Yoga and the Quest for the True Self : Review

In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope, a practicing psychologist, leads us through his journey into the world of yoga, especially as it relates to his experience with the Kripalu community in Massachusetts.  Along the way, the reader is clearly introduced to core concepts in yoga psychology.

Overview: The book is broken into five parts – The Discovery of the Royal Secret, The Self in Exile, Encounters with the Mother and the Seer, The Spontaneous Wisdom of the Body, and The Royal Road Home.  I'll take a look at the first two sections.

The Discovery of the Royal Secret:  In the first section of the book, Cope describes his own spiritual quest and his entering of the Kripalu yoga community.  After ending a long-term relationship, Cope finds himself questioning what he wants his life to be about.  He and a friend connect over a sense wanting something radically different than the professional lives they have created.  They identify their longing in several ways:

  • "A search for "the quiet" in which the small inner voice could be heard
  • A longing for the authentic and the real
  • A visceral need for self-expression
  • A sense of rebellion against the "captivity" of (their) old lives
  • An inchoate sense of something unimaginable about to be born out of the disorganization of (their) lives"

Cope, drawing on his study of Carl Jung, believes that in the second half of life human beings long to draw inward and find the very center of themselves, and that this is inextricably bound with the search for God.  Cope sets out to find his deepest self, and God, through the practice of yoga.  

The rest of this section describes his entering the Kripalu yoga community and clearly lays out a presentation of yogic metaphysics.  Sharing the view of Hinduism, the yogic tradition assumes that at the deepest level of our being lies a spiritual absolute – the Atman.  When we penetrate to the core of ourselves through meditation, we discover the Atman is our true nature.  Furthermore, this spiritual absolute we find at the core of our very being is identical with Brahman, the spiritual source of existence.  According to Cope (and the Vedic tradition as a whole), when we make this realization our view of reality is forever changed:

"When we begin to see clearly who we really are, according to this view, we feel a natural friendliness toward all beings.  Beneath the surface of separation, we feel the hidden, unseen threads that link us.  We know that we're exactly alike inside.  We're the same being.  As author John Welch says, 'We are each like a well that has a source in a common underground stream which supplies all.  The deeper down I go, the closer I come to the source which puts me in contact with all other life."

The section ends with Cope questioning how this view of the self plays out in day to day life as he explores the yogic concepts of Brahman and Shakti.  

The Self in Exile:  In Section II, The Self in Exile, Cope further relates his experience in the Kripalu community and explores the concept of the "true self" vs. the "false self."  He believes, along with many from the yogic tradition, that the major problem that humanity faces is that of misidentification.  We choose to identify ourselves with the small, or false, self.  Our ego, our persona, becomes our identity.  So not only do we have jobs, we are our jobs.  Not only do we have relationships we are our relationships.  Not only do we have likes and dislikes, we are our likes and dislikes.  We create an identity for ourselves from elements of our personality and call it "me."  The alternative is to identify with the Atman, our true or deepest self, which is continuous with Brahman, the source of existence.  Cope believes that yoga is a way to find and experience this reality, our True Selves.   

The rest of the book mostly contains stories of various yogis and how the practice has changed their lives.

Reflections:  I really, really resonate with the first half of this book.  Both Cope's personal story of his need to depart on a spiritual quest and his clear breakdown of yogic metaphysical thought are major strengths of the book.  I underlined more in the first two sections of this book than I have in any other recent read.  

But...the second half just felt forced.  His discussions about other yogic concepts became overly complex and the anecdotes from other yogis just didn't seem all that helpful to me.  I felt the book could have been half as long.

