When I got sober in 1985 at age 15, I was trying to better understand what the 12 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program were trying to instill in me.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with a higher power.
For an atheist and/or a person with an active, obsessive mind, this step can be elusive. Prayer is extremely easy compared to the intellectual practice of training the mind, with its persistent thought, to become still and quiet. So, what’s the point of the Step 11 exercise? There are many.
The first is that when you can quiet the mind you can just be present in the moment instead of consciously trying to be in many places at once. Many people find this to be a blissful feeling.
Another is that you become able to control the mind, and when it wanders you can become proficient in redirecting it to what you need to focus on. This is true power; being able to redirect an obsession or a negative thought is crucial to good mental health and to happiness.
A third great aspect of having the ability to still the mind and focus is that when you are able to concentrate on the thing you are doing, you can often do that thing better than you’d be able to if you were distracted.
Yoga and similar practices can be done in such a way that we work towards just being in the moment and working on what needs to be worked on by choice. As an example, I can focus on going deeper into a pose or holding a strength pose for a longer time by redirecting my mind to other muscles or to my breathing.
The Yoga Asana
There are three components to a Yoga Asana (essentially a type of controlled posturing). First, it is to control the body. Then, breath can be controlled. From that point, thoughts going through a person’s head can be controlled in such a way that the person can arrive at a single-minded focus.
I can have a single-minded focus. I can direct my attention to the present moment. At that point, in that space, I am able to realize universal truths. Many, many people do this all the time—it’s not really that extraordinary. There are many universal truths that should be realized. They are truths that underlie the nature of reality. And there are a tremendous number of them. Even while we are going about life on a day-to-day basis, we discover universal truths all the time.
In the early 90s I learned from a great mentor named Robert Lawlor. He had a massive body of written work on the ancient Aboriginal Australians. I immersed myself in his teachings and followed his work for a decade. During that period of time I also studied and appreciated many far eastern philosophical teachings.
I love yoga, and I have studied the yoga sutras of Patanjali. When I hear people teach things from the Vedas I understand the meaning. I also enjoy the very specific philosophy of Buddhist teachings. But the teachings are only as good as their translator. I’m not superstitious, and I’m not a religious person, but I know when I’m reading information that’s of no value. And I’ve used that trait to exercise discernment regarding the things that I study.
Over the years I became obsessed with Tao Te Ching. I don’t recall how I found these ancient Chinese proverbs, but I would read them in many different translations for years. It wasn’t until I found a great yoga teacher in the late 1990s, though, that I had sufficient guidance to really understand the mysteries of the teachings.
( Above: Sat Shri Mahayogi Parmahansa, my first Yoga Teacher.)
My first yoga teacher helped me a great deal. I would never try to convince anyone that he was anything more than a mortal man, but he had a great mind and performed great actions.
There are many extraordinary stories that have been circulated about him, and I’m not able to verify if all of them are true. But in the many encounters that I had with him in my life, he always brought me great wisdom and light. He did not lead me to follow his path—he pointed me to my own. His words to me were soft-spoken and truthful, and he loved me without judgment. He taught me great yoga wisdom, and so he is revered in my mind. The same way I revere my father and mother and my wife. It’s not perfect reverence, but it’s pretty good.
I encountered this man from Japan through the Integral Yoga Institute. Some of their members and I sat with him a dozen times and took many of his yoga classes when he was in the US for a time. Just from sitting in his presence, I realized that a person could live a life similar to that of a great monk or sage and pass on beautiful teachings.
I dearly love certain ancestral teachings of indigenous peoples from North America and South America. I am very much in alignment with any group of people that lives in a compassionate way with deep reverence for their land. I also highly value the information and wisdom from a wide variety of scientists, artists, poets and philosophers. I have finally come to a stage in my life in which I trust myself and my ways of leading myself through various types of teachings.
Ultimately, it is through my own disciplines that I will open up the door that renowned sages opened using their own practices. Many of the same things are said by many different great teachers. We all come up with similar purposes in life. We come up with many of the same routines and rituals for caring for the body, for caring for our planet’s creatures, and for caring for our fellow human beings.
Ultimately, life changes its focus in different stages along our way during our journeys. In my 20s and 30s I was willing to put my life in grave danger for the purpose of excitement. I threw myself out of airplanes thousands of times. I sat at the bottom of the ocean and looked at giant aquatic creatures. I locked myself into safety gear and was willing to climb sides of mountains.
I have no regret regarding any of those actions. I would have, of course, if I had injured myself. Or if regretting a fatal mistake after death was/is possible, I certainly would have done so. I don’t think it’s necessary for most to take dangerous actions to achieve self-realization, but I think that for my specific mindset and body type that was what I needed to do.
As I become more aware of myself and my mission, I recognize that all of the truths that I learned from great teachings of the far east, lessons I learned about Aboriginal people, and things I learned through 12-step recovery, I realize that the most important path is that of compassion and truth.
I want to help people that I come in contact with find relief from their own forms of suffering. It’s not because I have a messiah complex—it’s because there really isn’t very much else to do that’s of great importance. I’m not overly attached to that mission. I just realize that trying to liberate others from suffering is the most important work that I, or anyone else, can do.
I must alleviate suffering in my own household first. I must make changes for the better in my own life. Only from that point can I be of any significant help to others. If I become enlightened about things of importance and value, I want to tell others about what I’ve learned and experienced. And I have a big mouth—that’s an asset at times.
I have 10,000 pages of writing that I intend to share with others in some form. Perhaps two-thirds of it is garbage and one-third of it is very good. Theoretically, if that’s the case and I’m able to share that one-third with others, then I will be proud. Not with an unhealthy, arrogant type of pride. But proud that I discovered some things of value that may help fellow human beings, and that I tried to communicate it to them in an accessible way.
There are many great systems of yoga exercise that are very well worth experimenting with. I think the Ashtanga system is brilliant. I think the traditional Hatha Yoga system created by Vikram is brilliant as well. But I think the most enlightened practice is the one involving 15 postures that was taught to me by the guru from Japan. To me, that particular system is perfect.
I am not a yoga teacher. I am a yoga admirer and I find yoga to be a very direct path to training the body and the mind at the same time. I recommend that whatever physical activity you practice, do it mindfully and call it yoga. It's all yoga.