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Heart Yoga: My Story

The following is excerpted from Heart Yoga: The Sacred
Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism by
Andrew Harvey and Karuna Erickson, published
by North Atlantic Books.


Karuna’s Story

When I was a little girl, my grandmother, a
mystical healer and a woman of irrepressible joy, would often say to me,
“Remember, always, you are God’s perfect child.” Because I felt her
unconditional love, her teachings sank deeply into me. It has taken me more
than five decades to realize the fullness of her blessings.

Through my journey into the marriage of
yoga and mysticism, I have begun to discover just how profound and far-reaching
my grandmother’s words are, not just for me but for everyone. My grandmother
was a naturally holy woman who knew that we are all intrinsically blessed as
embodiments of divine love and light, and that the meaning of life is learning
how to receive this blessing in every dimension, and then express its truth as
loving action in the world. Her life overflowed with joy. She often entered our
house singing and dancing. She celebrated the announcement of the end of World
War I by turning cartwheels around a fancy hotel lobby. Her last words to me
before she died, said with a radiant smile glowing on her face, were “Let’s

I am starting to see how rich and potent
is this experience of knowing ourselves to be the manifestation of the joy of
divine energy. When we live this knowledge whole-heartedly, it transforms our
lives and the world. The practice of yoga reveals and deepens this experience
of the fusion of body and spirit. I am discovering how this union can lead to a
subtle and profound evolution on the deepest cellular level, making accessible
the new dimensions of courage, passion, stamina, and inspiration that are so
essential at this crucial time in the world’s history.

I humbly offer my experience, knowing that
it is not unique to me but open to everyone, and has been at the heart of yoga
philosophy from the very beginning. Four thousand years ago, the Vedic sages of
India found “the treasure of heaven hidden in the secret cavern like the young
of the bird, within the infinite rock.” The “infinite rock” is, I believe, the
cellular depths of the body. The “treasure of heaven” is the energy accessible
to us when body and spirit marry. The “young of the bird” is the tender Divine
Child, “God’s perfect child,” that this marriage births within us. The
reclaiming of this ancient vision can transform our yoga practice, and our

My journey into the mystery of my
grandmother’s teachings has had four stages. Many of you may have gone through
similar stages in your unfolding journey. Sharing our stories to articulate
these archetypal experiences acknowledges and magnifies their transformative
power. I share my story in the hope that you will recognize aspects of your own
story, and that it will inspire your continuing explorations.

First Stage

I had a happy and comfortable childhood in
most ways. Growing up in a loving Jewish family in a comfortable suburb of
Chicago gave me security and confidence. My grandmother was a constant
inspiration. She taught me how to practice the mysteries of healing, to see the
light in all beings, to feel the joy of life, and the power of love. When I was
young, my father, a gentle scholar, held me on his lap as he read. He taught me
devotion, concentration, and the value of prayer. My mother was a happy,
energetic, and optimistic person who had trained to become an opera singer. She
inspired me to have faith that I could do whatever I wanted to do.

Everything on the surface seemed perfect.
Inwardly, however, my family and community were reeling from the shock and
horror of the Holocaust. The wounds that this devastation dealt the psyche of
my family gave me contradictory messages. On the one hand, I was taught that I
had to succeed brilliantly in order to survive. On the other hand, my father
used to warn me how dangerous it could be to be conspicuous in any way. All
negative emotions were ignored, for they were too overwhelming to feel after
what our culture had endured. I was trained to be relentlessly cheerful and
positive at all times. My relationship with my body was ambiguous. While my
family encouraged my athletic endeavors, I was always warned to be careful.
Sexuality was never spoken of, and so became something shadowy and secret.

From these mixed messages I developed,
like many of us brought up in the Western world, a false self addicted to
intellect and success, and a sense of dissociation from my body. Outwardly I
was successful, popular, and happy. Inwardly, I was a perfectionistic
over-achiever, disconnected from my body. God’s perfect child had developed
somewhat of a split personality. My life has been a journey of healing this
split of body, mind, and spirit.

