Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the self in inner solitude.
— The Bhagavad Gita, 6:10
At 5:30 each morning, my stereo is programmed to wake me up.
This morning I woke up to the soft sound of Krishna Das chanting his “Devi Puja.” As the deep, rich sound of Krishna Das’ voice coaxed me out of a dream I can’t quite remember and into a waking state, I considered going back to sleep and skipping my morning practice altogether.
Yet something deep within pulled me out of bed.
This morning was not much different from other mornings. I put on some water for tea, then lit a few candles and an aromatherapy lamp. My small bedroom was magically transformed into a sacred temple. It was chilly, so I turned on the heat and sipped on some hot herbal tea while I washed my face, brushed my teeth and slipped into the loose-fitting, white cotton clothes that I reserve for my spiritual practice.
Finally, I rolled out my yoga mat and began.
I started my practice by bowing my head to the earth in surrender and chanting a devotional prayer, followed by the sound of Om. I then began some pranayama.
My mind and body began to wake up and before long I was in downward-dog. I have done this pose a few thousand times, yet still my body resisted. I considered going back to bed, but instead chose to breathe deeply.
After a few more poses, my body and mind began to melt into the practice.
My resistance faded, and I felt my whole being entering into an effortless rhythm, holding some poses and flowing through others—each pose bringing me deeper and deeper into the practice. I moved from downward-dog to upward-dog and then hopped through to assume triangle pose.
My breath was shallow at times, and when I realized this I allowed it to deepen, filling my entire body. I finished my asana practice by moving through a series of floor poses that included camel, cobra and the posterior stretch. After several rounds of “breath of fire,” I took a seat on my meditation cushion, wrapped myself in a white blanket and closed my eyes.
My breath was deep, but unregulated. I felt my mind resting on the breath, but often drifting into plans for my day. Each time I noticed myself playing this familiar game, I smiled and returned my mind to the gentle flow the inhale and exhale.
I sat for what felt like both an eternity and a few short moments. I opened my eyes softly and concluded my morning practice with a brief reading from the Upanishads and then chanted the sound of “Om.”
As I rose from my meditation cushion I could feel a quiet calm.
I showered, dressed and walked down to Courtney’s, a small corner market that is famous in San Francisco. My goal was simple, to buy some fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast. As I waited for the light to change, I took a few deep breaths. Children were showing up at the school across from my home.
I felt as though nothing could shake my peace of mind, but in the moment that followed that thought, I stepped out into the street, only to hear the blare of a car horn. A woman in a tiny car ran the red light and nearly knocked me over. To add insult to injury, she gave me the finger.
I was flustered, but continued across the street to the market, only to find that they were out of yogurt. I begrudgingly settled for some granola and rice milk. On the way home I picked up the morning paper and began to read the headlines as I walked. I read that the economy was still showing signs of slowing, and that another teen had shot his classmates somewhere near San Diego.
By the time I got home again, less than one city block, I could feel stress consuming my body and mind. I walked by my bedroom door and caught the scent of lavender from my aromatherapy lamp. I had to laugh.
Not more than an hour earlier, I was sitting in peace, and here I was now, in the middle of a drama that my ego and the environment had conspired to create.
This, of course, is the difficulty in trying to live a deeply spiritual and centered life.
It is why most people who want to cultivate a life that is devoted to and guided by spirit consider renouncing the world to find a quiet little cave or monastery. The world we have created is not one that encourages a spiritual life. Therefore, it is challenging to try to live as an urban mystic. Nothing short of a deeply held commitment will suffice.
I use the term urban mystic because it describes a great many of us.
A mystic is a person, from any spiritual tradition, who seeks an intimate relationship with spirit. A mystic may or not be a religious person, but he or she is committed to turning his or her mind over to the guidance of spirit. A mystic seeks a direct experience of the divine, but mysticism is not to be confused with religion, for religions seek to explain what cannot be explained, and a mystic seeks to know through experience.
In the past, people who wanted to practice mysticism would go to a hermitage or join a religious order. Some were revered, others seen as fools. In either case they did not fit into worldly life. They saw things through very different eyes, and as a result they did not have a home in the urban world.
This is all starting to change.
People from all walks of life are developing a deeper connection to spirit and living in the world at the same time. They are meditating on their lunch breaks and practicing Tai Chi before the kids get up. These urban mystics are filling yoga classes and studying Kabbalah. There is a movement underway, and it is much more than a flaky new age fad.
People are looking for something more than a good job, a sexy spouse and over-inflated stock options.
Sitting next to my computer is a statue of the Buddha. He has a shaved head and is wrapped in a saffron robe. His legs wind gently into a lotus pose and his eyes are softly closed in meditation. In one hand he holds a cellular phone and in the other a cup of coffee.
I keep this little statue because it reminds me of the spiritual path I’m on. Like many others, I am called, or so it would seem, to walk between two worlds. I am torn between living a deeply contemplative life and being a full-fledged member of my secular community.
There are a growing number of people in our western culture and around the globe who are torn between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive to grow spiritually and seek the deeper meaning of life. We yearn to know the secrets of spirit, and we know what needs to be done to make the earth a peaceful place. On the other hand, we feel a need to live in communities and contribute to society.
The problem is not in our commitment, that is very strong. The problem is that we are torn.
Many spiritual techniques, yoga included, were developed by and for people who had renounced the world. Rather than form families, build homes and live in the community, the mystics responsible for such techniques as yoga and Kabbalah left the material world and went to live as monks or nuns.
There are great spiritual lessons to be learned from living in a cloistered setting and stepping outside the basic chores of day-to-day life. Yet there are an equal number, and some would argue more, spiritual benefits and lessons to be gleaned from a secular life.
As we begin to walk with one foot on the path of the renunciate and the other on the path of the householder, difficulties arise, and there are not, as yet, mechanisms in place to guide us along.
Humanity is evolving into a new level of spiritual awareness, and we are blazing new trails even as I write these words.
Darren Main is a yoga and meditation instructor and author. His books include Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, Spiritual Journeys along the Yellow Brick Road, Inner Tranquility, The Yogi Entrepreneur and Hearts and Minds: Talking to Christians about Homosexuality.
He facilitates workshops and gives talks on yoga and modern spirituality throughout the United States and abroad and is the host of the internationally syndicated podcast Inquire Within. He currently resides in San Francisco.
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
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