Moksha: Liberation, the fourth goal of life

“Of all the instruments of emancipation, Love is supreme.”

So wrote the 9th century yogic sage, Shankaracharya who spread the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta: the doctrine of unity. Moksha is the sanskrit word for the fourth goal of life, indicating emancipation, which in the yogic sense may be defined as freedom from duality, or from dualistic thinking. Non-duality is a state of awareness whereby the subject -object split is healed and the egoic small self, the felt sense of being a limited individual, is liberated into an expanded feeling of being universal and infinite.

So the freedom obtained through authentic yoga processes is freedom from unrelieved identification with one’s personal, finite self, also known as identification with the ego. I know a woman who considers herself “too much of an intellectual to believe in a personal god” as she put it. But she does have a personal god, and it is her own imaginary ego construct. Well, if a person is going to be an atheist, why not start with questioning the credibility of that bloated piñata, the sacred, almighty ego to whom no sacrifice is too costly?

You might ask what hatha yoga has to do with this process, but Patanjali says three things in the Yoga Sutra about asana (hatha yoga postures), one of them being: Tatha dvandva anabhigatah II:48, “[From asana] comes non-affliction from the pairs of opposites.” It all boils down to the fact that assuming a series of equilibrating hatha yoga postures prepares the nervous system to apprehend the unity underlying reality. Without having to stretch one’s intellect, the postures promote this recognition which dissolves the stress of being inextricably limited to the body. This deeply relaxing unitive awareness is akin to the obliteration of the ego. With hatha yoga done right, we can find ourselves established in an interior neutrality which is the meeting place, the detached witness, of all the concepts made of pairs of opposites. To understand how a place can be the location of the union of opposites we might take the example of a threshold or doorway. A threshold is both (or neither) inside and outside: it contains those opposites in its emptiness. For observant Jews this holy place is marked with a mezuzah, within which a scroll proclaims:

Sh’ma Yis’rael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

A hatha yoga practice clarifies and gives somatic definition to that spacious inner core where oppositions such as pleasant/unpleasant, inner/outer and self/universe are annihilated as in a threshold. The adept practitioner uses the vacuity of the central channel as a pathway to tunnel out of the prison of ego identification, even if temporarily, to breathe the air of liberation.

The essential requirement for moksha is genuine desire for it, a longing for freedom called in sanskrit mumukshutva, which apparently is a rare trait. It seems most of us have at best an ambiguous desire for true freedom. This was covered very cleverly in Sartre’s play “No Exit” where three hatefully incompatible characters are stuck in a room with each other for eternity, until at last, the door is opened and they are given the opportunity of escape. Of course, inevitably, they choose to remain in their misery. I read in a biography of Freud that what he deemed most difficult to cure in his patients was “their mostly subconscious wish not to be cured” and it is easy sometimes to see (in other people) the stubborn self-created obstacles to the freedom and fulfillment they claim desperately to want. That old adage “with freedom comes responsibility” may explain the calculus behind our fear of freedom, because with freedom there is no one else to blame, no more nursing past injustices, or playing the victim in our relationships. It is not only that with freedom comes responsibility, but with responsibility comes freedom, too. The first step on the way to moksha is willingness to take responsibility. Yoga is this practice of taking responsibility. As Krishna puts it in the Bhagavad Gita: “One must deliver himself with the help of his mind, and not degrade himself. The mind is the only friend of the conditioned soul, and his only enemy as well.” (6:5)

The exceptionally practical school of yoga known as Kashmiri Shaivism approaches the quest for of liberation by directly targeting the cause of bondage, which it declares to be language itself. The Shiva Sutras state: Jnanadhisthanam matrika: “Limited knowledge is born of the alphabet” The language mysticism of this path says that spiritual freedom and bondage are a product of speech, specifically our interior self talk . Here again, hatha yoga comes in handy because the yoga postures are a powerful kind of conversation with oneself in the form of body language. Assuming poses named for various animals relinks the practitioner to the natural history of her own evolution and to the inferred 3.5 billion years of adaptive success embodied in her DNA. Attitudes produced in hatha yoga standing poses are shown to increase the neurochemistry of confidence and courage, allowing a student to sample the fearless and poised feeling state of spiritual liberation. Hatha yoga poses form a language of self realization akin to the language of mantra. Mantras are words or phrases that protect the mind from limiting and maladaptive self concepts, and yoga asana functions similarly to help vanquish the deeply embedded conceptual bonds that make up the ego.

