“Errr… you do know that there are philosophy lessons don’t you?”
Every former Yoga Teacher Trainee I had spoken to had mentioned the philosophy lessons with a look in their eyes that made me slightly nervous. And when student after student rose at the “Initiation” ceremony to talk of “learning more about the spiritual side of Yoga”, it became clear that that some had come with more in mind than just the stretchy stuff.
Still, forewarned is forearmed, and I was definitely better prepared than some. I’m not sure anyone, however, was prepared for the length, depth and sweeping magisterial breadth of what was to follow.
Our lecturer for the month was Swami Mahadevananda (also the director of the course) a powerful Italian, and one of the leading lights in the Sivananda movement alive today, his imposing physical presence backed up by a booming voice and a strangely piercing glare.
Philosophy lessons were scheduled for 2pm daily, and from the word go he established his trademark no-nonsense style. The lesson was blunt and to the point, clearly based on the principle that Eastern Philosophy is so alien to the western mind that it can only be communicated with a bang not a whimper.
The message was suitably mystical. (For the sake of brevity, I paraphrase 100 minutes into 30 seconds). “Om. Forget everything you know. Time doesn’t exist. Space doesn’t exist. In fact nothing that you think of as real exists. God is the only thing that’s real, but your stupid little minds and your gigantic egos mean you’ll probably never really understand that either. Om.”
A few tentative questions were brushed away nonchalantly, and the class dispersed to ponder what would come next.
2pm on Day Two. As the chatter of 175 newly-met students echoed round the hall, the Swami sat imperiously on his cane chair.
He drew attention to his presence. “I’M HEYEEERE” he bellowed loudly, in an opening gambit was to become all too familiar over the coming weeks. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeeeeyere’s JOHNNY!” in the film The Shining.
If Day One’s message had been hard to digest, Day Two was equally uncompromising. (I paraphrase again). “You think you’re free? You think the West’s free? You must be crazy. The 20th century was a disaster for the world; you’re trapped and frankly there’s not much hope of a way out. None of you know what real freedom, spiritual freedom, is anyway.”
Gulp. Looking round the tired faces in my dorm that night, it felt like any type of freedom would do. It wasn’t just the challenge of the philosophy classes – more that the combination of lack of sleep, tough Asana practice, a down-shift to two meals a day, and twice daily chanting left little time to digest food let alone spiritual manna. Drastic measures were required. In Vishnu dorm we prepared a wall chart was hastily prepared with a 26-day countdown to liberation, whatever form that might take.
But there was no let-up – over the next couple of days, the barrage continued as the Swami outlined the basic tenets of Vedantic Philosophy and Hindu belief. There was something majestic about the way he stuck to his guns. He was here to give a message, and that was what he would do. He served big, booming metaphysical statements straight down the middle of the court with the power of Nadal; questions were swatted away with the consummate ease of Sampras at the net; and lessons were drawn out more painfully than the longest Henman Wimbledon thriller.
We were informed that science, frankly, was bunkum, and that no Western research had ever started to understand the mind. (As Swiss doctor commented to me later “There goes Freud…”). Although lessons rarely finished on time, some of us couldn’t help but ask floundering questions, eating into a valuable scheduled 30 minutes of free time in our packed schedule.
An underground movement sprung up among some frustrated students. Books and articles on neuroscience were surreptitiously put into circulation; names of philosophers were swapped around, particularly by frustrated Buddhist practitioners.
But still the Swami continued with vigour. His energy (he’s 70) and his belief were unquestionable. He raced through an exploration of the Vedas, explained how to tell your Brahma from your Brahman, took us up and down the Chakras, moved from Physical to Astral and Causal bodies with ease, and warned of the power of Kundalini – all the while interspersing his languid speech with intriguing personal stories. Slowly the jigsaw pieces of the belief system behind Hindu Culture were assembled.
For a Westerner like me, with little to no knowledge of Hindu Culture prior to the course, it was an eye-opener. The amount of information communicated in a short period of time was substantial. The core message – that you can only reach God by getting beyond your mind and controlling your ego – is a powerful one, and brought meditation to life. And understanding Karma (properly) as well as the concept of reincarnation is no bad thing when it underpins the beliefs of rather a lot of people in the world.
Most importantly, I got a first-hand experience of the concept of unquestioning devotion that is at the heart of the Guru (Gu-ru = “Remover of – Darkness”) system. For Westerners used to seeing critical analysis as the only real way to progress in life, this comes as a bit of a shock. But when you realize that in some ways unquestioning devotion is an organising principle in India, it starts to explain some of the fundamental differences in the approach to society here – both advantages and disadvantages.
Over time, I also came to realize that his didactic and sometimes aggressive style was, in some ways, the only option he had. (Taking a quick 40 winks in one of his classes (or, worse, not turning up in uniform) was to risk being singled out with a booming “HELLOOOO”). Time was limited, and he had an awful lot to say.
I walked away with a much greater understanding of one of the great faiths. There were many things which bothered me, but that’s no bad thing. (I will mention only one – there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to conflate religious/spiritual belief and science, giving the former the ascendant position and assigning it with ownership of the concept of “truth”, while denigrating the value of the latter. This seems pointless to me. If there’s one thing we know, it is that if a belief is proved as objective truth, humans will move on and find the next thing to believe in. Valuing belief for what it is – above and beyond objective truth – seems more, um, logical).
But maybe the real lesson is this: Don’t think too much.
So. Mani was arming me with an understanding of how to control my body. The Swami was driving home the message of the importance of getting beyond my mind to reach the self/soul.
Meditation, we were told, was the key to connecting the two… but could I keep my legs crossed for long enough?