where in the world (2010)


After 5 trips to India I finally made it to the north, to the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar, a city in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was attending the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual gathering for Hindus that has gone on for milennia.  Me and about two million of my closest friends.  When I walked onto the terrace of my hotel the river took my breath away. I stood there amazed because I instantly knew I had been here before. I had known in my bones that I had to be at THIS Kumbh Mela at THIS time in my life.

I stood for a long time and it was such a deep, visceral knowing that I could only compare it to when my feet first hit the ground in south India five years before, the feeling that I had come home. It was the week of Maha Shivaratri, the Hindu festival to honor the god Shiva. The orange robes of the sadhus across the river looked familiar to me on a level that was very different from seeing them in photographs.

The week before I had been in Kolkata at Kalighat, the main temple in India for the devotees of the goddess Kali. When I walked into the temple I received such a blast of shakti that I had to sit down before I fell down. It felt like I had been punched in the chest. Inside the temple a Western woman told me that my eyes were so dilated that I looked like I had dropped some LSD. The cockroaches crawling over the metal grill that surrounded the statue of Kali sparkled so brightly that they looked like crawling jewels. I mentioned them to the woman but she could not see what I saw and turned away.

After I made my offering and the priest rubbed my forehead I came to the area where goats are sacrificed. The idea of an animal dying for the Divine is abhorrent to me but I take many things in stride in India.

I watched a woman butchering the meat as stray dogs gathered waiting for a morsel to drop. Goat heads with eyes that contained their last image of life lined the edge of the sacrificial platform and I looked at the dogs. In my shakti induced high their panting mouths seemed to be smiling. Kalighat is next to where Mother Theresa tended to the dying and instead of feeling sick at the sight of headless goats I took in the entire scene and all I felt was pure love. In the Bengali tradition, the goal of the Kali devotee is to become reconciled with death and to learn acceptance of the way things are. The love that I felt was raw and primal and my heart space filled with the fire of bhakti. I felt as if I were on fire. I felt extraordinarily alive.

All the people who had died next door, all the goats who had given their lives for the Mother, all those dogs who were going to eat. It was my own surrealistic version of Eat Pray Love. And I was filled with joy.

In Haridwar on Maha Shivaratri I watched the procession of the mostly naked naga babas as they marched to the Ganges and I knew that I had never been to such a joyful event in my life.

My hotel in Haridwar had its own ghat – steps into the Ganges – and after the yogis took their bath I walked back to my hotel and down the steps into the Ganges and dunked myself three times. I had been in Haridwar for five days but I wanted to wait until the day that Shiva married Parvati to really feel the river.

During my third dunk I stayed under a bit longer and I felt electric. I came out and sat on the steps with my feet in the water. The waters of the Ganges are called amrita, the “nectar of immortality.” Hindus believe that there is nothing as cleansing as the living waters of Ganga Ma. I wanted to sit with my feet in the water and never leave. Something was coursing through me and once again all I felt was joy.

That night I met a swami of the highest order, a man who is the spiritual head of the Juna Akhara, the naked yogis I watched that morning.

That morning the swami had thrown a rose to me — he stopped his chariot in front of me, looked into my eyes, threw the rose and smiled, and then moved on. I held the rose tight because people were already pushing me out of the way to pick up the holy rose petals from the street. I did not know that in the afternoon I would be invited to a special puja that night at his ashram, the oldest one in Haridwar. A mantra teacher friend found me to invite me to a special Maha Shivaratri puja. I had no idea that he was staying in the ashram of the rose throwing swami, I did not even know the swami’s name.

When the rickshaw arrived at the ashram I saw the swami’s picture outside and froze in my seat. Once again a shakti blast felt like a punch in the chest and all I could do was stare at the billboard with his picture.  I sat there for so long that some of his devotees asked me if I was well. I walked into the ashram and was taken into the swami’s compound before the start of the special puja. That night my friend chanted to Shiva as I sat on the floor gazing up at the swami. The gold in the mala around his neck looked like the crawling sparkling jewels I had seen in Kalighat a week before.

Everything just happened, merely the flow of experience, the essence of allowing things to unfold as if by Divine plan. I was told that night that it was my good karma to be there, that I was meant to be there from the moment I caught that rose in the morning.

