Beyond ‘Scampi’: Q & A with Dan K, Part 1

My thanks once again to my friends who commented on my last blog post, particularly Dan K, whose thoughtful and challenging questions have given me a launching pad for the next few entries. I’ll approach the broad, underlying issues that Dan’s comments raise by addressing his specific questions in reverse order:

… if self-realization is the goal (of yoga), why does it even matter to you how other people are living?

Enlightened self-interest: yoga can be a solitary pursuit but that’s not what’s recommended in the traditional literature. On the contrary, the classical texts call for enlightened engagement with the world! And yoga is a radical – perhaps the most radical – revisualization of the world because it says that everything we think we know is wrong. As a consummate contrarian and habitual troublemaker, that’s always been one of the things that I’ve liked about yoga; it’s totally subversive, the ultimate culture jam.

Practicing and teaching yoga is my contribution to creating a world that’s more conducive for self-realization – not just for me, but for everyone. After all, I have to do something. There’s no question of our not making a difference in the world, just a question of what kind of a difference we’ll make. And it’s a two way street in every direction; we affect one another by our actions (or inaction). What we do and why we do it matters. Yoga offers a unique frame of reference for understanding action and inaction. For me, teaching this frame of reference is an important part of being a yoga teacher.

Why does it (yoga) have to follow your view, even if it was backed by the classical text?

If it’s backed by the classical texts then it’s not my view; it’s the view of the classical texts. My job as a yoga teacher is to re-present what I have heard from my teachers in a way that conveys the essence of that teaching according to my personal realization, my experience of trying to live those teachings. The teachers that have always resonated with me are the ones who, following the traditionally recommended method, present yoga scripture without word jugglery or imaginative speculation. OmScampiIn devotional yoga the meaning of the texts are understood to be self-evident. This is emphatically not, in my opinion, the equivalent of ‘Yoga Fundamentalism’, but if it makes me the Robert Bork of scriptural interpretation, well, then hopefully it’s the only thing he and I have in common.

Of course, people don’t have to follow this method; they can study as they choose, reflect on what they hear, and then do what they wish to do. But just because someone decides to call a fish a banana doesn’t make the fish a banana. I think any reasonable person would agree that some objective criteria of what yoga is or isn’t is required as a point of reference to give the word meaning, and what better criteria than that established by the original literature on the subject?

Why does yoga have to be so serious?

Rule #1 in my yoga classes: everyone has fun. That said, serious yoga is, for me, actually the most joyfully performed. And the philosophy behind the asanas is a serious and important part of a well-rounded practice.

But there’s another reason why I take yoga seriously: death. The last time I checked the death rate was 100% and the number one cause of death is birth; everyone who is born dies but most of us live as if death is something that always happens to someone else. And it is, until it happens to us.

This is why Patanjali begins his Yoga Sutras with a statement of urgency: NOW, do yoga. Why? Because we have a human birth and therefore a golden opportunity to break the cycle of samsara, of repeated birth and death in the material world. The Vedanta Sutras begin in similar fashion: athato brahmajijnasa; NOW is the time to understand Brahman, the Absolute Truth. Why? Same reason: approaching the Absolute Truth through the process of yoga is an opportunity to solve the problem of death. Yoga philosophy tells us, and the practice of yoga helps us to experience by direct perception, that we are eternal, spiritual beings. Therefore self-realization means transcending death. That’s something worth taking seriously.

Which brings us to what I think is the real heart of the discussion: the intersection of yoga, science, and religion. Stay tuned. Until then, comments, please.


  1. Posted December 4, 2010 at 9:54 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Uh oh, here it comes….

    So, Hariji, with all due respect, I beg to disagree with the notion that yoga tells us that “everything we think we know is wrong”. I would tend to interpret the teachings as teaching us that in order to suss out our own means to reach enlightenment, while at the same time doing everything we can do to facilitate the same for the other beings in our lives, we should question everything. But, that doesn’t necessarily preclude that what one thinks is wrong — and taking such a seemingly negative stance may make those who look to you for direction feel hopeless… Maybe some things we think we know are right!

    So, maybe we should all be a little less rigid. Yoga will work its magic if the student is committed and open. And while you may be “further” along with regard to food, another might be further along with regard to one of the many other forms of ignorance that prevent us from being fully aware…

    Said in good fun, of course — not because I think I’ve got all the answers. ; – )

  2. harikirtana
    Posted December 5, 2010 at 11:14 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hey Cory-ji:

    Thanks very much for your comment. You’ve brought up a really important issue that I think is worthy of further investigation. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that yoga scripture tells us we should “suss out our own means to reach enlightenment” and, in order to do so, we should question everything without assuming that everything we think we know is necessarily wrong. That seems to be what your wording implies.

    I can offer numerous references to yoga teachings that a) support the view that we, eventually, but inevitably, must surrender to and serve a spiritual master in order to be guided toward enlightenment, b) tell us that we should use our powers of observation and discernment to understand who is qualified to teach us how to walk the spiritual path, and c) that we should try to understand our selves through the study of scripture. But I can’t think of any scriptural injunction that recommends, directly or indirectly, that we try to figure out our own means to reach enlightenment.

    So my first question is, what scriptural reference can you offer to support your premise that yoga philosophy advocates the process of figuring out our own means to reach enlightenment? My second (multi-part) question is, if we should question everything, to whom should our questions be addressed? Are we asking ourselves? If we need to ask the question then we’re probably not the best qualified person to provide an answer. And if an answer does arise from within, where did it arise from? Or, to put it another way, how can we tell the difference between the voice of our mind, which will tell us what the ego-self wants to hear, and the voice of the paramatma – the supersoul residing within the heart of all individual souls – that tells us what’s good for the emancipation of the true self from the ego-self? Without some guidance from without, how can we ascertain whether the guidance from within is yoga working its magic or maya casting its spell?

    Looking forward to hearing back from you. – Hkd

  3. Posted December 5, 2010 at 3:26 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Hmm, well, some of this is just over my head or difficult to relate to, to be quite honest — and I think I’m OK with that.

    Does enlightenment depend on reference to scripture? Isn’t it possible that someone may reach enlightenment and be illiterate? I would think they could and do.

    Where I’m coming from when I reference our own road to enlightenment is that for one person it may be practicing Christianity, for another yoga, for another atheist meditation, and for another Buddhism, and so on… So, the practices to support that may vary as well — from devoting one’s life to chanting the names of god or hugging other people to spending time meditating to serving others through any variety of means with full selflessness to full commitment to ahimsa.

    Where do the answers arise from and to whom are they asked? Again, it seems that may vary. Speaking from direct experience, as I think that’s the most honest means to do so, it’s come from teachers in many forms and yes, it’s come from within.

    If the guidance leads us to act in a way that benefits others then I’d say we’re in pretty good shape.

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