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Random thoughts on Sri Dharma Mittra’s “Life of a Yogi” training

May 2009

It has been nine months since Sri Dharma Mittra’s “Life of a Yogi”
training. With me being a bit of a wayward student and a
procrastinator – I have delayed time and again this piece of
reflections. I had started, stopped, resumed, stopped, really
rather many times, particularly the last several months. To be
frank, I don’t quite feel qualified to write about Dharma – I took
home a miniscule portion of the knowledge he imparted to us.
On the other hand, it is just an incredible piece of fortune to learn from a true yogi – Dharma
has practiced the yogic way of life for more than half a century.

The question was, where to begin? How could I write about an ancient knowledge that I had
only grasped the very edges of, and there was so much more I did not yet understand? How
do I tell my friends that I have experienced something profound, but I have not actually gone
off the deep-end? Used to writing corporate memos, powerpoints, where we can
summarize things into digestible bullet points, I have been at a loss.

I felt it would be an injustice to the experience if it did not come out right. But, it seemed
incredibly difficult to describe in written words. One thought gave rise to a contradiction,
that gave rise to another question, which branched off into its own series of questions,
thoughts, and could-be answers.

But rather have all these different thoughts paralyze me, it is better to at least give it the
best shot – to answer what really is a simple question that many of my classmates in Hong
Kong have asked, “how was the Dharma training”?

****

Ultimate Questions

At some point in our lives, inevitably, some “ultimate questions” emerge. Ones we most of
the time dismiss, preferring to focus our energies on more immediate concerns. But
sometimes, they refuse to go away: demanding us to think hard about them, even though
satisfactory answers would seem to be impossible to obtain.

What is the “self” in myself anyway, is it this body that I possess? I say that I have a brain,
rather than I am my brain. But this “I” is essentially a bunch of interconnected neurons, so
how does that create consciousness? When we do what our hearts tell us, are these still
mental processes in our skulls, or do we each have a “soul” that exists – and is that a physical
aspect of our brains?

In the end, they ask us to consider a really rather simple matter – what is the meaning and
purpose of our existence? Is it really just to have as many offspring as possible, to replicate
our genes? Or is it the more poetic “pursuit of happiness”, but do we really know what this
happiness is? If it is the vague “you know it when you see it”, then the pursuit of it seems to
be little more than the toss of dice?

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Most of the time, fortunately and unfortunately, we are just too preoccupied. We have jobs
to do, families to care for, bills to pay. Life is often trying not to sink, and who has the free
time and energy to ponder the universe?

Yet, I found myself wondering. So, where is this all going? I comforted myself by various
means of rationalization. I thought that in the end nobody really knows anything anyway, so
the meaning of life can’t be proved nor disproved, so why worry about it. Religion had some
answers, but the existence of god and higher beings have never been quite conclusive for
me. But still, it was at the back of my head. It seemed to be something that deserved
contemplation.

What exactly, then, is the point of life? That given the infinite
iterations of the universe and infinite time, I had to necessarily
exist as a result of one of the infinite possibilities?

****

Beginnings

When I started yoga, all I knew was that it was a stretching exercise – and really, I knew
nothing beyond that. My knee, having given me problems for years, had miraculously
healed after half a year of practice. Yoga indeed was an exercise my body responded to. I
no longer needed frequent massages and my nagging shoulder and back pain had strangely
dissipated.

As I learned more from my teachers and classmates, I began to realize there were many wise
men who had practiced yoga for centuries before our time, and they had pondered the
same questions that had kept returning. And to my great surprise, I learned that yoga is at
its roots a science of living, a method to understand ourselves.

As I would later learn, the various poses, the asanas were only the very first step of yoga: it
was only the preparation for introspection and meditation. For most of us, before we learn
to control and to quiet our minds, we had to first learn to control our bodies.

****

Curious ...

For the couple of years prior to taking the Life of a Yogi training, I had developed a rather
strong curiosity to learn about ourselves, to at least understand what others had to say
about these “ultimate questions”. Given my agnostic bent, I shied away from anything
spiritual or new-age, and concentrated on books on human behavior and how we functioned,
on an individual psychological context as well as on a social and group level. For me,
Darwinism had always seemed to be to be an acceptable but ultimately unsatisfying answer
– so all we do is try to produce lots of children? Then, why does it seem that so many of our
energies are focused on other aspects of life? Presumably, Darwinism would have weeded
out extraneous pursuits eons ago?

