Heart Yoga: My Story
The following is excerpted from Heart Yoga: The Sacred Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism by Andrew Harvey and Karuna Erickson, published by North Atlantic Books.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother, a mystical healer and a woman of irrepressible joy, would often say to me, "Remember, always, you are God's perfect child." Because I felt her unconditional love, her teachings sank deeply into me. It has taken me more than five decades to realize the fullness of her blessings.
Through my journey into the marriage of yoga and mysticism, I have begun to discover just how profound and far-reaching my grandmother's words are, not just for me but for everyone. My grandmother was a naturally holy woman who knew that we are all intrinsically blessed as embodiments of divine love and light, and that the meaning of life is learning how to receive this blessing in every dimension, and then express its truth as loving action in the world. Her life overflowed with joy. She often entered our house singing and dancing. She celebrated the announcement of the end of World War I by turning cartwheels around a fancy hotel lobby. Her last words to me before she died, said with a radiant smile glowing on her face, were "Let's go!"
I am starting to see how rich and potent is this experience of knowing ourselves to be the manifestation of the joy of divine energy. When we live this knowledge whole-heartedly, it transforms our lives and the world. The practice of yoga reveals and deepens this experience of the fusion of body and spirit. I am discovering how this union can lead to a subtle and profound evolution on the deepest cellular level, making accessible the new dimensions of courage, passion, stamina, and inspiration that are so essential at this crucial time in the world's history.
I humbly offer my experience, knowing that it is not unique to me but open to everyone, and has been at the heart of yoga philosophy from the very beginning. Four thousand years ago, the Vedic sages of India found "the treasure of heaven hidden in the secret cavern like the young of the bird, within the infinite rock." The "infinite rock" is, I believe, the cellular depths of the body. The "treasure of heaven" is the energy accessible to us when body and spirit marry. The "young of the bird" is the tender Divine Child, "God's perfect child," that this marriage births within us. The reclaiming of this ancient vision can transform our yoga practice, and our lives.
My journey into the mystery of my grandmother's teachings has had four stages. Many of you may have gone through similar stages in your unfolding journey. Sharing our stories to articulate these archetypal experiences acknowledges and magnifies their transformative power. I share my story in the hope that you will recognize aspects of your own story, and that it will inspire your continuing explorations.
I had a happy and comfortable childhood in most ways. Growing up in a loving Jewish family in a comfortable suburb of Chicago gave me security and confidence. My grandmother was a constant inspiration. She taught me how to practice the mysteries of healing, to see the light in all beings, to feel the joy of life, and the power of love. When I was young, my father, a gentle scholar, held me on his lap as he read. He taught me devotion, concentration, and the value of prayer. My mother was a happy, energetic, and optimistic person who had trained to become an opera singer. She inspired me to have faith that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
Everything on the surface seemed perfect. Inwardly, however, my family and community were reeling from the shock and horror of the Holocaust. The wounds that this devastation dealt the psyche of my family gave me contradictory messages. On the one hand, I was taught that I had to succeed brilliantly in order to survive. On the other hand, my father used to warn me how dangerous it could be to be conspicuous in any way. All negative emotions were ignored, for they were too overwhelming to feel after what our culture had endured. I was trained to be relentlessly cheerful and positive at all times. My relationship with my body was ambiguous. While my family encouraged my athletic endeavors, I was always warned to be careful. Sexuality was never spoken of, and so became something shadowy and secret.
From these mixed messages I developed, like many of us brought up in the Western world, a false self addicted to intellect and success, and a sense of dissociation from my body. Outwardly I was successful, popular, and happy. Inwardly, I was a perfectionistic over-achiever, disconnected from my body. God's perfect child had developed somewhat of a split personality. My life has been a journey of healing this split of body, mind, and spirit.
Increasingly stifled by the protectiveness of my home, and longing for adventure, I decided with my partner Paul to move to San Francisco in the midsixties. It was there that I first discovered yoga in Ram Dass' seminal book, Be Here Now, so influential for many of my generation.
