was quantifiably the happiest man in the world.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison group conducted another study on volunteers who had no previous experience with meditation. The volunteers were split into two groups. One group received eight weeks of training in meditation; the other did not. All study volunteers received flu shots.
At the conclusion of the study the group that practiced meditation showed a pronounced shift in brain activity toward the left “happier and more positive” prefrontal cortex. The meditating group also showed a healthier response to the flu vaccine, which proved that the meditative training affected their physical health as well as their mental health. Fascinating.
I reread this article several times and thought I need to try some meditation. No one I knew practiced meditation and I didn’t have access to any books on the subject. From somewhere in the depths of my subconscious emerged an image of an orange-robed monk sitting with his legs crossed and chanting “Oooommmm” repeatedly—perhaps something I had seen on the Discovery Channel when I was younger. Well, let me try that. I sat in what I thought of as an “Indian Style” position and started to breathe in deeply and exhale oooommmm. I did this for a few minutes. The slight calming sensation was nice but I wasn’t exceedingly impressed. Well, the National Geographic article said the participants in that one study meditated for eight weeks. It also showed a picture of a Shingon Buddhist monk chanting for hours under a freezing cold waterfall in Japan. I could put my head in my sink and run cold water over it for a few hours but, um, that surely doesn’t sound very enticing! I think I’ll do this “om” thing every day for a while and see what happens.
Without expecting much, I did just that for several weeks. After perhaps two and a half or three weeks I had an experience that will remain vividly etched in my memory for the rest of my Life. I was sitting on my bunk with my legs crossed and my eyes closed doing the “om thing”: breathing in deeply and exhaling “oooommmm.” My breathing became deeper and my chanting became more rhythmic.
Breathe in… Breathe out….
My body became very relaxed. My mind became very relaxed.
Breathe in … Breathe out…. I felt a slight tension near the center of my forehead. It was as if my mind was wandering, exploring and suddenly encountered a barrier. My mind stood trembling before this barrier for a fraction of a second and then burst through with a smooth, calm, flowing force.I sat motionless, fixed to a single centered space. I was bathed in warmth and filled with an overwhelming sense of comfort. My mind flew through the unforgiving concrete and cold steel bars up to the sky. Then it went through the sky, past the sky. Devoid of mass, leaving all substance behind, my Consciousness soared through the Universe.
My sense of Self wavered, cracked, crumbled and then dissipated like fine dust blown by a forceful wind. There no longer was an I, only Oneness—a deep sense of being in tune with all of Humanity. This feeling of Interconnectedness with every aspect of Reality gave me a warm, comforting sense of flawless, radiant Peace. This deeply moving, powerful, almost indescribable impression of being at one with all of Existence overwhelmed me with a deep feeling of profound Love—pure, omnipresent Absolute Love…
Suddenly, my eyes flashed open and I felt warm tears running down my cheeks, tears that flowed from the river of my Soul. I sat there on my bunk stunned, not really understanding what had happened. One thing became clear to me though: a veil had been lifted from in front of my eyes and what lay before me was a path of discovery, a path of infinite discoveries, a path that I have followed for the last four years. What exactly was this first experience with meditation? One who practices the Sufi tradition of Islam might describe it as a calling toward ma’rifa (wisdom or gnosis).
An Odinist Sejdkuna (wise woman) may perhaps say that I was given a glimpse of the Yggdrasil, the Great World Tree. “You saw the Light and were called to be born again in Christ,” a Christian might remark upon hearing of my experience.
A Mahayana Buddhist may suggest that I was briefly touched by praja-paramita, transcendental wisdom, which expresses pure compassion.
A Jewish rabbi of the Qa’ballah tradition might say that I briefly stood before Jacob’s Ladder.
A psychologist who is a fan of Abraham Maslow might suggest that I had a sudden realization of the need for self-actualization, the need to expand my life experience and achieve my full potential.
A neuroscientist would probably say that I felt enhanced activity in the left prefrontal cortex area of my brain.
The experience I felt while meditating would surely be explained in various ways by various individuals.
I like to think of the experience as my first taste of Yoga—or perhaps I should say my first taste of Ishvara Pranidhana, the 5th aspect of the 2nd limb of Classic Yoga. Translation and transliteration of Sanskrit terms varies widely. Indeed, Indian religion-philosophy as a whole consists of a wide-ranging group of belief systems with innumerable and often contradictory variations. The most etymologically sound definition of Ishvara Pranidhana would probably be “surrender of the Self to Ishvara.” The principle classic text of Yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, describes Ishvara as the “teacher of even the ancient teachers” (Sutras I.26); many commentators define Ishvara as God. Patanjali also states that the manifesting word of Ishvara is Om (Aum) and chanting Om and sacrificing all to Ishvara is the way to Enlightenment. (Sutras I.27-28, II.45). Isha, Ishvara, Brahman, Brahma, Om and hundreds of other words are used in Indian religion-philosophy to describe God, one aspect of God, Ultimate Reality, Nature, Existence, Life, etc.—and these terms are often used interchangeably or in a contradistinctive manner.
