Yesterday I finished up with this month’s assigned reading: The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga, by Swami Rama. This slim volume is a guide to Ashtanga Yoga: “ashtanga” means “eight”, so “ashtanga yoga” is the “eightfold path” of classical yoga described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The eight steps of the path are as follows:
- yama: moral restraints
- niyama: moral practices
(you know all about these now)
- asana: posture
- pranayama: control of the breath
- pratyahara: withdrawal and control of the senses
- dharana: concentration
- dhyana: meditation
- samadhi: superconscious meditation or enlightenment
Rama explicates each step on the eightfold path, providing a chapter for almost every step (yamas and niyamas are covered together in one chapter). He does include some description of yoga postures (asana), and some helpful photos, but this is only a portion of what Rama covers; he spends much more time on morality, breath, prana energy, concentration, meditation, and the mind.
For the most part, I really enjoyed what Rama had to say, and I found that reading this book deepened my reading of the Yoga Sutras. There were a few areas, though, where this book fell a little flat for me.
First, Rama’s prose can be dated at times. The original book was published in 1979, and Rama’s writing is surprisingly gendered. Here’s an example:
The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect, and infinite. He is unaware of this divinity because he falsely identifies himself with his body, mind, and the objects of the external world. (2-3)
The sentiment here is interesting and well worth discussion, but his phrasing makes me cringe: man‘s true nature? He falsely identifies himself? I thought we got away from that sort of rhetoric years ago, even before the 1970s when this was written, and even so, I would have thought that the Himalayan Institute would have updated this in the new editions published in 1996 and 1998. Clearly Rama is talking about not man but humanity, not male yogis only but any yoga practitioner, but it still feels exclusionary to me, and the whole book is written like this. I did not feel like I personally was included in Rama’s definition of a yogi except for the parts where he specifically discusses women. This could be easily corrected in future editions, and I hope the Himalayan Institute does so.
Another thing that bothered me is that Rama fully believes that any disease can be cured with the mind. I know full well that the mind has astonishing powers for healing, but at one point he says, “If unwanted and undesirable thoughts are controlled, all diseases will vanish” (94). Really? Rama’s sentiment has some value, because we’ve all heard stories about people who were able, through prayer or positive thinking or holistic measures, to cure themselves. But not everything can be cured that way. What’s more, to say that diseases can be cured by positive thoughts could lead to blaming the patient for not getting better or for getting sick in the first place. That one line on page 94 bothered me so much that I had to shut the book for a day.
Similarly, Rama will talk about how meditation has been known and practiced in the Western world for generations, but most of Western society wasn’t ready for it, so all our Western saints practiced meditation in secret, as if there’s a big esoteric cover-up going on. Yes, St. Teresa of Avila communed with God, and what she practiced may have been a form of meditation, but was she practicing techniques passed down in secret from Indian gurus? I think probably not. Hinduism and Buddhism are strong and powerful traditions, but there are many paths. When Rama made claims like this, I couldn’t help reading it skeptically.
I’m describing the things that I found troublesome in the book, but really these things are pretty minor in comparison to what Rama does achieve, which is a strong book and a good guide to the practice of yoga. It’s definitely a worthwhile read and I plan to return to it in the future as I progress through the sutras and work more on meditation.