19 October 2006

Yoga and Thoreau...

…yes, they’re linked.

The firm control of the senses, is what is called yoga.

Katha Upanishad, II.iii 11

I end up in a few yoga classes a year and, about halfway through, I always feel like throwing up. “I want you to think of a string going right up your spine and out through the top of your head throughout the class today,” the blond woman said. “Sit up nice and straight, don’t strain, put your hands together over your heart space and we’re going to start with three “oms” to get centered and our breath working with us.”

Maybe it’s because I’m never sure exactly why I’m there – and I don’t mean just which way to bend. Am I there for exercise? For a stretch class? Is it supposed to be a physical spiritual practice? Is breathing the point? Meditation? In the past, I’d mostly gone hoping to find exercise that could counteract the effects of running so I found myself sprinting out of any shiny wood studio that spent too long on any kind of prayer. I wanted my spiritual lessons straight up, not slipped in when I was just trying to keep my legs from snapping.

But, that morning, while my head hung down just inches from the rubber mat, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to figure out how this kind of yoga fit in with all the other “yogas” I’d been hearing about in Hinduism.

In this softly-lit studio, the only reference to anything Hindu is a poster which looked like the symbol for “om” from far away but, up close, the gray “om” was actually made up of the smallest of human figures in yoga positions, a pretty accurate metaphor for what’s happened to the practice. I doubt anyone in the studio except some of the instructors think much about where yoga came from and why or that they’re actually engaging in a Hindu practice, albeit a pretty dilute form. I know I never had. In fact, I’d been confused when Professor Chapple started talking about yoga and “important” yoga studios as part of Hinduism’s journey west in the first abridged overview that he gave me about Hinduism in the United States but I’d simply scribbled down what he said. Somewhere in all those notes was the name of a documentary he called the best history of yoga he knew: Yoga Unveiled: Evolution and Essence of a Spritual Tradition. It was produced by Gita and Mukash Desai. I’d gotten through part of it before heading off to yogao class.

Yoga is an ancient practice. The word came from the Sanskrit word yuj or yoke. According to the film, archaeologists found representations of people in recognizable yoga poses in relics that date back to 2500 BCE which makes sense as what we call Hinduism was actually a collection of traditions dating back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. No one person was responsible for its inception and it wasn’t even recognized as a single religion until centuries after it began. Its name came from outsiders who were describing the people living along the Indus river as “Hindus.” Originally an oral tradition, its earliest texts, the Vedas, were finally written down about 200 BCE followed by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The practice we call “yoga” came from something called the Patanjali Sutras, a collection of 195 lessons or verses that were assembled by Patanjali somewhere between 1700 and 2200 years ago. Their purpose was to describe how the mind works and a set of physical practices to get beyond its false limitations.

Exercise was never the principal goal of yoga. If you wanted to learn yoga back in Patanjali’s time, you’d probably have to walk for miles to find a guru and then convince him to accept you as a student because the knowledge was considered secret. And the postures were actually the third step of eight on a path meant to lead, as Huston Smith put it, “to integration or union…of the human spirit with the God who lies concealed in its deepest recesses.”

For the physical postures to be effective, according to Patanjali, students had a whole lot of work to do. First, they had to abstain from violence in word and deed (yama) and then rigorously clean up the way they conducted themselves even when they thought no one is looking (niyama). Were you clean? Content? Able to handle austerities and rigorous self-study? Were you in complete surrender to the creator? Then, and only then, would a guru begin to teach the physical postures meant to control the breath, body and mind. The purpose of the training was to remove all obstacles, especially physical ones, to meditation. Maybe that’s why I always feel like throwing up. I’m pretty sure there isn’t much of those two preceding steps I’ve accomplished. I’ll bet that, if I’d truly taken those two steps first, my mind chatter would be less, too. Georg Feuerstein, author of The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, said: “Yoga without these foundations is a moral impossibility. It cannot fulfill itself. It cannot have the effect it was intended to have and it can truly not transform human life.”

Utthita Trikonasana – triangle pose.” We were standing with our legs were spread wide, leaning forward, with one hand to the ground and the other stretched toward the ceiling. I suddenly remembered that you’re supposed to do yoga on an empty stomach.

The historian said the ultimate purpose of yoga had little to do with becoming fit and limber; it was really meant as preparation for the meditation that might lead one to uniting with the divinity inside each one of us. No wonder it was confusing in those yoga studios when the class ended and everyone leapt to make way for the next group coming in. Those last few minutes of silence and repose are much more important than all that comes before; they are, in fact, the point but that’s gotten lost in the emphasis on physical exercise and appearance.

The teacher walked between the mats, shifting a hip here and the angle of a foot there. I caught a glimpse of the clock. Just ten more minutes and one pose left. Good. The postures were no match for my chattering brain which pounced from commentary on the teacher; to rumination on the use of Sanskrit words when they’ve got perfectly fine English names for all the poses; to my assessment of my performance in comparison with those around me – better than the the guy in a baggy shirt but not even close to the pony-tailed woman in front of me; to a fixation on what the statue up front was (a skinny buddha – what did that have to do with yoga?); and then off again to the smell of the incense - was it bothering anybody? I could never use incense in my office without someone wheezing or gagging. And that summed up a scant thirty seconds of thought in a ninety-minute class.

But my hamstrings were better. I could feel that.