I thanked the Goddess I was capable of such joy.

here we go again, part 2


I want to say from the onset that my writing is not meant to be a scholarly history of Hinduism and I won’t get into any debates about what Hinduism is, who is a Hindu, etc. I am more than cognizant of the various Hindu gods and goddesses and know the difference between a Shaivite and a Vaishnavite (I’m partial to Murugan who is also known in Mahayana Buddhism as Skanda.)

But all that doesn’t matter for this purpose. After all, I am Buddhist with a Kali yantra tattooed on my back so you can figure that out by yourself. I am only writing about yoga as taken from my notes over the years and from the Joshi essay referenced in Part 1. You can read this or move on but be advised that I will not entertain any type of religious debate — there are other forums where you can argue any point you want to make.

When I wrote that “Hinduism actually rejects yoga” in part 1, I knew those words would be shocking.  But when the KYM teacher used those words he was talking about the way Hinduism in general views the philosophy of yoga as a path of liberation.  I have to say that in any yoga training I have ever done I never heard it said that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.  Yes, yoga philosophy is a part of Hinduism, but as for yoga originating in Hinduism, I beg to differ.

Before the time of Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE, approximate date of death) the religion of India was Vedic Brahmanism and alongside the Vedic tradition there was an ascetic (the sramanas) form of thought and practice originating in prehistoric times. Prof. Joshi writes that Buddhism had the closest affinity with this sramanic culture and Hinduism grew out of a fusion of Vedic Brahmanism with Buddhism and other sramanic religious trends.

In order to discuss the roots of yoga or whether yoga springs from Hinduism, let’s keep some dates in mind: Vedicism, 1500-500 BCE; Tantricism and Hinduism, 500-1000 CE.

Sages (munis) and ascetics (yatis) lived in ancient India before the time of the Upanisads.  Prof. Joshi writes that “the Rgveda describes a muni who practiced meditation and led an austere life. He is said to be ‘long-haired’ and probably wore a beard. The munis either lived naked or wore … dirty garments and were experts in techniques of silent ecstasy.” (Joshi, p.27)

This was the culture — pre-Hinduism — that birthed the beginnings of yoga.

In part 1 I wrote about Stephen Cope’s talk on the history of yoga during my training at Spirit Rock. He drew a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Vedic rituals, these sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind.

My KYM teachers taught that Samkhya and yoga are closely related. Prof. Joshi writes:

“In later Brahmanical tradition these two systems [Samkyha and yoga] are generally mentioned together. Yoga as a way of religious perfection is older than the Yoga system of thought now associated with Patanjali’s Yogasutras (cir. 300 CE.) Yoga as a way was an essential element of Sramanic culture. Yoga is therefore of non-Brahmanical and non-Aryan origin. The munis and yatis of Vedic age practiced yoga and dhyana. This is clear from the Rgveda… The early Yoga was possibly identical with Buddhist Yoga or the way of meditation. As it belonged to the non-Vedic Sramanic tradition, the early Yoga was possibly non-theistic and ascetic.” (Joshi, p.33)

Cope taught that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when it is commonly said that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that is not true because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we are familiar with today were revealed.

The Sutras are not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. Yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutras but given the religious atmosphere of India at that time, it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. In his essay Prof. Joshi writes that the Mahabharata (which the Bhagavad Gita is part of) was compiled during the period when Buddhism flourished most in India, during 400 BCE to 400 CE: “the present form of the Mahabharata, with its ethics and philosophy, would have been impossible without Buddhism.” (Joshi, p.13.)

Both the Sutras and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body, and the breath in the breath.

Sounds like yoga (asana-pranayama-meditation) to me. It seems that if anyone should “take back yoga”, it should be my ash-covered friends in the photo above because it was their pre-Hindu forebears who saw yoga as a path of liberation via one’s own efforts rather than through being born into the right caste or through the rites and rituals of Vedic Brahmanism.


Reference:  “Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions” by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

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here we go again, part 1

Hindu blessing of cow, Rameswaram beach, 2006

Getting on the yoga merry-go-round again of the old debate on “who owns yoga?” and whether yoga springs from Hinduism.

