A Review of “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self,” a book by Stephen Cope

Yoga And The Quest For The True Self begins where many personal quests begin, at a point of deeply felt loss—in this (the author’s) case, a relationship involving infidelity and abandonment. And, as people often do when faced with a traumatic life event, he decides on a yearlong sabbatical from his practice as a Boston psychotherapist. A yoga retreat at a center in the nearby Berkshires beckons as a short but perfect first stop—one of many planned destinations. But what was to be a one-time retreat turns into a decade long recurring series of long weekends and entire summers steeped in the practice of hatha yoga in a community of like minded seekers at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshire Hills near Lennox, Massachusetts.

What follows is a deep, insightful account of the author’s journey of self-discovery. Eventually confronted by a fatigue in his yoga practice, he is compelled to re-examine a preconceived idea that somehow yoga would purify and transform him into a more perfect being—not unlike the medieval European alchemists who sought to change lead into gold. But he soon discovers that yoga works not to change who we are, but rather to bring into consciousness an awareness of the divine being that we have been since birth. Removing the layers of false identities that obscure this ability to see ourselves clearly is the only path forward.

Yoga psychology names five kleshas, or afflictions as the root of all self-estrangement: ignorance, ego, attraction, aversion, and fear of death. Here Pantajali in his Yoga Sutras (II, 26, 28,) written probably sometime in the 2nd century C.E., cryptically points out a central truth of yoga: “The uninterrupted practice of the awareness of the Real is the means of dispersion of avidya [ignorance].” And “From the practice of the component exercises of yoga, on the destruction of impurity, arises spiritual illumination which develops into awareness of Reality.” Cope soon discovers through self-observation the emergence of several notable changes within himself that signal this “awareness of the Real.” The most notable for him is the use of important relationships to “explore and reveal the real Self” as opposed to those that continue to prop up “our false compensation.”

The author eventually comes to realize that for all his ten years of striving and efforts he has come full circle. Like the hero of the classic yoga parable “Viveka’s Tale,” (which he retells in the Prologue}, once he uncovers his true self—once the “web of mistaken identities” is dissolved, he comes to see that all along he was the very Self which he sought—one with the divine, immutable Atman. One might expect that such a liberating experience (moksha) might bring relief or respite from constant struggle, but for the author this new found Reality leads to only one course of action. Like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita he must plunge back into the mundane, ordinary world of samsara (literally: “flow,” “change,” “passing in and out of being”) with no notion of gain or loss in all his actions. The very same world he previously so desperately wanted to control.

At this point the reader may legitimately ask, “So what?” For all the expended effort one ought to feel exalted in some way and be different somehow. Isn’t that why we so desperately crave infinite life, infinite knowledge, infinite bliss (sat, chit, ananda)? For the author (and for that matter, many other authors of other spiritual traditions: Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” to name only three) the answer would be a resounding chorus of  “Yes, everything changes and yet nothing at all changes.” We return to the world of samsara to live life fully in body, mind and soul. The purpose of life now is the expression of compassion in infinite form grounded in the certain of knowledge from personal experience that all is One, and One is all. Or, as Buddhist tradition teaches: “nirvana is samsara, and samsara is nirvana.” Zen, in its characteristically dry, direct fashion, says it another way, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Stephen Cope’s book is the clearest, most easily accessible a description of what hatha yoga is and how it works that I have thus far encountered. His perspective as both psychotherapist and yoga practitioner allows him throughout the book to be here the scientific observer, analyzer, synthesizer—here the student, storyteller, and teacher—at all times the warm, caring, welcoming traveler.  Yoga And The Quest For The True Self already has a place among my collection of reference works that I continue to re-read and consult over time for gems of insight and wisdom.  I recommend it to any and all travelers who seek truth.