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I read about how we frequently misjudged what it is that would make us happy. I read
about how Buddhists monks had massively more active left prefrontal cortexes (the area
associated with positive emotions in the brain), especially those that had done over 10,000
hours of meditation. I read about how, at the end of the day, on a biological level, we are
neurons that function recursively to generate what we might term as “consciousness” –
whatever we feel, is a function of how our neurons are firing in our brains.

It seems strange yet obvious that emotions originate from the various bits in our brains. The
exact same situation could generate completely opposite emotional responses in different
people. Speaking to a large crowd of people, for example, paralyzes some, yet empowers
others. The only difference on a pure physical level would be the neurological wirings of the
different individuals. To some extent, if we really are able to control our minds, we can
control our emotions. And if we follow that to control our minds we need to first control our
bodies, then asanas were indeed a very good starting point.

… but skeptical. On a day-to-day basis, what are we striving for? Does that take us closer
to our ultimate goal – whatever that may be?

Money is not everything: a trite saying, whether we heard this from our older and wiser
family members, or from the plethora of self-help books. This is a hard message to get
across when many of us are facing financial difficulties. Even in the best of times, it seems
that not making as much money as our peers can become a constant source of our
insecurities.

I had always felt a need to improve and to “succeed”. Yet, where do we get the idea that
making as much money as possible is the key to life? Maybe, in part, money is one of the
easiest measures of self-worth, easily quantifiable and comparable. At the same time, it had
become evident to me that beyond a certain level of comfort, lots of money had stopped to
make sense. It was the irrefutable law of diminishing returns.

On the other end of the spectrum were some friends who really did not care about money
beyond what was absolutely necessary for physical sustenance. They typically pursued the
arts, music, and other spiritual endeavors that seemed to me at the time to be somewhat
frivolous. It seemed that they were somehow less strong and thus chose not to compete in
the cut-throat corporate world.

Now, I was wondering who really the weak ones were. Was it us, chasing financial success,
the ones who were actually sleepwalking through life? And that we lacked the insight to
reflect and question what might make us truly happy? And rather, we preferred to pursue
conspicuous happiness – nice clothes, nice cars, nice apartments, so we could admire
ourselves, be admired by others, and thus establishing a seemingly concrete sense of self-
worth?

I wrote the following entry in my diary in March of 2008:

“have been contemplating "happiness", or bliss, or contentment, or any one of those words
and concepts. mostly about why, and how. a couple of somewhat obvious observations, but
in any case the result of a bit of pondering:

1. probably, being happy is better than being unhappy, under almost all circumstances;

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2. if #1 is true, then the search is for sustainable happiness. the question that needs to be
asked is whatever it is we are seeking - more money, greater achievements, etc, lead to
sustainable happiness, or these are still subject to the law of diminishing returns, and
inherently we are doomed.”

By the time I noted this to myself, I already knew that more


money and more achievements were not the answers. Like
any drug, a heavier dose was necessary to obtain the
equivalent amount of pleasure. I was realizing the obvious –
the proverbial rat race actually never ends.

Decision time

Meanwhile, I kept looking at the brochure that I had picked up when I had attended
Dharma’s class while I was in New York in April 2008. The “Life of a Yogi” training was for
the goal of self-realization. At the time, (or even now), I am not quite sure what “self-
realization” means. I had read enough intellectual literature – yogis perhaps knew
something that I didn’t? For some reason those two words “self-realization” held a
particular appeal to me. If it was somewhat helpful for me to understand a bit more about
myself, then perhaps it was worth a shot. But still, I struggled whether to go. 6-8 hours of
asanas? How was that related to self-realization? I chatted with my yoga teachers and
friends, who were all incredibly encouraging and supportive. It was only 10 days, and at the
very least I would learn something. And in many ways, to this day, I am amazed yoga has
healed my injuries. I thought if I learned something about that and I could return to teach
my friends a thing or two, it would be more than worth it already. And yes, maybe, I would
learn something about myself too?

Pre-training jitters

But as I got closer, I began to worry more. I really did not know if I was ready for this. To be
frank, I am simply not a particularly virtuous person, what if Dharma and the teachers just
saw through me and kicked me out on that account? The vegetarian diet worried me. Can I
really function without eating meat at all for 10 days? I had heard how students broke down
and cried during training, as they finally found their release from buried burdens. I really did
not know if I had deep dark secrets that would bubble up to the surface during the training –
breaking down and bawling in front of forty strangers did not particularly appeal to me
either.