There’s lots of stuff going on in the world but it must be a slow news day when the New York Times publishes another article with a dramatic title on the Hindu group that is stirring up the debate over yoga’s soul.

Then there was the USA Today article, “Take Back Yoga Campaign: Back Where?”

Lisa Miller in Newsweek asked whether yoga’s Hindu roots matter. I thought her article was a breath of fresh prana in this debate, but I still think she is mistaken about some things.

And after the debate burned through the yoga blogosphere and Facebook this week, Deepak Chopra finally weighed in on the yoga yada yada in HuffPo.

I thought his article was a bit amusing, since in Miller’s article he claims to have “sanitized” Hinduism in order to make it more palatable: “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru….“We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology.  Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there.  Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”   But in his HuffPo article he states that  “the nobility of Indian spirituality elevates Hinduism to a unique place in the world.”

Uh, which part of that nobility did he sanitize? OK, whatever…Deepak is a zillionaire guru and I’m not. He must know what he’s talking about because he’s written a ton of books. And is a zillionaire guru. Did I mention that already?

STOP THE PRESSES! I’ve always wanted to say that….

One would think Chopra would be the last word on this but no, I don’t think so…gather ’round, kiddies, and I’ll tell y’all a story. I will preface this by saying that I’m not a yoga scholar and have never written a book. I have no fancy advanced college degrees (yet.) I’m a yoga student first and then a teacher but I’ve been around the yoga block a few times and have taken a workshop or two.  My only claim to yoga fame is studying four times (soon to be five) at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Desikachar’s school in Chennai, India — two intensives and private classes. That’s all.  Like Tao Porchon-Lynch, “I don’t tell you these things from ego, but because it’s what I know.” Be advised that I pulled out my notes from KYM. And I take damn good notes.

But I want to say to the Hindu American Foundation referenced in the NY Times article that I feel your pain. I understand why they are verklempt. As Lisa Miller wrote in Newsweek, “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga.  But you have to honor and credit the source….know where yoga came from and respect those origins.” I’m getting very tired of yoga articles written in terms of “fighting” and “owning”, but I don’t blame Indians one bit for wanting reverence and respect paid to an art and science that originated in India. Don’t get me started on OM tattoos on feet but I digress.

But yoga doesn’t come from Hinduism and Hindus don’t own yoga.

Yoga is much older. What I learned at KYM was that yoga was part of the six systems of philosophy in India called the saddarsanas, darsana meaning “to see”:

1. Nyaya — logic; using analysis to look a problem;

2. Vaisesika — evolution; what is the evolution of something to discover its reality. EX: a desk comes from wood which came from a tree which came from a seed.

3. Mimamsa — rituals and rites (doing something in order to get something.) EX: animal and human sacrifice; fire rituals.

4. Sankyha — closely related to yoga; our problems arise because of “seer” and what is seen; there is confusion between the “I” and the rest of the world. “Sankyha” means knowledge of Self through right discrimination. (See the Samkyha Karika of Isvara Krsna.)

5. Vedanta — school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads (advaita vedanta is a subset of this philosophy.)

6. Yoga — school of philosophy that holds that the mind is the problem; focus the mind and we solve our problems.

The above information is from my Yoga Philosophy class notes, 2005. The next line I wrote was: “Hinduism actually rejects yoga.” As a legal assistant for 20 years I sat in many a lawyer’s office and wrote their words verbatim to transcribe into letters and legal documents.

So no, I did not make that up and I suppose those words shock some of you. When long-held beliefs are challenged it can be quite painful. Let me try to explain the yoga and Hinduism connection (or non-connection as the case may be) in part 2 after I finish reading the scholarly essay “Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions” by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

This essay was sent to me by a long-time reader and is an essay that Stephen Cope of Kripalu used for his book on the Sutra-s. When I did the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California, Stephen Cope used many of the points in the essay in his talk to us on the history of yoga.

The gist of the essay is that many of the things Westerners and contemporary Indian Hindus think of as “classically Hindu” actually come from the shramanical tradition generally (the sramanas being the ancient yogis, the ascetics who lived in the Vedic era which is pre-Hinduism) and Buddhism specifically and were incorporated very late in Indian history.

Stay tuned.

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