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Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self  by Stephen Cope.  Bantam Books 1999.  358 pages. 

It is not often I use the “M word” to describe a book.  No, I’m not talking about munchkin books or maleficient books.  I’m talking about masterpieces.  I am not certain if Stephen Cope’s bestseller is a masterpiece.  Maybe it is, maybe not.  Either way, it is pretty damn good. 

This is one of those books that entertains and educates you in a visceral way right from the start.  Large chunks are written in immediate narrative format–as in “he said,” “I said,” etc.  It is Stephen Cope’s personal yoga story–a sort of “pilgrim’s progress,” if you will–as well as the yoga story of his many friends and acquaintances before and during his long and continuing stay at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. 

We meet a man, a practicing Boston psychotherapist, who for a variety of reasons was feeling unsettled and dissatisfied with his life and then, somewhat to his dismay, found himself joining a religious community to do…what?  Much of the book is an answer to that and related questions: What did he want?  Why?  What was he trying to do at Kripalu?  What was–is–the meaning of yoga?  What is enlightenment?  Is such a thing possible?  Are there enlightened people in this world?  And what happens when all the things we try to keep hidden are revealed for the world to see?  

Stephen Cope furrows through all these questions and more.  His sincerity, his intensity, his intelligence, make the book a gripping read.  Its pages educate the reader even as Cope the protagonist is educated by his experiences in the ashram.  Yoga philosophy is pondered over, its depths turned up, and its many connections to Western psychotherapy reflected upon, all in gratifyingly sober, lucid prose.  This is no idealistic hippy’s tale, nor a wide-eyed New Age search for Reality.  In point of fact, it is one man’s search for himself, even as he helps us understand that the discipline, the science, the art of yoga, is there to help us lay ourselves bare to ourselves.  

“You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  This book is a testament to these words, but it goes beyond them for the “truth” as yoga reveals to Stephen Cope is an ever living, organic thing, the stuff of our lives, which we either enjoy and let go of or cling to and warp, eventually to destroy. 

You will find yourself in this book.  In one of the many personal portraits Cope draws, you will find your own symptoms and neuroses, your fears, dreams and failings.  And when you do, you will know that yoga has something to offer you.  There is so much teaching here, and it is given in such generous, gentle and wise ways.  Most of all, I think the primacy of ourselves as bodily beings, as thinking, feeling, dreaming animals of earth, is borne out.  The body really is our temple, and yoga is our puja, an act of adoration, discipline and feast.  Cope nails it in what might be the defining statement of the book: “Because yoga asanas are not so much about exercise as they are about learning and unlearning, it is not the movement itself, but the quality of attention we bring to the movement that makes postures qualify as yoga” (230).  If this is so–and I know it is–then any act, any breath, any thought done with full and alive attention, is yoga. 

Bobby Fischer once said “Chess is life.”  I would say “Yoga is life,” and Stephen Cope’s book has made this truth abundantly clear.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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