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14.8: Yoga in America- The Self-Realization Fellowship and Transcendental Meditation

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    16851
  • Although many different gurus have come to America, teaching many different types of Yoga, perhaps the two most influential have been Paramahansa Yogananda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Yogananda established the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in 1920 (Yogananda, 1946). Yogananda was one of the first gurus to come to America, and the SRF may be the oldest continuing school of Yoga in the West. Headquartered in California, SRF is dedicated to combining the Yoga of old with the predominant religion of the new world: Christianity. One of Yogananda’s most important works is The Second Coming of Christ, a two volume discussion of the Christian Gospels viewed from a Yogic perspective (Yogananda, 2004a,b). The basic premise of this work is that God is within us as the Christ consciousness, it is His presence that gives us life, and when we realize that He is within our selves (thus, the name Self-Realization) we cannot help but lead a better life. As strange as this may seem to many Christians, blending religious and philosophical beliefs is commonly accepted in Eastern cultures. They seek the best points of view in a variety of perspectives, and try to live according to those beliefs that are common and which benefit everyone in their community. More information on the SRF can be found on their website (listed at the end of the chapter).

    In 1958, a guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began formally teaching Transcendental Meditation (TM; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1963). TM became a very popular meditation technique in America, and as many as 6 million people around the world have learned the TM technique (this website is also listed at the end of the chapter). Yogi’s first book on TM was originally entitled The Science of Being and the Art of Living, and he stated very clearly the purpose of life: “Expansion of happiness is the purpose of life…” (pg. 64) and “When one does not live a normal life or a life using his full potential, he feels miserable and tense and suffers in many ways” (pg. 69). This reference to the necessity of using one’s full potential sounds very similar to Roger’s and Maslow’s concept of self-actualization (or perhaps self-realization as described in the preceding paragraph). As is true of the SRF, the TM program does not advocate or reject any organized religion. Instead, TM is presented as a means to fulfill one’s life, regardless of the situation in which one is living.

    Connections with Western Religious Practice

    Contemplative Prayer

    Consider the following quote: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will…” This sounds like the words of a guru, especially the part about giving up your own will. Doesn’t that sound like the Yoga philosophy of transcending the mind in order to be in union with the spirit? Actually, this was written by St. Benedict, a Catholic monk who lived from 480-547 (Fry, 1982). In fact, this is the very beginning of the Rule of St. Benedict, and it is interesting to note that the very first word is “Listen…” Remember the first stage of devotion in Bhakti-Yoga? It is not easy to listen, and listening intently with our whole being is something that takes a lifetime to master (deWaal, 1984). Naturally, it is easier to listen when we are focused, and either the practice of Yoga or contemplative prayer can help to still our mind, to tune out the distractions of our daily lives, so that we can listen to and/or be in union with God.

    During the twentieth century, a Benedictine monk named John Main (1926-1982) tried to help the Christian world rediscover meditation and contemplative prayer. In addition to his own efforts, he inspired the creation of the World Community for Christian Meditation, an international community that practices and teaches meditation in the Christian tradition (see the website list at the end of the chapter). As is true of many practitioners of meditation, Fr. Main recommended meditating twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. A marvelous collection of Fr. Main’s writings has been compiled by Paul Harris (2003). The readings are quite short, and there is one for each day of the year. They can be used as a starting point for contemplation and prayer on the day assigned for each reading (if one chooses to follow that pattern). We will cover Christian mysticism, meditation, and contemplative prayer in more detail in the next chapter.

    Spiritual Music

    Another interesting comparison between Eastern and Western spiritualism is the use of music and song. The importance of chanting was mentioned above, but now we will take a closer look at the importance of music. The Yoga of Patanjali focuses on withdrawing from all sensory experience. The goal of meditation is to focus and then clear the mind, so that one is no longer distracted by the events of this world. However, in Bhakti-Yoga, the Yoga of devotion, some yogis embrace the fullness of refined human emotion (Mandala Publishing Group, 2000). Music is one of the best ways to fully express our emotional connection with all that is around us. A special type of musical prayer called Kirtan grew out of the first two stages of Bhakti-Yoga. Kirtan refers to the practice of singing the many names of God (including Goddess names). In the practice of Kirtan, the words that are sung are typically short mantras, and a wide variety of emotional states can be accommodated. Regardless of how one feels when beginning Kirtan, the practice of Kirtan can lead to a transformational, meditative state that “creates a safe, calm haven for the flower of the heart to unfold” (Jai Uttal, 2003). A wonderful CD of Kirtan, including an explanation of this practice in English, has been recorded by Jai Uttal (2003). If you would like to learn more about Kirtan, especially if you are interested in reducing stress in your life, this CD is highly recommended.

    Although most Christian church services include some music, few are thought of as profoundly inspirational and emotionally moving as the gospel choirs associated with Black churches, especially those in the Southern United States. Much of this music is rooted in the spirituals sung by American slaves. Much like Kirtan as a practice within Yoga, the spirituals helped to hold onto an identity shared by Africans brought to America as slaves. The music was not strictly religious, but religious themes were common. More importantly, the spirituals helped to connect the slaves to their African ancestry, and to provide a context within which they could share the lives they had come to know in a new country (Cone, 1972; Lovell, Jr., 1972). As slavery came to an end in the United States, prejudice and discrimination certainly did not. On one hand the spirituals gave rise to the blues, but on the other hand they gave rise to distinctly religious gospel music (Boyer and Yearwood, 1995; Broughton, 1985). Gospel music can be so passionate that it has been described as “hinting at a vocal imperative which was said to induce religious convulsions in their audiences…” (Broughton, 1985). Perhaps it should not be surprising that Black gospel music is so deeply emotional, since it arose from a group of people who had been slaves, and were still suffering from rampant discrimination in a country that claimed to hold freedom above all else. Although such raw emotion is not common to Kirtan, it is still deeply passionate for those who feel its intimate connection to the universal spirit.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Using music during prayer or religious services has a long and rich history. Many of our social gatherings are centered on music. How has music influence your life? Do you listen to inspirational music when you feel a need to clear your mind and relax, or do you listen to lively and entertaining music to enhance the enjoyment of being with family and/or friends?