I started to practice the simple yoga poses that Ram Dass outlined. At this time, I was studying psychology at Stanford and Berkeley and was very intellectually oriented. Yoga awakened the cells in my body as if after a long sleep, helping to calm my restless mind. I encountered a copy of Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar and devoured it. What had begun as curiosity about yoga now began to crystallize into a life-long passion.
Meanwhile, it was the Vietnam War era, and in Berkeley the political climate grew steadily more menacing. Paul and I protested at anti-war demonstrations and were tear-gassed and chased by National Guardsmen with clubs. We saw people shot by police from rooftops, and protestors brutally beaten. This violence frightened and angered us, and we didn't know how to respond to it skillfully. Sometimes I wonder if my yoga practice had been more firmly established at this time whether I would have had then the courage and inspiration to know how to act effectively for political change.
Instead, Paul and I increasingly retreated into the calm and beauty of the nearby mountains to heal our spirits. As the political situation worsened, our hunger for a peaceful life in Nature grew, and we decided to move to the Yukon Territory in the Canadian wilderness. Fortunately, one of the few things I took with me from my old life was Iyengar's Light on Yoga.
Paul and I flew in a small plane into the majestic solitude of the Yukon, seventy-five miles from the nearest road. We lived in a one-room log cabin, settling in for a long Northern winter. Surrounded by mountains, lakes, moose, wolves, coyotes, eagles, and swans, everything I had been taught began to unravel. All that I had been doing in the Bay Area, like building a career, no longer seemed important. I wasn't sure who I was anymore, what I really wanted, or what was true in my life. After a few months of wondering if I was going crazy, I discovered that I only knew three things for certain: that I loved my partner, I loved to walk in Nature, and I loved practicing yoga.
Day after day I practiced, with deepening devotion and wonder. I started to experience the intertwining of my individual self with the Universal Self, as unveiled in the vastness of Nature around me. My body and mind moved toward the deep peace of their union. I began to understand more directly the words of the ancient yogic text, the Upanishads, "Tat Tvam Asi," "I am That." Patanjali's teaching that the physical postures are "mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite"1 started to feel more real and accessible. Sometimes I experienced my body as a dance of energy seamlessly interconnected with the energy dancing in all of creation. This brought me a joy I had never known before.
After almost a year, we left the isolation of the wilderness and moved to a serene and remote valley in the mountains of British Columbia, where we lived in a supportive and loving community and raised two children. After seven or eight years of practicing yoga on my own, I attended my first yoga class with Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, a renowned and loving yoga teacher. Judith's tender warmth, compassion, wisdom, and humor greatly inspired me. She encouraged me to share my practice with others.
I began to teach yoga and continued to study regularly with Judith and other inspiring teachers influenced by B. K. S. Iyengar, the great yoga master known for his genius in understanding the body. In the mid-eighties, I traveled to India to study with Mr. Iyengar directly.
I will always be grateful for the teachings of this great yogi. A new intelligence opened in my body as I began to integrate the subtle nuances of Iyengar's brilliant teaching. The fierce way he taught, however, scared me a little. I was drawn to a gentler way of practicing and teaching yoga, one that did not sacrifice any of Iyengar's precision and rigor, but married them to a more feminine approach. This softer approach, I intuited, could start to release me from my own perfectionism and harsh self-judgments, and begin to birth me into a more fluid, integrated, and loving relationship with myself.
