Infinite Life:
Seven Virtues for Living Well

Robert Thurman
Riverhead Press 2004

In Infinite Life, Columbia professor Robert Thurman proposes that we live an eternal life – an existence that persists through infinite deaths and rebirths. Because our actions in this life determine the character of our next, we must “take each moment with the utmost concern, become passionately engaged with each being.” Thurman divides his book into chapters based on seven key principles – wisdom, generosity, justice, patience, creativity, contemplation, and the art of infinite living. He encourages the reader to develop each quality, offering meditations as well as Buddhist folk tales and personal anecdotes.

Thurman promotes the philosophy that all of life is interconnected, stating that “We cannot liberate just ourselves from suffering, because it is impossible to achieve fully perfect bliss if anyone is excluded from it.” He offers a translation of Shantideva’s Bodhisattva Vow in the last chapter, and encourages readers to adopt it and devote their lives to assisting others.

In his anecdotes, Thurman reveals himself as reassuringly flawed. He offers his most helpful advice in the Patience chapter, possibly because he admittedly has problems with this quality. He substantiates his ideas with a few studies, including one suggesting that the amount of self-reference in a person’s speech – rather than personality type – determines the likelihood of heart disease.

However, I found Thurman’s book marred with generalizations of American culture. He depicts Westerners as materialistic beings who cannot imagine life beyond the next acquisition. Thurman assumes the Buddhist concept of selflessness to be completely beyond most Americans, whom he imagines to cling desperately to a sense of self-importance while believing themselves doomed to a meaningless, brief existence. In fact, much of Infinite Life comes across as a rant against a cartoonishly envisioned America full of people walking around in a “zombielike state of unawareness.” When not voicing clichés, I find that Thurman offers rather banal advice. He urges us to not gossip, to eat without slurping and to buy Christmas presents early.

As Thurman advocates for less military spending and more time away from the television, I cannot help but feel that he is wasting his knowledge. Given that most of his readers probably agree with his views of modern culture, Thurman might better spend his time delving into Buddhist doctrine and expounding on its more difficult aspects. Infinite Life might be helpful for those seeking guided meditations or words of encouragement as they strive to gain awareness. However, the bitterness of the author detracts from his arguments and makes Infinite Life a more simplistic read than most people might find useful. – Lauren Hauptman

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Yoga for Depression:
A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering through Yoga

Amy Weintraub
Broadway Books 2004

Last winter, I was hospitalized for depression. I felt like my life was beyond hope and all I could see before me was darkness and more darkness. I barely survived a year of setbacks and failures, and I was uncertain what I was supposed to learn. Perhaps, my therapist suggested, you were supposed to learn that you have depression and you’ll be on medication for the rest of your life. This made me feel even more depressed.

Amy Weintraub, a yoga instructor and writer, was also told by her therapist that she had “empty pockets” and would simply have to accept that she’d never be happy. In Yoga for Depression, Weintraub talks frankly and openly about her experiences with depression. She shares how she has recovered from depression through her own practice of yoga and describes how she has used this process to help her students. The book is flavoured with students’ stories of how they have healed with the help of yoga.

In clear, easy to understand language without a lot of medical jargon, Weintraub explains the causes, types and current medical treatments of depression. She also stresses the spiritual side of yoga, how this can bring meaning and joy to a depressed person’s life. As well as pranayama exercises and Hatha Yoga poses, Weintraub discusses meditation, mindfulness and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living course.

Since being discharged from the hospital, I have been on anti-depressants and attending outpatient therapy groups. I have also started a regular yoga practice. “Empower” is an overused word, but there is no other way to describe Yoga for Depression. Since I have started a daily routine of yogic breathing exercises and asanas, I have felt empowered to deal with my depression, as well as other aspects of my life. Weintraub has set out a means for me to take my mental health and happiness into my own hands, without relying solely on doctor-prescribed treatments.

