Health, Wellness, the Shamanic Journey and Yoga by Philip Goldberg of LAYoga

Health, Wellness, the Shamanic Journey and Yoga

Many people come to Yoga from a variety of traditions in search of health, wellness, union, transformation.
Sometimes this takes place on the mat, in meditation or as part of some deeper journey indvidually
or collectively. This journey includes peeling away the layers of the deepest self, honest inquiry and
incorporating new rites and rituals into our lives. In some way, it is akin to the shamanic journey
wherein the practitioner goes through a transformative process to facilitate their ability to
connect with the spirit world, that part of our reality that may be unseen in our everyday life.
We could see the moment when Swami Satchidananda took the stage at Woodstock
and chanted as one of those examples of a turning point, opening people’s eyes
to something mystical beyond everyday reality. A car crash injury, being given
a powerful stone, a calling, intuition cultivated from a regular Ashtanga Yoga
practice, reading a book such as Autobiography of a Yogi or signing up for a
teacher training program could all be the spark to propel us on the path of
the spirit that wrings us out and gives us the potential to learn what true
health means: body, mind and spirit. Unbuckle your seat belt and let the
journey begin. ––FMT

Of all the iconic images the media trotted out to re
mind us of Woodstock on the fortieth anniversary of that seminal
event (august 15 – 18, 1969), the one that best captures what en
dured from the sixties was orange-robed swami satchidananda ad
dressing the multitude. it wasn’t displayed nearly as often as the
writhing bodies, impassioned performers and muddy encampments
but that tableau, captured in black-and-white before the music start
ed and before the rains came, stands as a potent symbol of the meet
ing of east and West that has transformed american culture. While
most of the values that Woodstock was said to embody faded away
as the baby boomers grew up, the embrace of eastern spirituality has
only grown stronger, changing the way we understand and practice
religion, the way we take care of our minds and bodies, and the way
we contemplate our place in the cosmos. think of it this way: it
wasn’t long before even the hippest of hippies stopped living com
munally, sharing food with strangers and dancing naked in the mud.
But, forty years on, more people than ever meditate, chant mantras,
read the sacred books of the east, and, participate in the six-billion-
dollar-a-year Yoga industry.

The east-to-West transmission didn’t start at Woodstock by any
means. it began more than a century earlier, when translations of
hindu texts found their way to new england and the bookshelves
of Ralph Waldo emerson and henry david thoreau. it got a big
boost in 1893, when swami Vivekananda came to chicago to ad-
dress the Parliament of the World’s Religions and stayed to establish
the now-venerable Vedanta society. later, in the 1920s, Paramah-
ansa Yogananda toured the country, visited calvin coolidge in the
White house, and settled in los angeles, where he penned the huge-
ly influential Autobiography of a Yogi. assorted yogis and swamis
came and went over the years, and then, in 1968, the Beatles’ went
on the most consequential spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those
forty days in the wilderness. their sojourn at the ashram of tran-
scendental meditation founder maharishi mahesh Yogi (with mia
farrow, donovan and other young celebs) touched off a campus
craze and a media frenzy.
Swami satchidananda’s opening invocation at Woodstock, wit-
nessed by nearly half a million youngsters and seen in part in the
Oscar-winning documentary about the mud-and-acid-soaked week-
end, accelerated public awareness of india’s heritage of inner explo-
ration. the founder of the integral Yoga institute and the most pop-
ular guru among counterculture new Yorkers at the time, swami
satchidananda was helicoptered to Woodstock from manhattan by
organizers who thought that a wise elder might start things off on a
serene note. With his long gray beard and flowing hair, the swami
was right out of central casting, and his message played to the gen-
eration’s sense of importance. “america is helping everybody in the
material field,” he said, “but the time has come for america to help
the whole world with spirituality also.” he exhorted everyone pres-
ent to take responsibility for the success of the festival. Responsibil-
ity was not a very popular word in hippie circles, but coming from
someone seen as an advocate of peace and freedom – the inner vari-
ety – the message was taken seriously, and any misgivings the kids
might have had were dissolved in the sanskrit chant that the swami
led before blessing the crowd and departing. to this day, many be-
lieve that his good vibes averted what could have become a catastro-
phe as the festival grew far bigger than initially anticipated.
That may or may not be so. But it is certainly true that his pres-
ence, along with Ravi shankar’s electrifying performance, reinforced
the idea that downtrodden, oppressed and misunderstood india had
something of genuine value to offer the West. the essence of what
we imported from the hindu tradition is the philosophy known as
Vedanta and the repertoire of practices known as Yoga. together
they constitute a rich spiritual system. But the knowledge was pre-
sented in such a rational, pragmatic way over the years that it was
embraced by a wide spectrum of americans – not just seekers of the
transcendent, but scientists and secularists who saw indian philoso-
phy as a science of consciousness, and medical practitioners who saw
yogic techniques as holistic healing modalities. Over time, the imports
changed medicine and psychotherapy and radically expanded the
way we think about consciousness.
During the 1970s, india’s message of higher awareness and mind-
body-spirit integration was increasingly mainstreamed, until now, of
course, Yoga studios are as easy to find (or sometimes easier to find)
as starbucks and meditation is prescribed by physicians for stress re-
duction. Only a year after Woodstock, the first experiment on tran-
scendental meditation was published in a prestigious scientific jour-
nal. there are now thousands of studies on various meditative
disciplines, and thousands more under the heading of Yoga. dr. dean
Ornish, to cite a well-known example, derived his world-famous pre-
ventive medical program, which has been shown to reverse heart
disease, from the protocols of swami satchidananda, whom he met
when he was a medical student.
Of greatest significance, however, is the transformative impact that
indian teachings have had on american spirituality. the influence can
be seen in the burgeoning popularity of contemplative christianity
and Jewish mysticism, which experts agree would not have occurred
without the catalyst of yogic practices starting in the sixties. and any-
one who relates to the term “spiritual but not religious” can thank the
parade of gurus and Yoga masters beginning with Vivekananda who
made that designation possible. the notion that one can have a deep
and fulfilling spiritual life without accepting the complete belief system
of any particular religion was understood only to a few eccentrics and
mystics before access to the east became widespread. now, “spiritual
but not religious” is the category of choice for sixteen to thirty-nine
percent of americans, depending on the source of the data, and many
more count themselves both spiritual and religious – a group that in-
cludes thousands, if not millions, who returned to their ancestral reli-
gions after their minds were opened by Vedantic ideas. indeed, the fact
that we distinguish between religion and spirituality at all – and that
i don’t have to explain the difference – is a direct result of seekers hav-
ing access to yogic practices that can be used by anyone regardless of
religious orientation. the fact that there are many legitimate pathways
to the sacred, an idea first expressed in the Rig Veda as ekam sat vip-
raha bahudha vadanti (“truth is one, the wise call it by many names,”
or, colloquially, “One truth, many paths”) is more accepted than ever
in our increasingly pluralistic society.
In the past forty years in particular, what we have gained from our
contact with india is far more significant than spicy dishes for our
palates and cheap customer service operators for our corporations.
in his classic eleven-volume text, The Story of Civilization, historian
Will durant expressed the hope that india would “teach us the tol-
erance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the
unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unify-
ing, pacifying love for all living things.” that turned out to be pre-
scient. the image of swami satchidananda at Woodstock will always
be a symbol of the moment when a battery of unconventional baby
boomers turned eastward – and inward – in such large numbers that
the process became irreversible.
Philip Goldberg is the author of Roadsigns on the spiritual Path and
other books. His history of Indian spiritual teachings in America will
be published by Doubleday next year: PhilipGoldberg.com.

September 2009

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