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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Comments

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….."

  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. __

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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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