Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:
One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.
(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)
This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.
A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:
When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.
(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)
Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.
and some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.
The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.
But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.
As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.
Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.
There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?
When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?
I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.
Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.
This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.
The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.
Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.
There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”
Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.
While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya,K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.
There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”
I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.
If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.
Sweeney also argues:
In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.
Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.
Sweeney finds it:
…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga. Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.
As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.
And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:
I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.
So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.
This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.
If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga. I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.
The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.
It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.
I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:
It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.
Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.
This isn’t about the superficial layer.
It is about the body and its endless ability to amaze.
Last year, I photographed my friend Ilona making a tattoo. At the end, she told the woman she couldn’t work out for a few weeks because the sweat could damage the tattoo. I later mentioned this to a student sweating in class who had a fresh tattoo, and she said she’d never heard that before.
In November I took a short trip to Puerto Rico and spent hours upon hours swimming in the ocean. I tanned really quickly, instead the gradual tan I acquire in NYC summer. When I got home to dry, cold New York (to a Noreaster, in fact), I went to a sweaty yoga class. After, I went to an opening with a friend. At some point, I looked down at my arms and they were covered with gross little white bumps, the likes of which I had never seen. In a few days, they burst and turned into the regular old peeling skin we associate with a suntan gone wrong. When the same thing happened on my legs after a good sweat a week later, I realized the little bumps were created by drops of perspiration under the skin, which later popped open.
It reminded me of Ilona’s advice. I could see how the same process could affect a new tattoo.
I showed my teacher. Though at first it was clear he thought I was a crackpot, when he actually saw it he was fascinated. “Thank you for showing me that!” he enthused.
While I’m by no means a physiology nerd, the body is endlessly fascinating. I especially like to watch (and sometimes photograph) how it heals. I considered making a little list of my favorite books on the body, but it’s pretty eclectic, so I’ll just name a few. My beloved rolfer gave me an old edition of the 1930s book The Thinking Body by Mabel Todd. Anna Swir’s book of poetry, Talking to My Body (see below). And Gandhi’s Body by anthropologist Joseph Alter, who was about 15 years ahead of Mark Singleton but lacked the audience.
I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose
I starve my belly
so that it learns
to eat the sun.
I say to it: Belly,
I am ashamed of you. You must
spiritualize yourself. You must
eat the sun.
The belly keeps silent
for three days. It’s not easy
to waken in it higher aspirations.
Yet I hope for the best.
This morning, tanning myself on the beach,
I noticed that, little by little,
it begins to shine.
You know, on days when I’m cranky, I ask myself if all of this yoga and meditation is worth it, if I’m really any better off than when I started. I then remember something like how much I used to think about what I ate, what I should eat, how much and when, and what my body looked like. I didn’t consider how I felt. That was denied. I rarely think of that, anymore. I just eat what I want, when I want. If I don’t want to eat or drink too much, it’s because I don’t want to feel gross. The denial of food is a denial of life and of the body. Trying to find spirit by denying matter can only take you so far. Seeking through the body is far more fun.
Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.
I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.
Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.
So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.
Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?
Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.
I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”
Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”
And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.
Gandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.
I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”
When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!” from his friends.
The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?
Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.
At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.
Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.
That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.
What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.
Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras,a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an “expert” on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then wrap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”
Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and TheNew York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us. If we find they haven’t, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.
On the importance of attachments and ego
In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large (I’d argue that American therapeutic culture is about creating the appearance of a “happy” self, generally at the expense of difficult or deep self awareness, though I realize this is debatable), I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”
This supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?
Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to the people and culture around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.
This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans feel happy and fulfilled: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.
New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.
At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”
Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding close relationship. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create the fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.
I somehow managed to ignore most of the uproar over William Broad’s “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in the NYT. I didn’t really get his point, as it seems like a no-brainer. You can hurt yourself doing any physical activity, and that’s why you’re selective about what yoga you do and classes you take. And even then, you still might get hurt. Some might even argue that’s part of the practice. Are NYT readers really so stupid that they believed, before Broad, that yoga is a flawless transmitter of purity and health? I hope not. And as a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning science journalist, can’t he make that point without exaggerating figures and asserting that correlation is causation? Or is everyone so desperate to sell these days that responsible journalism goes out the window? Or did it go long ago.