I was next blessed to study yoga with Angela Farmer, whose soft yet strong and creatively experimental way of teaching delighted me and began to free me from my rigidity and the determination of my will. I then found these inspiring words from the ancient Taoist mystic, Lao Tzu, that became my guide:
The typical way of people is to teach others to get rid of weakness and become strong, to remove softness and to become tough. However, the subtle Truth teaches to stop using force and become soft, to remove toughness and hardness and become gentle. Those under heaven who are soft can manage the strongest. Subtle energy has no form. Thus it can go into and out of any space. Therefore, I know the benefit of being soft and subtle and not using force. The learning of the subtle path is not only something that you know, but also something that you live. Many people know that not applying force brings greater benefit, but few are willing to do it. Living a life of no force is the subtle truth of Life.2
I started to dedicate my practice and teaching to "stop using force and become soft, and to remove toughness and hardness and become gentle." "Living a life of no force as the subtle truth of life" began to permeate my life. My practice of yoga deepened and began to reveal to me more profound realms of stillness and peace. My teaching became less preoccupied with detailed physical alignment, and more heart-centered and relaxed.
By the early nineties, however, I began to feel that both my yoga practice and my life had reached an invisible wall. The peace I had initially sought began to feel too comfortable. All the paths I had taken had been rich and rewarding, and I had been blessed with exceptional teachers. But still I felt restless and unsettled, as if I were missing something. There was something too isolated and protected about my life, and something too quiet and predictable about the yoga I was practicing. I yearned for an experience that could awaken me into a fuller life and a more active service to others. Without being able to articulate it, I longed to evolve my yoga practice and my life to marry peace with passion.
The thunderbolt I needed arrived in the form of Andrew Harvey's book, Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. Rumi's divinely inspired poetry and Andrew's brilliant commentary awakened the fire in my heart. As I became more and more inspired and enraptured by Rumi's poetry, I began to feel the stirrings of sacred passion deep within my own heart.
Passion burns down every branch of exhaustion,
Passion's the Supreme Elixir and renews all things;
No one can grow exhausted when passion is born!
Don't sigh heavily, your brow bleak with boredom;
Look for passion, passion, passion, passion! . . .
Run, my friends, run far away from all false solutions!
Let Divine passion triumph and rebirth you in yourself! --RUMI3
Rumi and Andrew challenged me into this rebirth with a fiery and urgent intensity. The inspirational mystical poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir began to weave itself through my yoga practice and teaching. It infused the peace I knew with a new depth of ecstasy and passion, which I welcomed.
I was then blessed to study with two superb yoga masters, Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee, who both confirmed and richly expanded this vision of the potential of yoga to carry both peace and passion. Patricia Walden embodied exactly the marriage of precise movement with compassion and grace that I had been seeking. Her feminine wisdom deeply inspired me. Rodney Yee's creative use of imagery, combined with his readings of mystical poetry, further illumined and affirmed my experience of their potential to enhance yoga practice. Rodney's expertise in exploring the spiritual mysteries of yoga philosophy, as well as his extraordinarily nuanced understanding of the body's innermost subtleties, sparked my own quest to marry mystery with clarity. His heartfelt warmth suffused his teaching with loving generosity, encouraging me to move beyond my mind and open my own heart more deeply in my practice and teaching. Rodney's blend of feminine and masculine energies was a radiant example of the integration I was longing to embody.
I was eager to learn more about the realms of mysticism, and to integrate their ecstatic and passionate energy into my yoga practice. I began to hear glowing reports about the doctoral program at the University of Creation Spirituality in California, and when I saw that Andrew Harvey was one of the teachers, I listened to my heart and enrolled.
My first class at UCS was on Rumi, and Andrew Harvey was the teacher. Within five minutes, his wild and passionate presentation of the great Persian poet had tears rolling down my cheeks. Andrew's subsequent teachings gave me a vision of how I could connect with the fire of divine passion through devotion and longing, and how this fire could fuel the energy of service to others.
I loved Andrew's passion as well as his compassion, and his commitment to the expression of divine love as creative action, social justice, healing, and transformation in the world. I loved him, too, for not posing as a guru, but instead constantly stressing that all human beings have their own direct connection to God, and for cherishing and celebrating the gifts he saw in all the people around him. His teaching was totally in harmony with the teachings of my grandmother whispering in my heart. Andrew's tremendous energy and conviction was like a firecracker that woke me up from a peaceful dream, and helped me both to remember the core of divine consciousness within me and to live my life radiating from this remembrance.
