Naked in a hot tub with an author is not a situation I find myself in often. In this case, it was a quite a while ago when I spent a summer at a yoga center. I didn’t know it at the time, but the writer in question was about to publish a book he must have been working on during my summer there. I’m not in the book, and the whirlpool nudity isn’t germane to the review, but I thought it might be a fun way to grab your attention. Anyway, I finally got around to re-starting and finishing his work. Yoga is an ancient tradition spanning thousands of years, and I eventually got into a daily practice, so while I doubt the author remembers me or will ever see this review, if he does, I trust he will forgive me for the tardy book report.
Stephen Cope is the writer’s name, and he’s Scholar-in-Residence at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the gorgeous Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts. Yoga and the Quest for the True Self came out in 1999. I didn’t know about it for a good while after it was published. It was the first book he wrote, and it is quite an interesting one. It’s part memoir and chronicle of his journey from Christian psychologist to practitioner and teacher of yoga, an academic treatise about the history of Kripalu and its place in the pantheon of yoga, and stories of people at the Center. Thoroughly researched with footnotes, it’s clear that Cope read extensively to write this book. Sometimes I found some of the language a bit too New Agey (Old Agey?) or esoteric, but generally he makes this accessible to the layperson. As Mr. Cope lays it out, the rich history of yoga’s many lineages, teachers, esoteric practices, and approaches come to life; they beckon the reader to try it for yourself.
The difficult thing about trying to describe most any activity is that it’s best experienced first hand. Riding a bicycle as this dude does daily is one thing, because it’s fairly mechanical, and the laws of physics apply. It can be taught in a fairly standard way. But yoga is another entity entirely. Sure, there are prescribed ways of doing the poses, but to really learn it well you need a teacher, preferably in person (in these pandemic times, online class has to suffice). There are no instructions, illustrations or photographs of yoga poses though — just one chart. It’s not that kind of book. But you get the sense from reading that there are a vast array of approaches, methods, and things to do to really understand how yoga works. He delves deeply into the “false notions” we have of ourselves as bodies separate from our minds and the larger “ground of being.” Most Westerners only know about the hatha yoga, the physical activity involving stretching. That’s mostly what I do. But there’s a lot more to it.
There is breathing, meditation, concentration, ethical and moral practices, devotional exercises, selfless service, and much more. The book adeptly weaves in anecdotes from the both the author’s early life such as having a moment of serene awareness and clarity while he was painting a house standing on a ladder, to friends he had before and new ones he meets at the center. He is careful to explain that the mysterious and even magical experiences one might have during yoga are not the goal. Feats of yoga masters may amaze and inspire, but they are by-products of serious discipline and a distraction.
Cope had intended to spend just three months at Kripalu on sabbatical from his counseling practice. However, once there, he began to understand spirituality in a much more profound and practical way. By learning more about the various branches of yoga, Cope found himself both questioning the role of the guru at the time, as well as entering deep states of concentration, bliss, and transcendence. Over time, he grew in his hatha practice of asana and also in his understanding of the other aspects of yoga.
As his time there progressed, the yoga challenged and enriched his understanding of therapy, too. So he closed his business and stayed on, became a teacher, and now is the Scholar-in-Residence with three other books to his name. Cope describes his initial fascination with the guru’s talents as a teacher, leader and yogi. But he always had a sense of distrust of him and the concept of the guru system, which is somewhat foreign to Westerners. Cope writes about that touchy topic somewhat obtusely but eventually honestly. When the guru is revealed to have abused his power to have sexual relationships with a number of women, it comes as no surprise but ends rather abruptly without much detail. Again, it is a distraction from more important themes. But one can only imagine the turmoil at the time, and the difficulty of reopening and writing about those wounds. Granted, I knew this before reading the book, and it’s old news by now. I wonder what former participants and residents thought of him rehashing the scandal. However, he believes it was a positive and inevitable process of spirtiual growth for the community that even the guru himself foresaw.
