By Emily J Weitz
These days you can’t walk down the street without seeing a yoga mat slung over someone’s shoulder. You can’t sit on the Jitney without someone opening up Eckhardt Tolle or another author applying Eastern philosophies to our western lives. This growing trend in western culture has given a lot of people solace and strength, but Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, Psychotherapist and Professor, says “looking to the East for all [the answers] stems from a feeling of cultural inferiority. We look to the houses of strangers for the teachings. But we have our own wisdom traditions here in the West.”
Kardaras explores these rich teachings in his new book, “How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life”, in which he explores Ancient Greek philosophy as a tool for wellness in today’s world. It is striking the similarities between the philosophies of Plato and Pythagoras as compared with those of Buddha and Lao Tsu. But that tranquility that is inextricably linked to Buddha doesn’t seem to be attached to our notion of the Greek philosophers.
“I am trying to illuminate this path because it’s gotten lost,” says Kardaras. “The philosophy professors have lost it. They’ve made it into semantic debates.”
The philosophers themselves, Kardaras argues, were the opposite of stale or distant. They lived in the moment. They were, essentially, yogis.
In yoga, the physical practice, or asana, is a means to arrive at an elevated state of consciousness. That’s why at the end of a yoga class, students practice Savasana, or final relaxation, during which time the mind and body can benefit from stillness after a strong physical exertion. In classical yoga this state of mind is illustrated with an image: Think of the mind as a lake and the spirit, a mountain standing beside it. Each ripple on the surface of the lake is a thought passing through the mind. The goal of yoga and meditation is to quiet the mind so there are no ripples, so that you can see the mountain reflected on the surface of the lake.
The ancient Greeks, too, explored the mind/body/spirit connection.
“Pythagoras compared the body to a lyre,” says Kardaras, “and spoke of keeping your instrument well tuned. [He spoke of] aligning the body to a larger consciousness.” To this end, the Ancient Greeks engaged in legendary physical practice, namely the Olympics.
“Pythagoreans,” explains Kardaras, “did rigorous physical exercise. Wrestling, running, shadow boxing. After physical exercise, they did meditations. This physical exertion of exercise quiets down the over-thinking brain.” Sounds familiar.
John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga, says that one of the reasons we come to the yoga mat is to remember our true, divine nature. Plato’s theory of Anamnesis was the same thing: a remembering of cosmological knowledge. He wrote about his teacher, Socrates, taking a slave who had never been educated and teaching him a few mathematical theorems, and then, the slave remembers these underlying truths that were there all along.
“Plato and Pythagoras thought all knowledge was accessible if we could get past the mindstuff,” says Kardaras.
In many ways Ancient Greek philosophy resonates with those of us who have been influenced by Eastern thought. But Kardaras’s point is that the very fact these teachings come from our own ancestry will help deepen our connection to them.
“It’s about privileging western thought,” he says. “There’s a unity to looking at our own traditions.”
Kardaras himself benefited from this unity after a toxic life spun out of control. He was a nightclub owner in Manhattan in the 80s, living the fast life as a young 20-something with too much money. He became an addict and lost people very close to him; but it wasn’t until he overdosed and ended up in a coma that he realized his whole life needed to change. He decided to go back to school for social work, and he found that “when I started helping others I got a sense of purpose.”
Soon after, when he and his brand new wife were on their honeymoon in Greece, Kardaras started looking into the great philosophers of his ancestry.
“After my coma I was on a search for meaning, and I aligned myself with [Plato, Socrates, and Pythagoras] and realized what they have to offer. We are not a self-reflective society. We are consumed by the shiny baubles… We’ve lost our soul. If we remember this part of our heritage, we might reconnect with the soul.”
Emily Weitz is a writer and Anusara-inspired yoga teacher on the East End. Learn more about her at www.yogamatized.com.