Personal Takeaways:  One of the biggest takeaways I took from this book is a resonance with the experience of emotional turmoil that can occur when finding a meditation practice.  Here is how Steven describes his friend Jeff's experience with intense vipassana practice:

"As Jeff sat in meditation practice day after day at the retreat, the emotional reality of his relationship with his father emerged.  His father had been a high-ranking officer in the navy. Straight, tight-lipped with his feelings and praise, he had enormously high expectations both for himself and for Jeff.  Jeff never measured up.  Finally, in his late teens, as he went off to college, Jeff had given up trying and had withdrawn from the relationship.  Ten years later, when his father reached out, Jeff had rebuffed his appeals for healing their relationship.  Now, in the midst of deep meditation practice, Jeff had begun to face a very difficult truth.  It wasn't just that his father had hated him.  It was also that he hated his father.  He wasn't just the persecuted.  He was also the persecutor.  Jeff had actively rejected his father and had felt some pleasure in doing so.  Just a month before his father's death, he had even used his coming to Kripalu to sadistically taunt his father.  'I'm a failure, Dad.  Look what I'm going to do with my life after Yale.'  Now Jeff felt unbearable guilt and sadness.  'I'm sorry.  I'm just so sorry.'  Jeff was overwhelmed by these discoveries.  After six days of intensive meditation, he was exhibiting all of the signs of a personality on the brink of disorganization and fragmentation.  'It's so strange, Steve.  I'm on a roller coaster.'....

Like the spiritual warrior that he was, Jeff had dived into the vipassana meditation technique with what the Buddha called 'strong determination.'  Following instructions, Jeff had done sitting and walking meditation for thirteen hours a day, watching his thoughts, following his breath, paying attention to a subtle new inner landscape of sensations in his body.  Not surprisingly, waves of thought and feelings that he ordinarily kept out of awareness began to come into view.  At first this was fascinating to him.  He wanted more.  He stayed later at night in the meditation hall than anyone else.  This was magic.  Soon, however, the insights became overwhelming.  Yet once he had begun to open up the process, he wasn't sure how to shut it down again...When insight moves too quickly to uncover painful aspects of mental and emotional life, the personality becomes disorganized and fragmented.  Under these conditions, there can be a sense of disorientation, a deterioration in cognitive functioning, and an experience of depersonalization and dissociation."

I've written about this before, in the sense that I don't see talk of emotional turmoil much in books on meditation practice.  It is well acknowledged in the Centering Prayer movement, and what Jeff describes above might be spoken of in terms of "The Divine Therapy" there, but it is rare to find this subject addressed in other traditions.  It is always helpful to know that this is part of most spiritual paths.  

Another takeaway for me is a connection to my own yoga practice.  I'm not sure I agree with all the claims of how hatha (physical posture) yoga can lead to spiritual discovery, but I do find it a very helpful aid to my meditation practice.  Just as in my Centering Prayer practice, I "notice the thought, return to an openness to God," in yoga I "notice the thought, return to the sensations of the body."  I feel that this helps me discipline my mind in preparation for meditation.

Overall, this book is a really good intro to Yoga psychology, from a trained psychologist, in narrative form.  In my opinion, it does get a little fragmented towards the end, but that doesn't take away from the value of the read.  



The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Siddhis

This is where things get weird.

After discussing the goal of Yoga, and various means to accomplish this goal, Patanjali spends much of Chapter III of the Sutras describing mystical powers that can be attained through the practice.  These powers are termed siddhis within the yogic tradition.  

As I've written about before (see A Sufi Initiation and The Perennial Philosophy: Review), supernatural events/abilities are often connected with the mystical religious traditions.  Most often, the importance of these supernormal occurrences are downplayed by major contemplatives.  The ability to see into the future, gain mystical insight into present events, or emanate a supernatural light does little to help one achieve enlightenment.  In fact, an interest in developing these powers is sometimes seen as a dangerous distraction that leads the contemplative astray.  

Patanjali himself seems to take this attitude in 3.37 where he states:  

"These powers are accomplishments for the mind that is outgoing but obstacles to samadhi."

Bryant comments on this verse as follows:

"The term siddhi, perfection or power, which occurs only four times in the sutras, is used here to mean the supernormal powers. For a yogi, the powers noted in the previous sutra hinder the cultivation of samadhi, since they entice the mind back out into the realm of prakrti and thus are obstacles, upasargah, to the attainment of samadhi. But for those whose mind is outgoing, that is, interested in the enticements of the world, they appear to be desirable accomplishments. A beggar, says Vacaspati Misra, may consider even a meager smattering of wealth to be the fullness of riches, but a yogi should not think that these powers, which appear spontaneously, are the goal, and must reject them. For how, he asks, can a genuine yogi take pleasure in things that are obstructions to the real goal of yoga? That the siddhis are potential impediments to the goal of yoga is a widespread position in Indic traditions..."

