Bill Mahony is known in yoga communities around the world for his insightful, compassionate and engaging approach to the study of yoga philosophy. In his workshops, seminars and retreats, Bill integrates a deep knowledge of yoga philosophy with insights refined over nearly five decades of his own yogic practice.
Currently a professor of Religion at Davidson College in the United States, Bill holds academic degrees from Williams College, Yale University and the University of Chicago. His most recent book, Exquisite Love: Reflections on the Spiritual Life based on Nārada’s Bhakti Sūtra consists of Bill’s extended commentaries on a 10th century Sanskrit text on spiritual love. His other books include The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Bill a few questions about yoga philosophy. In this first of this two-part interview, Bill shares his own personal journey and the unique opportunity he enjoys as both a dedicated practitioner of yoga and a scholar of yogic wisdom.
Tell us a bit about how you got involved in yoga, both academically as well as personally. Which one came first and how did your involvement in one lead to the other?
Looking back at my life, I see that I have been drawn to spiritual philosophies since an early age. Like many others, I had a sense of a transcendent Mystery that stands within or behind all of existence. I have long wanted to immerse into and explore that Mystery.
I began a regular, formal meditation practice at age eighteen, although I would say I cultivated a contemplative perspective well before that time. I see now that, even as a child, I was inwardly moved by what I now would call the mystical dimension the spiritual life.
Also when I was about eighteen, I began reading sacred texts from India, in translation, with a sustained concentration. I was drawn first to the Upanishads, the teachings of which resonated very deeply within me. Then I read the Bhagavad Gita as well as a number of early Buddhist texts. When I was twenty-one, I went to India for six months. I travelled through India extensively, mostly by myself, and spent extended time in meditation centers, visiting temples and so on.
Returning from India I realized that I wanted to know more about religion in general and mystical forms of religion in particular. Graduating from college, I went to graduate school to study comparative religion with an emphasis on Hindu and Buddhist thought and practice. I wanted and needed to be able to read texts from these traditions in their original form, so studied Sanskrit for many years. I began doing hatha yoga in an intentional, sustained manner when I was about twenty-four. All the while, I continued my meditation practice.
I received my PhD and began life as a professor of religion in 1982. I continued in my yoga practices and continued to do research and publish books on religion in India. In 1993, I was invited to teach some courses at a yoga ashram in New York and then in 1994 at an ashram in India, and returned to these and similar settings many times since then. Throughout the years, my life as a scholar and practitioner has continued to be grounded in and expressive of my deep appreciation for the spiritual life. Continuing to be a full-time teaching professor and professional scholar, I now also travel internationally to lead workshop seminars and retreats in yoga philosophy for the yoga community.
To me, scholarship, teaching and practice are all threads in a single, wonderful cloth. I love doing what I do and am grateful that I am able to do so!
You are both a scholar of yoga philosophy and a longtime practitioner of yoga. What are the advantages to being a scholar who is also a practitioner of yoga? Are there any drawbacks you’ve experienced?
For me personally, the purpose and benefits of philosophical study are completely aligned with and supportive of the discovery, growth and refinement I associate with the yogic life. Both are oriented toward what I feel is a continuing exploration and expression of the meaning, value and possibilities of life itself, in all of its complexities. And I would want your readers to know that they don’t need to be professional scholars to integrate these two disciplines — study and practice — in their lives. Anyone with a yearning for continually deeper understanding of yoga can pursue the study of yoga philosophy.
Study helps illumine the meaning and importance of practice; practice embodies the values, perspectives and insights such study uncovers. Study adds depth and an appreciation of nuance to our understanding of yoga; practice brings life to that understanding. Study helps us understand why we practice; practice gives form to that understanding.
In nearly five decades of scholarship and practice, I have not experienced any drawbacks in this regard. I find the combination of the two to be inspiring, invigorating and illuminating, and both elevating and grounding at the same time.
On January 29-31, 2016 Bill will be teaching a weekend workshop entitled “The Heart of Divine Recognition: A Weekend of Nondual Tantra Philosophy for Today’s Yogis" at Shri Yoga, Montreal. This is a wonderful and rare opportunity to study a deeply profound set of teachings from a 10th-century text from Kashmir Shaivism, namely, the Pratyabhijña-Hridaya or “Heart of Recognition” and explore some of the core elements of Tantra and their relationship to Yogic life.