Yoga for Depression is written with compassion and empathy. Weintraub’s voice is gentle and understanding, and the clear language does not intimidate or overwhelm me. She doesn’t promise a cure, but prescribes ways to manage depression and shows how practising yoga can help take away some of the pain. I’m not about to throw away my medication or skip therapy, but I’m realizing that I can find my own source of inner joy and light. – Roseanne Harvey

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Will Yoga & Meditation Really
Change my Life?

Stephen Cope, ed.
Storey Publishing 2003

Many of us find it difficult to align the notion of a spiritual life with the day-to-day obligations of school, family and work. In Stephen Cope’s Will Yoga & Meditation Really Change my Life? the author addresses these challenges through a series of intimate interviews with twenty-five prominent American spiritual practitioners. Cope, a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher, is intent on finding out how his fellow aspirants have achieved a successful balance between the spiritual and the everyday in their personal journeys toward peace and understanding.

The table of contents reads like a who’s who of the American contemplative practice circuit. Many of Cope’s interview subjects were influential in the progressive yoga movement of the seventies, which introduced the yogic path to North Americans. Baby boomers who remember the “heady days of the early 1970s, when yoga and meditation were exotic new birds” will find Yoga & Meditation especially pertinent, as the book reintroduces us to the pioneers who have made yoga an integrated part of their lives over the course of the last thirty years.

From Larry Yang’s bittersweet coming to terms with encounters of cultural prejudice to the moving, tragic account of Esther Myers’ battle with cancer, to Lilias Folan’s ascent to fame and fortune with her 1970s television program “Lilias, Yoga, and You!” Yoga & Meditation traverses a wide range of experiences. The book is conversational, personal, and a quick and enjoyable read. It emerges with some universal insights into how best to use yoga to meet life’s difficulties head-on and how to face life’s windfalls with grace and humility. Cope has compiled a well-written investigation into the manifold paths that lie open to those of us who wish to merge the secular with the spiritual, one that suggests that the solution remains, as ever, with self-inquiry. Will yoga and meditation really change my life? The answer lies within. – Michael Wray

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The Great Mantra from the Himalayas

Various artists
Karuna 2004

click here to listen

Listening to The Great Mantra from the Himalayas with eyes closed, it is easy to imagine the scene in which the chanting sessions took place: devotees sitting cross-legged on the ground, each with an instrument in hand, taking turns chanting the mantra. In the background an occasional cough or whisper can be heard providing the album with a very earthy, grounded feel in the midst of such spiritually elevating music. There is nothing artificial about these songs; each resonates with authenticity and pure emotion.

The goal of the yogic path of bhakti is to create a direct, unmediated link between the devotee and the Divine. Love for the Divine can be expressed through song, dance, art or other such creative and physical activities. Mantra chanting is the means of devotion found on this album. Interestingly, Kirtan features only four tracks, each comprised of the same three words, different renditions of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Rama.

Mantras bestow power on the spiritual aspirant and the maha-mantra, or “great mantra,” is considered especially powerful. The Bhagavad Gita says that to chant the maha-mantra is to bring the Divine into its imminent form, thus making the Divine directly available to the aspirant.

The album was recorded by Mitchell Markus and Krishna Das, both disciples of Neem Karoli Baba. The songs are chanted by only a few bhaktas, or devotees, at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram. The striking simplicity of the music is emphasized by the fact that the singers are accompanied by only two finger cymbals, a hand drum and a harmonium. The focal point of the album is the weaving in and out of the voices, which creates a mystical and textured feel. It becomes hard to tell at what point one singer stops and another begins. The unbroken quality of the entire album creates an illusion that the songs really go on forever and the listener is being given only a taste of something eternal and unending.

Each of these evocative tracks, individually but also as a whole, bring about a sort of meditative state that makes the listener want simply to be absorbed by the rhythmic chanting. There is something about this particular album that rings of pure bhakti; in its underproduced, simple rhythms and melodies, it becomes truly all about devotion and love for the Divine. – Monica Farrell

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Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life