I am returning home from a a week spent studying yoga at Blue Spirit Reatreat Center with Sianna, Amy Ipolitti, Theo Kyrakios and Douglas Brooks. Immersed in sunset ocean swims, asana, myoskeletal massage, new friendships and the spaces in between a variety of voices, I glimpsed the power of resting into the unknown. I even went surfing for the first time, conquering my fear of Jaws. The most revelatory part of the week was my introduction to the Rajanaka lineage of Tantra via lectures, story telling, and meditation by Douglas Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester and renowned Hindu scholar. Rajanaka is a lineage in the Srividya Shakta tradition of South India that Douglas learned via direct study with his teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyer Sundaramoorthy. Allow me to quote Douglas in order to place Rajanaka in its proper context
Hindu Tantra that draws upon both pan-Indian Sanskrit traditions and much more regional customs and practices of Tamil Nadu, deep in the south.Rajanaka Tantra is rooted in the Shakta tradition of Shrividya, which has a long history connecting to origins in Kashmir but moving into the deep south, Tamil country, likely by no later than the 9th century (that’s all very difficult to assess because of dating in Indian history). From within the Shrividya, Rajanaka takes a path away from the “left” of Tantra (meaning its less interested in the antinomian elements of Tantric ritual and practice). But then Rajanaka turns to Tamil traditions, especially the temple traditions of the goddess and particularly of Nataraja at Chidambaram.
Rajanaka was the foundational philosophical base for Anusara Yoga, in fact, Douglas is credited with giving Anusara its Sanskrit name. In 2005 Douglas and John separated formal association between Rajanaka and Anusara due to the mutual realization that Rajanaka was a specific voice within the Tantric lineage a bit too specific to match John’s desire to place Anusara underneath a broader philosophical tent. Nonetheless, many Anusara students and teachers continued dedicated study with Douglas as John further outlined Shiva-Shakti Tantra. During the recent, troubling events inside the Anusara world, Douglas wrote an open letter to the community outlining his belief in the need for a complete “reboot” of the tradition. While a great deal (the majority?) of Anusara teachers, including Amy Ippoliti, have chose to resign their licensure and distance themselves from Friend and his popular system, my teacher, Sianna Sherman, has at this time, chosen to stay. Needless to say this retreat held a great deal of potency and potential learning for me. Working as Sianna’s apprentice and assistant but not always seeing eye to eye has been like riding a wave between challenge, confusion, and inner expansion. Witnessing the unraveling of a community I was only beginning to become a part of in emotionally reactive online chatter, I know this path is greater than any name brand. I am deeply interested in how a greater understanding of Tantra can help us hold space and make sense of our personal emotional needs and reactions. I have to assume that any philosophical system worth its weight can be used to navigate dissolution. Where was the embodiment of the teachings we were supposedly so immersed in?
Douglas’ lectures, ostensibly focused on glorious tales of the Hindu deity Hanuman, intimately described how his epic story is intended to be understood as our story. By diving deeply into the monkey God’s relationship and embodiment of how dharma (creating clear boundaries), maya (surrendering to the vulnerability of lived experience) , and lila (action for its own sake), weave together, Douglas lit a fire inside my heart. In comparing and contrasting Rajanaka’s “existential” philosophical model to the “attainment” model of most spiritual traditions (Hindu and the West) I felt a broadening of my inner landscape. By offering, “uncertainty” as “the outcome of the best lived life”, Rajanaka highlights a turn away from “self-realization” or “enlightenment” and a lean towards the power of “horizontally”oriented conversation to sustain the full spectrum of possibility rather than an either/or model.
Douglas defines Rajanaka as meaning “little prince” and he highlighted the importance of using the diminutive form. In viewing human beings as “a little bit sovereign” instead of “perfectly” divine, this lineage begins to assert its view of the world as transactions of “power” rather than transactions of morality, of “good” vs. “evil”. This notion contrasts significantly to widely espoused ideas in many spiritual traditions that our embodied form is either an illusion to overcome or wholly divine now. Rajanaka swims in the waters between high and low tide seeing these polarities and instead diving headlong into the spiritual path with an intention to revel in a living, breathing conversation of uncertainty.
If engaged with authenticity it seems these values can create more space for us to listen to and disagree with our friends without having to sever the bonds of community. In fact, these disagreements may be the heart of stronger community. One that can acknowledge and honor our deep need to formulate personal value systems instead of requiring alignment to a particular paradigm. During the course of the week I felt the embodied pulse between feeling extremely connected to my teacher and other students in addition to the confusion and challenge of emotional distance that separate opinions can create. I am beginning to realize this is true relationship.
A student called Rajanaka conversations a “quantum” approach to spirituality. By focusing on the spaces in between and possibility instead of certainty are we able to feel or gain a more accurate and comprehensive picture of our life as it is lived? Just as quantum physics, in my excessively limited understanding, speaks to our inability to precisely predict and track the position of life’s most elemental particles, Rajanaka seems to assert and revel in the constant remaking of reality in every moment. Thus, can each of us call upon all of our resources, the mistakes, the triumphs, the failings, the differences between these and our little slice of sovereignty to point us home to the “nearly beginningless and perhaps endless” journey of the heart?