The Secular World Must Serve the Sacred | Mark Whitwell
A new report from Oxfam has revealed that the wealth of the world’s top ten billionaires has doubled to $1.5 trillion dollars over the course of the pandemic, whereas the rest of the world’s income has mostly declined. There is nothing wrong with wealth, but it is definitely not there for its own sake, nor to finance trips to the moon. In truth, secular power is only there to serve the sacred: each person’s life of whole-body intimacy with reality itself.
Intimate connection to life, to the nurturing source of existence, to the harmony of the cosmos, is the clearly the birthright of every person — we all deserve to feel our deep authenticity as an integrated and loved part of the Whole. Yet this enjoyment of our natural state is no longer widely available in human culture. Instead, everywhere now people suffer a sense of separation from life, as if we are one-step removed from the beauty and nurturing of reality.
There have, however, been many times when the secular and the sacred have entered into profound and world-changing collaboration. One wonderful example took place in India between 1925 and 1940 when the Maharaja of Mysore State, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, became personal student and patron to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a young teacher whose renown as a Yoga acharya (teacher) and Ayurvedic healer was fast spreading in India.
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Krishnamacharya was from a family of Vedanta scholars. But he had wanted these ideas at a deeper level, so as a young man, after years of religious and academic studies in Varanasi, he set off to the source of Yoga, the Himalayas, to find his teacher. For seven and a half years he studied with his guru Ramamohan Brahmachari, near to lake Manasarovar and in the sight of mount Kailash, the sacred pilgrimage place for both Buddhist and Hindu devotees. Upon his return, Krishnamacharya began teaching and soon the maharaja heard of his reputation whilst travelling in Benares.
What Krishnamacharya’s scholarship in Tibet revealed, for the maharaja and the world, is that asana is your direct and perfect connection to your own Reality. In other words, Asana done with the breath is spiritual practice.
“Guruji would say his asana practice was his spiritual practice.” His most famous student and brother in law BKS Iyengar recalls, “Often he would facetiously say ‘Om Trikonasanaya namah’, as he went into the position. He strongly felt that his physical asana practice, which involved and lit up every cell in his body, was much more spiritual than someone just repeatedly chanting mantras.” — Light on Yoga
Asana is not merely a lifestyle choice, nor mere preparation for meditation, nor is it therapy, although it may well additionally result in healing and well- being. Asana is the non-dual tantra of direct intimacy with life as it actually is, the substance of existingness, a practical means of yielding of the body and mind to its substance and context. The practice must be adapted to the individual, not the individual to the Yoga. These practices were developed and refined over the thousand year-long tantric period in India between the 5th and 14th century. This is what Krishnamacharya brought through for everybody.
Krishnamacharya concluded that this intimacy, which is easy and for everybody, is the most vital component of a spiritual or religious life, or of any kind of life at all, for it allows for the fact of non-duality to be realised in the mind. What is non-dualism? The simple acknowledgement that humanity is not separate from the cosmos, but is a seamless continuity of it. Yoga is required, he would say, otherwise the mind remains fixated on “two,” on separation. He made it his life’s mission to see that the entire world received an actual Yoga education.
The maharaja and his family definitely felt the empowerment of actual practice and immediately turned over state resources to support Krishnamacharya’s teaching work. A yogashala was established where Krishnamacharya could teach; he was financed to write The Yoga Makaranda in 1934; and he was supplied photographers and film directors to capture what is asana. The maharaja gave Krishnamacharya a mandate to communicate this Yoga to all the people in Mysore State, and beyond, regardless of their position within the social hierarchy, regardless of caste or class or money.
Krishnamacharya’s son TKV Desikachar describes these early days of his father’s world-mission:
“My father undertook lecture and demonstration tours through outlying districts and to more distant cities. Other maharajas called upon him as teacher and spiritual advisor. His classes were open to people of all ages, and from all walks of life, with financial help and encouragement for the poorest. The demonstrations were organized in schools, hospitals, even military installations where British officers were stationed. Through all of this, my father had the maharaja’s unstinting support. The maharaja financed the Yogashala and lecture tours, and even decreed that Yoga should be taught in all the schools of Mysore state.” — Health, Healing and Beyond
There is no doubt that we would not be holding these physical wisdom practices were it not for the vision of the maharaja, for his recognition of what Yoga is and what is can do for any and every person. By giving the secular over to the sacred, he supported the seeding of actual Yoga into the modern world, into our very hands.
Sadly, in the process of Yoga’s explosion of popularity in the West, Krishnamacharya’s teaching — his commitment to the breath as the central feature and very purpose of asana; his promotion of asana as spiritual practice — has been completely ignored. His most famous student BKS Iyengar, after studying with him for a few days, stripped the principles of practice from what he learnt and went on to invent and popularize a conception of asana as strenuous physical gymnastics. This has become synonymous with “what Yoga is.” And if you aren’t dished up physical gymnastics then what you get are spiritual gymnastics (worse!), trying to get somewhere as if you are not somewhere. The actual practice — the principles of how to actually be intimate with the cosmos — remain obscured.
This is why we are here, to continue Krishnamacharya’s mission of knowledge distribution; his communication of how any person can practice a real Yoga that is right for them. There are presently many actual Yoga teachers teaching their hearts out in cities and villages around the world. They are teachers who are informed of the principles of practice that that cut through social patterning, that transcend thought-structures of seeking, that lift the social mind off of the natural functioning of the body, leaving us free to scamper away and enjoy our lives. One person at a time, culture is being turned around.
It will take again the foresight of secular people and structures of our modern world to see the sacred, to see that Life is a unity. Their support of the process of public Yoga education of the actual wisdom traditions will save humanity. The need for intimate connection grows louder every day. Intimacy with our very substance is the basis for a sane life and the foundation of a world free from cruelty to ourselves, each other and the living planet. May the world-leaders of commerce and politics realise soon see what is available here.
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