Second Stage

Increasingly stifled by the protectiveness of
my home, and longing for adventure, I decided with my partner Paul to move to
San Francisco in the midsixties. It was there that I first discovered yoga in
Ram Dass’ seminal book, Be Here Now, so influential for many of my

I started to practice the simple yoga
poses that Ram Dass outlined. At this time, I was studying psychology at Stanford
and Berkeley and was very intellectually oriented. Yoga awakened the cells in
my body as if after a long sleep, helping to calm my restless mind. I
encountered a copy of Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar and devoured it.
What had begun as curiosity about yoga now began to crystallize into a
life-long passion.

Meanwhile, it was the Vietnam War era, and
in Berkeley the political climate grew steadily more menacing. Paul and I
protested at anti-war demonstrations and were tear-gassed and chased by
National Guardsmen with clubs. We saw people shot by police from rooftops, and
protestors brutally beaten. This violence frightened and angered us, and we
didn’t know how to respond to it skillfully. Sometimes I wonder if my yoga
practice had been more firmly established at this time whether I would have had
then the courage and inspiration to know how to act effectively for political change.

Instead, Paul and I increasingly retreated
into the calm and beauty of the nearby mountains to heal our spirits. As the
political situation worsened, our hunger for a peaceful life in Nature grew,
and we decided to move to the Yukon Territory in the Canadian wilderness.
Fortunately, one of the few things I took with me from my old life was
Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.


Third Stage

Paul and I flew in a small plane into the
majestic solitude of the Yukon, seventy-five miles from the nearest road. We
lived in a one-room log cabin, settling in for a long Northern winter.
Surrounded by mountains, lakes, moose, wolves, coyotes, eagles, and swans,
everything I had been taught began to unravel. All that I had been doing in the
Bay Area, like building a career, no longer seemed important. I wasn’t sure who
I was anymore, what I really wanted, or what was true in my life. After a few
months of wondering if I was going crazy, I discovered that I only knew three
things for certain: that I loved my partner, I loved to walk in Nature, and I
loved practicing yoga.

Day after day I practiced, with deepening
devotion and wonder. I started to experience the intertwining of my individual
self with the Universal Self, as unveiled in the vastness of Nature around me.
My body and mind moved toward the deep peace of their union. I began to
understand more directly the words of the ancient yogic text, the Upanishads, “Tat
Tvam Asi,”
“I am That.” Patanjali’s teaching that the physical postures are
“mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite”1
started to feel more real and accessible. Sometimes I experienced
my body as a dance of energy seamlessly interconnected with the energy dancing
in all of creation. This brought me a joy I had never known before.

After almost a year, we left the isolation
of the wilderness and moved to a serene and remote valley in the mountains of
British Columbia, where we lived in a supportive and loving community and
raised two children. After seven or eight years of practicing yoga on my own, I
attended my first yoga class with Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, a renowned
and loving yoga teacher. Judith’s tender warmth, compassion, wisdom, and humor
greatly inspired me. She encouraged me to share my practice with others.

I began to teach yoga and continued to
study regularly with Judith and other inspiring teachers influenced by B. K. S.
Iyengar, the great yoga master known for his genius in understanding the body.
In the mid-eighties, I traveled to India to study with Mr. Iyengar directly.

I will always be grateful for the
teachings of this great yogi. A new intelligence opened in my body as I began
to integrate the subtle nuances of Iyengar’s brilliant teaching. The fierce way
he taught, however, scared me a little. I was drawn to a gentler way of
practicing and teaching yoga, one that did not sacrifice any of Iyengar’s
precision and rigor, but married them to a more feminine approach. This softer
approach, I intuited, could start to release me from my own perfectionism and
harsh self-judgments, and begin to birth me into a more fluid, integrated, and
loving relationship with myself.

