Yoga - Madness or Meditation?
The following is the preface for my book; 'Yoga - Madness or Meditation'. It is available now via Amazon on paperback and kindle. BUY here.
Working on the design for the book.
I want to thank my wife Laura again for the single defining moment in my ongoing examination of yoga and life itself. Whilst discussing with her the complicated and often contradictory subject of yoga, Laura eloquently quoted her favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
This was my moment of enlightenment. Not in the sense that I was now a Buddha. Far from it. Although, since I married, I am starting to look like one. This single moment changed the course of my investigation and study. I encourage you to remember that quote as you read this book and to immerse your brain in understanding the subject of yoga so you can decide for yourself whether the yoga you do, will lead to madness or meditation.
My name is Zahir Akram. I experienced my enlightenment (the goal of a yogi) whilst squatting under an apple tree on the banks of the Basingstoke Canal. In Surrey. Since this third eye opening experience, I have offered to anyone who wishes to listen, my enlightened punditry on life. And, especially on the subject of yoga.
Okay, I’m not being serious. That is a joke. Let’s start again. My name is Zahir and I am not a yogi. This may sound a little odd as this is a book on the subject of yoga. But, bear with me. By the end of the book you will hopefully understand why I choose not to refer to myself as a yogi. I am just an ordinary person with an extraordinary love for yoga. I am a yoga teacher. But, I prefer to refer to myself as a yoga ‘tour guide’. I am on the same journey as you, but with a little more information at my disposal which will allows me to point you in a particular direction so you can explore the world of yoga for yourself. It’s easy for us mere mortals to start thinking we are high and mighty yoga teachers. We are not. Some time after referring to myself as a tour guide, I read a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “I’m not a teacher; only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way”. I realise how much better that sounds than my rubbish tour guide analogy. But, I hope you get the picture.
I’m not a typical yogi. Far from it. I don’t pray to the Hindu God, Krishna. I don’t call myself a Hindu, wear mala beads and burst out an impromptu chant when there is a new moon. I don’t wear an OM t-shirt and I don’t recite the Gita (a religious text) when I teach. I don’t meditate and I certainly don’t think my peacock is better than yours. But, I reckon it is. I am blissfully in love with my wife. We are not vegans. We don’t hug trees, and we don’t claim to cleanse chakras. We do asana (yoga poses), we teach asana, we breathe asana, and we love Korean zombie movies. I’d like to think we are just a normal couple.
What is my intention with this book? It is to give the average yoga student not necessarily a complete understanding of yoga (which would be near impossible), but to provide them with a cultural interpretation of yoga. Or rather, my cultural interpretation of yoga. There is every chance, however, that you may finish this book feeling more perplexed than you were before. But this is what will open the door for further enquiry. I want you to understand the fundamentals (which themselves are open to interpretation) so you can strive to discover for yourself what yoga actually is, as opposed to what it can look like. This understanding that I share with you is based on my own odyssey which, at times, contradicts academia and much of what you may have read in the past. At times, it may even contradict itself. Welcome to the wonderfully baffling world of yoga. This is not to say that I know best, that’s far from true. I just want to give you an alternative view that does not involve the same old lifeless explanations and commentaries. I have intentionally tried to omit some academic dates as well as academic references as much as I can because this will not be another mundane, humdrum look at yoga. Not to say that academic books on yoga are boring or stuffy for everyone, they just are to me. I find most yoga books lifeless or lacking in soul, so I wanted to offer you something different. An alternative history of yoga inspired by the flair of Hindu mythology and my own reasoning, as well as a bias based on my own upbringing.
When a new student in my studio asked me questions about yoga, I found myself at a loss to recommend anything for her to read to help her with her inquiry. Most of the books I could think of would have left her confused and bewildered. I went over, in my head, the hundreds of yoga books that I own and have read over the years and was left just scratching my head. I recommended Light on Life, by the late, great B.K.S Iyengar, but that was not enough to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. When I myself was learning about this very convoluted subject, I felt like the authors of the books I was reading were always talking to their fellow authors or fellow academics. To me, an academic book on yoga is one academic’s love song to another. And the books that did not fall into the academic category were for the more religious type of yogi. Very few books speak to the average Western yoga student who comes to yoga to “stretch”and would simply like to know a little more. This book is written for people like you and me who just want a little illumination and not academic exposure. So, this book will not be an academic book on yoga. I remember reading many years ago of how academia is a study for what is measurable, rather than what is meaningful. Don’t overly observe life, you soon miss the whole point of living. Academic books on yoga explain yoga from a place of scholarship and “fact”. This book will attempt to explain yoga from a place that exists somewhere between culture and my own logic and perspective.
