living the practice by swami radhananda (book review)

I recently received an email with the subject, “How to Live Your Yoga.” It was an e-newsletter for a weekend yoga conference at a retreat centre.  While I applaud the effort to present the promise of a yoga practice, I also know that one can’t expect to learn how to live their yoga in three days of retreat from life.

It takes daily practice to really live your yoga, as Swami Radhananda suggests in Living the Practice: Collected Writings on the Transformative Potential of Yoga (Timeless Books, 2012). The book is a collection of short essays Swami Radhananda wrote over a period of 10 years for Ascent, a magazine about yoga and engaged living which folded in 2009.

“The Western challenge is to bring yoga into our daily lives,” Swami Radhananda writes in an essay titled, ‘From Earth to Heaven.’ “We can’t easily do what Eastern tradition prescribes: sit in a cave, or wander India leading the ascetic life. We have to go inward, and that knowledge has to be brought out again. We need to transplant the seeds of yoga into our lives.”

While not a guide or self-help book, Living the Practice provides an example of how once can transplant the seeds and watch them flourish. For Swami Radhananda, this happens through reflection, self-inquiry and paying attention to the symbols in her life.

The pieces were written for her column in the quarterly publication, where each issue was based on a theme. As she explains in her introduction, the theme of the issue (whether it was “service,” “union” or “language”) became the basis of her self-investigation for the three months she spent working on her column. The pieces are based on the often-mundane events from her life and are speckled with details of daily activities at Yasodhara Ashram, where she is the Spiritual Director. She recounts walking in the cedar grove above the ashram, interacting with other residents and dusting the deities place around the community, and finds the meaning within each simple action.

“An ordinary life infused with practice and inquiry becomes a meaningful life,” she writes. Being a swami may be considered a rather extraordinary life, but the tone of her writing is so accessible and down-to-earth that most anyone can relate, no matter where we are on the path of yoga. And even better, we can learn from her and apply her insights to our own lives.

The columns are arranged according to five recurring themes that she and her editor found woven through the essays: Reflection, Mind, Body, Light and Heart. I found myself not inclined to read the book from cover to cover, but to pick it up, scan the table of contents and go to a title that enticed me. All of the pieces are around 800 words, making them easy-to-digest gems of wisdom that can be integrated into the course of my day, when I feel the need to pause and nourish myself.

Yet, despite their short length, the essays are dense with wisdom. They pose many more questions than they answer. This swami is not an enlightened being who has taken it upon herself to bequeath her wisdom upon us mere mortals. Instead, this is a person who has committed to a life of yoga, who asks many questions, of herself and of the reader, and bravely reveals her process of inquiry.

“I’m often trying to understand,” she writes in the final essay, “what is a spiritual person? For anybody, from the president of a country to the person working in a garage, you need to ask: How do I keep integrity, vision and purpose? What does it mean to be spiritual?”

Many of us are still figuring this out, as well. Just as we’re trying to figure out what it means to live our yoga. Does it mean offering yoga classes to marginalized populations? Mastering advanced postures and demonstrating them randomly on city streets? Being vegan? Volunteering at an animal shelter?

Swami Radhananda doesn’t tell us. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a practice, whatever we decide works for us, and we commit to it long enough to see the changes in our lives. Slowly, this change will have a ripple effect on the world around us.

Swami Radhananda offers gentle encouragement in doing this. “It takes strength and courage to go against the mainstream of life, which is now unfortunately mired in apathy and comfort,” she writes in ‘The Promise of Practice.’ “It takes courage to say: I want to reflect on my life; I want to clarify what my words and actions are. In this way, leading a spiritual life can be a political act. You are making a statement that you want more than a life that is driven by social pressure, instincts and common habits.”

  1. That’s lovely Roseanne. I shall see if I can get hold of a copy from the library. I still miss Ascent – such a lovely reflective magazine.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book, thoughtful and reflective. I like the promise of practice idea – this is so true. As much as you can have someone tell you lots and lots about yoga, there really is no substitute for getting onto your mat and doing the work… and then taking that work off of the mat and into your life!

    Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  3. This is a lovely review, Roseanne, and I’m more convinced than ever that I want to read this book! I’m sad that I didn’t really read Ascent (more than a couple of times) when it was still being published.

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