Released on May 26, 2019, this Reflection is a speech that I wrote to present at Modo Yoga St. John’s. Jill Holden and the family down at the studio were gracious enough to host me on April 27, 2019, for a signing of The Yoga of Strength as part of the Grow Your Yoga event they run throughout the month of April each year. I had planned on doing a reading from the book and giving this speech, but nobody showed up. Rather than waste what I had written, I am offering it to you now, in Reflection form.
A big thank you to Modo Yoga yet again for all of the love and support. Seriously, if you want to know what all the buzz about yoga is about and you live in the St. John’s area, check out Modo. Most classes are considered ‘hot’ and you will sweat, but do not let that deter you. It is a wonderful feeling and if you just want a work out, you will leave class more than happy (and probably a little bit surprised about how hard it was, if you were like me). As for the mental and spiritual aspects - I cannot even begin to repay the studio for the self-development that occurred on the mat in one of the many classes I have attended.
Except by, perhaps, paying it forward. You might get a taste of what I mean by reading on.
Thank you all so much for coming out today. I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to listen to me wax philosophical for a while, read a couple of sections from the book, and answer your questions (this never did happen, but I like that I planned for it).
For those of you that haven’t read it, the book that I am here talking about today, The Yoga of Strength, might not be exactly what you think it is. When I finished the book, I was to some degree shocked at what I had produced. Overtly fantasy, rippled with mythology, and peppered with spirituality, it is a melting pot of all kinds of things that one might separate out into distinct and disparate categories, never to be joined. It is definitely full of me. It is a metaphor for my own life, told by way of a self-loathing squire becoming a wonderfully competent knight, making hard choices and understanding that he is much more than both of those ‘bad’ and ‘good’ identities. And there is political intrigue, magic, and a dragon.
Given that we are at a yoga studio, I take it that most of you are yogis, or perhaps interested in the practice. One of the great tragedies of the importation of yoga into Western culture is the degree to which it has been stripped of its philosophical underpinnings. Yoga has become a brand of fitness, next to pumping iron and jogging in many respects (and many iPhone apps). While it is excellent exercise, it is so much more than that.
I have to hand it to Modo – Grow Your Yoga is a great idea for expanding upon the practice of asanas that most of us traditionally understand to be yoga. Poses and sweat, with ujjayi breath and meditation for good measure. This is an incredibly powerful practice, but I wanted to discuss yoga in a more expansive context.
Sometimes I tell people that the word ‘yoga’ shares the same Indo-European linguistic root as ‘yoke’ – the way that we take control of beasts of burden. In this context, however, it is about getting one’s mind to heel. It is not really a fixed term, and there are many types, though it is easy to refer back to the eight limbs of yoga as discussed in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These included the asanas that we all practice, as well as other precepts, like the yamas and niyamas, which are instructive regarding how to live one’s life, along with a few more. Then there are other ideas, like jnana yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga… the list does go on.
An oft-repeated phrase in spiritual circles is, ‘there are many ways up the mountain.’ Parahamsa Yogananda, a yogi mystic from last century, stated ‘self-realization is, in fact, the only religion. For it is the true purpose of religion, no matter how people define their beliefs.’ Or, as Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘All the scriptures lead to me; I am their author and their wisdom.’ With The Yoga of Strength, I try to offer a further distillation of the ideas: write your own scriptures.
The biggest obstacle to spiritual growth that I have encountered was the idea of authority coming from the outside. I was always a bit of a rebel, an atheistic heathen in my youth, and I am not alone in this rebellion against dogma. Carl Jung famously said that religion is a defence against the experience of God, and I feel that he really got at what I would call the final threshold of self-understanding. In my experience, I had to become a heretic in order to realize my own worth. In a way, religion in this sense is about giving up your own power, because it is about taking someone else’s word for an experience that is really accessible to everyone (though definitely not ‘readily’ accessible). It’s about not having enough self-confidence to trust yourself all the way through to the pearly gates. And this is what we are all doing here, in one way or another. Seeking a way to God, but not ‘God’ in the traditional sense that we grew up with in our Western tradition (old white dude that sits on high and judges), as tainted with separation as it has become (and this is coming from a guy who thumped The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins in my early twenties like any good zealot with a Bible).