I was next blessed to study yoga with
Angela Farmer, whose soft yet strong and creatively experimental way of
teaching delighted me and began to free me from my rigidity and the
determination of my will. I then found these inspiring words from the ancient
Taoist mystic, Lao Tzu, that became my guide:

The typical way of people is to teach others to get rid of weakness
and become strong, to remove softness and to become tough. However, the subtle
Truth teaches to stop using force and become soft, to remove toughness and
hardness and become gentle. Those under heaven who are soft can manage the strongest.
Subtle energy has no form. Thus it can go into and out of any space. Therefore,
I know the benefit of being soft and subtle and not using force. The learning
of the subtle path is not only something that you know, but also something that
you live. Many people know that not applying force brings greater benefit, but
few are willing to do it. Living a life of no force is the subtle truth of

I started to dedicate my practice and
teaching to “stop using force and become soft, and to remove toughness and
hardness and become gentle.” “Living a life of no force as the subtle truth of
life” began to permeate my life. My practice of yoga deepened and began to
reveal to me more profound realms of stillness and peace. My teaching became
less preoccupied with detailed physical alignment, and more heart-centered and

By the early nineties, however, I began to
feel that both my yoga practice and my life had reached an invisible wall. The
peace I had initially sought began to feel too comfortable. All the paths I had
taken had been rich and rewarding, and I had been blessed with exceptional
teachers. But still I felt restless and unsettled, as if I were missing
something. There was something too isolated and protected about my life, and
something too quiet and predictable about the yoga I was practicing. I yearned
for an experience that could awaken me into a fuller life and a more active
service to others. Without being able to articulate it, I longed to evolve my
yoga practice and my life to marry peace with passion.

Fourth Stage

The thunderbolt I needed arrived in the form
of Andrew Harvey’s book, Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. Rumi’s
divinely inspired poetry and Andrew’s brilliant commentary awakened the fire in
my heart. As I became more and more inspired and enraptured by Rumi’s poetry, I
began to feel the stirrings of sacred passion deep within my own heart.

Passion burns down every
branch of exhaustion,

Passion’s the Supreme
Elixir and renews all things;

No one can grow
exhausted when passion is born!

Don’t sigh heavily, your
brow bleak with boredom;

Look for passion,
passion, passion, passion! . . .

Run, my friends, run far
away from all false solutions!

Let Divine passion
triumph and rebirth you in yourself! –RUMI3

Rumi and Andrew challenged me into this
rebirth with a fiery and urgent intensity. The inspirational mystical poetry of
Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir began to weave itself through my yoga practice and
teaching. It infused the peace I knew with a new depth of ecstasy and passion,
which I welcomed.

I was then blessed to study with two
superb yoga masters, Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee, who both confirmed and
richly expanded this vision of the potential of yoga to carry both peace and
passion. Patricia Walden embodied exactly the marriage of precise movement with
compassion and grace that I had been seeking. Her feminine wisdom deeply
inspired me. Rodney Yee’s creative use of imagery, combined with his readings
of mystical poetry, further illumined and affirmed my experience of their
potential to enhance yoga practice. Rodney’s expertise in exploring the
spiritual mysteries of yoga philosophy, as well as his extraordinarily nuanced
understanding of the body’s innermost subtleties, sparked my own quest to marry
mystery with clarity. His heartfelt warmth suffused his teaching with loving
generosity, encouraging me to move beyond my mind and open my own heart more deeply
in my practice and teaching. Rodney’s blend of feminine and masculine energies
was a radiant example of the integration I was longing to embody.

I was eager to learn more about the realms
of mysticism, and to integrate their ecstatic and passionate energy into my
yoga practice. I began to hear glowing reports about the doctoral program at
the University of Creation Spirituality in California, and when I saw that
Andrew Harvey was one of the teachers, I listened to my heart and enrolled.

My first class at UCS was on Rumi, and
Andrew Harvey was the teacher. Within five minutes, his wild and passionate
presentation of the great Persian poet had tears rolling down my cheeks.
Andrew’s subsequent teachings gave me a vision of how I could connect with the
fire of divine passion through devotion and longing, and how this fire could
fuel the energy of service to others.

I loved Andrew’s passion as well as his
compassion, and his commitment to the expression of divine love as creative
action, social justice, healing, and transformation in the world. I loved him,
too, for not posing as a guru, but instead constantly stressing that all human
beings have their own direct connection to God, and for cherishing and
celebrating the gifts he saw in all the people around him. His teaching was
totally in harmony with the teachings of my grandmother whispering in my heart.
Andrew’s tremendous energy and conviction was like a firecracker that woke me
up from a peaceful dream, and helped me both to remember the core of divine
consciousness within me and to live my life radiating from this remembrance.

