Liberation : What are we really seeking?

We live in strange times. Forty million westerners practice the ancient Indian art of yoga, a practice dedicated to world transcendence and Self-realisation. These contemporary yogins, the vast majority of them focused exclusively on the physical practice, have generated a billion dollar industry in yoga goods and services, including designer yoga clothes and equipment, yoga cruises with the stars, exotic yoga holidays, yoga DVDs and magazines, and so on. Just leaf through any yoga magazine and the variety of glossy colour advertisements for oh so many products will astonish you (as well as the price tags!). It doesn’t take much insight to realise that most of the promises inherent in these products concern the enhancement of the body. This is not transformation of the body into an adamantine vehicle fit for realisation. This is about beauty and fitness and inner calm—an antidote to the stress-producing factors of modern life, a worthwhile purpose in itself, surely. But is it accurate to call all this ‘yoga’, and leave it at that?

For the ultimate purpose of all yoga is liberation. Though the various metaphysical traditions may understand that liberation differently, all agree that our fundamental nature is not the body/mind we think we are. Our fundamental nature is Consciousness. We are sublime Awareness: not physical, not localized. We are eternal, immortal absolute Being. We are the transcendental ground: without beginning or end, without birth or death, beyond time and space. In fact, ‘we’ (as commonly understood) are ‘not’. Yoga is a spiritual discipline that can awaken us to that reality. Liberation in yoga refers to this ultimate realization of our true identity (and the true identity of everything). It implies a necessary deconstructing of the body/mind organism or ego. Subject and object distinctions dissolve so that even the statement ‘I experience liberation’ is rendered meaningless. With liberation or enlightenment the subject-verb-object polarity dissolves into the Ultimate Singularity of undifferentiated Being. There is only the purity of the Absolute. Pure Awareness beyond the particulars of any form, no matter how subtle.

Yoga understands the physical body as an instrument, and through hatha yoga, an instrument for realizing liberation. Divine consciousness works through all the countless body/mind instruments in the cosmos, both human and non-human, both subtle and gross, playing them according to the programming inherent in their nature. In human beings, that programming results from both genetic make-up and past conditioning. Each body is unique, and each is constantly changing, for each is a manifestation of prakriti or nature. As divine energy manifest, prakriti is never still. She is Shakti. She is Shiva dancing: spinning out endless configurations of energy which appear as separate life forms. The classical Vedanta metaphor of the crystal explains this well. Pure consciousness corresponds to pure white light shining upon a crystal. The rainbow of colour corresponds to the myriad life forms of manifestation. The unique programming of every form refracts the light according to its own particular structure, so that each form appears as a slightly different hue. Yet just as all colours are ultimately the One Light, so are all life forms ultimately Pure Consciousness. Yoga practice concerns the ‘polishing’ or purifying of the instrument which is the body so that it no longer distorts the light of pure consciousness but radiates with it alone. It aims towards transcendence of the particular programming, in other words, liberation from identification with the body/mind organism.

Although today most practitioners concentrate upon perfecting the physical postures, most probably understand, or at least have heard, that yoga is about liberation. Many have experienced greater freedom and openness in their lives as a result of their yoga practice. Yet few have come close to aligning that practice with yoga’s ultimate goal, never mind realising it. So what is going on? Is yoga not efficacious? Are yogins falling away from the path? Are they stuck in their practice? Has yoga been hijacked by other forces? Has it been subverted from its traditional purpose? It is very difficult to address these questions. The what and why of each person’s practice is a personal affair. I trust that many practitioners hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the West are practising genuine yoga for genuine spiritual purposes. But it is no secret to anyone that yoga has become big business, whether categorised as fitness and beauty or personal development and stress-release, it makes no difference. Even its ultimate sublime purpose has been subtly distorted so that talk of ‘liberation’ can be bandied about, it can even be advertised and sold, yet that ‘liberation’ talk means something quite different from the traditional understanding of classical non-dualistic Vedanta or Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, never mind the precise and radical conception that Patanjali proposed in the Yoga Sutras.

Contemporary western notions of liberation differ fundamentally from traditional yogic conceptions. And it is these notions that colour the attitude and behaviour of contemporary westerners (and more than a few Indians who received a similar western/secular education!), making it quite difficult for us to grasp what yoga is really about. Much of this understanding is unconscious. It belongs to the general cultural assumption about the ‘way things are’: beliefs so fundamental that questioning them would occur to no one. This is a vital point. Phenomenology refers to these shared personal assumptions as the ‘natural attitude’. They are the collective body of norms that any group holds in common. Buddhism and yoga philosophy explain how conditioning creates mindset. Natural attitude is the conditioning that any social group holds in common. It refers to the ‘core beliefs’ of a community, the beliefs that no one challenges because they are assumed as fact. ‘The earth is flat’ used to be one. ‘A human being is an individual body/mind’ is one that reigns supreme today.

In his essay, Riposte, E.B. White gives a humorous example of ‘natural attitude’. In an attempt to ‘explain America’, an Englishman suggests that Americans prefer white eggs to brown because their whiteness implies purity and hygiene. E.B. White proposes a simpler explanation: the White Leghorn, the hen preferred by poultry men throughout