Nevertheless, in the Yoga Sutras, the following powers are said to be attainable (among others):

"When samyama is performed on the three transformations, knowledge of the past and the future ensues." (3.16)

"By performing samyama on the distinction between them, knowledge of the speech of all creatures arises." (3.17)

"By bringing samskaras into direct perception comes the knowledge of previous births." (3.18)

"From ideas, one can attain knowledge of others' minds." (3.19)

"By performing samyama on the outer form of the body, invisibility is attained." (3.21)

"By samyama on karma, or on portents, knowledge of one's death arises." (3.22)

"By performing samyama on the sun arises knowledge of the different realms of the universe." (3.26)

Because the type of meditation that Patanjali advises is concentration on a specific object, it seems that by changing the object of meditation, different siddhis are said to be attained.  Thus meditation on the body, causes a change in the body (invisibility – 3.21).  

The fantastic claims in Chapter III of the Sutras sometimes lead people to discredit the entirety of the yogic system.  Other times these claims are brushed aside or simply ignored.  

Whatever we choose to do with these claims, these types of powers are connected to a wide array of mystic traditions.  Consider the reflections of Dale Allison when discussing the potential historicity of the transfiguration of Jesus:

"And yet, having said all this, the judgment that the transfiguration is nothing but mythology may turn out to be premature. For the inference implicitly assumes that people are never transfigured into light, or at least that there are no credible accounts of such, whereas, if one patiently investigates without prejudice, one discovers a surprisingly large body of firsthand testimony reporting just this.

One witness is Gregory of Nyssa, the famous fourth-century Cappadocian father. In his eulogy of his brother Basil he wrote this: 'At night, while he was at prayer in the house, there came a light, illuminating (Basil); a certain immaterial light by divine power lit up the house, and it was without material source.' Some might feel free to dismiss these words as ancient credulity, or maybe as a rhetorical flight of fancy. I hesitate, however. Not only was Gregory an extraordinarily intelligent man, but I have, over the years, formed an opinion of his character, and it is hard for me to discount his apparently earnest witness. It is easier for me to believe that he saw a light he could not explain, whatever its origin may have been.

Closer to our own time, we have a report concerning Seraphim of Sarov, the Russion Orthodox saint (1759-1833). As a hieromonk of pious reputation, he was regularly sought out by pilgrims at his cabin in the wilderness. One such was a man named Nicholas Motovilov, whose notes about Seraphim, recording their private encounters, were discovered in 1903. These notes contain the following: 'Then I looked at the Staretz and was panic-stricken. Picture, in the sun's orb, in the most dazzling brightness of its noon-day shining, the face of a man who is talking to you. You see his lips moving, the expression in his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel his arms round your shoulders, and yet you see neither his arm, nor his body, nor his face, you lose all sense of yourself, you can see only the blinding light which spreads everywhere, lighting up the layer of snow covering the glade, and igniting the flakes that are falling on us both like white powder.'...

The forgoing testimonies intrigue me all the more because I personally know a man who claims to have seen a human being transfigured into light. This is not for me a foaftale, that is, it does not concern the proverbial friend-of-a-friend but comes to my ears from someone I know and have no reason to disbelieve (and who has refreshed my memory by kindly sharing with me his relevant journal entry).

In 1992 my friend John decided to seek initiation as a Sufi. The process involved having an audience with a Sufi master who was then making a tour of the States. The two men met in a small room for a short period of time. They sat face-to-face in lotus position. No words passed between them. But the occasion was memorable, for John relates that, after a bit, the master began to emit a light, which became brighter and brighter, until it lit up the whole room, after which the luminescence gradually faded away and the encounter was over."

I don't know what to do with these types of reports.  But they surround many of the contemplative traditions.  

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Pantajali has already told the reader what will lead to the stilling of the mind – practice and dispassion.  This, however, is not the end of the story for Pantanjali, and this schema is difficult to maintain for the entirety of the Sutras.  The Yoga Sutras also contain a long section dealing with a more "active" form of Yoga – that of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the Lord – the practice of which will lead to an overcoming of obstacles (what Patanjali calls klesas) to the stilling of the mind.   

