“Women and Yoga”


“Women and Yoga”

From about the age of twelve or thirteen, I have wanted to be the kind of saint who could merge her own consciousness with God’s.  It was never clear to me whether this longing was really for God or for safety.  Perhaps, I reasoned, if I could only be filled with divine Love, right up to the brim and overflowing, people would not want to hurt me.  Or if they still did, it wouldn’t hurt!  The Love would block it, as molasses blocks water.

When I was a young assistant professor, a logician colleague recommended Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, on the ground that here was the Isaac Newton of Yoga.  I bought it and studied it avidly, excited to hold in my hand this map, tried and tested by an ancient culture, explaining how the energy trapped in the body could be released, rung by rung, till at the highest rung matter and spirit merged so that imperfect human beings could become self-divinized.  Sounded pretty good to me.

A few years later, I found myself at one of those crossroads when everything seems to be going badly, as if one has stumbled accidentally into the wrong soap opera.  When some friends happened to suggest that I might be interested to see a real Indian master, now living in the States, of course I was curious.  Who knows?  Reliance on an achieved master is standard in yoga and other Eastern meditative systems.  Maybe she could help.

The guru I met was a young Indian woman, unearthly beautiful, with a density of presence that was its own authenticator. I’d never seen anything like her.   “What kind of a human being is she?” a friend asked, when I returned.  I shook my head.  “She’s not a human being.”  She looked exactly like what I had wanted to attain, at the age of twelve or thirteen.  Mowgli, who had become a girl and was filled with superhuman Love!

In many ways, the time I spent following the practices recommended by the guru gave me – not what I was looking for – but some of what I needed: a sense that there was a shelter from the buffetings of my life, motivation to read some of the great classics of India in translation and wholesome, vegetarian dinners at the ashram.  I did not ever manage to ”still the thought waves of the mind,” which is the goal of yoga, but at times I saw a comforting blue light behind my eyes or had the odd experience of suspension of breath.  Once, on a visit to a friend in Seattle, her cat watched me wide-eyed during my early morning Sanskrit chant, fell in love with me, and insisted on sleeping in my bed for the remainder of my visit.  The cat slept in the middle of the mattress and I had to curl around her on the side.

That said, I know a fair amount about cults and brainwashing, and did not put my faculty of judgment into the hands of the guru.

One of the regulars at my health food store was also a devotee of my guru.   He mentioned that his visit to a different master was noted, and had drawn a warning from the swamis at my guru’s ashram.  “Why did you send your people after me?” he had asked our guru, at the darshan (greeting or audience).  She’d not answered, but allowed her seconds to hustle him off the dais.

About that time, a long article on our guru appeared in a widely-read magazine.  It quoted another of her swamis, who’d asked her whether she had slept with her bodyguard.  The guru had looked a bit frightened and replied, “What I have been given, no one can take from me.”  I knew that wasn’t true.  We can squander what we’ve been given.  It’s on loan.  It’s not a gift outright.

On my final visit to the ashram, the loudspeaker announced that anyone who was new at the place should report to the desk and be assigned a buddy. A buddy?  A minder?  Uh oh.

In the crowded auditorium, I sat cross-legged under the dim lights to listen to the guru’s sermon.  It was to guide us into the hour of silent meditation.  I know something about despair.  I knew she was talking about that and speaking from personal experience, describing sterility and emptiness.  People around me were taking it in as eloquent poetry.  It was not poetry.  She was claiming that this experience was the antechamber to meditative union with the divine.  I knew it was no such thing.

When the lights went up, I stood at the back of the hall and looked at my still-beautiful guru.  And thought, no one cares about you.  You are trapped, in your entourage, your buildings and grounds, your web of yogic practices, and all the encircling expectations.  You are alone, with no one to help.

I turned and walked out the door.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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