what the world needs now…

author & political-religious thinker Karen Armstrong calls for a return to the core values of the great spiritual traditions – peace & compassion

video still, anurag dhir

What would it take for people to work, to transform themselves, to really want that transformation?

KA   Well, I think, just trying it. You just have to try it and see. See that this is part of the tradition. Yoga in the classical sense was getting to the best in yourself, systematically getting rid of your egotism. I think a lot of yoga these days seems to be some kind of aerobic exercise, or something that’s designed to make you feel a little more happy about yourself. But yoga requires your whole life. The Buddha said after achieving enlightenment you must go back to the marketplace, and there practise compassion for all living beings. People aren’t ready for that yet. They like their nice yoga outfits, and the nice peaceful feeling they get from yoga. But are they propelled to work for what the Buddhist scriptures call the betterment of all creatures, or the betterment of the world? In the ancient yoga, in the classical period, you couldn’t do a single yoga exercise until you had mastered the prohibitions.

ascent   You mean the yamas and niyamas?

KA   Yes. The first one was ahimsa, nonviolence. That meant that not only could you not kill anybody, but you couldn’t be impatient with people, you couldn’t speak angrily, you couldn’t even swat an insect. The other yamas and niyamas encouraged people to take whatever you were given, not just being concerned with getting what you want or spending money. Not having intoxicants, or sex which can weaken the mental concentration. Always speaking the truth at all times, not lying. That doesn’t mean just not telling a great whopping lie, but it means being absolutely accurate when we speak, not making a story slightly funnier than it had been, or slightly more flattering to oneself. It means seeing things as they are.

ascent   So would you say the classical period yoga was built on a strong moral foundation?

KA   The yogic texts tell us that if we master these prohibitions, we achieve indescribable joy because we’re putting ourselves in a different frame of consciousness from the grasping, frightened self that limits our horizons and makes us fearful and angry. We experience a lightness of being. Now I think we should get back to that in our yoga instruction, and say that yoga isn’t just physical: it’s built on this solid foundation which is itself part of a major transformation of the whole being …


Roseanne Harvey is the editor of ascent magazine. Her short fiction has recently been anthologized in Coming Attractions ’06 (Oberon Press).


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