(Leslie Kaminoff has a good video review of Broad’s new yoga book. I don’t entirely agree with the review, but I do recommend.)
But now I am flummoxed. Broad has turned to history to perpetuate his inaccuracies, and that bothers me (science has enough defenders). The yoga world has enough problems with historical accuracy, particularly with teachers and practitioners who’ve accepted myth as fact—without the likes of William Broad joining their ranks. And because for a dreadful number of bourgeois Americans, “If it’s in the NYT, it must be true,” this article is bound to have truly annoying ramifications.
To be fair, the history of yoga is complicated and full of long, question-filled gaps. It is an oral tradition, so there’s plenty to argue about regarding how it developed. But it’s fairly safe to say that sexual practices in Tantra are rare, and are/were practiced by the fringe. More importantly, they were not practiced, as Broad asserts, to have a rocking good time, but to cultivate awareness. Pleasure was not the goal, but an avenue to more intense levels of awareness. A bit like the way Gandhi slept with naked young women to test his chastity. (Well, actually not like that, but it did come to mind.)
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th c, ce), states that if “the body is healthy, bindu [semen] under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the nadis are purified and success in hatha yoga is approaching.” (Ch.2: Pranayama, section 78).
Further, I’d venture to guess that Tantric practices are historically and perhaps currently much more common than hatha yoga. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. He’s a practitioner of tantra. Is he screwing about ritually or otherwise? (Though his school, the Geluks, are known to visualize.) In fact, the misconception of Tantra as a chiefly sexual practice is sometimes referred to as “California Tantra.”
If you are interested in more about just how wrong Broad is about Tantra, Sanskrit scholar, Christopher Wallis, has called him out in a post on Flow Magazine. And Maia Szalavitz at Time magazine takes down the scientific studies he uses to back his argument.
When I first read the article, I wondered why the science wasn’t reported as a good thing, framed as “Dump your viagra and take some yoga! Become emotionally closer to your partner without even trying!” Instead, it’s some pseudoscientific reasoning for gurus’ poor behavior? In any group where numbers of young people give up their agency to a man who is revered and somewhat famous is going to have problems regardless of the premise of the group. Who’s really surprised? Why the need to fake history, quote some questionable studies, and patronize yogis’ lack of knowledge about the roots of their craft (when he can’t be bothered to learn it himself)? Very bizarre.
My favorite bit, and the most amazing part of the article, is the last line:
“But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”
Why? Broad’s agenda. His new book, The Science of Yoga, is basically an argument for regulating the yoga industry by making it part of the medical industry. (Shudder.) Like Kaminoff says, Broad has a lot of trust in the government’s ability to regulate, not to mention trust in the medical industrial complex. What is so fantastic about this science journalist’s last line is that by saying, “and what it was designed to do” he implicitly argues that the mystical yogis circa the 15th century knew how to increase their sex drives by designing yoga poses that did so. How, Mr. Broad, did they have the scientific knowledge to do that?
And were they properly regulated?
Science? Crackpotism. (Not the yogis. Mr. Broad.)
A big thank you to my former student Joel Bordeaux for his opinion on the matter. He added that it’s impossible to know how common sexual practices in Tantra were because it was a secret practice:
I share your suspicions here. If pressed I’d say the vast majority of what we think of as ‘tantra’ does not involve sexual practices. Not all tantric traditions directly advocate them and within those that do, they’re supposed to be the preserve of a select few adepts.
However. It’s quite impossible to say with certainty how much ritual hanky panky ever actually happens, since it’s supposed to be top secret. So we have a situation where people who keep those traditions generally rationalize it away or claim to practice a modified version of the ritual where they either visualize (e.g. monks of the Dalai Lama’s geluk sect) or substitute out (e.g. Sri Vidya practitioners in South India) the offending elements.
There’s a debate on about yoga’s origins, and it’s gone viral “—or as viral as things can get in a narrow Web corridor frequented by yoga enthusiasts, Hindu Americans and religion scholars.” This is the buzz covered in the November 27, 2010 article, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” by Paul Vitello. What I found most fascinating about the article is that it interested enough readers to be near the top of the NYT top emailed list. I think it was #2 last night.
