Simon Haas is an internationally renowned author and teacher of yoga philosophy who specialises in applying ancient wisdom to everyday life.
As a young boy, Simon studied the sacred writings of India and spent ten years living in temples and monasteries in India. Having apprenticed for sixteen years with an elderly master practitioner in the Bhakti tradition, he now focuses on making the teachings of ancient India widely accessible to contemporary readers and audiences, delivering seminars and workshops across the world on the philosophy of yoga and the ancient teachings of India.
In The Book of Dharma: Making Enlightened Choices, Simon Haas shares practical teachings on how to consciously direct our life by improving the quality of our choices. His most recent book is Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul: The Soul’s Journey to Sacred Love.
I didn’t know what to expect when I opened this book – something dry, heavy and inaccessible maybe. After all, it’s a heavy subject. However, I was soon drawn into Arjuna’s world, the author’s world and the world of everyday people experiencing everyday struggles. This was ancient philosophy made accessible and engaging. Each story was told specifically to illuminate a deep truth This was wisdom from all quarters, all ages, blended into a compelling whole. By the end, I’d experienced a real shift in perspective on the realities of struggle, despair, yoga and love.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Simon Haas, author of Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul, some questions about his work.
Could you explain what you mean by the dark night of the soul?
A dark night of the soul is a spiritual juncture of sorts, an experience most of us will go through at least once, where the narratives we lived by begin to disintegrate. Often through sudden loss, a dramatic change, or even just the gradual rise of an internal crisis, we’re brought to a place of deep questioning.
It’s intense, isolating and disorientating, no doubt! But the forced self-examination of a dark night of the soul marks a time of growth and renewal; it calls for the shedding of an old skin, and it’s temporary. If we can face it with courage, it can become the prelude to a deeper, more authentic existence.
What is the connection between yoga and the dark night of the soul?
Aside from yoga’s rich physical practice, there’s a fascinating philosophy at its roots. The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient classic on yoga, teaches us that yoga permeates all aspects of life. Yoga is a way of living skilfully which, when practised with sincerity, can break our connection with suffering and help make our life an offering of love.
The principles of yoga, as taught by Krishna in the Gita, are tools for navigating the highs and lows of everyday life. And these lessons are delivered to the warrior Arjuna during the great low of his own dark night of the soul.
While in the West we might be accustomed to concealing, resisting or ignoring the symptoms of our dark night, the yogis of ancient India understood crisis as a catalyst for spiritual awakening. The connection between yoga and the dark night of the soul is stronger than we might think. After all, the Gita opens with “the yoga of despair”. Krishna teaches us that everything, even our greatest challenges, can aid us in our yogic journey towards sacred love.
This book does not fit easily within a genre. How would you describe it?
It doesn’t, does it? But then neither does the Gita, which despite being viewed as a religious text, is in truth a profound illumination of practical life wisdom. Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul attempts to share the surprising relevance of the Gita’s ancient wisdom to our contemporary lived experiences.
Having said that, a full third of the Gita focuses on Samkhya wisdom, which concerns the difference and interconnectedness of the body, mind and spirit. It seemed only fitting then to choose the Mind/Body/Spirit category for this book.
What qualifies you to write such a book as this?
When giving seminars and workshops on the book, I always tell students that these teachings are not my own. In writing, I seek to honour the wisdom that’s been carried from master to student in sacred lineages over thousands of years, while making it accessible and interesting for readers today.
In that sense, I don’t see myself as the author of Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul but feel much more like a translator. Even so, I wouldn’t have been able to take on that role if it weren’t for my journey to India as a young boy, my stay in temple monasteries in India for nearly ten years, and most importantly, my apprenticeship with an elderly master-practitioner in the Bhakti tradition for 16 years.
What kind of audience did you have in mind as you wrote this book?
