Sarah Willis

Custom Yoga Fitness

Eli's Book Selections, pt. 1 - Atma Bodha

I have the most amazing 1 year-old boy. His name is Elias. He is starting to toddle everywhere. He is a total cuddler and wild man at the same time. We have carpeted staircases with bookshelves running along the wall next to the stairs. Eli likes to pick books off the shelf sometimes. He came across a very miniature Hindi English dictionary that I got at some point during my travels to India. Eli is fascinated by it. He takes his chubby little fingers and tries to separate out the pages, and he makes a low consonant sound while looking intently at the tiny book. He is sure to be fluent in Hindi soon after he masters English. Today, my son picked out the following books from the shelf:  

“Atma Bodha” – Self Analysis & Self Knowledge” By R.S. Mishra, M.D.

“Aghora II” By Robert Svoboda

“Ramakrishna and His Disciples” By Christopher Isherwood


I think he is trying to tell me that I need to venture back to my roots. Classical and Tantric Yoga study is what inspires these texts, all a bit heady, but chock full of rich, sometimes hard-to-digest, wisdom.


When I was first introduced to the world of Yoga, it was through the cult of the beautiful flexible body. I went far into the discipline of Yoga Asana, and worked night and day to carve out a new shape, and near mastery over the movements of my muscular-skeletal system.  I also meditated hard in Vipassana courses, depriving myself of sugar and carbohydrates so I could feel light and pass less gas as I sat on the holy main hall floor in the dead of winter. My intrigue was further piqued by the Sanskrit mantras that typically opened and closed the classes I attended daily. I was 24 years old and had got bit big time by the Yoga bug.


Since then my studies and teaching stints have taken me from NYC to LA to India to Croatia to Mexico. And I’m still going back to most of those places to teach and see colleagues who have become dear old friends, as that’s what happens when you find yourself in a Satsang (Sanskrit for a group of like-minded / hearted individuals) of people who are practicing intently together.


“Atma Bodha,” a text by Shankaracharya, dated at around 800AD, describes the exalted liberated state of the union of Atman and Brahman, or the end of dualism. I had the great privilege to study this text in depth with amazing Yogi, Richard Freeman in 2007 over the course of a 60 hour advanced teachers’ workshop with other serious students and teachers. “The soul appears to be finite because of ignorance. When ignorance is destroyed the self which does not admit of any multiplicity truly reveals itself by itself.” Shankaracharya goes further to say that the Yogi must give up his likes and dislikes in order to be united with peace. I have played with this idea since it was first introduced to me. Here’s the process I went through: “why should I give up what I like?” I first asked myself, somewhat defiant. The idea of giving up what one doesn’t like is a bit easier, naturally, but then something interesting begins to happen when we consider giving up the story of our personal preferences. For example, if I really don’t like avocados, which as I child I didn’t, then I should be free not to eat them, right? But what if I decided to try one anyway. And what if it has been so long that my tastes have changed. I take a bite of guacamole, and I go, “man, this is great!” Now what do I do? Some way that I have defined myself, that I have become attached to defining myself according to, is no longer true! I tried the avocado, and despite what I thought I liked, it’s now good to me. So this is mostly a teaching about non-attachment. It also throws us up against the notion of being attached to our definitions of ourselves. Another story that I used to tell myself was that I would never be able to do Padmasana (the lotus pose), or Hanumanasana (split pose). I just wasn’t built that way, I thought. Then I tried 2 years of daily Ashtanga Yoga and Jivamukti practice . . . you guessed it: now I can accomplish both postures. So cool!  So a tip of the hat to Shankaracharya is in order, who in one of the final slokas of the treatise, says:

By hearing, thinking, and meditating, the light of the Self is kindled. Once this light of Self is kindled, the individual “I” becomes free from all impurities. It begins to shine forth as the Universal “I,” in the same way as gold shines when it is purified by fire.


The applied lesson for me this week: Physical Yoga practice is purification for the bones, organs, nerves, muscles. Still this is not enough. I must use my mental faculties to meditate, to stay on the point. The asanas are the departure point for igniting the light of the true Self, who is indivisible and without a second. Back on the meditation cushion, I am going back, folks. Thank you Elias, thank you Shankaracharya, thank you Richard.