In Rumi’s
blessing before Book IV of the Mathnawi, Rumi quotes the Andalusian poet
Adi al-Riga, who said,

I was sleeping, and
being comforted

by a cool breeze, when
suddenly a gray dove

from a thicket sang and
sobbed with longing,

and reminded me of my
own passion.

I had been away from my
own soul so long,

so late-sleeping, but
that dove’s crying

woke me and made me cry.

To all early-waking

I was so grateful for Andrew’s passion,
which awakened my own. I was also a little afraid for him, because I sensed
that his intense energy was not sufficiently grounded in his body, and I was
concerned that he couldn’t sustain the powerful energy flowing through him. As
brilliant and mystical as Andrew was, like many of us it seemed that he wasn’t
living fully in his body.

One day, hesitantly and respectfully, I
told him about my concern for him. I knew that he suffered from back pain and
suggested that if he were more stable and steady on his feet, his back muscles
would relax, and he would feel less pain. He welcomed my suggestion, and as he
became more aware of how he was standing and rooted his feet in the earth, his
back pain did lessen. He was thankful and asked me to teach some yoga postures
in his classes, to help the doctoral students ground themselves and absorb the
mystical teachings in the cells of their bodies.

We both began to see a new vision of the
possibilities of yoga. Inspired by Andrew, I began to see more clearly how
combining yoga with the passion of mysticism could deepen yoga’s transformative
power. Andrew, with my encouragement, began to see how being grounded in the
body through devoted yoga practice could help the mystic embody mystical
consciousness. We were both joyfully amazed by the synchronicity of our
meeting, and at the natural interweaving of our two ancient paths. We were awed
by the calm and exquisite truth of the path we found ourselves exploring together.

One day in a class on the Evolution of the
Divine Human, Andrew played a CD of Jimmy Scott singing the theme song from the
movie Exodus. I wept when I heard his heartbreakingly poignant voice
singing these words, “This land is mine, God gave this land to me; this brave
and lovely land to me.” I felt then that the wounds of my childhood around the
Holocaust were being directly healed, and that I could now, as a fully embodied
human being, claim this earth, this “brave and lovely land” as my own. This was
a moment of deep healing for me.

That night, the healing that had begun
with Jimmy Scott’s song continued in a yet deeper dimension. Awakening in the
middle of the night from a dream, I found his words still running through my
heart. This time I knew, with the stunned force of a revelation, that this
“brave and lovely land” was also, in fact, my body. My grandmother had called
me “God’s perfect child,” as were all beings. I experienced at that moment that
my body was God’s perfect gift to me-the divine’s gift of embodiment to all
beings. The energy flowing through my body felt both physical and spiritual,
and I saw that any sense of separation is an illusion.

I felt my body radiating with divine
beauty and holiness, united with all of creation. I felt the landscape of my
body, its rounded hills and valleys, soft curves, moving winds, vast plains,
flowing rivers and still pools, its forests and open skies. I knew directly
that my body was the universe and the universe was my body.

I was moved to practice a few simple yoga
poses, as if for the first time, and was amazed at the way they deepened the
visionary experience. When old habits of self-doubt and self-judgment began to
arise, I remembered a practice that Andrew had shared earlier that day. I
visualized my grandmother floating lovingly above me, and I told her about the
fears that were sabotaging me from awakening to my own God-given perfection. I imagined
her extracting these fears from my body, like a magnet drawing up iron filings.
As she did so, my body began to feel light and free.

This visionary experience continued to
transform my yoga practice and teaching. A few months, later, Andrew and I
began to teach a series of workshops celebrating what we had come to call the
Sacred Marriage of yoga and mysticism. Andrew’s vision of the marriage of the
transcendent and immanent, masculine and feminine, body and soul, expressed
itself in five great joys: the joys of transcendence, creation, love for all
beings, the Tantra of tenderness, and service. In these workshops, Andrew
articulated the vision of these joys, and I created yoga sequences that helped
students directly experience and embody them. We were encouraged by the
receptivity of our students to go more deeply into the mystery of the marriage,
as they began to feel new levels of empowerment and freedom.

