Every year, journalists, politicians, authors and newsmakers from our Pacific Northwest community and around the nation come together at the Crosscut Ideas Festival to take a hard look at the people, policies and events that shape our lives. The 2023 Crosscut Ideas Festival will take place in a hybrid in-person and virtual format. (Intrigued? Get tickets.)
At the festival, Chopra will explore the idea of separating yourself from your selfie while on the path to self-realization — not self-improvement. With so much talk about mindfulness and wellness online and on social media, Chopra decided to share the true meaning of yoga as an ancient practice. His new book explains the intention of yoga, the eight limbs, and the concept of transcendence, and even provides illustrations of postures — all written for a modern audience.
Before joining us this May at the Crosscut Ideas Festival, the bestselling author took the time to chat with Crosscut about translating ancient wisdoms, “the light” and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Crosscut: What inspired you to write a complete guide to Raj Yoga, or Royal Yoga?
Chopra: I’ve been a student of yoga for the last 40 years. I’ve had a regular practice of yoga, with several teachers, including my co-author Sarah Platt Finger. I recognized very early on that most people did not actually know that the physical postures of yoga, otherwise referred to as asana, are actually a means to understand the nature of the fundamental reality of pure consciousness …
Now, of course, people go to yoga practice, they have benefits. They get vagal stimulation. They feel euphoric. They feel happier. They feel healthier. But they don’t really necessarily have the understanding that Raj Yoga, or Royal Yoga, includes eight limbs. And those eight limbs are equally important …
The eight limbs of yoga are originally meant for what is called self-realization, not self-improvement. Though self-improvement also happens. But it is to know who you are beyond your body, mind and your experience of the world. Who you are is more fundamental than the body, the mind, the brain and the experience of the world. These are actually modified forms of who you really are, which is pure consciousness — which is borderless, which has no boundaries, therefore [it] must be infinite and therefore is timeless, spaceless — what spiritual traditions usually call the soul. Yoga is to get in touch with your soul. That’s why I wrote the book.
How did you translate the eight limbs into modern terms?
This is what I’ve done all my life. I’ve taken what I know of the wisdom traditions, particularly of the East ... And then see if I can translate that into common language. Not everyone would understand what pratyahara means. But I think everybody would understand what self-regulation means of the body and withdrawal of the senses.
Social and emotional intelligence have become very common today as part of our social vocabulary. Yet most of the social and emotional intelligence literature that exists out there today is not based on consciousness, it’s based on psychology. And what we are talking about right now has nothing to do with psychology, or nothing to do with the mind. In fact, it has to do with going beyond the mind, to the source of the mind.
People use words like “peace of mind” — that’s an oxymoron. When is the mind at peace, ever? The mind by definition is a fluctuation. It’s by definition looking at experience by contrast. All experiences are by contrast. You can’t have an up without a down, you can’t have a hot without a cold, you can’t have pleasure without pain. Then what is it that modifies itself into both pleasure and pain? Both hot and cold? There is a deeper reality which today people are calling awareness or consciousness …
This book is about what the original intention of yoga is. “Yoga” means to get in touch with the source of all experience. It’s related to the English word “yoke,” or to connect. And what you are connected with is your own self. And that is called knowing the self. Not what people think of themself, that’s their selfie. Your body, [your] mind is your selfie — a snapshot of perception. If I took a snapshot of you right now and took another one immediately afterwards, it wouldn’t be the same person because you are constantly transforming.
What is the source of all this? That source is awareness which is transcendent and infinite. And if you understand it, then you don’t have constructs like birth, death, fear of mortality … Being outside of space time, that’s the real purpose of yoga. That’s why I wrote this book to actually make it more contemporary.
In Living in the Light, you touch upon how religions use the term “light.” But, you write, “Royal Yoga transcends these religious connotations while embracing their deeper meaning.” How would you describe “The Light?”
The only light there is is the light of awareness.
Photons are colorless, they are dimensionless. They have no shape. They have no borders. And yet your experience of the world — you’re not experiencing photons. You are experiencing colors, and shapes, and actually brightness. The only brightness that comes is because of awareness …
Minds are conditioned by culture. You are speaking to me now in English with an American accent. And that’s a learned response. Everything that you perceive is a learned response. Who are you if you take out all these human constructs? …
Awareness is the light and actually that has been used, that phrase has been used in religions, “Let there be light”... Ein Sof was the light in Judaic traditions. The light is present in every tradition that talks about consciousness.
If someone wanted to embark on a self-realization journey today but was intimidated to begin, what advice would you give them?
Start with a simple practice like meditation. Start with something very simple like watching your breath, then graduate to watching your thoughts or emotions, your body, sensations.
Then ask yourself, “Who is watching?” … That is actually the highest intelligence, to observe yourself without judging yourself. So when you observe yourself, observe different aspects of yourself. Your breath, your movement, your choices, your emotions, your mind, your thoughts …
Now, having said all this, because I love modern technology. I am creating a series for self-realization on the Web 3.0. I will have my avatar dealing with avatars of others and going on a journey of self-awareness. We are going to call it MetaHuman Adventures in the Metaverse, based on my book MetaHuman. Which is all about self-realization.
You will be joining us at the Crosscut Festival this May. What are you looking forward to discussing with our audience?
How do we collectively wake up to our fundamental reality? Otherwise we are sleepwalking to extinction. We have climate change, we have global pandemics, mass migrations, mechanized ways of killing each other and cyber warfare, terrorism, poison in our food chain, social economic injustice, gender injustice.
So in essence, because we aren’t in touch with our real self, we have sacrificed ourself for our selfies. And we don’t know the difference between our selfie and ourself. And if you want a more peaceful, just and sustainable world, then we have to get to know ourselves beyond our selfies. That’s what I will talk about, the awakened life.