Karuna Erickson is the co-author, with Andrew Harvey, of Heart Yoga: The Sacred Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism. Here she speaks with Kavita Byrd about how coming from the heart propels us to act in the world.
What is Heart Yoga?
Heart Yoga grew out of my partnership with my beloved friend Andrew Harvey, who is an amazing mystical teacher. I brought yoga to him and he brought mysticism to me and we developed Heart Yoga as the union of the yoga of the illumined body with the mysticism of the awakened heart. So it’s a beautiful sacred-marriage of yoga and mysticism, where the body is illumined as spirit is incorporated, and the heart awakens to the ancient teachings and inspiration of mysticism. This union is a very powerful experience and practice.
In Heart Yoga, we focus on uncovering the veils around the heart that we’ve all developed after so many years of conditioning and being wounded, and all the attachments we’ve accumulated. It supports people to release these attachments and some of the self-referencing of the ego and awaken to the natural qualities of the heart, for example, the loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity they speak of in the Buddhist tradition. So Heart Yoga is really rooted in compassion, in kindness, and located very much in the heart; the practice always emanates from a place of kindness and clarity. That’s what we feel is the truth of yoga.
There are so many styles of yoga now, and all of yoga is wonderful, but we really wanted to concentrate on a practice that would help to lift the veils around the heart so that people could connect with the beautiful inherent qualities that we each carry in our heart. It’s like Rumi’s beautiful poem, where he says:
Hear from the heart wordless mysteries
In our heart there burns a fire that burns all veils to their root and foundation
And when the veils are burnt away then the heart will understand completely
Ancient love will unfold ever-fresh forms in the core of the heart
In the heart of the spirit
How does Heart Yoga foster personal and collective well-being, and how does that get translated into practical action in the world?
It’s a very natural transition from practice to practical action, because when we’re truly in the home of our hearts then we feel the interconnectedness of all hearts, of the one heart that we’re all a part of. Although we’re different, we’re not separate, and we experience that through a deep practice, we experience that sense of non-separation. And when we do experience the union of yoga, we’ll naturally respond and act in the world with compassion from this experience of interconnectedness.
It’s just natural; it’s the first of the yamas, ahimsa (peace or non-violence). It’s the natural, inherent quality of the heart to respond with loving kindness when we’re not caught in attachment or ego, or belief systems that are not true; when we’ve removed the veils that stop us from seeing clearly. So the practice helps us see and experience more clearly the truth of how it is, meaning our interconnectedness and union.
How can spirituality best serve as a platform for engaged action, particularly ecological and economic transformation to meet today’s global crises?
As our compassion is awakened, it’s like the fire inside propels us to act in the world. As we begin to see more clearly, it’s almost like we can’t help but act from this clarity and compassion that’s awakening in our hearts. As Andrew Harvey explains it: the fire of the mystic’s passion for spirit marries with the fire of the activist’s passion for justice, and from these two fires a third fire is born, which is the fire of love-in-action.
And so the practice gives you the courage, the inspiration, the strength, the clarity, to step out into the world in a clear and active, and kind and caring — but sometimes fierce — way, to create justice and peace and more opportunities for love in this world, more opportunities for everyone to thrive, rather than what’s happening right now. In fact I feel that the worse it gets, the more we’re called to go deeper with our practices so that we can respond even more strongly.
How can we overcome the tendency for spiritual seekers to reject the world or ignore its concerns, bypassing the challenges – not only of personal integration but social and ecological engagement?
I think there’s always a danger, and yet it’s a misunderstanding, that spiritual seekers need to withdraw from this world. I think it’s a misunderstanding of the true essence of pratyahara (detachment) in the yogic tradition, which doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world at all. To me anyway it means detaching from the distractions of the senses, detaching from our tendencies to always be self-referencing and coming from our egos and our belief systems, so that we see more clearly and act in the world with more courage and inspiration.
All the ancient wisdom traditions are saying the same thing, that we’re called to be fully present in this world, not transcend this world in the hopes of a better world in the future.
Also, I think if we keep bringing kindness into our practice then we’ll have less tendency to withdraw. Sometimes the withdrawal comes from fear and judgment, and our belief systems. If we can bring a kindness to what we’re seeing on the human level, it can help us stay present and realize, okay, we’re all that, it’s not that we need to pull away from it.
In fact, if we can meet ourselves with compassion and tenderness, that will really support us to be able to meet others with compassion and tenderness. And sometimes fierceness! — it doesn’t mean turning away from what we see – but forgiveness is necessary too so that we can stay present with what is, in loving-kindness.
In the face of the challenges of today’s crises, which sometimes seem overwhelming, how can we avoid “losing heart”?
What a wonderful question that is! It seems to me we avoid losing heart by continually practicing returning home to the sanctuary of our hearts. We don’t have to lose connection with our hearts, because we have these beautiful practices which will keep us connected to and coming home again and again to our hearts, and remembering that we can rest in our hearts and find courage, inspiration, strength, clarity and the energy to act in the world. Even when it seems overwhelming, we just deepen our practices even more.
These days people are so caught up in the virtual world that there don’t seem to be many communities of people living together and practicing together, both spiritual practice and sacred activism, on the ground. What can you suggest to foster more of that?
I feel it is very important to sit in circles now, to connect with like-hearted beings and feel the support that’s holding all of us, and never have to feel separate, because that’s an illusion that we can get caught in that creates so much suffering. So I think it’s very important to keep doing our practices that connect us with the Oneness that we all truly are, and in that way we can remember we’re all held in this union, in this love. In that way, everyone becomes our community because we know that we’re all interconnected.
You have such wonderful questions. I read them to my husband and we had a long discussion and we were very excited. Because these are the questions that we have to keep asking ourselves and each other, so that we can grow and open and take our practice more deeply and out into the world.
If we’re only in the transcendent then we’re not present here in this world, but if we’re only working in the immanent it’s so easy to burn out, if we’re not connected to the wellspring of inspiration that a spiritual practice brings us. So it can’t be one without the other. Both must be present for the fullness of love in action. And that’s what we need right now.
So humans have been asking this question for a long time! You’re in good company! We engage in spiritual practice not so that we can transcend this world but so we can be more present and act with love and wisdom in this world. What more is there to say?
INTERVIEW BY KAVITA BYRD
For more about Karuna Erickson, see www.yogakaruna.com