The Wisdom of Yoga
A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living
Stephen Cope
Here are six people, presumably, just like you and me, seekers who have reached the baffling stage in life, having to deal with dead-end jobs, faithless lovers, husbands who cheat, drunken mothers, and families who object to anything new (especially, to yoga).

Each of the characters will, in the course of these 300 or so pages, have a triumph. A philandering lawyer finds a new --- and possibly permanent --- love. Maggie has been writing unpublishable novels for years. Because of her practice of yoga, she begins to go into trancelike states, and in these trances "her mind became quiet and focused. External distractions melted away." Suddenly her books are "writing themselves." Even Cope himself drops a dead-end project, finds a successful work (presumably this book) popping up.

We've always been a little critical of these miracle stories, and the ones here are almost too neat and orderly. The six characters (in search of an auteur, no?) all have wonderful breakthroughs in the two years they are together. But they have a few advantages to help them on their way: they have enough money not to be forced into some stupid job at Wal-Mart.

They have the resources to spend their time climbing around the Berkshires, in perfect weather (even when it rains, it is cleansing, invigorating; the weather turns into yet another perfect character in the narrative). On their many picnics, they eat "coriander chutney sandwiches on homemade whole wheat bread, grilled eggplant and sweet pepper sandwiches on sourdough, and avocado, sprout and vegetable spinach-wraps.

    The sun laid a shimmering path of light on Lake Mahkeenac, and the sky was so clear that we could see the surrounding ranges of mountains and hills, off into New York to the west, and Connecticut to the south.

Here are six highly privileged people who communicate wonderfully with each other, eat perfect meals, meditate in the sunshine on the outcroppings, and, presumably, through Yoga, manage to communicate with their deepest selves.

They seem to be in the best of health. The darkest cloud is that one of them suffers from bulimia, another is depressed, and another has a pulled muscle in her leg so she cannot dance professionally. No black juvenile delinquents, no refugees from Rwanda, No quadriplegics, no bag ladies from downtown Lenox here. None of the messiness of the real world.

What we have here is a Yoga Romance, six romantic heroes looking for the path. Cope has twisted the plot-line to draw in the reader and then give us a few miracles to urge us on the same path. The real stuff of life is conveniently left out; La Vida is very Dolce.

Appendix "B" of The Wisdom of Yoga consists of the 196 sutras on "pure awareness," the Yoga-Sutra. These are not, as the author points out, like the Bible or the Koran. The sutras are, rather, a very concise, densely packed manual for living. They were written around 2000 years ago by one Patanjali. The new translation in this book --- there are dozens that have been written over the years --- is the one preferred by Cope.

According to him, most of the renderings of the sutras available to the western reader have been diluted or mis-translated because of the influence of Buddhist teachings, especially in America. "Classical yoga and Buddhism are sister traditions," he writes, but this is "not a reason to conflate them ... They have traded ideas and practices back and forth for two thousand years," but there are distinctions. The focus of The Wisdom of Yoga is to show these differences.

The book is also an attempt to put a bare-bones doctrine into palatable form. The sutras take but ten pages. Some are vaguely specific,

    By mastering the flow of energy through the solar plexus, one becomes radiant.

Some are more exacting, even astrological:

    Focusing with perfect discipline on the polestar yields insight about the stars' movements.

A few are simply occlusive:

    The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent impressions fostering cessation arise to prevail the activation of distinctive, stored ones and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness.

Others are brazenly paradoxical, pulling in strange symbols, promising strange rewards,

    By focusing with perfect discipline on the body's relationship to the ether and developing coalesced contemplation on the lightness of cotton, one can travel through space.

There are ones that are wonderfully, paradoxically self-evident,

    Clinging to life is instinctive and self-perpetuating, even for the wise.

A few will echo words of some of the masters we have read over the years ... this one in particular reminds us of Krishnamurti:

    The apparent indivisibility of seeing and the seen can be eradicated by cultivating uninterrupted discrimination between awareness and what it regards.

There are the self-evident:

    Focusing with perfect discipline on friendliness, compassion, delight and equanimity, one is imbued with their energies.

Finally, there are those we wish could be handed onto our more ideological leaders,

    Being firmly grounded in nonviolence creates an atmosphere in which others can let go of their hostility.

§     §     §

It helps our reading if we suspend our beliefs, accept the fact that the narrative flow of The Wisdom of Yoga takes place in an upper-class world in a perfect community, one of almost perfect people (and weather, and living accommodations, and picnic lunches), a dream world that most of us will probably never experience.

Once we accept that, the lessons that Cope hands out are not without merit. A section on breathing and addiction, "Breath, Trust, and the Transmutation of Hunger," is a specific plan on how to begin to get out from under old habits of mind and body (one of the key lessons of yoga). Some of the truths he offers can bemuse one: that you and I and everyone else (outside the adepts) have 60,000 thoughts a day, and more to the point, we react to each and every one of them. But the real worth of The Wisdom of Yoga is the excellent translation of the Yoga-Sutras, all 196 of them, set at the tail-end of the book. It ends, wonderfully enough, with Number 34:

    Freedom is at hand when the fundamental qualities of nature, each of their transformations witnessed at the moment of its inception, are recognized as irrelevant to pure awareness; it stands alone, grounded in its very nature, the power of pure seeing. That is all.

That is all!

--- Pamela Wylie
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