Welcome to the first post of my new series! In Dispatches From the Mat, we will examine the lifestyle and philosophy of yoga, and what makes up a fully developed yoga practice (hint: it isn’t being able to stand on your head). I hope you will be part of the discussion and join me in the search for union, for the true Self and the true nature of reality.
There is a passage in the Katha Upanishad with which I deeply identify. Yama, lord of death, has granted young Nachiketa three boons, in reparation for the three days the boy waited at Death’s palace while Yama was away. Nachiketa’s first two requests were fairly practical: a return of the love of his father and instructions on how to properly practice a ritual which leads to spiritual development. For his third blessing, however, Nachiketa asks for the secret of death. Yama answers by saying, “That’s over your head, boy, ask for something else,” but Nachiketa sticks to his guns. Yama tries to tempt him with wonderous offerings:
Ask for sons and grandsons who will live a hundred years. Ask for herds of cattle,
elephants and horses, gold and vast lands, and ask to live as long as you desire.
Or, if you can think of anything more desirable, ask for that,
with wealth and long life as well. Nachiketa, be the ruler of a great kingdom,
and I will give you the utmost capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life.
Ask for beautiful women with loveliness rarely seen on earth, riding in chariots,
skilled in music, to attend on you. But Nachiketa,
don’t ask me about the secret of death.
To which Nachiketa answers:
These pleasures last but until tomorrow, and they wear out the vital powers of life.
How fleeting is all life on earth! Therefore keep your horses and chariots,
dancing and music, for yourself. Never can mortals be made happy by wealth.
It is an unfortunate truth of our world that most people seek comfort and luxury, as well as all sorts of pleasures, as opposed to seeking wisdom or lasting joy. Those things that we are taught to want, that our senses most desire, are very difficult to turn our backs on. I am as guilty as the next person — and was even more so when I was younger — of falling for the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” ploy. Putting myself in Nachiketa’s shoes, I doubt I would have held fast as he did. The offer of beautiful women is tempting, but the offer of beautiful women skilled in music? That would likely have broken me. Especially as I may have been a little nervous to begin with, what with the whole speaking-to-the-Lord-of-the-Dead thing.
But Nachiketa has the right idea. he knows that all these pleasures are empty. He knows that they drain the natural energy (prana) that fuels us. Bodily pleasures are hard to turn down, but they lead to the desire for more bodily pleasures, whereas wisdom leads to the search for more wisdom. When we learn to turn ourselves away from the constant need for pleasure and luxury, we will find that we are more aware of what it is that we actually want, and that those wants come from a place far deeper than the wants of the body and senses.
This is key to a true yoga practice. In understanding what it is we really want, and in recognizing the wants that come from the Self as opposed to the self, we are tapping into our absolute nature, that exists beyond our bodies. It is this nature that was not born, that will not die. The goal of yoga is not to be strong or flexible or sexy. It is to gain knowledge of reality. All lower goals, all sensual desires, are merely illusion (maya). Yoga literally translates as “yoke,” meaning the joining of our minds and bodies in their true nature. When we begin to move beyond the illusion of our lives, we see reality, and it is a beautiful thing.