By the time I arrived at the center, it had been restructured to be a non-profit educational organization. I was there through a work-trade program called the Spiritual Lifestyle Program in which, like Cope, I worked in the gift shop, mostly stocking it. My classmates and I took hatha classes at least once and often twice a day, studied other things like “rebirthing,” attended evening devotional prayers dressed all in white where we chanted our asses off, ate in the vegetarian dining room, lived in dorms, and explored the beautiful woodsy area around what was once a Jesuit novitiate. I may have even taken some classes from Stephen, though mostly I just remember him politely saying hello in the hot tub. The huge old building sits on a hill overlooking a lake with rolling hills forming the Stockbridge Bowl. The folksinger James Taylor is from that area and has a line in a song, “Sweet Baby James.” One time I literally bumped into him in the cafeteria. He didn’t say anything but looked annoyed; I apologized and moved on.
Now the first of December was covered with snow
and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting
with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go
For those of us in the SLP, it was an intense time. Our teacher had been part of the religious order that had been part of Kripalu in the guru years. His name was Yoganand and he was an incredible man. Although humble to a fault, he radiated a sense of calm, power, and poise that were the products of years of practice, renunciation and even periods of silence. He was kind but also fairly strict — a better word is challenging — in the classroom. Some people had very strong emotional experiences both on and off the mat. The fresh air, healthy diet, group dynamics, beautiful surroundings belied the serious work we were doing on our psyches. SLP felt like boot camp one day, a mental institution the next, and a hippie commune after that. I loved it, I hated it; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was young enough that my body responded and got in fantastic shape.
We survived; well, most of us did. A few people couldn’t handle the truth of what lurked below the surface of their egos — their false selves that Cope refers to — and they dropped out. By the end of the four months we were stronger, leaner, clearer-eyed, calmer, more centered and definitely had better posture. And we were happy. I think the best way to describe it was that we were each more of our selves — it was it the yoga had cracked open our false selves and our true inner selves were shining through. Summer was ending and fall was coming. It was time to re-enter the real world, our daily lives. Hopefully we would remember our lessons and be more in touch with who we really were. Most of us cried like babies at our graduation ceremony. We went our separate ways and tried to stay in touch, but except for a few, who knows where they are now? I kept doing yoga, though not regularly. It took me 15 years to develop a daily practice. No, I’m not enlightened, not even close. And that is another key point, that our lives are the path. We don’t need to renounce anything, go live in the hills, shave our heads, or take a vow of celibacy to experience the benefits of yoga, even if all we do is the physical postures and maybe some breath work.
In Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Cope reminds us that being human is a complicated, difficult, and lifelong project. Yoga is a system of practices, approaches, and processes that have endured for millennia that help us become more of ourselves. With its various strands, flavors, personalities, and interpretations, the point is to try it and see what it works for you. With references to ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, inspiring quotes, conversations with his friends and colleagues, and plenty of explanations of the various branches of yoga as well as more complicated aspects of yogic history, science and philosophy, Cope has written a masterful guide to the subject. Regardless of whether you already do yoga, I can recommend this book to help you understand the bigger picture of yoga and some of its history particularly as it relates to Kripalu. If you’re new to and curious about yoga, it might persuade you to start. It you do, always remember that you are your own true guru.
Find this book at your local independent book shop like Half Price Books or one of six independent bookseller websites that are NOT that company that is trying to colonize the moon. Visit StephenCope.com to learn more abou the author and his other works and even watch some videos or hear him in podcasts. And Steve, if you’re out there and see this, give A Dude a shout. I know Kripalu is closed right now (late February 2021), but when it reopens, fire up that hot tub! We’ve got some catching up to do. I’ll bring you my book manuscript to read. Heck, invite your agent, editor and publisher, too! Namaste, or in the Kripalu tradition, Jai bhagwan! May your yoga (or the divine in you) be victorious!
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