Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit by Ramesh Bjonnes: A Review. ~ Michael Plasha

Via on Oct 5, 2012
photo from sacredmatrix.com

Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra by Ramesh Bjonnes is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion of all things yoga and Tantra.

Mr. Bjonnes, a practitioner and teacher of Tantric yoga and meditation since 1974 and a popular columnist for elephant journal, provides an excellent overview for those new to the methodology, historical roots and development of yoga and Tantra, specifically the Kaula Tantra and Bhakti yoga traditions.

For those who still perceive yoga as only posture or Tantra as the sex yoga, this book will hopefully support aspirants who are ready to explore the deeper spiritual, psychological and philosophical roots of each.

Given the complexity of the material and the splitting hair intricacies of Sanskrit meanings, it does not surprise me that there are some flaws and mixed messages. Bjonnes seems to have some issues with Patanjali. Sometimes he likes him, and sometimes he doesn’t.

He focuses on the second sutra (thread) with its emphasis on “the cessation of mental propensities,” as trying to control the mind. He prefers Nischala Joy Devi’s translation, which he feels is more in the spirit of Tantra instead of, “male experts hell-bent on mind control.” Glib phrases like this might fit well into the tone of blogging, but he really misses the thread of the sage’s insight by not including the third sutra, “When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world” (translation by Barbara Stoler Muller). Or, “Then the Seer (Self) abides in Its own nature” (translation by Rev. Carrera).

Our true nature according to the yogis and Tantrikas is spirit, self, Purusha, Atman, the Seer, the witness, non-reactive pure awareness or Shiva depending on the school. All attempt to describe the same experience of oneness, of spiritualizing everything that Tantrikas aspire toward. He says Patanjali is dualistic, but then says Samkhya philosophy, a source for Patanjali, has a non-dual version in the Mahabharata.

The sutras are understood by some as espousing a dualistic world view. Others feel Patanjali is saying we live in a dualistic world, but here is a way out to oneness. Sutra three is the fruit of becoming free from being identified with thoughts. The sutras have always been about following the thread.

There are more. He says, “Patanjali did not promote union with the Self through longing and heart centered worship or in meditation as in Bhakti or Tantra Yoga.” Ishvara Pranidhana is the worship of God or self-surrender. It is one of the principles of Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga and is one of the Niyamas. It is Bhakti yoga. See Sutras 1.23, 2.1, 2.32 and 2.45.

He says the sage encourages the yogi to withdraw from the world. The Yamas are about how to live in harmony with others and the Earth, and Sutra 1.33 teaches us how to maintain our inner peace when relating to the four archetypes: happy, suffering, virtuous and non-virtuous people. This is the yoga of relationships and social activism—think Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King and their practice of Ahimsa and Satya.

He makes a passionate case to dispel the myth that women have not been allowed to practice yoga, and that indeed they have been participants and teachers in Tantric culture, if not in the “dogmatic Vedic culture.” He says, “These dogmas have also influenced the practice of yoga. Moreover, all of the famous Hatha yoga teachers coming out of India in recent years have been men.”

This depends on how we define famous and recent. What about Indra Devi and Swami Sivananda Radha (granted they were Westerners but they studied deeply in India and influenced many on their return), or Lela Mata, Indra Mohan, Menaka Desikachar and Geeta Iyengar? His apparent bias toward all things Tantra reminds me of the Advaita Vedanta saying, we see what we want to see.

Speaking of Vedanta, there is a misunderstanding around Maya (superimposition or illusion). He says, the effect of this world view is “some yogis have fled this world to seek salvation in spirit only.”

Perhaps, but the Vedanta practice is to see clearly what is really there—the Divine manifesting as everything, instead of a projection of past mental conditioning. The process is “Neti, Neti”—not this, not this. Once the practitioner sees clearly, they see the one in the many just like the Tantrika does. The challenge with Tantra is spiritualizing everything without the ego projections.

Anyway, there are many solid chapters here like The KoshasA Comparative Examination on the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection. Some are entertaining like Fat, Naked and Enlightened: The Crazy Yogis of Love. I share his enthusiasm for the poet saints Kabir and Mirabai, but was surprised he left out Lalleshwari and Hafiz.

