Monday, January 24, 2011

A Guide to Yoga from a Christian Priest

Meditation, A Technique to Keep you Happy and Healthy, published by CSS Books, Tiruvalla in Kerala, India, is the sixth book from Rev. Dr. Daniel Thomas, a former professor of Religious Studies at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada, and a priest of the Indian Orthodox Church. From the kind of books that came from this author, one can see that he is someone with a universal outlook. The first one, published as early as 1964, was on Sree Narayana Guru, a Hindu saint who lived in Kerala in the last century. The next ones are: The Concept of soul, The Fundamentals of Indian Culture, Towards a Peaceful Society, and Meaningful and Fruitful Life. All these books are addressed to an audience beyond his own community. This sixth book, on meditation, has flowered out of his life-long study of Indian Philosophy as a student and as a professor and out of his own active practice of meditation.

Dr. Thomas started meditation from his college days in UC College in Alwaye in Kerala. A college-mate, a Brahmin, was his guru. Together they practiced meditation every morning in the bank of the River Periyar. Later he had the golden opportunity to meditate with Sadhu Mathai, the founder of the Christhava Ashramam in Manganam, in Kerala for a year. As a research student in CISRS in Bangalore, he had the opportunity to stay with Swami Chinmayananda in Mumbai for three weeks. He had also the opportunity to stay with Swami Nitya Chaitanya Yati at Varkalai, Kerala for a week. Later as a professor in Mount Allison University, and in Vanier College, he taught courses on Eastern Meditation. After his retirement in 2005, when he became the vicar of a parish in North Virginia, he organized a mediation class at his residence, and it met weekly for an hour. This book on Meditation has evolved from the notes he prepared in those days.

The book starts with a definition of meditation. After briefly touching on the life of the ancient civilization which gave birth to meditation, he elaborates upon the merits of this practice. In the next chapter he presents what he calls a preliminary knowledge of the nature of human mind, which is helpful for a practitioner of meditation. In the next few chapters he elaborates upon the question of how to practice meditation. After devoting a whole chapter examining the practice of meditation in the Christian religious tradition, he concludes the book with a fifty-page long commentary of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Defining Mediation, Rev. Thomas claims that medi-tation refers to the midst or the center within us. Meditation, he says, is a journey to one’s own inner soul to discover its essential divine nature. By regular practice, we attain single-mindedness. It also leads to an awareness of unity with all that exists. Meditation is a mind-training technique used in almost all the religious traditions. The fathers of Eastern Christian church used meditation as a means for theosis, which is divinization or continuous growth toward God. The western Christian tradition also used meditation as an experiential access to God. Modern western medical system promotes meditation as a means to relieve stress and depression.

At the beginning of the last century, an ancient civilization was unearthed in the Indus valley in North India. The importance given to a healthy life-style was clearly seen in the excavation. From among the artifacts unearthed were seals that depicted yogis seated in padmasana, the lotus position of yoga. With the focus on the inner soul, and with the practice of yoga, they had a life of quality.

Patanjali probably lived in India almost at the same time Jesus lived in Palestine. In his Yoga Sūtras he codified the royal or best (rāja) yoga practices, presenting these as an eight-limbed system (ashtānga). Based on the Sāmkhya school of philosophy, the focus is on the mind. Patanjali divided his Yoga Sutras into 4 chapters (pada), and each chapter has about 50 verses (sutras).

  1. Samadhi Pada. Samadhi is the blissful state in which the yogi is absorbed into the One. The author describes yoga and then the nature and the means to attain samādhi. Yoga is defined as the restraint of mental modifications: "Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ" All wandering thoughts cease, and the mind is focused on a single thought (ekāgratā).
  2. Sadhana Pada. Sadhana is practice or discipline. Here the author outlines two forms of Yoga: Kriya Yoga (Action Yoga) and Ashtanga Yoga (Eightfold or Eightlimbed Yoga).   Kriya yoga, sometimes called Karma Yoga, is also expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is encouraged by Krishna to act without attachment to the results or fruit of action and activity. It is the yoga of selfless action and service. Ashtanga Yoga describes the eight limbs that together constitute Raja Yoga. The eight "limbs" or steps are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
  3. Vibhuti Pada. Vibhuti is power or manifestation. Supra-normal powers (siddhi) are acquired by the practice of yoga. The temptation of these powers should be avoided and the attention should be fixed only on liberation.
  4. Kaivalya Pada. Kaivalya stands for emancipation, liberation, and used interchangeably with moksha (liberation), which is the goal of Yoga. The nature of liberation and the reality of the transcendental self is described here.
Coming from a professor of religious studies and an active practitioner of yoga, this book is an excellent introduction to Yoga. The willingness of Dr. Thomas to learn the spiritual practice of Hinduism should be emulated. If all religious leaders have such willingness to learn from others, our world will become a better place to live.

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