Finally, Patanjali presents his famous Eight Limbs of Yoga as yet another paradigm through which to view the Sutras.  It is possible to fit the concepts of "practice and dispassion" loosely into the Eight Limbs, with dispassion overlapping with the first two limbs and practice overlapping with the last six.  

The Eight Limbs of Yoga, according to Patanjali, are abstentions, observances, posture, breath control, disengagement of the senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption.  After introducing the Eight Limbs, Patanjali discusses each.

  • Abstentions:  The abstentions (listed in 2.30) are nonviolence, truthfulness, refrainment from stealing, celibacy, and renunciation of unnecessary possessions.  Thus, the abstentions are things the yogi does not to.  He refrains from violence towards any creature.  He refrains from lying, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, and owning more than he needs.  
  • Observances:  The observances (2.32) are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of Scripture, and devotion to God.  Cleanliness includes both external cleanliness (eating a pure diet, perhaps ritual cleanliness practices, etc.) and internal cleanliness  (keeping a clean conscience, etc.).  Contentment is a commitment to being satisfied with the bare essentials of life.  The yogi does not strive for more material goods than they absolutely need.  Austerity includes the ability to maintain equanimity in the midst of hunger and thirst, heat and cold, etc.  This may be developed by fasting or exposure to physically uncomfortable situations.  The theistic nature of the Yoga Sutras is again apparent here as Patanjali recommends that all action should be dedicated to God (Isvara in this text).  
  • Posture:  Physical posture (asana) is given a grand total of two verses (2.46, 2.47) in all of the Yoga Sutras.  The most profound thing that Patanjali says about posture is that "posture should be steady and comfortable."  What Westerners equate with yoga is virtually absent in Patanjali's primary text.  The function of posture is simply to allow the yogi to sit comfortably during meditation.  Thus Bryant comments:

    "Essentially, posture is a limb of the actual goal of yoga to the extent that it allows the meditator to sit firmly, sthira, and comfortably, sukha.  Obviously one cannot fix one's attention onto something if one is sleeping or running about; one must sit, and sit without fidgeting or discomfort.  In other words, asana's relevance and function for the classical Yoga tradition are to train the body so that it does not disturb or distract the mind of the yogi in any way when sitting in meditation."
  • Breath Control:  Yogic breathing, called pranayamah, is a specific form of breathing which is thought to help steady the mind.  The mind is most often not focused on the breath in yogic meditation, but this type of breathing may help the yogi focus the mind on the object of meditation.  
  • Disengagement of the Senses:  The next four limbs all surround mind states associated with meditative practice.  Patanjali says little about the disengagement of the senses, but when the mind is focused one-pointedly on an object, the awareness of sensory input is limited, or perhaps disappears altogether.  Thus the disengagement of the senses is a function and byproduct of concentrative meditation.  
  • Concentration:  Concentration, according to Patanjali, is "fixing the mind in one place" (3.1).  That is all Patanjali says about this limb in this section of the Sutras, although he has discussed concentrative meditation at length earlier in the work.  The object of meditation can change for Patanjali, although he recommends meditation on Isvara (God) using the mystical symbol om above all other objects.  
  • Meditation:  Meditation is not a separate practice from concentration, but rather a deepening of concentration.  All Patanjali adds here (3.2) is that meditation is one-pointedness of mind on one image.  
  • Absorption:  Finally, the ultimate stage of yoga is absorption, or samadhi.  In this stage, the mind has merged with the object of meditation and there is no self-reflective thought (i.e. "I know I'm meditating.").   Some commentators use the image of a clear crystal.  When the crystal is put next to water it appears blue.  When it is next to a rose it appears red.  The mind is likewise absorbed and merged into the object of meditation to that there is no differentiation between the two.  

One can't help but be reminded of the Eightfold Noble Path of traditional Buddhism.  Both "paths" contain an ethical dimension, an intellectual dimension (i.e. accepting a certain philosophical outlook on life), and a contemplative dimension (i.e. meditation practice(s)).