In his commentary Om In The Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras, Swami Nirmalananda Giri describes Om as the Ishvara of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He also states that, “Om is our very Self. Brahman is our Self. We are Om and Om is Life itself. United with Om we are united with ALL.”—I think this describes my concept of Ishvara well: Unity of all Humanity, Nature, and Existence. So, where does the “surrender” come into play? Once, a journalist interviewing Mahatma Gandhi asked him for the secret of his Life. He replied “tena tyaktena bhujitah” (“renounce and enjoy”)—a line from the first verse of the Isha Upanishad. The full verse reads: Isha is enshrined in the hearts of allIsha is the supreme Reality
Rejoice in him through renunciation
Covet nothing. All belongs to Isha
What I experienced was a flash of renunciation of Self; a realization of the interconnectedness of all of Life and all of Humanity. I experienced a complete surrender of the individual I into the vast expanse of the Universe. This feeling was indescribably beautiful. I felt powerfully compelled to grasp Life more firmly and live Life more fully.
Even though I was confined to a small cell on Texas Death Row, subjugated to an environment designed to destroy the human Mind, Body, Spirit, and Soul, I knew that I could live a productive and fulfilling Life. I knew I could, I knew I had to, strive to uplift my Self and others in every way possible. To surrender to the Universe is to Love Life and work towards making peaceful coexistence of Humanity a Reality. This is the path that I was set on that eye-opening and consciousness-expanding day four years ago. This led me to delve into many areas of study and travel down many roads. I kept on meditating, eventually obtained books on Yoga and embraced Yoga as an overall philosophy of Life. About two years ago I became knowledgeable enough to help others learn Asanas (Yoga postures) and basic meditation techniques. Around a year ago I began delving much more deeply into the philosophy of Yoga, with a particular emphasis on its relation to modern psychology. This has greatly enhanced my ability to help others learn Yoga. I have, indeed, “found my own Yoga,” which could perhaps be described as living the 8 Limbs of Classic Yoga and experiencing the thirty-six Tattvas of Tantra-Yoga.
I recently obtained official Yoga Instructor Certification, which has reminded me that I am and always will be an eager student with an unquenchable desire to learn. It seems that
a week doesn’t go by without me making a new discovery, a discovery that reinforces the idea that Life is a process of continuous growth. I will always be a skeptic and great lover of Logic, and I will always be an enthusiastic empiricist, albeit, one who recognizes that Life contains infinite potential.
One of these possibilities is that Yoga has the awesome power to change and enhance lives. It has happened to me and others. If this can happen in one of the worst environments imaginable, think of what that means for the prospects of Yoga in relation to the whole of society. Peaceful coexistence of Humanity can only become a Reality if mankind sees itself as inexorably Interconnected. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, speaking from the perspective of Ultimate reality, the sacred Om, says to Arjuna: “Through me all things, as through the gemstones of a necklace, runs the thread of my all-unifying Consciousness.” Imagine if every person on Earth saw the beauty of the Interconnectedness of Nature and Humanity. Imagine if every human being thought of themselves as timelessly linked together by a thread of Love, Peace, and Compassion: To harm one is to harm all, to Love one is to Love All. Think of the infinite possibilities…
*I will be writing more about Yoga soon
*Because it may be of interest—and perhaps helpful—to some, below is a list of some of the books that I have found helpful in my Yoga studies. I have confined this list to (mostly) works on Yoga and western psychology though texts on other subjects have helped me greatly. Some purists may scoff at my inclusion of texts on western psychology. In answer I would say that to understand western psychology is to understand the potential depth of the power of Yoga and understand how this power can help heal a world that, as Carl Gustav Jung said, “… is suffering from mass dissociation of the psyche.”
• The Bhagavad Gita, explained by Paramhansa Yogananda, as remembered by his disciple Swami Kriyananda.
• Kularnarva Tantra, Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe).
• The Yoga Handbook, Sumukhi Finney.
• Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers and Practitioners, Dr. H. David Coulter.
• Yoga: Its Scientific Basis, Kovoor T. Behanan.
• Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse.
• The Upanishads (Classic of Indian Spirituality), Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran.
• Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain.
• The Yoga Bible, Christina Brown.
• The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, tr. Pancham Sinh.
• The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, tr. and introduction with commentary by Swami Vivekananda.
• Yoga As Philosophy and Religion, Surendranath Dasgupta.
• India: A History, John Keay.
• Tantric Quest: An Encounter With Absolute Love, Daniel Odier, tr. Jody Gladding.
• The Great Goddess: Reverence of the Divine Feminine from Paleolithic to the Present, Jean Markale, tr. Jody Gladding.
• Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, Dr. Georg Feuerstein.
• The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnudevananda.
• Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner.
• A Dictionary of Symbols, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, tr. Jack Sage.
• Conditioned Reflexes, I.P. Pavlov.
• 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself, Dr. Jerome Blackman.
• Man and His Symbols, C.G. Jung.
• Psychology of the Unconscious, C.G. Jung.
• The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, C.G. Jung.
• Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mohandas K. Gandhi.
• Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV-TR), American Psychiatric Association.
• Yoga Journal, and a countless number of essays and articles.