Levitation and Psychic Powers: Why Are We so Obsessed with the Supernatural?
PYS 3. 38 te samādhau-upasargāḥ vyutthāne siddhayaḥ
Meaning: Whatever extraordinary powers are gained in the practice, the yogi owes to samadhi, not to the ego personality. Interpretation, Austin Sanderson, Urban Sadhu Yoga Chant Book
Magic, superhuman strength, and clairvoyance are everywhere in American pop culture. How many movies or TV series have we seen about an awkward high-school teenage girl who gets revenge on all the popular “mean girls” by dabbling in witchcraft or by having a strange phenomenon awaken untapped psychokinetic powers? Or how about the shy, reserved guy next door who by night turns into an alpha demon slayer with superman strength (and bitchin’ funny one-liners as he kills demon after demon)? Throw in a few space monsters, mutants, zombies, dragons, vampires, and witches and you have the making of a runaway success paperback novel, movie, or television series (at best one produced by HBO or at worst…. the SciFi Channel). Let’s face it – as a culture we are obsessed with the supernatural and the mystical powers of the occult. But perhaps we should ask ourselves why.
We are living in a time of progressive scientific knowledge, intellectual reasoning, and academic scholarship and yet we are fixated on magic and unexplainable occult phenomena as though we were living in the 1450s (at the peak of Europe’s witch-hunting madness). As a contemporary yoga teacher, I am repeatedly asked by students about three subjects (in this order): 1. the use of hallucinogenic drugs in yoga; 2. mystical powers one can obtain by practicing yoga; and 3.Tantric yoga sex rituals (we will cover the first and third subjects in USY Explorations at a later date). Very few students ask me about moksha (liberation) while in the body, the oneness of being, or Self-realization or the oneness of being. So October, with all its spookiness, seems to be the perfect month to address the idea of extraordinary magical powers within the yoga tradition.
If we look at this from a pop-culture reference point, humans are fixated on worldly power (power that can influence personal or social situations); if we inject some sociology into this, we see that the concept of this kind of power is a matter of “agency”, which is the ability to exercise “free will” and “individual power” in a cultural environment. The fantasy of having supernatural powers is a fantasy of feeling agency on steroids. People tend to fixate on magic and supernatural powers when they feel powerless and oppressed by the society they live in. In storytelling, magical powers and people who can channel those powers are looked up to and revered by those who feel powerless. The meek who have become paranormal are celebrated as demi-gods in the modern pop-culture landscape that wishes to escape from the harsh realities of the world.
When a large numbers of people in society feel powerless, the need to express power can become focused on the collective. Take for instance to current fantasy based series, Stranger Things and The Lord of the Rings: Power of the Rings. Both have a similar underling themes, a dark evil magical force that wants to destroy all life on earth, leaving it a barren landscape unable to sustain life. In the case of Stanger Things, science loving nerdy junior high kids fight this force, and in Power of the Rings the fight is leaded by tree hugging elves that live in perfect harmony with nature. It’s clear that both the stories are about climate change and the collective feeling that only magic can save us for the horrors and destruction that human industrialization has unleashed upon us. Unfortunately, magic will not save us from our own karmic actions.
Even ancient yogis were seduced by the ideas of obtaining supernatural powers.
In Vibhuti Pada (The Chapter on Power) of The Yoga Sutras of Master Patanjali he addresses supernatural powers (siddhis) that a sadhaka (practitioner) may encounter on the yoga journey. The Sanskrit term siddhis is often translated as “powers,” but a more accurate translation is “accomplishment,” “attainment,” or “success.” This chapter speaks to those who are in the midst of a deeper progression toward moksha or total liberation; it’s not speaking to the weekend yoga asana dilettante. Master Patanjali understands that the mind is a powerful untapped energy source that can manifest seemingly superhuman powers through dedication to the eight-limbed path of yoga he prescribes. Siddhis are misunderstood as “otherworldly,” but in fact siddhis are accessible to all who are willing to commit themselves fully to the eight-limbed path of yoga with sincere dedication.
The powers Patanjali speaks of are said to be the result of samyama. Samyama is the simultaneous practice of the last three limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (yoga, or enlightenment). In other words, only an enlightened being will gain the use of extraordinary powers. Once these three stages are mastered, it is said that siddhis can be manifested by the enlightened yogi, but Patanjali warns that one must interact with the siddhis without ego, or else these powers may become an obstacle on the path to Kaivalya (moksha, or final liberation). The ability to see into the future, manifest objects, or emanate a supernatural light does little to help one achieve “final liberation,” which is the consciousness an individual (purusha: “self” or “soul”) achieves by realizing that it is separate from matter (prakriti).
The importance of these supernormal occurrences is downplayed by introspective yogis. In fact, an interest in developing these powers is sometimes seen as a dangerous distraction that leads the contemplative astray. In yoga mythology, we see this all the time: powerful asuras (commonly referred to as “demons”) will practice yoga and want the powerful siddhis for personal revenge, wealth, political control, sex appeal, and fame. One could say that the asuras practiced our contemporary “power yoga.” Asura in Sanskrit actually means “away from light.” An asura could be a very advanced yogi, but the asura uses the ancient wisdom in pursuit of ego-driven gains. This is “black magic,” magic for dark ego purposes.
Sharon Gannon, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, once stated that “magic is a shift in perception.” Perception is “the state of being or process of becoming aware of something” (Oxford Dictionary). When one is aware of climate change, one can change personal actions to decrease the level of harm. The same thing can be said about social inequality, awareness and personal changes will alter society, not magical spells. The true magical power gained through the yoga practice is the shift from an egocentric state of identity to a state of Cosmic identity. This individual’s ability to connect to the universal identity is a magical shifting of the perception of weakness and vulnerability to an identification with Infinity. An enlightened yogi no longer needs “black magic” to feel powerful; the real magic we are all looking for is a shift of consciousness, and if we can implement a change in perception we will discover our real superpowers.
~ Austin Sanderson Urban Sadhu Yoga