To begin our interview, can you please describe your upbringing and how you encountered yoga?
I grew up on an island in Norway. As a teenager, I was introduced to a contemplative style of yoga. This happened over a decade before the yoga studio and posture yoga “revolution” began in the West in the early 90s.
I grew up in an uncommon household. My grandparents were Christian fundamentalists and my parents were communists, and we all lived in the same house. Despite divergent and many dogmatic belief-systems on both sides of my family, we all lived, for the most part, quite happily together. There was a strong sense of family, tolerance and love between all generations. Before I was introduced to yoga, I was a communist, like my parents. I was soon disillusioned with these ideas, however, and I began searching for a more spiritual way of life.
This spiritual search led you to a teacher, a guru, I believe. How did that happen, and how important is it to have a teacher, or a guru?
I have had many teachers. After leaving the communist movement, the writings of Gandhi inspired me in a new direction. I felt his ideas bridged the gap between social activism and spirituality. At 19, I became an organic food activist and farmer and part-time yogi learning asanas from various books. I began the study of agronomy, and with a few fellow students started an organic program at the college for the first time. Today, this college is well known all over Europe for its focus on organic farming.
During summers, I lived in various eco-villages, and for some time managed a small dairy farm in the mountains. There, I was introduced to meditation by a friend. He taught me a mantra, and I meditated on the subtle sonic sound vibration of the mantra and my breath for six months until one day I had a powerful spiritual awakening during which another mantra mysteriously replaced the old one.
A few months later, I met a Tantric yogi from India, a disciple of my guru, Anandamurti. He initiated me according to Tantric procedures, and, to my great surprise, gave me the same mantra that had popped into my awareness a few months earlier. He explained its subtle meaning, and how to use its two syllables in harmony with the breath. He gave me a technique to withdraw my mind (pratyahara), and another to concentrate on various chakras (dharana). He also explained how to properly meditate on the mantra according to the methods of Tantra.
I was deeply moved by the synchronicity of these two events. The sheer power and mystery of it all deepened my resolve. I had not consciously searched for Tantra, or a Guru, however, they both graciously found me.
In Tantra, in particular, and in yoga, in general, a genuine, self-realized Guru is a very rare phenomenon. While the word guru is often synonymous with teacher in India, it is also understood that there are only a few genuine gurus, individuals who stand apart. These are the Einsteins of consciousness, if you will. Sages like Krishna, Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, and Shankara. In the various eras, these teacher’s teachings often bring about a renewal of the perennial yogic tradition. These teachers stand apart from both the fallen and the false gurus. They are the spiritual Einsteins of their era.
The idea that there are great scientists as well as great spiritual teachers is often lost in the one-sided trashing of the guru-tradition in the Western yoga community. Just because there are many so-called gurus who fail, does not mean there are no genuine gurus at all.
It is important to note that India, Nepal, Tibet and China have had a tradition of people spending 10-20 hours a day meditating and practicing yoga their whole life. This tradition is thousands of years old. This tradition has produced a group of remarkable beings with extraordinary spiritual technologies and insights. Like Anandamurti, many of them are relatively unknown in the West.
Anandamurti was both a humble and remarkable person. He stayed away from the limelight. Yet like the Buddha, he became a controversial person, since he also protested against social, economic and religious dogmas and injustices. Going against Hindu social norms in the 50s and 60s, he advocated that people should marry across caste differences. He inspired women to become spiritual teachers and urged them to dance kirtan next to men, something still unthinkable in many places in India. An outspoken activist, he thought that unbridled capitalism fostered greed and injustice, and thus he designed new economic theory based on sustainability, redistribution of wealth and spiritual values.
As is common with revolutionary thinkers, he also faced much ill will, both from the communist state government of Bengal, where he lived, and from the national government. In the 70s, he became a political prisoner during Indira Gandhi’s tyrannical dictatorship. He spent eight years in prison, but he was eventually freed and all charges were dismissed. Today his articles are regularly printed in major Indian newspapers; his ideas are embraced by many well-known artists, intellectuals and activists. His more than 200 books, on dozens of topics, are studied by academia and his revival of Tantra is embraced by large numbers of yogis.