Likewise, in both paths each limb is important.  A yogi can't expect to make progress in meditation, for instance, while leading a dishonest life.  Each aspect of the path reinforces the others.  

Again, the Eight Limbs of Yoga are one way that Patanjali presents his teaching, although it is probably the best known schema of his yogic system.  

The fact that Patanjali is simply passing on and synthesizing previous teachings from the yogic tradition becomes more apparent to me the more I engage with this text.  The Sutras are less like a logically argued philosophical tract, and more like a loose collection of traditions which are here systematized in one way, and there systematized in another.  

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Practice and Dispassion

As we have seen, the goal of Yoga, according to Patanjali, is to still the changing states of mind.  The question then becomes: How?

In 1.12 of the Yoga Sutras we find our answer:

"The states of mind are stilled by practice and dispassion."

Much of the rest of the Sutras are elaborations on these two themes.  

"Practice" According to Patanjali

Meditative "practice" means many things to many people.  Indeed, it means several different things to Patanjali himself.  In the rest of Chapter 1, Patanjali describes several different forms of meditation that one can use to lead to a stilling of the mind.  The common thread throughout his different forms of practice is found in 1.13:

"Practice is the effort to be fixed in concentrating the mind."

All of Patanjali's practices are, it seems, forms of concentration meditation.  The object being concentrated upon can change, but the method of concentrating the mind intently on that object remains the same.  

He first recommends repeating the mystical symbol om, which represents Isvara – the personal aspect of God (1.28-1.29).

"Its (the mystical symbol om) repetition and the contemplation of its meaning should be performed.  From this comes the realization of the inner consciousness and freedom from all disturbances (changing states of mind)." 

But other objects of meditation may also be used, depending on the personality of the meditator.  Thus:

"Practice of fixing the mind on one object should be performed in order to eliminate these disturbances." (1.32)
"Or stability of mind is gained by exhaling and retaining the breath." (1.34)
"Or else, focus on a sense object arises, and this causes steadiness of mind." (1.35)
"Or the mind becomes steady when it has one who is free from desire as its object." (1.37)
"Or steadiness of the mind is attained from meditation upon anything of one's inclination." (1.39)

Bryant makes the following comment on Patanjali's objects of meditation:

"Sutra 1.32 indicated that the obstacles to yoga can be overcome by fixing or concentrating the mind on an object, and the next few sutras outline various options and methods for accomplishing this.  Patanjali has already presented Isvara as an object of concentration in the form of recitation of the sound om, and by placing Isvara first on the list of options and dedicating so many sutras to him, Patanjali has clearly prioritized an Isvara-centered form of meditation.  The following sutras up to 1.39 all also contain the particle va, or.  Thus they are all alternative and optional techniques for fixing the mind and, as with the Isvara verses, are to be read as referring back to 1.32, that practice on one object eliminates the distractions to yoga.  One or more of them might be more suitable to a particular person, time, and places, says Sankara, hence the options."  


Dispassion, or its synonyms – renunciation, mortification, non-attachment – is part of the path of virtually all contemplative traditions.  Not only must one meditate and be transformed through "practice," but one must also consciously give up attachments to the "things of the world" which bind the soul.  It's not that the things are bad in themselves, it's that the soul becomes chained to them, it needs them.  For a yogi to reach his final goal, all attachment needs to be broken completely.  

The way to break attachment to any object is to do without it.  Not only does this include physical objects of pleasure, but even concepts about oneself.  For instance, if one is attached to the idea of themselves as "attractive," they may have to renounce this by consciously ceasing to take actions to increase their appearance.  In modern days, this may include not wearing makeup, not lifting weights, etc.  

The ideal for a yogi is a kind of "holy indifference."  If pleasurable things come, so be it.  If unpleasurable things come, so be it.  Any sense gratification is only temporary, and indulgence in sensory gratification is a dangerous distraction for the yogi.  

For Patanjali, both practice and dispassion are essential to reach the yogic ideal.  


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Goal of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the most famous text from the Yogic tradition of India.  It is here where, according to the author in verse 1, "the teachings of Yoga are presented" most clearly.  