I will try to explain the meaning of yoga as best I can, and then I will share some of my so-called wisdom on the subject of meditation, asana (poses), as well as the myths underlying yoga. These sections are likely to offend delicate yogis and yoga teachers who teach yogic meditation and anyone who teaches that the knee should never travel over the toe. Anytime someone speaks their truth somebody is going to be offended. But my intention is not to offend anyone, but to explain as best I can my viewpoints and theories, this may inadvertently touch a few nerves. Or maybe not. Some will agree. Some will argue. Most, I hope, will just finish this book with a better understanding of yoga than when they started.
At an early stage of my own enquiry on yoga I would ask wise yoga teachers, “What exactly is yoga?” I would get answers like “Yoga is surrender”, “Yoga is acceptance”, “Yoga is life”, blah blah blah. These answers were far too vague and airy fairy for me. I was looking for an actual definition. I realise now, after a long time, that often it’s easier to give someone your viewpoint on yoga that it is to answer the actual question. To answer fully is not a straightforward process. When students ask me that same question, I try not to give them a direct answer. I will often tell those students just to do yoga. Do the poses with all your heart. Once you have delved deep into the poses, those poses you thought were once impossible, you come back to me and then you tell me what yoga is. The answer is there inside us, it just takes some examination and effort on our part to discover it. And what you discover is that yoga can be either madness or meditation. It all depends on the state of mind.
This book is for all the students over the years who have said to me that they would like to learn about or do yoga without feeling they have to be a vegan, or to chant, or to join a yoga community. No change in who you are is required before you do yoga or when you immerse yourself in trying to understand yoga. You are required just to be yourself, as you are. Your beauty is your individuality and you cannot compromise this for the sake of anyone or anything. Yoga only asks that you be daring enough to try and that you create a discipline. Nothing more is required. It’s not yoga that expects anything from you, it’s the yoga community. Or more specifically, it’s what you think the yoga community expects from you. I want you, the casual yoga student, to understand that nothing is expected of you. You do not have to change. You don’t need to chant to be accepted. You don’t have to sit up straight like a perfect yogi and adopt certain mudras or hand gestures. You are not expected to be a yogi or to be yogic. You are not expected to have read the Bhagavad Gita. You are perfect as you are. All that is required is willingness to embrace this perfection. Our inability to recognise our own unique and beautiful individuality is deep rooted from our childhood. How many times have parents said, or continue to say, “What is wrong with you?” How many school teachers have said that we need to change our behaviour? Or, that we should behave more like this kid or that kid? How many religious teachers make us feel that we are doomed for hell unless we change? It is part of our psychology that we think that there is something wrong with us and that whenever we step into something new, that something needs to change. But, in yoga and especially in my studio, no change is needed. You will be further and further away from happiness if you feel you have to fit in with the yoga ideal. In the modern world, you are not allowed to be happy or content. If you are happy and content, you are considered arrogant by those who only wish they could love themselves. But yoga says you are perfect. You can be happy and you should love yourself. What is there not to love? We believe that we need to add something to our looks or personality to be perfect, but what is required is just to remove the whispers that reside in the mind that tell us that we are not allowed to love ourselves. The mind is a theatre as you will learn throughout this book.