I met him for the first time shortly after he was released from jail in 1979, where he had fasted for five years in protest against a poisoning attempt. After that, I spent several years in India, and I would visit him many times until his death in 1990.
Teachers are important in all walks of life, also on the spiritual path. In Tantra, because of the intricacy of the various yoga and meditation technologies, it is important to have an experienced teacher from a trusted lineage. Generally, your guru is the head of the lineage and the one who empowers the siddha mantras used in the practices. He or she is called a kaula guru and has the ability to not only raise his or her own kundalini, but also the kundalini of others through the use of empowered mantras. I have experienced this first-hand many times. However, it is also understood that the ultimate guru is beyond human form, that the ultimate guru is the Divine (or Brahman) and that the human guru is your teacher and gateway, a catalyst for realizing the Divine.
Spiritual life is challenging, I think, so what are some of the most challenging obstacles you have faced in dedicating yourself to living a spiritual life?
In the beginning of my spiritual path, the main obstacle was pride and ego, a deluded sense that I was better and more spiritual than those who did not practice. This kind of superiority complex is a very common attitude for spiritual novices who spend a lot of time doing practice.
Another challenge is not to develop a grandiose sense of self from the praise and attention you get as a teacher, but to always see yourself as a vessel gifted with the opportunity to serve. So after you teach, you surrender it, you give it back to the creative Source where everything comes from. And when you are criticized, you try to receive that feedback as a gift as well.
Living in the self-absorbed and overly materialistic culture of America, my daily challenge is to maintain spiritual equanimity, build spiritual community and live in simplicity and walk my talk to counterbalance a culture of material excess and spiritual shallowness. In other words, since we live in this world, a yogi’s daily challenge is to embody sacredness both internally and externally, both personally and socially.
Tantra clearly embodies sacredness, so perhaps you can describe in more detail what it is about Tantra that attracts you?
As I see it, yoga is Tantra and Tantra is yoga. Tantra resonates with my inner dharma, my personal karma, my worldview, and my lifestyle. I love Tantra because it represents a beautiful merging of rationality and spirituality. Tantra stands for union in diversity; it’s a dynamic spirituality in which the rational and the scientific are as important as art and intuition.
This graceful and dynamic equilibrium of opposites is recognized in Tantra as the dance of Shiva and Shakti, of consciousness and energy, of intuition and rationality, of spirituality and science. It is important to understand that in Tantra, Shiva and Shakti are not literal gods and goddesses; they are simply cosmological metaphors and archetypes. The ancient Tantra is thus thoroughly psychological, ecological and contemporary, both ancient and post-modern and it embraces both an earthly and sacred spirituality. That’s what appeals to me about Tantra, and that’s why I call Tantra the yoga of everything.
Most people today practice a form of Hatha yoga, which traditionally is only a small part of the ancient Tantra. Why do you think that is the case and how did yoga in America and in the West in general evolve into a program of mainly doing asanas?
The history of yoga in America can largely be divided into four phases. The first phase started when writers like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman encountered the luminous wisdom in the Gita and the Upanishads in the early 19th century and were transformed by its wisdom. The next phase started when Swami Vivekananda gave his riveting speech about the universal message of yoga at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Through him and other Vedantic teachers who followed, America was exposed to the yoga of the mind and spirit. The third phase started in the 60s, when various gurus, often with a more Tantric orientation came to visit and to start ashrams. Then, in the 60s and 70s, Iyengar and Patabhi Joise introduced the fourth wave, the posture yoga style they had learned from Krishnamacarya and which they gradually altered and refined. From the many American students of these two teachers, who both de-emphasized meditation over asanas, the popularity of Hatha yoga has grown, become commercialized and successful.