The proposition that speech has something to do with human freedom is confirmed by the historical reality inspired by the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” is the mantric foundation for freedoms we dare to claim as our birthright and which form a supporting structure to our plenitude of life choices.

In the yoga canon we have four fundamental emancipating mantras derived from the Vedas, the “mahavakyas” (from maha – great, and vak – speech): Prajnanam Brahma – Consciousness is Brahman; Aham Brahmasmi – I am Brahman; Tat Tvam Asi – That Thou Art; and Ayam Atma Brahma – This Self is Brahman. The self-effort of japa, or mantra repetition, involves catching the mind spinning its diminishing verbal self-enslavements and replacing them with such energy-liberating declarations. The Spanda Karikas, another Kashmir Shaivite text cautions: “Particular linguistic forces are always intent on concealing a person’s true nature” (quote via Swami Shankarananda in his book “Consciousness is Everything). The individual desiring liberation chooses responsibility for guarding the powerful linguistic environment circulating in his body and mind.

As Shankaracharya averred, the key to making that choice, or even truly wanting to be liberated, is found in love. Entering into a love relationship with the Cosmic Self, The Universe, or God, whatever you wish to call it, is all that is needed for the journey. One doesnt have to work at obtaining some ideal of liberation. With love, that higher power which is your own highest principle, will draw you forward toward union gradually as a patient lover amplifies desire for the final ecstasy. Never in a rush, totally present and infinitely interested, unflinching, the sweetly piercing inner light has all the time in the universe to enjoy this wedding. The individual is entirely dependent on cosmic being for existence, and the cosmic one is Nothing without the individual. Making each breath a declaration of this love we lose our limitations and can no longer find the boundary between God and self. Utterly interdependent, we are infinitely free.


  1. Dear Mary, so beautifully written and the right message for the right moment .i see your studio is close by the old neighorhood. How it all feels like a whole life time ago and then, on teflection, just yesterday! How i enjoyed satsang at the Manhattan ashram and the lovely walk home alonhg WestEnd Ave!
    Thank you for kerping the torch alive and for his reassuring reminder of what it iall about!

    • Thank you dear Maria!! so good to hear from you.
      yes, it was just yesterday we walked along West End of an evening after a chant…
      wonderful times.

  2. Just found your blog while looking up the 3 malas, which I’m trying to incorporate into a holiday song. Like it a lot. One comment on the desire for and fear of “real freedom”: Bob Dylan wrote a song, “I and I”, with the lyric “I and I, one says to the other no man sees my face and lives.” (think the I and I is a Rasta phrase). Guess I’m suggesting that the limitation of individual consciousness, as an act of capital “C” Consciousness, is very strong, is all we know as individuals, and as such, something we quite naturally greatly fear letting go of to merge into the mystery of The Absolute. This perspective helps me not get too frustrated as I push ahead towards that merger. Thanks for your blog, keep it coming.

    • Oh! Thank you for your encouragement and thanks for the Bob Dylan reference – i will incorporate it! For me the “merger” becomes a matter of grace – can’t do it myself but through intense love of the “Ishta Deva” (personal God) the merger occurs.
      May you too Keep on keeping on,

      • Thanks for your response. BTW, here’s my “malas verse.”

        Walls that separate us, truly, nothing but a dream
        Words that denigrate us linger, mainly, in our own mind’s scheme
        Thoughts that would inflate us, blow away, flow gently down the stream
        Love to integrate us, always here, soft as a moonbeam

        • Beautiful!
          I am about to post a talk i gave at a Shiva conference that i would like to send you- it has a “mala” experience i think you will appreciate. I will send it

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