I think anyone who’s on an inner journey will enjoy this book and get something special from it. It will also appeal to yoga practitioners interested in yoga wisdom, seeking to take their yoga practice beyond the asana mat into their everyday life.
How can these ancient yogic texts have something to say for our modern day society? What would you say to those who believe that yoga philosophy is boring and irrelevant and only for the academics among us?
What I’ve found immensely striking about the Gita is that the crisis Arjuna falls into has the same four symptoms I experienced during my own dark night of the soul. Despite the gulf in time, culture and language, the sages of ancient India had described my own lived experience, thousands of years earlier.
Steeped in epic tales of heartache and triumph, yoga philosophy is a far cry from the dry theory we might expect it to be. Yoga philosophy is about our humanity and the aspirations of our higher self; it’s a deeply personal system that reminds us to be true to who we are and that guides us out of the universal human experience of fear, lamentation and confusion—the three types of suffering related to time. The Gita explains the underlying cause of our struggle and gives us down-to-earth tools for “living skilfully”, for deepening our perception and for reaching our highest potential.
What brought you back to a life in the UK after many years in India?
I find it far more difficult to apply the teachings of the Gita and sacred texts of India in the UK’s chaotic and frenetic field of action, than in the more secluded, peaceful temple monasteries of India. In that sense, returning to the UK allowed me to practise and apply what I’d studied in a more challenging arena, while giving me the opportunity also to share what I’ve learned widely with others.
Sharing these teachings is part of my own spiritual practice—a small, humble effort to reduce some of the suffering in the world. I approach what I do with a mood of service, making it an offering of love; and all funds from book sales after covering expenses go to worthy non-profit projects, such as schools for some of the poorest children in India, especially girls.
What have been the challenges of living out your yogic principles in everyday life in the Western world?
Time seems to move faster in the Western world. There’s an impatient, charged energy that can easily influence us and steal away our presence. Arjuna is on a battlefield, which for us is the field of action, the field of the present moment. In the Western world, that field of now can be very busy and very aggressive.
The Gita teaches us how to create a sacred space for action amid chaos. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that can help make us skilled yogis and yoginis. I always think that the West is the best place for practising yoga.
In the book, you state that the aim of any yoga practice is to open our heart and increase our capacity to love. Do you see that in the way that yoga is practised in the modern world? What in your opinion needs to change in how yoga is currently portrayed and conveyed?
Everything must begin somewhere, and it’s amazing to see the widespread positive influences yoga has had in such a short time. Our world is full of personal and social challenges, however, not least a tendency towards unchecked consumerism and the narcissism of our image-creation culture. But I see that as something to be worked through in our collective approach to yoga. It’s early days still and as we further inquire, study and dedicate ourselves to our practice, our sincerity will carry us into the depths of character and realisation that yoga can offer. And that will in turn enrich our global yoga culture.
How could sacred love as expressed in Bhakti-yoga transform our world?
In Bhakti-yoga, the practitioner focuses on the quality of their love. Ordinarily when we say, “I love you”, we’re usually more focused on the “I” than on the quality of love we’re offering. This expression of the illusory ego is known as “small love”. Sacred love has a different quality: it’s not conditional, fleeting, or based on the false perceptions we hold. Nor is it limited to a small circle of friends and relatives but extends to all beings, beyond gender, race, culture or beliefs.
When we’re connected to the love of the soul, we’re not dependent on the approval of others, on status, or on the accumulation of money or things. When we’re less concerned about what we own or wear, or what we watch and watch it on, our relentless consumerism will begin to abate, along with its devastating impact on natural resources and the planet. And with an enduring compassion for all living beings as souls, there’ll be very little to argue or war over.
Of course, we needn’t wait for such global change; we can experience this kind of transformation right now on a personal level when we culture sacred love in our life, making it the aim of our yoga practice. And in doing so, we’ll feel deeply connected and fulfilled, on the level of the soul.
You can buy Yoga and the Dark Night of the Soul by Simon Haas here.