Deepak Chopra, world-renowned spiritual teacher, public speaker and author, has dedicated his life to help others. At 76-years-old, Chopra continues to practice yoga, breathwork and meditation every day. His personal practice and modern interpretation of yoga philosophy is the basis for his new book “Living in the Light,” which will be released in January.
(Courtesy of Michael Allen Creative)
In his book, Chopra lays-out a 30-day program that unpacks the eight pillars of raja or royal yoga. Each principal is accompanied with exercises to put these theories into action. The book is co-authored by Chopra’s yoga teacher, Sarah Platt-Finger, who organizes a set of 50 yoga poses, their benefits and how to practice them.
A Conversation With Deepak Chopra
Here, Chopra explains his purpose for writing this book and shares his personal thoughts and yoga routines.
What does your own yoga practice look like?
I start at 6 o’clock in the morning. I roll out a yoga mat. First, I do a half hour of meditation. Then I do another half hour of breathing, pranyam. Then I do a full hour of asana (postures) in the morning. And that’s a full two hours. Then in the evening, before I sleep, I do another hour of meditation. My practice altogether is about three hours a day, which is fine. I work only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., usually. And I don’t work on weekends, but I’m flexible. I can change that too.
The book contains about 50 postures. I follow that. Then I have another teacher in New York, who has a studio close to my house, and I periodically visit him to do one hour of breathing practices, and I find them very profound. I don’t do it for an outcome. I just do it because it’s fun.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve been doing yoga for the past 30 years as a daily practice. I am very, you might say, addicted to the physical aspects of yoga. And I have a wonderful teacher who is co-author of this book. She has a studio in New York City right next to where my apartment is, so I can easily hop over anytime I want for a yoga session.
When I turned into my seventies, I became obsessed with, ‘What is reality?’ And ‘What’s the biological basis of consciousness?’ I’ve struggled with those questions for a long time. Ultimately realizing they are the wrong questions. The universe is not made of anything. We don’t actually see a physical world. We only see our own perceptions. And I realized that through yoga, both as a physical practice but also in its totality.
Yoga has eight limbs, as originally described by Pantanjali, who is the first author of yoga. The first two limbs have to do with yamas and niyamas. They are social and emotional intelligence. The third is the physical postures, which are seats of awareness. The fourth is breathing and its role in controlling biology. The fifth is something that nobody talks about, interoceptive awareness, which is how you perceive what’s happening inside your body. Because if you do that, then you know how to control your body. You know how to control the autonomic nervous system. And then six, seven and eight are all connected. They are about focused awareness, intentionality, meditation and transcendence. That is the complete description of yoga.
Most people don’t know that. They go to yoga class and they feel good, which is great.
But I realized there’s not a single book that I can find in modern times that actually goes deep into why yoga brings you to the knowledge of ‘what is reality?’ Knowing reality gets rid of what the great yogis have told us is human suffering from the conditioned mind.
No matter how good your health is, ultimately there’s old age and death. People have been concerned about that for ages. That’s why we have religion.
Do we have a soul? Is it immortal? Is there something beyond this experience beyond this perception we have every day?
- So if you want to eliminate human suffering, then you have to number one, know what is reality.
- Number two, you have to stop clinging to experience, which is transient, ephemeral, impermanent.
- Number three, you have to stop recoiling from experience, which is transient.
- Number four, you have a false identity, they call the ego. You’ve sacrificed yourself for yourself.
- Number five, you’re afraid of death.
So all these issues come to clarity, when we understand yoga in its full dimension. Yoga literally means union with the self of the individual, which is also the self of the universe.
Your new book contains exercises and a 30-day program. Was that something you did intentionally?
All these books that I have read over the years, they described the aphorisms, even as they describe the eight limbs, and they have good, short descriptions. But they don’t have an actual prescriptive program on what you do on a daily basis. And being a physician by training, I like prescriptions so it’s very prescriptive. And it’s basically what you do everyday.
I wanted to write a book that included the eight limbs, but also made sense to our contemporary, post-modern society, where they don’t necessarily relate to some of the old terminology, which is arcane and difficult to understand. And, moreover, there’s nothing out there that tells them what to do every day.
In the book you describe the tenets of what you call royal yoga. What is royal yoga? And how is it different from other styles of yoga?
What people go to when they go to a yoga studio, they experience what they call hatha yoga, which is just the asanas. Hatha yoga includes pranayam, as well things like bandhas (energetic lock) and kriyas (practices beyond poses to achieve a certain result), which are covered in the book. So that’s called hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga is part of a bigger discipline called raja yoga, which is translated in English as royal yoga (which include the eight limbs of yoga). What we call royal yoga is the complete aspects of yoga as they employ these eight techniques. The word yoga means union. Union with the source of all experience.
Would you describe this book as a self-help book?
The intention was to give people a glimpse into yoga for self-realization. It’s very important to point out that self-realization is not self-improvement. Self-improvement is, ‘I want a healthy body. I want healthy emotions. I want to have a clear mind.’
And all of that is very laudable. Yoga helps us to improve the quality of experience of our body, of our mind, of our emotions and of our relationships.
But self-realization is a totally different word. It means you realize who you are. And who you really are is not a body, not a mind, not emotions, not intellect and not the experience of the world. Who you are is a formless, invisible awareness, which has no borders and therefore is infinite.
People have called that the soul or the spirit in religious traditions. But those words are tainted because when you say soul, god, spirit, people have their own mental constructs of what that means.
The simplest way to understand fundamental reality is that which we call the soul is actually awareness. Without awareness there’s no experience of the mind, of the body, of the world, of the emotions. There is something called personal awareness, and there’s something called non-personal awareness. And awareness is not the mind. Awareness of the mind, can’t be the mind. Who is it or what is it that knows the mind?
Who is it, what is it that knows the intellect, emotions, experiences the world? That knowing, that understanding, experientially in eastern wisdom traditions is called realizing the self, realizing who you are. And once you realize who you are, that’s the ticket to freedom, including freedom from human constructs like death. Because death is based on a false identity which is not really you. It’s an experience of you. Who or what is having experiences is what we call awareness. That’s the true purpose of yoga for self-realization.
Otherworldly ideas are challenging to wrap my head around. How do you speak to something beyond this world?
It is very challenging because truth cannot be found through a system of thought because you don’t even know what thought is, so how can you find truth through a system of thought, when you don’t even understand the source of thought?
All philosophy is a system of thought. All religion is a system of thought. All science is a system of thought. But what I’m saying is, truth cannot be found through a system of thought. You have to actually experience the transcendent, and talking about it doesn’t make any sense because you’re using language to talk about something that is beyond language.
That’s where yoga comes in. This is not a philosophy. This is not even a science. This is a practice that allows you to have the experience of ‘what is the source of experience?’ Including the source of thought. Including the source of perception. Including the source of the experience of the body. Including the source of the experience of what we call the mind.
People have struggled with these ideas for thousands of years, and I guarantee you there’s not an answer that will make philosophical sense because our philosophies are based on what we call rational thought.
You’ve done so much in your career, and have made a tremendous positive impact. What makes this book particularly special to you?
This is the only book right now on the shelves that deals with yoga for self-realization in a very practical way. And the idea is always, ‘how do we alleviate human suffering? And as a physician, it’s been my goal all my life. Everything I do is around healing. Whether it’s mental, physical or social.