RICHARD’S FEBRUARY NEWSLETTER (better late than never)
I have in my library a dozen 5x8 inch books, bound in blue cardboard with gold-embossed lettering, all by the mysterious Yogi Ramacharaka (a "charaka" is a wandering spiritual seeker, and "rama" means pleasure). There are two things that are remarkable about these books: one, all were published in the first decade of the twentieth century, slightly more that 10 years after Swami Vivekananda is credited with bringing the first taste of yoga to our shores in 1893; and two, that the author wasn’t a yogi at all, but an American by the name of William Walker Atkinson.
Atkinson was born in Baltimore just after the Civil War. He became a lawyer and a successful businessman, but in the late 1880s, under a great deal of stress, financial and otherwise, he had a nervous breakdown. Reportedly he pulled himself out of this depression with methods taught by New Thought, a popular, quasi-Christian, self-help movement, which grew out of the work of Phineas Quimby, a Maine clockmaker turned hypnotist-healer (one patient, later student, Mary Baker Eddy, went on to found Christian Science). The movement is still going strong today; in fact, a few years ago you might have seen the "ask-and-thou-shalt-receive" movie titled "The Secret," based largely on New Thought and Atkinson’s books.
Convinced of its therapeutic value, Atkinson moved to the New Thought hotbed of Chicago in the late nineteenth century to jump on its band wagon. Over the next quarter-century, he had a hand in producing around 100 books, maybe half under his own name, the others with a co-author or under a pseudonym like "Hindoo Master" Swami Bhakta Vishita ("The Development of Seership: Hindoo and Oriental Methods," the "science of knowing the future," $2.00), Swami Panchadasi ("The Human Aura," 50¢), and the unforgettable "Great French Authority and Foremost Psychologist" Professor Theron Q. Dumont ("The Art and Science of Personal Magnetism," "success depends upon being able to mold men’s minds and to influence them to act as you want them," 238 pages, $1.50).
Only a couple of Atkinson’s "yoga" books have anything to do with genuine yoga practice and philosophy, the rest are essentially New Thought teachings dressed up to appear "yogic." But he did seem to know something about India and yoga, though no one knows how he came by his information. There's some speculation his source was Vivekananda himself, but this is probably not true. His best yoga book is titled "The Philosophies and Religions of India," which originally appeared as a series of 12 lessons in a year-long correspondence course. Atkinson/ Ramacharaka also wrote books on breathing, "psychic healing," the "Hindu Yogi" water cure, life after death, and Hatha Yoga, sub-titled "the Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-being."
Would you like to practice along with him? Here’s Exercise IX from "Hatha Yoga," published in 1904: "(1) Stand erect, with the arms extended straight in front of you, from the shoulders ... the palms must be down, fingers straight out, thumbs folded under, and the thumb side of the hands touching each other; (2) Bend the body forward from the hips, stooping as far as possible, and at the same time swing the arms forward with a sweeping movement, sending them down, backward and upward at the back, so that when the body has reached the limit of the bending forward movement the arms are extended back and over the body–keep the arms stiff, and do not bend the knees. (3) Resume standing position and repeat several times."
Or how about a breathing exercise? "(1) Stand erect in a military attitude, head up, eyes front, shoulders back, knees stiff, hands at sides. (2) Raise body slowly on toes, inhaling ... steadily and slowly. (3) Retain the breath for a few seconds, maintaining the same position. (4) Slowly sink to the first position, at the same time slowly exhaling the air through the nostrils. (5) Repeat several times, varying by using the right leg alone, then the left leg alone."
What do you think, Ramacharaka Yoga? It could catch on. ‘Ten-hut!
Or maybe not. But what I do hope will catch on is my brand-spanking-new yoga class at the brand-spanking-new You and the Mat yoga school on Piedmont Avenue. We’ll meet for the first time tomorrow evening, Thursday, 19 February, from 7:30 pm to 9:15 pm. Check it out and sign up on line at http://www.youandthemat.com/a-new-era-for-yoga-on-piedmont-ave/. Hope to see you there. Richard