Inside the quiet Be Yoga Studio last week, a small group of people sat around a table and shared their thoughts on what "divine" truly means. They listened intently to each speaker, eating crackers and sipping wine all the while. Nestled close by were copies of Jack Kerouac's "The Scripture of the Golden Eternity," one of four texts to be discussed at at the Be Mystical: Book Club.
Leading the discussion was Dr. Ryan Allen, an associate professor of English and writing and chair of the department of modern languages at Briar Cliff University. Be Mystical is the second book club Allen has organized for the downtown yoga studio.
Over the course of four months, Allen and his club members will read and examine different texts "that place us right in the middle of humankind's conversation about how to live and be well," according to the online event listing.
The books include the aforementioned Kerouac work, "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu, "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda and "The Yoga Sutras" by Patanjali.
The Weekender spoke to Allen about the book club itself and the topics that are likely to be discussed the sessions:
What do all four of these books have in common?
There are eight limbs in yoga. One of them we think of, in the West especially, is Asana practice: moving the body, stretching and looking funky. That's certainly a part of it. Another part of it is self-study and studying scripture and exploring the divine. That's what they all have in common. Looking across multiple traditions for those intersections of humanity with the divine, the individual with the divine. I think that's a common thread that's in all of these.
The only book I recognize is the one by Kerouac. Why start with that one?
I threw the Kerouac one in there because that book is awesome and it's a good entry point into what I think mysticism is and how it can be experienced in our everyday lives. It intersects beautifully with the practice of yoga in that it's all about the present moment. Finding awareness and embodiment. [...] They're all human approaches to understanding the experience of something bigger than themselves. These are actually human beings having these experiences. It's possible.
Does that possibility draw people into the book club?
I think that's one of the things that draws people to the experience of coming to this. These are individuals that are interested in the idea that this is possible. It's not some hidden or secret power. [...] There's the sacred part in looking at all these grandiose, philosophical ideas. But the other side of it is... it's a book club! Which means it's really fun and you have all these people pursuing in thinking about these things.
How did you go about making this club the first time?
When I went to it the first time and I created this, I went into it like I was teaching a class at Briar Cliff. I had things planned out, I had a PowerPoint ready and handouts, and then we got there and I was like, "Yeahhh this is not going to be what this is about." I was facilitating the discussion, but it's not like I'm the teacher of a classroom.
Are these discussions about religion or something else?
It can be a religious conversation, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. It can go there, but it doesn't have to. That can both enliven conversation and scare some people off sometimes. Because it is about vulnerability and those momentary experiences in the divine where you're usually made bare and vulnerable. [...] It's the full spectrum here.
Are people more so going to talk about what happened in the books or the personal experiences they're reminded of?
It's a blend of both. It's very different from where you would think in a classroom setting. I think there is some, like, "This didn't make any sense," but there's very little of that. It's more, "This made a lot of sense. Let's talk about this."