Three Ways to Enlightenment is a good comparison study of Raja yoga, Vedanta and Tantra. Although, he calls Vedanta Adi Shankara’s Vedanta when in fact Shankara founded Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic form in the seventh century. It was Madhva who founded a dualistic and theistic, or Bhakti Yoga form of Vedanta, in the 14th century, and Ramanuja who founded a qualified non-dualist version of Vedanta that is devotional and Vaishnava in nature in the 12th century.

Why care? The qualified school influenced Krishnamacharya, and the non-dualistic school of Shankara influenced Swami Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Rama and the many disciples of Swami Sivananda like Swami Satchidananda. Your yoga teacher is probably connected to one of these lineages.

I was disappointed he left out the Kashmir Saivism form of Tantra with its great texts the Pratyabhijna-hrdayam, the Shiva Sutras, the Spanda Karikas and the Vijnana-bhairava. A comparison study with Kuala Tantra would be most welcomed.

I was delighted to discover I’ve been teaching Rajadhiraja yoga for years and am part of a lineage founded by Maharishi Astavakra that is at least 2,200 years old.

Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit covers a lot of ground and most of it well. But, as Swami Vivekananda used to say, “Don’t take everything I say for granted, but test it in the laboratory of your own experience.”

 

Michael Plasha, E-RYT500, RPYT has been a student of Yoga since 1971. He has 5 adult children, two children at home and two grandchildren. He is director of Plasha Yoga Studio in Erie, Pa. In their review of his CD Raja Yoga for Beginners, Yoga Journal said, Plasha has mastered Raja and Hatha Yoga. His web site is www.plashayoga.com.

~

Editor: Sara McKeown

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38 Responses to “Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit by Ramesh Bjonnes: A Review. ~ Michael Plasha”

  1. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Dear Michael, thank you for taking the time to review my book and for writing that it "provides an excellent overview for those new to the methodology, historical roots and development of yoga and Tantra, specifically the Kaula Tantra and Bhakti yoga traditions." __

    In your review above, I think, however, you overlooked or missed one crucial point: my concept of Tantra used in the book is mainly both broad (as in contrasting the Vedic and Tantric traditions, or in discussing central tantric ideas to live by, to use in daily life) and secondarily narrow (as in writing about various schools on Tantra, such as Kashimr Shaivism, which I, contrary to what you say, mention various times in the book). The main purpose of the book was to collect those essays that speak to the broad aspects of yoga and tantra and then show how they are in fact very much related and, indeed, often the same thing. That is to say, dispel the myth that tantra is some offshoot of yoga, and that tantra is only about sacred sex. As Satyananda Saraswati says: "the yoga we know today was developed as part of the tantric civilization….."

    • Michael says:

      Dear Ramesh,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments and clarifications. I appreciated your ability to balance broad and narrow views of Tantra and to provide an overview for those new to the subject. The only reference I read to Kashmir Shaivism was on page 64-65 about Abhinava Gupta and how he revived Kashmir Shaivism. The word Kashmir pops up on pages 37, 61, 66 and 105 as reference points but that is all I could find. I could not find any in depth description or analysis of this great Tantric school. If I missed this I apologize and please let me know where it is. I am hoping your book will inspire readers to read the many books you refer to if they have not done so already.

      • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

        Michael,
        Thank you so much, the appreciation is mutual. If you go to the chapter on history in the beginning of the book, you will note that I talk about Tantra vs the Vedic stream of Indian culture, then about about Tantra divides into the Kashmiri and Goadiya schools of Tantra, the latyter especially influential in the North East of India. (see timeline) Of these two schools, the latter was the least influenced by the Vedas and branched into many different schools over time. In other words, Kashmiri Tantra is much older than Abhinava, by at least a few thousand years.