I once read a quote that has remained with me for what feels like my entire adult life. “Your whole idea of who you think you should be is taken from people who have no idea who they really are themselves.” It’s your individuality that makes you so beautiful. Embrace that and don’t try to fit in. You never will. You were never supposed to. You were always designed to be free. So this book is for anyone who is just interested in the enquiry that is yoga. Nothing is expected of you. There are no entry requirements. There are no dietary requirements. You don’t have to learn Sanskrit. You don’t have to go to India. It’s okay if sleeping is your favourite yoga pose. You don’t have to start juicing. There are no yoga police and there is no hell for bad yogis. Or, maybe there is. If there is a hell for bad yogis, then there are so many modern yoga gurus already residing in the Saraswati wing of hell, being adjusted inappropriately by Shaitan, that there is no room for us anyway. You do, however, need to embrace your authentic nature and just be yourself. Yoga is for anyone and for everyone. Yoga is for the average Joe. If you have pulled a muscle reaching for a chocolate biscuit, then yoga is for you. If you only want to learn to stretch so you can fix your man bun, then yoga is for you. If you drink full fat milk, love a T-bone steak, hate avocados, think Lululemon is a girl band, then yoga is for you. If like the Henry vacuum cleaner you have lots of attachments, then yoga is, guess what, for you. Yoga is for everyone. All you have to do is to be willing to try.
On a final note, before I introduce you to the source of yoga (Shiva), I would like to ask your forgiveness for any errors in this book, be they scientific or cultural. I am not a scientist or an academic. The inspiring Hellen Keller in The Story of My Life said, “Trying to write is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern in mind which we wish to work out in words; but the words will not fit the spaces, or, if they do, they rarely match the design.”
What follows is just the interpretation of an uneducated seeker. Many times while writing this book, I wondered if I was the right person to be sharing my thoughts with you. I am not a mystical yogi or an enlightened intellectual. Should I let this dishearten or intimidate me? Should I have stopped writing and just gone back to reading? How many people have a voice that they would like someone to hear? If we all stay silent, we remain prisoners our whole lives. Again, Helen Keller once said; “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.” If you have something to say, you should have the confidence to stand up and be heard. Even if this invites criticism. I want to encourage you to drop fear. We must not be afraid of our fears. They are not there to scare us. They exist to let you know that what you are doing has value. It is worth something. I do not think I am anyone special. I am just someone trying to make sense of how to fit my western body and mind, into this eastern tradition. Will it even fit? Does it have to? I hope that by the end of this book, I can at least help some of you understand that trying to fit your body and mind into this eastern tradition is what will lead you to madness. Accepting that you are a western student with a western body (and mind) and making peace with who you are, and with what you are, is more likely to lead you to that place we all seek, a place of happiness. This is what I call meditation. It is not a practice but a destination or a way of being.
In the final Chapter 'Reflection', I conclude by saying the following -
Chapter 1 - The First Yogi - Shiva
The Story of Shiva and Parvati
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
Chapter 2 - Tantra and Love
What is Tantra?
The difference between Tantra and Yoga
Is Love attachment?
Chapter 3 - No Philosophy
Shiva gave man NO philosophy
Chapter 4 - The Sage Patanjali
Stillness of Mind
Did Patanjali exist?
Chapter 5 - Introspection
Ganesh and Karthikeya - A story
What is turning attention inwards?
Chapter 6 - Mind
Where/what is the Mind?
What is Consciousness?
How does man defeat the mind?
Durga and the Demon - A story
Chapter 7 - Yoga ‘Gurus’
Do we need Guru's in modern times?
Guru's are not as holy as you think
Chapter 8 - Understanding the Mind via The Bhagavad Gita
Is Krishna real or a metaphor?
Understanding the mind via the Gita of Ashtavakra
Chapter 9 - God
Chapter 10 - What is Yoga?
Chapter 11 - Modern Day Yoga
When did it begin?
Chapter 12 - Asana
Shiva and Parvati have a dance contest
Parvati cannot reach her toes
Cupid - the God of Love
Parvati becomes 'Matsya'
Are yoga poses a modern invention?
Why do Asanas (the poses)?
The legend of the Warrior poses
Asanas are all about balance
Does Yoga makes you stronger?
Insecure yoga teachers
What is the Ego? - Is it all bad?
Why its OK for the knee to travel over the toe
Locking the knee
Chapter 13 - Meditation
The difference between meditation and Dyana
The Relaxation Response
Does meditation work?
Restoring 'mental health' via Meditation
Dyana - the yogic Meditation
Story of the Buddha
Patanjali's 8 limbs
Chapter 14 - Kali, The Final Destination
Kali and Shiva
The Rolling Stones
Chapter 15 - A Reflection
Madness or Meditation?
Chapter 16 - Shiva's 112 Techniques