In Rumi's blessing before Book IV of the Mathnawi, Rumi quotes the Andalusian poet Adi al-Riga, who said,
I was sleeping, and being comforted
by a cool breeze, when suddenly a gray dove
from a thicket sang and sobbed with longing,
and reminded me of my own passion.
I had been away from my own soul so long,
so late-sleeping, but that dove's crying
woke me and made me cry. Praise
To all early-waking grievers!4
I was so grateful for Andrew's passion, which awakened my own. I was also a little afraid for him, because I sensed that his intense energy was not sufficiently grounded in his body, and I was concerned that he couldn't sustain the powerful energy flowing through him. As brilliant and mystical as Andrew was, like many of us it seemed that he wasn't living fully in his body.
One day, hesitantly and respectfully, I told him about my concern for him. I knew that he suffered from back pain and suggested that if he were more stable and steady on his feet, his back muscles would relax, and he would feel less pain. He welcomed my suggestion, and as he became more aware of how he was standing and rooted his feet in the earth, his back pain did lessen. He was thankful and asked me to teach some yoga postures in his classes, to help the doctoral students ground themselves and absorb the mystical teachings in the cells of their bodies.
We both began to see a new vision of the possibilities of yoga. Inspired by Andrew, I began to see more clearly how combining yoga with the passion of mysticism could deepen yoga's transformative power. Andrew, with my encouragement, began to see how being grounded in the body through devoted yoga practice could help the mystic embody mystical consciousness. We were both joyfully amazed by the synchronicity of our meeting, and at the natural interweaving of our two ancient paths. We were awed by the calm and exquisite truth of the path we found ourselves exploring together.
One day in a class on the Evolution of the Divine Human, Andrew played a CD of Jimmy Scott singing the theme song from the movie Exodus. I wept when I heard his heartbreakingly poignant voice singing these words, "This land is mine, God gave this land to me; this brave and lovely land to me." I felt then that the wounds of my childhood around the Holocaust were being directly healed, and that I could now, as a fully embodied human being, claim this earth, this "brave and lovely land" as my own. This was a moment of deep healing for me.
That night, the healing that had begun with Jimmy Scott's song continued in a yet deeper dimension. Awakening in the middle of the night from a dream, I found his words still running through my heart. This time I knew, with the stunned force of a revelation, that this "brave and lovely land" was also, in fact, my body. My grandmother had called me "God's perfect child," as were all beings. I experienced at that moment that my body was God's perfect gift to me-the divine's gift of embodiment to all beings. The energy flowing through my body felt both physical and spiritual, and I saw that any sense of separation is an illusion.
I felt my body radiating with divine beauty and holiness, united with all of creation. I felt the landscape of my body, its rounded hills and valleys, soft curves, moving winds, vast plains, flowing rivers and still pools, its forests and open skies. I knew directly that my body was the universe and the universe was my body.
I was moved to practice a few simple yoga poses, as if for the first time, and was amazed at the way they deepened the visionary experience. When old habits of self-doubt and self-judgment began to arise, I remembered a practice that Andrew had shared earlier that day. I visualized my grandmother floating lovingly above me, and I told her about the fears that were sabotaging me from awakening to my own God-given perfection. I imagined her extracting these fears from my body, like a magnet drawing up iron filings. As she did so, my body began to feel light and free.
This visionary experience continued to transform my yoga practice and teaching. A few months, later, Andrew and I began to teach a series of workshops celebrating what we had come to call the Sacred Marriage of yoga and mysticism. Andrew's vision of the marriage of the transcendent and immanent, masculine and feminine, body and soul, expressed itself in five great joys: the joys of transcendence, creation, love for all beings, the Tantra of tenderness, and service. In these workshops, Andrew articulated the vision of these joys, and I created yoga sequences that helped students directly experience and embody them. We were encouraged by the receptivity of our students to go more deeply into the mystery of the marriage, as they began to feel new levels of empowerment and freedom.