  2. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    This view, which most readers seem to have understood, was missing in your review._The second purpose was to delve into some of the nitty-gritty details of yogic practice, history and philosophy. In that regard, I contrasted Patajali's interpretation of yoga with that of tantra. I used the famous sutra (cittavrittinirodha)–that yoga is to still the fluctuations of the mind, and contrasted that sutra with the tantric sutra and definition of yoga–that yoga is union of jivatma and paramatman, union of individual self with cosmic self. In other words, I compared two sutras to make a point many writers on yoga has made, that his famous sutra is not used when we think of yoga as union. In fact we use the more tantric sutra. Moreover, tantra specifically invokes the heart, longing, bhakti, etc. Bhakti energy is not Patanjali's strong suit. That was my main point, not to discuss all of Patanjali's sutras or compare them to each other. __

    • Michael says:

      I addressed that view throughout the review beginning with the second paragraph in various contexts. I am glad you and others including myself our trying to dispel many myths and misconceptions about Yoga and Tantra in our own ways.

  3. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    My book covers many points in short essays, and It would be impossible to cover all the points you wish I would cover. However, thanks for highlighting some of the other Yoga Sutras. That includes Hafiz and Lalleshwari, whom I both love, but who are lesser known to American readers, especially Lalla, so I did not include them.__

    It would also be incorrect to say, from my perspective, that my book is, as you say, about kaula tantra when, as mentioned earlier, it is about the broad aspects of tantra and sometimes about the various schools within it. __In other words, my book is actually about some of the deeper essences of what tantra is, what it means to me specifiaclly and for us yogis in general. How these incredible tantric concepts can be used as guides to live by. As it says on the back cover, it is a book about "Tantra as the essence of yogic practice and philosophy." That is, the transfromational aspects of yoga, those aspects of yoga dealing with longing and love for the Divine. And also that scaredness that sees spirit in the earth, and God in everything.

    • Michael says:

      There is a certainly a lot to cover! And for people new to the philosophical, psychological and spiritual roots and evolution of Yoga, like I said in the review, it is very helpful. Your the type of kindred spirit I would love to hangout with in a cafe and share for hours and hours our enthusiasm and viewpoints for "all things" Yoga. Thank you for clarifying, that it is not just about Kaula Tantra. I do touch upon the Yogic vision common to Vedanta, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Tantra of seeing God in everything, the One in the Many. There are just different ways to realizing this vision.

      • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

        Michael, yes, would love to hang out and discuss all this in more detail. As you say, there are so many nuances, and we all have our own perspectives, which we often read into the authors of the texts, that's why I appreciate the literal translations of the sutras as they strip away a lot of the personal baggage. It also has helped me to see that in India there are various views and perspectives, and from the Indian point of view I have been exposed to Patanjali is not considered a bhakta, for example, while here in the West, Frawley would say so, Mukunda Stiles as well, but not Feuerstein. So, here I'm with Georg!

  4. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    That alchemy, of turning duality into nonduality, is what Tantra stands for. I do place Patanjali's eight-fold path into the large ocean that is tantra and yoga, but when it comes down to the finer details, such as comparing two sutras as to the meaning of yoga, there are, as you say, differences.

    Regarding famous Hatha Yoga teachers: Thanks for mentioning Indra Devi et al. You are right that there have been some great female Hatha Yoga teachers, and she was certainly one of them. My point was that in today's market, we mostly hear about the men, unfortunately.

    Finally, thank you for saying in sum that my book "covers a lot of ground and most of it well." And also for mentioning your discovery in my book of your relation to Astvakra's rajadhiraja yoga–not many are aware of that 2200 year old thread.

    • Michael says:

      And what a beautiful alchemy it is! I have been enjoying studying and attempting to understand the Sutras since 1971 and then apply them in my life. I enjoy looking at one per week from usually four different translations and commentaries. After a week of contemplation I discover how to apply their meanings in my life. There have been great female Hatha Yoga teachers and at least in my studio they are well known. Yes, and thank you again for informing me of my connection to Rajadhiraja Yoga. I love to use Hatha as a context for it as well as Jnana Yoga and Mindfulness.

  5. Edie Lazenby Edie says:

    Thank you for highlighting your understanding of Tantra for us and what you saw as misunderstandings. What I got from what I read of your book is that yoga and Tantra are one, and Tantra is about what we do. I misunderstood a few things as well. I think most of us are steeped in the idea that patanjali is the Father of Yoga when he just codified what had been said before. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    My own background in Tantra comes from Douglas Brooks mainly and some Sally Kempton. I like personally that Tantra in your view if I understand correctly includes Bhakti.