While yoga as a whole represents a vast set of teachings and practices, the contemporary yoga styles practiced in most studios reflect only a small percentage of yoga’s comprehensive scope. More and more people within the modern Hatha yoga culture are thus discovering that yoga represents much more than alignment and the development of a healthy, sexy body and a calmer mind. It is gratifying to see that kirtan, meditation, Ayurveda, service and the study of scriptures have become an integral part of many studios. But yoga’s more sophisticated meditation techniques, as I have learned them,
have yet to be discovered and widely practiced in the West. Even Iyengar admitted that he started meditation too late—in his 60s. By that admission, he is emphasizing posture yoga’s preparatory nature, that it is a stepping stone for more subtle meditation practices. Today, all of these expressions of yoga exist in America, and even though fitness yoga is the most popular, this may gradually change if American culture becomes less materialistic and more spirit-centered and finds its dynamic balance in a dance of subjective and objective opposites—the eternal dance of Shiva (consciousness) and Shakti (energy, matter) in life.
In learning more about your life and spiritual practices, I realize that what you practice is very different from what I practice, so can you please explain your meditation process?
Meditation is the process of experiencing inner union, inner absorption in the higher Self. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outline this process in the eight-limbed path of yoga, or Asthanga Yoga. While Patanjali describes in detail his interpretation of this system, he does not prescribe the meditation techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyan (flow meditation) and Samadhi ( ecstasy and peace). This system, often termed Raja Yoga, is also known as Kundalini Yoga, or Tantra Yoga. Hence, the type of meditation I practice is not taught in yoga studios, nor widely known in the West, even though it represents the teachings Patanjali is describing.
In addition to asanas, I practice six different meditation techniques. The first is a practice involving meditation on the breath with a mantra, concentration on a chakra, and certain visualization techniques to withdraw the mind from the external world, the body, and then the mental fluctuations themselves. In other words, sense withdrawal leads to concentration and chakra concentration facilitates states of transcendental expansion with the use of mantra.
The second is a mantra used when acting in the world, a mantra that induces a state yogis call Madhuvidya, or honey knowledge. This mantra brings about a feeling that everything is sacred and interconnected; that everything is One, that behind every apparent worldly manifestation there is an underlying spiritual source of all being.
The third practice involves concentration and visualizations on the various chakras. This practice helps overcome weaknesses and imbalances associated with the various states of mind and emotions related to the various vrittis (mental tendencies) associated with each chakra.
The fourth practice is pranayama with the use of a mantra and a visualization technique. This practice induces deep focus and relaxation so that the mind can go deeper during dharana and dhyan practice.
The fifth lesson is a chakra meditation with mantra that harmonizes the energy flow between the chakras, the nadis, and the kundalini. Finally, the sixth lesson, or dhyan, is the real meditation, if you will, where the mind can spontaneously soar into the transcendental realm of inner ecstasy and absorption. If graced, this practice leads to Samadhi, to spiritual union in a state of super-consciousness. However, in Tantra it is emphasized that yoga is a path of balance, thus yoga is about experiencing sacredness in all aspects of life. Hence, everything we do—from teaching to learning, from eating to having sex, from working to resting—is an integral part of spiritual practice.
How would you invite the average person to begin a meditation practice?
The easiest and most common practice of meditation is to simply close your eyes and meditate on the breath. Such techniques are easily available in books. As Kabir said, the divine is the breath within the breath. I also suggest that people use chanting and kirtan as a way to induce mind expansion and concentration. After kirtan, sit and meditate for 20-30 minutes on the breath. You will find that it is much easier than right after being busy writing on Facebook, reading a book or reading elephant journal.
Moreover, it is good to use breath meditation during asana practice. And after ending the practice with savasana, you may sit up and practice meditation for 10-30 minutes to deepen the experience. Meditation is not just relaxation; it is focused, expanded awareness. These types of mindfulness practices will help prepare the mind for more advanced and transcendental techniques. But remember, meditation is not very sexy; it can be hard to go past the chatter of the mind and the diversion of emotions. It takes patience, discipline and the right kind of techniques taught by competent teachers.
Moreover, satsaunga, (a community of like-minded individuals on a spiritual path) is important; it helps to meditate with others on a regular basis. But, the first rule to live by is to commit to sit twice daily. This will, as Patanjali advised, help still the fluctuations of the mind. The deep, inner rewards will be well worth it.
Why did you write your book, Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit, and do you have more books planned? I am also curious about what kind of workshops you do and also about the place you live and work?
