From Self-improvement to Self-transcendence

We Westerners come to yoga as a self-improvement project. For that purpose, it works swimmingly. But after two weeks or two decades, the practice begins to work on the practitioner at another level, and the medium in which she is swimming becomes the message of the exercise. Yoga facilitates a different relationship to the body, and then a new relationship to the world, a personal relationship to the world which is what centuries of sages have meant by the impossible word, “God”. After that, the practice and the attitude of self-improvement are unmasked as a mere goal, and as goal they can only be a hindrance to the new relationship that is of its own accord wanting to emerge, and which transcends the notion of “goal” by undermining the framework of values in which it makes sense to try to create a future that improves on the present.

Confession: Though I have been a practitioner and teacher of yoga for forty years, I have never progressed beyond the self-improvement project. I have had glimpses only of the transcendent relationship, and I continue to schedule my yoga and meditation as I schedule chores and meetings.  However, I have a way with words, and I have been privileged to be midwife to the transcendental experiences and subsequent transformation of several among those who have studied with me. Let me attest to the fact that it is possible to write eloquently—even inspiringly—about the deep substance of yoga without having known the corresponding experience, indeed without having any real sense of what it is I am writing about.

— Josh Mitteldorf


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