    I think I have said enough for now. Please elucidate further if I too misunderstood.

    I would recommend your book to anyone wanting to broaden and deepens their understanding of Tantra in particular and yoga I general.

    As we say: Namaste.

    • Michael says:

      When I was a student of Siddha Yoga in the 80's and 90's, Sally Kempton was Ma Durgananda and Mr. Brooks was a speaker in some programs. They are wonderful teachers and good sources of authentic Tantra.

  6. Carol Horton carolhortonbooks says:

    Unfortunately, I find that review hard to engage with. It is written from an insider perspective of a particular yogic subculture that I've never been a part of, and not translated well for outsiders. It feels very opaque to me.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Carol, I can see your point, and I for sure did not write my book with that insider perspective intent. The feedback has overwhelmingly been that the book is very readable, fun and accessible.
      Such as these:
      "An insightful, balanced approach to the frequently misunderstood pursuit of spiritual growth and personal well-being." –Kirkus Review
      "This book is a source that any person, lay or scholar, will benefit from reading, because here is a practitioner whose fine mind reaches into his heart, converging one into the other. Bjonnes is now an important voice for the study of living Tantra." —Douglas Brooks, Professor of Religion, University of Rochester

      "The writings of Ramesh Bjonnes cut right to the core of the spiritual journey. His essays enter through my mind and then travel to my heart, where they blossom like beautiful flowers of love and truth." —Jai Uttal,

  7. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Edie, thank you. Tantra to me is the tao of yoga, the yin and yang of yoga. The idea that opposites, male/female and energy/consciousness, the dual and the nondual are united in a healing embrace, an ecological spirituality to liove by, to inspire us to walk our talk. Those are the basic concepts I tried to emphasize in my book. And I think Michael's review missed that point and is too focused on philosophical nuances only understood and appreciated by scholars and insiders within the traditions. My book, as douglas Brooks wrote, is both for the scholar and the lay person, but mostly for the latter.

    My main point is that Tantra (the path of liberation) and Yoga (the path of union) are practical paths of transformation of body, mind and spirit and this, as you say, Edie, includes Bhakti yoga.

    • Michael says:

      Even though it is written primarily for the lay person, you do focus enough on philosophical nuances that it is important that the person new to this material is clear on these nuances. I felt it was important to address what I saw as some misunderstandings. The basic concepts and broader points in the context of a space limited review were covered in my statement that it provides an excellent overview to those new to Tantra.

  8. indra says:

    I’m not a scholar and I’m not a lay person but in my eyes Ramesh wrote this book so that the the reality of tantra could be understood. Tantra has been misunderstood for a long time now and if ANYONE asked me about tantra(which they do) first and foremost I’d point them towards ‘sacred body sacred spirit’. My view is we get so bogged down in the heaviness of life, critical and analytical. Although I can appreciate the review it was way to heavy for me to take in. Ramesh’s book is colourful, informative without missing the real juice behind what tantra really is about, that’s it. I loved the book thank you. Let’s have more.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Thanks for appreciating the "real" falovor of the book, Indra. I wrote it for people to appreciate it the essence of it the way you have.

  9. Chelsea says:

    Great review! Very informative, while leaving room for readers to draw their own conclusions. Now I have another book for my reading list.
    I think this book would be great for book clubs wanting to discuss the different takes Mr. Bjonnes has on the Sutras.

    • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

      Thank you, Chelsea, for suggestion that the book would be great for book clubs. Indeed, there are many topics covered in the book that could be great discussion points in a book club.

    • Michael says:

      Thank you Chelsea! I hope readers will draw their own conclusions like I did to everything they read. This will be a good book for book clubs since there is a lot here to chew on.

  10. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Let me comment in more detail on Michael's review for those who are familiar with yogic and tantric philosophy and practice.

    1. It's not correct that my book is about Kaula Tantra per se, but rather about the broader aspects of Tantra; the inner spirit of Tantra as a whole, in a mostly nonsectarian, universalist way. 2. Michael wrote: "Our true nature according to the yogis and Tantrikas is spirit, self, Purusha, Atman, the Seer, the witness, non-reactive pure awareness or Shiva depending on the school." What Patanjali means by Purusha, Self, or self, is up for debate, great debate. And one cannot lump all these terms together and come out even–they mean different things to the different schools. 3. it is understood by many, including Feuerstein, that Patanajali and Samkhya are dualistic. There is no clear understanding of the relatiosnhip between Purusha and Prakrti as in nondual Tantra.