The gist is that Hindu-Americans want Hinduism to be credited with yoga. To be asked, “Oh! Do you do yoga?” instead of, “Oh, do you worship cows?” when a non-Hindu American learns of their religion. And because they want credit where they feel credit is due. Understandable. But the argument about yoga as religion is not new. It depends how you define Hinduism, which is a touchy subject. Do you ask scholars? Do you ask believers? Would you ask a Christian-American if you wanted to learn the facts about history? Would you ask a scholar, well, anything? (Relax, I’m teasing.) Do you ask Deepak Chopra? I, personally, would ask everyone and believe no one. I love that Hindu scholar, Diana Eck, is quoted in this article, but she doesn’t say what her opinion about the matter is. I’ve sneaked in her book as the image, because I’m probably not going to mention her again and that is a fantastic book. One of my undergrad religion professors gave it to me before I went off to India way back when (1998).
Yoga is one of the six astikas, or orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, though hatha yoga likely existed long before it was adopted as part of this tradition. Orthodoxy here means that they accept the authority of the sacred Vedas. Does that mean yoga is Hindu? Not necessarily. The yoga practiced in the West is arguably related to the Yoga astika only as a cognate. Again, It depends how you define Hinduism, and it depends who you ask. Because the answer isn’t that important to me, I’m not going to go further into this topic because I think the only answer is subjective. Those who say yoga is Hindu are coming from a very different place than those who say that it is not. As I find myself between those places, there is no convenient answer.
Often I mention articles in class that, if not about yoga, are yogic in nature. Yoga, we know, is everywhere. More and more frequently scientists and other “experts” are coming around to what strikes me as common sense. But if you’ve lost touch with common sense (who hasn’t?) and instead look to experts for your answers, there’s plenty of support out there. A quick search of yoga in PubMed yields 1,496 results, and about 206,000 in Google Scholar. Slowly, the ideas behind yoga are becoming more accepted, most especially when they aren’t identified as yoga.
Often I get the feeling that students don’t want to relax and just release into the slower, more restorative poses toward the end of the class. It might not be that they don’t want to—perhaps they simply can’t. Or they feel if they do, they’ll hear something they don’t want to hear from themselves, or lose that edge, or become weak. Or they are so far away from relaxation, they are just learning how.
Because it seems difficult, I try to encourage students to rest and relax, and to find time for it in their lives. In case my ramblings don’t convince, I sometimes share others’ thoughts on the matter. Recently I drew on a New York Times article about “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel:
At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.
In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self….
“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”
Did you get that? “Downtime is to the brain, what sleep is to the body.” Oh, you don’t sleep, either? The brain needs sleep, too.
From the New York Times science section, “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays,” by John Tierney: You want happiness? Focus on something. It “is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood.” I find it depressing that we need “science” to verify the obvious—or what was once obvious to those in touch with their humanity.
What is yoga? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sutra Two: “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You know, focus.
Months ago, a friend living in Beijing complained about yoga teachers using Sanskrit and not explaining the meaning. She was especially annoyed by closing class with “namaste,” when many didn’t know what it meant. I believe my friend and colleague Ben also takes issue with this. I’m guilty of it, I admit, largely because I do not chant in my Columbia classes, and it’s nice to have a touch of the spiritual tradition. I don’t explain simply because by the end of the class, there is less than no more time.
I always intend to explain, because I get the impression some students think it means, “thank you.” And because my friend is right, it should be explained. Namaste literally means “I bow to you.” It is the act of acknowledging the soul of another. This is also described as bowing to the divine, the light, the spirit, the humanity, in another. Some teachers also say, “The light in me bows to the light in you.” Namaste is traditionally said with the hands together in front of the heart, with the head bowed, or with the hands at the third eye, and drawn down to the heart. The posture itself literally means “Namaste,” and because the meaning is inherent in the action, it doesn’t need to be said. A final note: It is not by chance that the hands are pressed together in front of the heart.
p.s. In response, Jessica just sent this video, which is too great not to post: