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 Koshas: A 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