    • Michael says:

      Yet you use different terms in your book when exploring the non-dual nature of Tantric vision as on page 44: "At any rate, that idea has become one of Tantra's brilliant insights – that Brahma is both One and Many, Brahma is both Consciousness (Purusha) and Energy (Prakriti)." This is also an insight in Vedanta. The Sutras also use the word Seer and Owner to refer to the same reality. Depending on the context, texts might use Purusha to refer to the individual soul, original teacher or to God. What Patanjali means is a great starting point for discussion at maybe the next book club meeting.

  11. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    4. Also, Ishvara has a weak standing in the Yoga Sutras. So I would disagree, as does Feuerstein, that Patanjali is Bhakti oriented because he mentions Ishvara, which is only a "special Self" among many for Patanjali. 5. Michael is correct that Patanjali mention Ishvara (god) as the focus of bhakti in several sutras, but not in the sutra that defines yoga. That was my main point. Actually, Patanjali refers to Ishvara in so many different ways that scholars are left confused as to His importance.

    • susan says:

      While you're at it, I'm curious about 1.33 (be friendly with the happy, etc) being social activism, or if this is an interpolation by you or Plasha or my own over reading (or under reading). I do not read Patanjali saying interact anywhere in the work. I read him saying act to maintain a state conducive to the practice. (And to this end the work is not bhakti oriented.)

      • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

        Susan, while one can argue strongly that Buddha was a social activist in protesting the excesses of Vedic society a couple hundred years before Patanjali, there is little evidence in the YS of activism or bhakti yoga. So, I would agree that to read activism or bhakti into sutra 1.33 would be an error. YS is a manual for the individual yogi's path to enlightenment. This inlcudes the yamas and niyamas, as Michael points out, but Patanjali was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King of his era. That, to me, is reading too much into YS.

        • Michael says:

          Most agree we do not know much about the historic Patanjali. But even if he was not a social activist, we can certainly look at his Sutras especially the ones I mentioned as great inspiration for making a difference in the world. This is what Gandhi did. In 1.33 the usual understanding is he is recommending how we maintain our inner peace when in relationship with the four universal archetypes. Like many Sutras is is up to us how we want to put them into practice. How you do we relate to the suffering or wicked person? Social activism might be an expression after contemplating it.

          • Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

            Yes, I agree with that perspective–that Gandhi, King, and others used ahimsa as a worldview for activism. But activism is not emphasized much by Patanjali.

    • Michael says:

      Limiting Patanjali to his sutra that gives his definition of Yoga is limiting especially in the context of not including Sutra 3. I was looking at his broader vision and teachings. Mr. Feuerstein is just one of many brilliant translators and commentators. I enjoy studying many of them to get a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the nuances within the Sutras.

  12. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    6. Michael, my discussion about Vedanta vs Tantra is a bit more nuanced than you portray here. I do mention thaboth paths have their potential limitations. Moreover, let us not discount the tremendous influence vedanta and Mayavada, that the world is an illusion, has had on Indian culture. Yes, some sophisticated philosophers understand it Tantrically, perhaps, but not the masses who have often been enslaved by that fatalistic idea coupled with the caste system. 7. I do mention Kshmir Shaivism many times in the book, actually, but there is no separate chapter or essay on that important topic.

  13. Heather Quick says:

    Although I have not yet read this book, it is evident Mr. Plasha really has a deep understanding of the ancient Hindu texts along with the history of yoga and it's teachers/masters. Reading his review has deepened my own understanding of the practices. Bravo!

    • Michael says:

      Thank you Heather. I hope the review and book will inspire people to read many of the wonderful books Ramesh includes in his bibliography.

  14. Heather Quick says:

    I look forward to reading your book with an open mind Ramesh. Just as Mr. Plasha has learned from you, many points in his critique can be used as a valuable learning tool. We can all learn from each other Om Shanti.

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