My book, Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit, is a love song to the ancient yoga tradition, which I and many others term Tantra. I wrote it to describe its history, its philosophy, its practices and relationship to other forms of yoga, and its relevance to contemporary living. I wrote it for those who thirst for a yoga that goes beyond the mat and into the realm of meditation as well as sacred activism. The book seems to have stricken a chord with many readers. Professor of Religion and author Douglas Brooks called it an “important study of living Tantra” and kirtan artist Jai Uttal said it cuts “right to the core of the spiritual journey.”
Many of the essays in the book have been published here on elephant journal, and according to Associate Publisher Bob Weisenberg, these essays have been “among the most consistently popular ever” on elephant journal.
I have written a second book entitled Tantra: The Yoga of love and Awakening, and it will be published by Hay House India next year.
I teach classes on the history of yoga to yoga studios and to yoga teacher training programs. In these classes I elaborate on what I term the three versions of the history of yoga; the 150 year version describing yoga in the West starting with the transcendentalists and Vivekananda’s first visit to the US in 1893 and continuing as a posture yoga practice starting with Krishnamacharya, the 3500 year version describing yoga as beginning with the early Vedas, and the 7000 year version describing yoga as a confluence of the Vedic and Tantric traditions. I go into all of this in great detail, and the students find it very interesting when it becomes clear that it seems yoga has been a global phenomenon for thousands of years.
In Hinduism, the many superstitious aspects hail mostly from the early Vedas, while the yogic and spiritual practices come from Tantra. Thus, in India, learned pundits and yogis distinguish between the Vedic and Tantric traditions. So Indian civilization is a blend of these two ancient rivers, and the most refined expression of these two rivers is expressed as philosophy in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras, and as a way of life in the practical sciences of Tantric yoga. Thus, it is natural that the texts on yoga philosophy and hatha yoga were not written by Vedic priests but by Tantric yogis. Hence, Shankara, the founder of Vedanta practiced Tantric yoga.
I also teach classes in Tantra philosophy and meditation classes with such titles as Mindfulness, Concentration and Transcendence. Moreover, I am also a yoga therapist using meditation, asanas, ayurveda, and various cleansing methods, including fasting, to help people regain balance and improved health.
I am fortunate to live in an eco-community in the mountains of North Carolina with other yogis and to work at the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center I co-founded about six years ago. We just opened a new facility focusing on yoga therapy, juice fasting and other natural spa therapies, and I am now the director of that project.
What is the most important thing you learned on your way that you always come back to, that helps you live day to day?
That inner freedom, equanimity, and happiness is only one breath, one chant, one mantra, one gesture of love, caring and sharing away from that which leads you in the opposite direction.
Is there anything you want your readers to know that I have not asked you about?
Yoga represents a nested whole of physical, psychological and spiritual exercises and technologies. Yoga is not just the practice of asanas on a mat in a studio with 25 other sweaty bodies. Yoga is a lifestyle, a worldview, a philosophy and a set of psychological and physical tools for holistic transformation. Yoga involves the study of texts, ethics, health and diet, chanting, dancing, meditation, service, sacred activism, and more. Many students realize this, but what they are most often offered are physical exercises and a bit of philosophy. The deeper practices of yoga are still in short supply. But as people grow spiritually, they will also demand deeper teachings about the more subtle postures in life. As Shankara said, those postures in which “meditation flows spontaneously and unceasingly…” In other words, more people are starting to appreciate that yoga asanas are exercises, or external postures in preparation for the inner postures of spiritual transformation. Indeed, more and more people are realizing that yoga has the ability to transform us, but not only our bodies, hearts and minds, also our communities.
I am a full time yoga teacher, trained at City Fitness in Washington, DC, and Willow Street Yoga Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. I have been writing poetry since I was 9 years old. Poetry is my first love and yoga continues to feed my heart. I write because I love it. I teach because I love it. I tell my students all the time: do it because you can. That works for me. I believe in creating opportunity. I believe in helping my self and others. I think faith is the most important gift of life, because when we lose everything else we still have that in our heart. I believe the natural state of being is happiness, or bliss, or Ananda. Life is a celebration. Poetry and yoga help me celebrate. My blog and website: Edie Yoga.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta
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