We continued to
evolve and refine our work over the next few years. In an unforgettable week of
teaching at Esalen, on the cliffs overlooking the wild ocean at Big Sur, all
the aspects of the work that we had been honing came together and birthed a new
level of awareness. Andrew and I began to further articulate the vision that
informs this book. We spoke of the amazing potential that opens within yoga,
when the practice and teaching of the asanas are combined with mystical imagery
of the light-body from ancient traditions and esoteric anatomy. This felt like
a powerful inspiration to us, and we evolved a teaching of the Sun Salutation
with mystical imagery of the sacred centers of the light-body added to it. We
were excited about the possibility of teaching all the yoga asanas from this

Having already had some experience of the
cellular transformation that occurs when divine light is invoked into the body,
we began to see how this new system would help us deepen and expand this transformation.
By creating a precise and holy crucible for further engendering and grounding
these experiences, this mystical yoga system would intensify and focus the
light in a divinized body. Aurobindo and other great yogis had foreseen this as
the next evolutionary step for humanity.

We investigated this vision and
deepened our understanding of how the technology of transformation actually
works. It is not as complicated as it may seem. The key to it is in the nature
of the divine light. Just as physicists tell us that physical light is at once
a wave and a particle, so the direct experience of divine light in the body is
at once both an immersion in universal oceanic consciousness and a microscopic
awareness of the light working with minutely precise intensity in every cell.
As Rumi writes, “Do not think the drop alone becomes the ocean. The ocean, too,
becomes the drop.”5

As our practice of the yoga of the Sacred
Marriage deepens, we find ourselves experiencing this vast expansion into
universal presence as well as the microscopic attention to the minutest
particles of the body. This fusion of universal consciousness with precise
cellular awareness is the door through which grace can enter. It brings our
whole being-mind, heart, soul, and body-into an ever-expanding unity and
simultaneously gives us direct access to new levels of both profoundly calm and
profoundly passionate energy.

This marriage of peace and passion, in
turn, deepens, expands, and unifies heart, mind, spirit, and body. It creates
an increasingly seamless, circular system of transformation. The absolute, the
infinite, makes love to the relative, the finite. The finite, in responding to
that love, fuses itself more intimately with its origin. This process, once
awakened, becomes very simple and natural. With trust and openness to this
practice, the divine light and grace do the rest.

Practice itself is the evolutionary
crucible of divine humanity. Through practice, the immanent in us makes love to
the transcendent, and through that lovemaking we open a pathway for the
transcendent to love us into itself, as we embody transcendence.

Although I have practiced yoga
consistently for over forty years, I often feel like a beginner on this subtle,
demanding, and mysterious journey. Every practice brings new vision and new
areas to explore. When periods of doubt, fear, or confusion arise, I need to
stay grounded in my trust of the practice itself to realign me with awareness
and courage, and to just keep practicing with an open heart.

A few years ago my life became nearly
unbearable at times as my partner Paul struggled with and barely survived a
series of major health crises. I needed the strength, courage, stamina, and
passion of a warrior to fight the limits of the medical system for Paul’s life.
I also needed the peace, trust, and practices of a mystic, such as prayer,
breath awareness, and meditation, to weather the many dark nights of terror and
loneliness without becoming numbed and paralyzed by despair. This descent into
the shadows deepened my experience and understanding of the comfort and faith
that yoga practice offers, and intensified my gratitude and sense of
celebration of the wonder and joy of life.


1 Andrew Harvey, Light
Upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi
(Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1996),
p. 233.

2 Andrew Harvey, The
Essential Mystics: Selections from the World’s Great Wisdom Traditions
York: Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 100.

3 Andrew Harvey,
ed., Teachings of the Hindu Mystics (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), p. 15.

4 Steven Larsen, A
Fire in the Mind
(New York: Anchor, 1992), p. 238.

5 Andrew Harvey,
unpublished translation.


Copyright © 2010 by Andrew
Harvey and Karuna Erickson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

Photo by Scarleth White, courtesy of creative Commons license.

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