If I had to define it, we are seeking a way to remember who we are. In the true paradoxical style of spiritual wisdom, every single one of us is divine, united, and one, and every single one of us is completely different, with unique gifts to offer the world. It makes sense that we would have our own individual yogas, or our own ways of achieving self-realization, tailor-made for each one of us. The hardest part is figuring exactly what each of those yogas are.
My own yoga, as it were, is many things. And it is indeed partly about strength, about transcending fear. It is about a nightmare of imagined weakness turning into a golden dream of unimagined strength. One of the taglines from the book is, ‘choose the quiet strength of your soul when your mind screams you are weak: this is The Yoga of Strength.’ And, indeed it is. When we make the courageous leap, when we step out of our comfort zones and grow, we start to remember. We recollect who and what we are. We come to understand that we are part of nature, rather than some separated thing that came about as an accident.
But it comes at a cost, imagined though that cost may be. We tend to think we are giving things up when we make the ‘right’ choice (if there even is such a thing, but that’s a whole nother kettle of fish). That’s why the wrong ones are so tempting. It would be so much better for us if we kept the five bucks in our pocket and bought a burger later on than to give it to the guy who is on the street with barely a penny to his name. And besides, who gives a damn? He’s some ‘other’ guy. Never mind that we’ve got plenty in the bank and have food at the house in any event. At least, that’s the way the world seems when we are mired in the illusion. To choose charity, for example, when we are so set in this manner of thinking – it is so difficult. It requires strength of character to do the right thing. To make the strong choice.
So, in a way, The Yoga of Strength is about choices.
We dress up the choices we face each day in many different ways, calling some choices virtuous and some sinful, some right, some wrong. I prefer to think of them as separating or unifying, of those that weaken us or strengthen us. Breaking a promise and choosing lust separates and weakens us in our selfishness. Honouring the people that we love strengthens and unifies. Taking more than we need and being greedy separates and weakens us. Giving what we can give unifies and makes us strong. Lying – even the white lies – can cut us down as surely as a knife can wound us. The truth will set us free and make us strong.
The more that we make the unifying choices, the more that we see unity everywhere we look. The stronger we become. Yoga is a practice, which means that we have to keep at it, and the Yoga of Strength is no different. We have to practice this sense of strength. And the more we do, it keeps spiraling up and up, spurred on by ever more difficult choices, with ever-increasing risks, until… boom.
Self-realization, yog, enlightenment, a state of grace – whatever you want to call it – it is instantaneous, all-encompassing, and utter in its ramifications. Swami Satchidananda, another yogi mystic from last century, once said that getting up the mountain is like suddenly being able to look down and see all of the ladders up at once, and you can go down a few rungs on the other ones to see what they are all about, but you cannot back slide. The chooser and the choice have become one, because the illusion of separation has evaporated. The pain, the joy, the full palette of emotions - all of the colours of life remain. But the suffering, the addictions, the indecision, the lack of purpose, the inability to move forward, it flutters away as if it was never there. This is liberation – this is what is referred to in Sanskrit as ‘moksha,’ the former name of this studio. When you first get started on the path, this is something that seems unreal and impossible, the nearly-unrelatable delusion of some bearded dude in a saffron robe… until it happens to you.
And then life goes on and all you want to do is share the story of how you got there. So people can figure out their own yogas. This, at its core, is what The Yoga of Strength is. My favourite band, Nahko and Medicine for the People, is full of this kind of wisdom, and they call it musical medicine. My writing: I like to dream of it as literary medicine. Medicine for what? For healing the wound of separation.
Last week, I received a bit of vindication that I did achieve my goal, at least for one person. It came through a review from a friend. He said that it was startling how much he resonated with the personal demons presented in the book, and reading the story was therapeutic for him. He told me that he found it instructive, to some degree, in how to make his own life better. That was the best review I could ever have hoped for.
I hope that you enjoy.