Philip Goldberg on Appropriation, Pragmatic Mysticism and the Americanization of Yoga (#17)

Philip Goldberg is the author and co-author of various books, including and most notably, American Veda. CHITHEADS and Jacob Kyle sat down with Philip to talk about his journey as a public speaker, spiritual counselor, workshop leader, and transcendental meditation teacher from his beginnings in the counterculture movement of the sixties and seventies. Philip lives in Los Angeles and writes often for Huffington Post. Considering himself a pragmatic mystic, he also leads Vedic tours in India, exploring the origin of the main gurus that visited the West, and is the co-host of the podcast, "Spirit Masters". Currently, Philip is working on a biography on Yogananda, set for release in 2018.

His Story

As a college student and political activist during the sixties counterculture movement, Philip Goldberg was looking for the answers to life’s biggest questions. Raised by secular atheists, Philip had, like a true Marxist, believed that religion was the "opiate of the masses". But it was through his exploration of those big questions of life that Philip dove deeper into Eastern philosophy. The teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism resonated with Philip as a practical mysticism. 

It wasn’t long after the Beatles did that Philip took up transcendental meditation, becoming a teacher of the practice in the 1970s. Not long after, he became a published author on spiritual topics.  

Vivekananda, The Counterculture Movement, And The American Veda 

There was a magnetic eloquence to Vivekananda’s first visit to the United States in 1893, Philip says. 200 years ago, India was undergoing a spiritual revival. Under severe occupation by the British Empire, and previous to that, occupation by Muslims of the Middle East, it was the beginning of the Independence movement and a reclamation of Vedic and Yogic philosophy. 

Visits to the United States by figures like Vivekananda, and the transference of yogic and eastern text to the United States by trade in the 18th and 19th century ushered in the meeting of Eastern and Western thought. Philip talked about American philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as key proponents to the popularity and gradual openness to Eastern philosophy. 

He referenced Emerson’s famous address to the graduates of Harvard’s divinity school, where essentially he said, “your people don’t need you to preach to them. They need you to give them a direct experience of divinity, of the divinity within themselves.” 

It was the notion that we are all divine beings, our essence being the same as the cosmos, the Universe, or God, that is the core teaching of the Vedas that resonated most with an American audience. Philip says this is the core essence of yoga, even if the lifestyle can seem sometimes superficial. The explosion of interest in yoga and spirituality in the 1960s was intense and radical. It was interpreted as a byproduct of youth culture, but from there seeped into the general public, into our medical practice and cultural mainstream.   

Pragmatic Mysticism 

“It’s a problem that yoga has become synonymous with exercise,” Philip says. Yoga has always been the union of individual consciousness with something bigger. Even back when meditation was in the forefront in the sixties and seventies, the physical practice of asanas were not as emphasized. 

That’s not to say that the doorway via a physical practice is to be disavowed, Philip says. It’s a legitimate entry point. But it’s through an informed practice that you can appreciate the fullness of the yogic teachings. Philip talks at great length about the pragmatic mysticism that is the Vedic teachings. Meditation is esoteric, and it’s the esoteric, inner-personal transformation, that Scholars have found the mystics of all religious faiths are pointing to, and that generally the West had lost. 

“Yoga is a pragmatic mysticism, because it’s whole nature is to give us on a practical level this deep inner transformation,” Philip says. 

It provides deep insight into the nature of human life and consciousness that can be tested, like scientific hypotheses, in direct experience provided through the teachings of yoga.  

Adaptation vs. Cultural Appropriation 

There’s a distinction between adaptation and cultural appropriation, Philip says. It’s “a thin line” and a very real concern. 

However, Philip says that yoga can be seen as an adaptation. People did not go to India, steal yoga and bring it back to the United States. It was an offering from India by the venerated gurus like Vivekananda. But it’s when you don’t appreciate the fullness of what it is, Philip says, that you can easily make a mockery of an inherent tradition. 

It would have been impossible to identify as "spiritual and not religious" without the teachings brought to the West by the East. Philip says that it has given people a way to have a “genuine, authentic inner spiritual life without necessarily pledging allegiance to a particular religion or having to accept all the religious dogma” that can come with it. 

To Find Out More About Philip…

 Jacob Kyle

Jacob Kyle

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