As I started to read the various yoga books as pre-training reading, I began to understand a
little bit more. Yoga was as much a philosophy as it was a physical exercise. Asanas were
but one part of the eight limbs of yoga. But still, to put it simply, I did not know if I was
ready to be spiritual. I was reasonably content with my current state. Well, too late to
worry, I was about to find out.

Ten days

It is not hard to describe what we did over the ten days. Well, at least, with regard to the
physical aspect of it. In the morning, we would have pranayama and meditation sessions,
chanting and kirtan. It would be followed by Dharma’s master class, two hours of intensive
asana practice where we would be shown poses that seemed to defy logic and gravity. The

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afternoon was followed by in-depth discussions and small group teachings. The early
evening would be a group class, followed by closing meditation.

In some ways, the ten day course was like climbing a beautiful mountain. People have told
you about the extreme beauty that it holds. So for the first few days, I slowly began to
understand more about yoga. But it really seemed more like trekking around the jungle at
the base of the mountain. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed – I had expected to
be blown away, but it wasn’t quite happening.

About five days in, my body was now becoming exhausted beyond comprehension. I was
hurting everywhere. However, slowly but surely, I was feeling something. You know how
our teachers always say to let the breath flow through our body? I never understood it –
oxygen went through our lungs and out our noses. Now, I was feeling my individual body
parts. With concentration, I found I could focus on a particular body part and “create” a
sensation of force and pressure. Was this the prana, or “qi”, that yogis and Chinese kung fu
masters refer to? I have no idea. It was elusive but still, there seemed to be an
unmistakable yet abstract “energy” or “thing” that coursed through. Again, was it only my
over-active imagination? Perhaps – feelings are a brain construct anyway right?

I could not pinpoint if there was a moment of epiphany, like you see in the movies, but
sometime in Day 7 or Day 8, I felt different. How? I was seeing things differently. I was
seeing people, but really, seeing them. The world seemed more beautiful and sadder at the
same time. Beautiful, as we were fast approaching the mountain top, and the experience is
every bit as breathtaking as they say. I was in awe of this strange “me” that I was perceiving.
It was oddly foreign yet had a distinctly warm feeling about it. Sad, because it seemed I was
able to take on other people’s perspectives. Their discontentment, worry, and uncertainties,
it somehow crystallized and I seemed to feel it myself, whereas it previously would not have
even occurred to me what they were feeling or why it had any relevance to me.

On the last couple of days – finally – the peak in all its glory
emerges. And it is really as magnificent as they say.

I marveled at the love emanating from every teacher and


student. While I felt enveloped by it, I simply could not quite
comprehend it. It seemed to have busted my brain circuits –
what is this for and how on earth did it happen? I had
indeed acquired a new knowledge, and I understood a state of consciousness that was
completely new to me, but yet even now I have no real idea as to how to convey it. For lack
of a better description, somewhat ironically, it simply seemed to all make sense.

The occasion reminded me of a story called “Flatland”, written by Edwin Abbot, where the
protagonist is a square that lives in a 2-D world. One day, he encounters a sphere, who to
his amazement can change its size and appear to jump through space by moving in and out
of the 2-D plane. The sphere attempts to explain the third dimension to the square, but to
no avail, the concept simply does not exist in the 2-D world. Finally, the sphere takes square
up out of the 2-D world into the three dimensional world, where the square suddenly,
simply, understands. He now knows what the sphere was describing: depth of perspective,
the ability to see the entire 2-D world all at once, from a bird eye’s view. Back on Flatland,
the square tries to describe this to his fellow Flatlanders, but in vain. The concept of going
“up and out” from their flat dimension was simply inconceivable.

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So this, I thought to myself, is what it means to be lifted out of this world.

****

Is there karma?

I learned that karma is one of central tenets of yogic


philosophy. Do good, and good things happen, and do bad,
bad things happen, and this affects us beyond our current
lives. Dharma taught us that without truly understanding
karma, the mind could not be content.

I had always wondered before – with so much pain, suffering and injustice in the world, was
it only a rationalization of the state of things? That it was easier for the human mind to
ascribe terrible circumstances to some logic, i.e. sins of past lives, rather than to see them as
pure random occurrences?

The biggest fear I had all along was perhaps this was all made-up – there is no afterlife, no
reincarnation, so then, what is the point of being good? What if I tried my best to be good
and kind, and was just killed in a car crash the next day? We are only a part of a very large
lottery of circumstances, and eventually someone does win the jackpot, and here we are,
sentient beings, as the winners, so to speak. But when our lives are over, well, that’s that.
So, why would I believe in something that was possibly unprovable?