The instructor finally said, “Okay, lie down on your mats in Savasana, corpse pose.”

I dropped to the mat like a wet bath towel, making more noise than felt proper.

“Legs slightly apart, “ the instructor purred. “Then let them fall gently out to the sides. Let your arms fall alongside your body, facing upwards.”

I was whipped and warm, grateful for the stillness.

Within minutes, the teacher had us sitting up, legs crossed, palms together in front of our “heart space.”


Namaste,” we repeated in unison. And then all around me, just as my mind chatter finally stilled, people began rolling up their mats and heading for their cellphones as the next class started to come in. I decided to go home to finish watching the documentary and what I heard next shocked me.

I’d gotten most of what I needed from the documentary – or so I thought – but I came home and, still in my sweats, sat there on the living room rug to finish watching the rest of the four-hour film on the history of yoga. And there, in the section on yoga’s journey west, was that yoga historian saying that the main people responsible for first bringing Hindu thought into this country were Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau and Emerson?

I’d read Walden Pond in both high school and college. I’d read Emerson in high school, college and many times since. I’d been assigned essays on both more than once. Yet I’d never noticed any of this.

Georg Feuerstein said that, while there was some evidence that Hindu thought was at least known by the ancient Greeks, it really wasn’t until the first English translations of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas and the Upanishads found their way into the hands of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s that these traditions had any significant impact in the United States. He said the Transcendentalists “were deeply affected by Indian thought. Thoreau openly uses words such as Brahman and words such as that.”

Of course Emerson’s “Over-Soul” was the Bhagavad Gita’s imperishable, unchanging “presence that pervades the universe.”
Within man is the soul of the whole; the universal beauty to which every part
and particle is equally related, the eternal One.
Of course, both Emerson and Thoreau stressed a direct, unmediated relationship with the Divine as Hinduism did in stark contrast to the religious practices of their day. Of course, Walden Pond was Thoreau’s Ganges, his time there his yogic retreat. In Walden, Thoreau had been explicit but, still, I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t taken it in.

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well or water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and ishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or wells at the root of a tree with his crust and water---jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
How could thought I’d considered so fundamentally a part of my heritage, so fundamentally American, have come, in part, from Hinduism? How could I have started this thing I’m doing with the most obscure, the most ancient, the most remote, the most exotic, the most unknown to me of the traditions and end up here? Inside the pages of some of my most treasured, well-thumbed books? And they were largely responsible for bringing Hindu thought to this country?

Emerson and Thoreau often get slammed for being so “self”-absorbed. This puts it in a different light, doesn’t it, if the “self” they were talking about was actually The Self? In other words, it's not them, in particular, they were trying to fully realize, but the Divine Self.

A few days later, I sat at the long wooden dinner table in the Vedanta Society's dining room after one of Swami Sarvadevananda’s evening classes when the subject came up of how Hinduism first came to the United States. Leslie, an American woman who was raised a Catholic but now wore saris from time to time, said, “It was Swami Vivekananda, wasn’t it? At the Parliament of Religions in Chicago the late 1800s?”

Swamiji’s Bengali-accented English is quite understandable but it’s easy to get tripped up, sometimes, by slight differences in syllabic emphasis. I’m really not sure if it was that or my assumption that the documentary had over-stated the case, or that I thought Hinduism had to have first come to the United States through the aegis of an Indian but I was thought I hadn’t quite heard him right when he answered, “No, it was Thoreau, Thoreau and Emerson who first introduced it here.”

“Thoreau? You mean Walden Pond Thoreau?”


So here’s what I’ve learned about Hinduism so far: If you’ve ever participated in a Lamaze class or seen one on TV, if you think the state of your mind has some impact on your health, if you’ve been to a twelve-step program, if you are interested in astrology or meditation, if you think good or bad deeds might affect your future fortunes, if you can’t understand why such different ideas often seem to come from the crazy people in California, if you’ve read Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, and, most of all, if you’ve ever gone to a yoga class, Hindu belief, thought or practice has had some impact on your life.

(19 October 2006)


  1. Just fascinating :) I will send this post to a yoga teacher friend of mine :) And Thoreau and Emerson were also influenced by the poetry of Hafez and Rumi, if I remember right. From many sources, the truth comes, and it is always the same in all spiritual paths.

    Ya Haqq!

  2. Best post yet! Fascinating account of the connective web that unites humanity. Keep going!

  3. Good article. Nicely written.

    I am now reading "Head and Heart" and Wills goes into considerable detail concerning the Trancendentalists and how they were in fact a religion, but obviously much more enlightened than the traditional religions of the time. Nevertheless, they greatly influenced later religious thinking among all the American faiths.

    I am also remember reading somewhere that the word 'yoke' and 'yoga' have fundamentally and linguistically the same root. Which is interesting when you think of Jesus' words about taking on his 'easy' yoke.

  4. Yup. "Yoga" and "yoke" both come from the Sanskrit word "yuj" Here's the wikipedia info about that...

    The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings,[7] and is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning "to control", "to yoke" or "to unite".[8] Translations include "joining", "uniting", "union", "conjunction", and "means".[9][10][11]

  5. Senses are compared by many Guru's as desires having wings them. So controlling them is obviously a difficult task but not impossible & if one can control them he is not just master of himself but surely can master everyone.

    The firm control of the senses, is what is called yoga. Practice it.


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.