Many years ago, I did graduate work in Comparative Religion at the University of Minnesota. In one of my first courses, we were given the assignment to do some anthropology of religion — we were to investigate any local religious group which was foreign to our experiences. I chose to explore a local Yoga group. Though I had visited India 3 years prior, I was a Christian then, and never explored Yoga — which my Christianity labeled as a diversion of the devil. Thus this anthropological adventure had a naughty, exciting flavor to it!
I had seen the Yoga center when riding my bicycle from my home to the University. It was in a beautiful old mansion with a large wooden sign declaring itself to be “The Yoga Center in Minneapolis” (see below). The center is apparently still active.
The center was run by Dr. Usharbudh Arya (1933- ) who I discovered was interestingly a former well-known Sanskrit professor in the exact South Asian department where I was doing my graduate work at that time. So I was immediately knew that whether I agreed with these folks or not, the director was a smart guy.
Apparently, Dr. Arya had given up his prosperous academic career just two years prior to propagate Yoga full-time. The Center was a small organization back then but after a little web searching, it appears to have a presence also in India. Dr. Arya, as in my Indian teachers, has altered his name (not that doing such is foreign to me, and is now known as Swami Veda Bharati (wiki article here).
Dr. Arya was a disciple of Swami Rama (1925 – 1996) who founded the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Only after leaving the organization did I learn of some of the controversies surrounding Swami Rama (see wiki). I had met and trained with Swami Rama twice when he visited the center for short teachings — he certainly had a magnetic personality.
My graduate project was meant to only to last three months (and indeed I completed my paper), but I continued studying Yoga at the center for eighteen months. I was diligent: reading every book they offered, taking every class I could and practicing both Hatha and meditative Yoga at my home. I was surprised by how much I learned and benefited. I was actually in the teacher training program but dropped out after a conflict which I may write about later.
When I first began my investigation of this strange neighborhood anomaly, I thought the Center would be a very woo-woo place filled with air-headed folks but instead Dr. Arya was solid, students were normal and the teachings offered real skills at learning how to relax. Though I experienced altered states of consciousness during meditation several times, I never had “higher states of consciousness” and didn’t know what to think about that, but I did learn relaxation skills that came in very handy in helping with sleep issues, patience and more.
Yoga, for most Americans, is all about stretching, postures and fitness, but those are only one rung of Raja Yoga — an 8-runged-ladder approach to essentially a meditative practice (following the guidelines of Patanjali). An important relaxation skill I learned was Pranayama (breath control) where I practiced diaphragmatic breathing, evening out the breath, lengthening the breath, watching the breath and more. Most forms of Buddhism, like Yoga, uses meditation techniques where pranayama is essential, but it was the Yoga Center that taught it better than all the Buddhist places I have visited since then. BTW, some feel that Patanjali, the ancient compiler of the Yoga Sutras, may actually have borrowed from Buddhist practices.
Writing this post has been a fun trip back in time. I don’t agree with much of Yoga, but the lessons I learned were invaluable. Perhaps later I will write about those disagreements. But this is a post is mainly of letter of gratitude to Yoga and Dr. Arya.