We continued to evolve and refine our work over the next few years. In an unforgettable week of teaching at Esalen, on the cliffs overlooking the wild ocean at Big Sur, all the aspects of the work that we had been honing came together and birthed a new level of awareness. Andrew and I began to further articulate the vision that informs this book. We spoke of the amazing potential that opens within yoga, when the practice and teaching of the asanas are combined with mystical imagery of the light-body from ancient traditions and esoteric anatomy. This felt like a powerful inspiration to us, and we evolved a teaching of the Sun Salutation with mystical imagery of the sacred centers of the light-body added to it. We were excited about the possibility of teaching all the yoga asanas from this perspective.
Having already had some experience of the cellular transformation that occurs when divine light is invoked into the body, we began to see how this new system would help us deepen and expand this transformation. By creating a precise and holy crucible for further engendering and grounding these experiences, this mystical yoga system would intensify and focus the light in a divinized body. Aurobindo and other great yogis had foreseen this as the next evolutionary step for humanity.
We investigated this vision and deepened our understanding of how the technology of transformation actually works. It is not as complicated as it may seem. The key to it is in the nature of the divine light. Just as physicists tell us that physical light is at once a wave and a particle, so the direct experience of divine light in the body is at once both an immersion in universal oceanic consciousness and a microscopic awareness of the light working with minutely precise intensity in every cell. As Rumi writes, "Do not think the drop alone becomes the ocean. The ocean, too, becomes the drop."5
As our practice of the yoga of the Sacred Marriage deepens, we find ourselves experiencing this vast expansion into universal presence as well as the microscopic attention to the minutest particles of the body. This fusion of universal consciousness with precise cellular awareness is the door through which grace can enter. It brings our whole being-mind, heart, soul, and body-into an ever-expanding unity and simultaneously gives us direct access to new levels of both profoundly calm and profoundly passionate energy.
This marriage of peace and passion, in turn, deepens, expands, and unifies heart, mind, spirit, and body. It creates an increasingly seamless, circular system of transformation. The absolute, the infinite, makes love to the relative, the finite. The finite, in responding to that love, fuses itself more intimately with its origin. This process, once awakened, becomes very simple and natural. With trust and openness to this practice, the divine light and grace do the rest.
Practice itself is the evolutionary crucible of divine humanity. Through practice, the immanent in us makes love to the transcendent, and through that lovemaking we open a pathway for the transcendent to love us into itself, as we embody transcendence.
Although I have practiced yoga consistently for over forty years, I often feel like a beginner on this subtle, demanding, and mysterious journey. Every practice brings new vision and new areas to explore. When periods of doubt, fear, or confusion arise, I need to stay grounded in my trust of the practice itself to realign me with awareness and courage, and to just keep practicing with an open heart.
A few years ago my life became nearly unbearable at times as my partner Paul struggled with and barely survived a series of major health crises. I needed the strength, courage, stamina, and passion of a warrior to fight the limits of the medical system for Paul's life. I also needed the peace, trust, and practices of a mystic, such as prayer, breath awareness, and meditation, to weather the many dark nights of terror and loneliness without becoming numbed and paralyzed by despair. This descent into the shadows deepened my experience and understanding of the comfort and faith that yoga practice offers, and intensified my gratitude and sense of celebration of the wonder and joy of life.
1 Andrew Harvey, Light Upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1996), p. 233.
2 Andrew Harvey, The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World's Great Wisdom Traditions (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 100.
3 Andrew Harvey, ed., Teachings of the Hindu Mystics (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), p. 15.
4 Steven Larsen, A Fire in the Mind (New York: Anchor, 1992), p. 238.
5 Andrew Harvey, unpublished translation.
Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Harvey and Karuna Erickson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Photo by Scarleth White, courtesy of creative Commons license.Tweet