The different question I was now asking was, well, why not? I was starting to find out that
the practice of kindness and compassion in itself brought about peace and happiness. In fact,
the practice of such was possibly equally as important as the unwavering belief in karma. A
child does not need to “believe” in cough medicine. Even if he reluctantly takes it, behold,
the cough does get better. After sufficient trial and error, the child then begins to
understand the cause and effect.

In our unending pursuit for having the best for ourselves, we may have forgotten that by
bringing joy to others, this in turn creates joy in us. Again, this seemed to be remarkably
obvious, yet, it was not something I had really grasped before. Karma perhaps didn’t have to
be seen as an irrefutable law that controlled our deeds with fear of bad repercussions.
Perhaps, it also offered us a basis to rediscover the delights of offering our work for others.

****

What exactly, then, is the point of life?

Returning to the question that really has prompted me to


embark this remarkable journey… perhaps, this is a bit like a
child asking, “why does the sun rise every morning?” There is
the simple answer, which is the earth rotates. One of the
goals of life, perhaps, is to feel happy and at peace with
oneself. But the answer to “why does the sun rise every
morning” can be a much deeper question too. One needs to
understand math, astronomy, physics, and a host of other difficult subjects to understand
why the earth rotates as it does; what formed the earth in the first place that gave it its

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rotation; what formed the materials that formed the earth, and so on. But we can’t
understand that without learning about all these other subjects first.

Similarly, without thought, learning, and some intense soul-searching, we cannot expect to
just suddenly understand the point of life. At the very least, we need to still ourselves, so we
can sit and engage in undisturbed meditation to think and seek answers. To think clearly,
we must first quiet the chatter in our minds. When we contemplate honestly and truly, we
can all be surprisingly lucid. For some brief moments during the training, and unmistakably
for the first time in my life, it was as if the haphazard processing in the brain had slowed
down and sorted themselves out, and I could see a clear pathway and understand. Probably
the single most valuable lesson I received was that it was at all possible to achieve such a
mental state.

To quote Jonathan Haidt, who had written a marvelous book called “The Happiness
Hypothesis” where he examines ancient wisdom across cultures and parses out their
common themes: “Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly.
You have the get the conditions right – then a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

During the ten days, slowly, but surely, by learning from Dharma, by stilling our minds and
by being receptive, the conditions were finally being tuned right so we could taste true
calmness. Dharma was fond of telling us that spiritual knowledge about the true self could
not be transmitted by the written word – I slowly began to understand.

****

What now?

What now, that I have taken the “Life of a Yogi” training with Dharma? In the simplest terms,
I have become a calmer and more accepting person. Calmer not only when I deal with the
outside world, but also inwardly. More accepting to life and its certain bumps, bruises, and
sometimes wrecks. Rather than worry whether I am getting the best of the situation, if I am
being taken advantage of, I am much better at letting things run its course.

Things may or may not happen for a reason, but the practice of yoga, and the very belief and
understanding of karma essentially kick starts the virtuous cycle where we become better
people, so that the world can become a better place, bit by bit.

Dharma is perhaps such a powerful teacher because he leads by selfless example. He shows
us what it means to practice the universal values of love and compassion to all beings.

The path to self-realization may be far, but now, I know that


there is in fact a road. And I can start by doing a little bit more
good every day.

****

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It is difficult to use words to describe Dharma. I have never met a true yogi before. I am
told there are many yogis in India, but few live in New York and still are able to maintain the
yogic way of life.

After the training, I realize the writings, such as this, are really for us, to express our
gratitude and to sort out our thoughts. I don’t know if Dharma is one of a kind, as we tend
to become attached to our teachers. Dharma will readily and simply respond that he is us,
as we are him. If there was a simple description of Dharma, it would be true humility and
kindness – the kind that stuns cynics like myself as it is unmistakable, and lets us know that it
is quite possible to survive and flourish in the world by being so.

In today’s world of reductionism, sound bites, and immediate gratification, we tend to forget
that anything personally lasting – whether it is knowledge, careers, relationships, take years
and years of hard work and patience to cultivate. Dharma has shown us the roadmap, from
his more than fifty years of practice, and that self-realization is possible after all.

It has been a true gift to be able to take the course, and to have been provided with a
glimpse of the human spirit and the possibilities of the pure, unadulterated self.

Thank you, my classmates both in Hong Kong and San Francisco. Thank you, my teachers
everywhere.

And thank you, Dharma.

****