“As long as one’s wandering mind moves externally toward objects, one cannot come face to face with truth or God.”
It was 1974 and I had just joined my first mail order book club. My first order was for a few novels, a cookbook and a hardcover on the subject of yoga. I had heard about yoga and was curious about the physical machinations of dark skinned Indian men twisting their limbs into contortionist positions while wearing a Speedo or better still, a loin cloth. To my convent educated mind I was treading on slippery ground, yet the pull to learn more was too strong for me to ignore.
When the books arrived I pulled out The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga and stared at Swami Vishnu-devananda seated, on the cover, in lotus position. I opened the cover and slowly leafed through the pictures wondering at the ease in which this man allowed himself to be seen unclothed, spread eagled and/or upside down. He didn’t seem to care that his body was covered with dark hair and that across the globe thousands of people will look at what he is doing. But then that was the point.
“The few who discover truth declare that it will take away all our miseries. When man realizes truth, he comes face to face with something which is, by its own nature, eternally pure and perfect. All our misery comes from fear of death and disease and from unfulfilled desires. When man realizes truth and/or his real nature, he will discover that he is immortal. Therefore he never dies and has no fear of death. When he knows that he is perfect and full, he will have no more vain desires to be satisfied. So by removing the fear of death through understanding of his real nature, by knowing that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is within, man enjoys perfect bliss even while in his physical body.”
My young, western infused mind drank in that paragraph. What was he talking about? Everything I had been taught in one catholic school after another spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven” being outside of me, somewhere up there, in the sky, past the moon and the sun and the stars. Or was it only as far as the clouds, a cushiony place created just so our souls can comfortably float above a struggling humanity existing thousands of miles below. Well, all that thinking was about to change.
“The goal of life is to achieve, while still alive, a state free from death, pain, sorrow, old age, disease, and rebirth.”
As I shuffled back and forth between pictures of the Swami in different postures or asanas, the book called them, I was struck as to how standing on one’s head could deliver such amazing promises. For example, there was this posture where Swami is standing on his shoulders with his legs up in the air and the text explains how it is good for circulation and concentration. Then it went on to talk about how the thyroid gland is the most important gland of the endocrine system and Sarvangasan (how do you pronounce that anyway? Sanskrit? What language is that? So much to learn. Do I dare?), sends a rich supply of blood to this gland at the same time stretching the deltoid, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus of the shoulder muscles. And then a translation for the word Sarvanga, which means all parts, so all parts of the body are helped by staying up to 15 minutes (wow!) on the shoulders and head.
Pretty amazing stuff.
“Yoga is a science by which the individual approaches truth. The aim of all Yoga practice is to achieve truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the supreme soul or God. To achieve this, it has to transcend different vehicles or bodies of the soul, which bring individual or self-consciousness.”
I was intrigued, but at that point in my life it was all a bit overwhelming and difficult to absorb. With no teacher to guide me I closed the book and put it on the shelf. Over the next few years I would take it out to read or attempt a few postures, as if I needed to maintain a connection to yoga until I was ready to take the next step, two years later.