The Rite of Way

by Jen Whinnen

There are six main darsanas, or schools of thought in Hinduism. Yoga is one of them. A lot of the writings about yoga have a lot to say about the mind and most of it is pertains to what the mind is not, namely, you are not your mind, don’t be a slave to your mind, you must reign in your mind, etc. The most often quoted of which is “yogah cittavritti nirodahah,” yoga is the restraint of mental modifications (Yoga Sutras, I.2), meaning the thing I think of as “Me” is really an obstacle that keeps distracting me from seeing myself for the purely luminous being I am. The irony of this is that yoga is deeply philosophical and philosophy is the act of thinking. It is concerned with thinking about the nature of existence. So, yogic philosophy is thinking about the fact that You are not what you think you are and so stop thinking about it.

The foundational text of many yoga schools is theYoga Sutras of Patanjali which is a very philosophical, but extremely practical text. It starts by defining the mind, it’s various “modifications” (knowledge, misconception, delusion, sleep and memory) and then goes on to tell you how each of these modifications can be controlled systematically and eventually manipulated so that you can be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. Until recently I’ve never really been attracted to the Yoga Sutras. Although I’ve always admired the texts and see true brilliance in the wisdom I found it overly rigorous and completely sexist.

However, as a western woman teaching yoga and training yoga teachers, I feel obligated to think about how this philosophy works (if it works) and how it pertains to my life (if it does). So I went back to college. Hunter College offers a broad based “religion” program. Not a theology, seminary, or Hebrew studies program, but a real, live honest to God (pun intended) “let’s study religion academically” program. This is very appealing to me because I love religion but I am not at all religious. I am not even “spiritual, not religious.” I don’t follow any creed, am not a member of any church or sect and am not looking for a conversion or enlightenment. I am firmly rooted in this reality and understand that I’m either coming back around or getting left behind. And I am OK with that. I am not interested in being saved, I don’t want to bow before any alter or present offerings to anyone.

But, I love religions. I think they are completely, utterly fascinating. Religious texts are so uplifting and inspiring. They are the first recorded poetry, song and drama of the human experience. When I read religious texts I feel the ache of human suffering and the yearning for pure love and I want to learn more. As an observer. I really just want to be an observer.

Which is why the Hunter College program was so exciting to me (and continues to inspire me even when I question the sanity of going back to school to get a second bachelors, while trying to run two small businesses and raising two small kids). Last semester I took “Yogis, Mystics & Shamans” and it’s been pretty much pure synchronicity because not only does this help me with my goal of getting better acquainted with the Yoga Sutras, but it has also introduced me to Kundalini yoga, a world I never knew existed. I’ve taken a few kundalini yoga classes over the years and have enjoyed them, but I knew nothing of the philosophy behind it. In hatha yoga there are rigorous steps one must take in order to achieve enlightenment. First you must align yourself with Yamas (universal principles) and then the Niyamas (personal code of conduct), then you practice asana, pranayama, etc. In hatha yoga the rigors of practice can be extreme; eating only one grain of rice a day, sleeping on a bed of nails, etc. These austerities are designed to separate the yogi from his attachment to the physical world and to enter fully into the psychic world of the soul.

But, Kundalini yoga, you know what you need to do to get enlightenment going?


That’s right! You don’t have to do anything. The guru does it for you! The guru is the conduit for shaktipat, spiritual energy that s/he bestows upon a disciple. When a yogi gets shaktipat, the yogi awakens Kundalini at the base of the central energy channel (the shushumna) and after that, all good things are coming. Now, depending on how much karma you have will dictate how much you feel shaktipat. So someone like me, whose firmly rooting on this earth, may not get much and may end up “enlightened light,” whereas someone whose been coming around for a long time and has very little karmic weight may get a direct link to the universal consciousness and away they go! Of course after receiving shaktipat you have to do the work of meditating which gets Kundalini rising and starts her on her mission of cleaning out your chakras and that work could take a lifetime and may involve things like kriyas (moving meditations, similar to asanas), but the actual awakening is bestowed upon you by someone else.

And this is why I love studying religion. Had I not taken this class I wouldn’t know that there is this other world of yoga. I would have thought that my knowledge was the sum total and I would be living in Avidya (ignorance). According to yogic philosophy, Avidya is one of the main causes of suffering and evil in the world. In fact, in this system there isn’t a good or bad, it’s either right knowledge or ignorance. The more right knowledge we have, the less ignorant we become and less likely we are to harm.

I like this. In fact, this is why yoga is the closest I’ve ever come to adopting a spiritual practice. The philosophies aren’t absolutes. They are simply optional pathways and all the pathways are considered viable. In a world where we are told we have to do this, we must look like that, we need to have this thing or that thing in order to be happy it is encouraging to find a system that says “try this, see if it works” and leaves the rest up to you.

I have no idea if one system is right or wrong or if what I am doing is cosmically correct, and I really don’t care because I really don’t think it matters. The only thing I know for sure is that no else knows for sure either and this makes me happy because at least I know am in good company.