The history of Yoga is somewhat cloudy.  The word itself is used in a variety of ways, in, for instance, the Bhagavad Gita, and the "Yogic" school of India overlaps significantly with other classic Vedic texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The Yoga Sutras and these other classic Hindu texts share similar understandings of the Atman (the ground of the individual soul), and Brahman (the Divine Source of existence), although they sometimes use different terminology to describe these realities.  The earliest trace of Yogic practice are seals from the 3rd Millennium BCE in which figures are seated in a clear Yogic posture.

Very little is known about the author, Patanjali, but his systematization of earlier Yogic traditions eventually became authoritative and normative for all future practitioners.  The text itself is generally dated sometime between the 1st and 4th Centuries CE.  Patanjali's school of Yoga also eventually became classified as one of the six schools of classic Indian philosophy (Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta).  What Patanjali presents is not new, or his creation, but simply a systematizing of more ancient traditions.  

There are a wide variety of classic and modern translations and commentaries of The Sutras.  My favorite is from Edwin Bryant, who teaches at Rutgers University.  In this series, I will provide excerpts from the Yoga Sutras themselves and Bryant's commentary on them.

In his Introduction, Bryant describes the Goals of Yoga, according to Patanjali, as follows:

"According to Patanjali's definition in the second sutra, yoga is the cessation of the activities or permutations (vrttis) of the citta. The vrttis refer to any sequence of thought, ideas, mental imaging, or cognitive act performed by the mind, intellect, or ego as defined above – in short, any state of mind whatsoever. It cannot be overstressed that the mind is merely a physical substance that selects, organizes, analyzes, and molds itself into the physical forms of sense data presented to it; in an of itself it is not aware of them. Sense impressions or thoughts are imprints in that mental substance, just as a clay pot is a product made from the substance of clay, or waves are permutations of the sea. The essential point for understanding yoga is that all forms or activities of the mind are products of prakrti, matter, and completely distinct from the soul or true self, purusa, pure awareness or consciousness.

The citta can profitably be compared to the software, and the body to the hardware. Neither is conscious; they are rather forms of gross matter, even as the former can do very intelligent activities. Both software and hardware are useless without the presence of a conscious observer. Only purusa is truly alive, that is, aware or conscious. When uncoupled from the mind, the soul, purusa, in its pure state, that is, in its own constitutional, autonomous condition – untainted by being misidentified with the physical coverings of the body and mind – is free of content and changeless; it does not constantly ramble and flit from one thing to another the way the mind does. To realize pure awareness as an entity distinct and autonomous from the mind (and, of course, the body), thought must be stilled and consciousness extracted from its embroilment with the mind and its incessant thinking nature. Only then can the soul be realized as an entity completely distinct from the mind (a distinction such cliches as "self-realization" attempt to express), and the process to achieve this realization is yoga...

Through grace or the sheer power of concentration, the mind can attain an inactive state where all thoughts remain only in potential but not active form. In other words, through meditation one can cultivate an inactive state of mind where one is not cognizant of anything. This does not mean to say that consciousness becomes extinguished, Patanjali hastens to inform us (as does the entire Upanishadic/Vedantic tradition); consciousness is eternal and absolute. Therefore, once there are no more thoughts or objects on its horizons or sphere of awareness, consciousness has no alternative but to become conscious of itself. In other words, consciousness can either be object-aware or subject aware (loosely speaking). The point is that it has no option in terms of being aware on some level, since awareness is eternal and inextinguishable. By stilling thought, meditation removes all objects of awareness. Awareness can therefore now be aware only of itself. It can now bypass or transcend all objects of thought, disassociate from even the pure sattvic citta, and become aware of its own source, the actual soul itself, purusa. This is self-realization (to use a neo-Vedantic term), the ultimate state of awareness, the state of consciousness in which nothing can be discerned except the pure self, asamprajnata-samadhi. This is the final goal of yoga and thus of human existence."

– Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

All this to say, with Patanjali in Verses 2 and 3 of his Sutras, that:

"Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.
When that is accomplished, the seer abides in its own true nature."

For more on the Yoga Sutras, check out this lecture from Edwin Bryant: