Category Archives: Insights on Yoga

Insights on the practice of yoga, what yoga means, or the philosophy of yoga.

Satya: Radical Truth in this Trumped Up Age

Welcome to the Trumped up age, everyone.

I’m sure like many of you, these last few days (weeks… months… __fill in the blank?__…) have been filled with trying to process the events unfolding in this country, not to mention the ripple effects these events have on the broader world.

Today I want to tackle the increasing importance of practicing satya in the form of radical Truth. Given our current political climate, it is even more imperative that we center our practices on the ethical prescriptions of the yamas. But what exactly does it mean to practice satya, or truthfulness, the restraint from falsehood, the resistance to distortions of one’s reality rooted in ignorance?

The Trumped Up Age

This week was, of course, the inauguration of Trump to the presidency. As I sit here writing this, #DayFour has already seen:

So pretty much it’s been a shit-show. Why list it all? Because frankly, it’s important to remember that this is not normal. Also, experts in authoritarianism recommend keeping a regular list of things changing around you, because as we can see it can be overwhelming to keep track of. Literally, it’s been almost impossible to keep up with the slew of horrible and disturbing news.

Trump and his team have been waging a war on the media, a war on facts, a war on reality in attempts to discredit even the most obvious and verifiable information. This war has also been focused on overloading us with so much at once that it becomes nearly impossible to catch everything, to resist the myriad of ways his administration and the Republicans in the House and Senate are attempting to rollback our civil rights and undermine our democracy. According to journalist Ezra Klein:

The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true. Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals. It also gives the new administration a convenient scapegoat for their continued struggles with public opinion, and their potential future struggles with reality… It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

What happens when our government becomes an untrustworthy and unreliable source of information, when it is our government that lies to us? Social psychologists have found that when faced with falsehoods, especially a torrential downpour of them, commitment to the truth becomes monumentally more difficult.

Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream, and Trump, we know, lies constantly… When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It’s called cognitive load—our limited cognitive resources are overburdened. It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true.

But Trump goes a step further. If he has a particular untruth he wants to propagate—not just an undifferentiated barrage—he simply states it, over and over. As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in our heads. It’s an effect known as illusory truth… Repetition of any kind—even to refute the statement in question—only serves to solidify it…

When false information is specifically political in nature, part of our political identity, it becomes almost impossible to correct lies… In the face of a seeming assault on their identity, they didn’t change their minds to conform with the truth: Instead, amazingly, they doubled down on the exact views that were explained to be wrong. (Konnikova 2017)

It’s important to remember that facts do exist. But it’s also important to recognize that in the Trumped up age, authorities like our government are actively working to undermine our abilities to determine fact from fiction. These attempts make it harder for us to sift through the slew of misinformation being promoted by what have in the past seemed to be legitimate sources.

In this day and age, we all must come together to commit more fully to a radical understanding of what the truth means, and what it means to be truthful. In this day and age, we all must come together to support the development of a yogic culture of radical truth tellers.

Satya: Radical Truth in Opposition to Radical Lies

In yogic philosophy, satya is commonly interpreted as truthfulness or the restraint from falsehood, with many teachers  promoting the idea of truthfulness in thought, word, and deed. But what exactly does this mean in practice?

In the yoga world today, we often misunderstand satya to mean “honesty.” This implies satya entails remaining “true” to our self in ways that allow us to honestly share our personal opinions, and to feel justified in doing so with comments like “I’m simply being ‘true’ to who I am” (oh, the ego is strong!). Thus, satya becomes misinterpreted as saying your “truth,” as you see it, in your words; acting out your “truth,” as you see it, in your actions; and thinking your “truth,” as you believe it, in your mind.

This is often encouraged by the way yoga has become tied to an individualized, capitalistic understanding of the self in the West. In this misunderstanding, satya becomes the act of remaining “true” to an assumed underlying, unique “authentic self” we are encouraged to discover and express through buying things. Thus, satya is misinterpreted as something completely relative, as unique to each person. It becomes individualized as being “true” to one’s ego-self in our thoughts, words, and deeds rather than understanding satya as a commitment and dedication to the uncovering of deep Truth in our self and our life.

This shallow interpretation of satya as honesty isn’t so much about uncovering, understanding, or spreading Truth, but is instead about feeling justified in our personal interpretations, regardless of their flaws or inaccuracies (oh, the ego is strong!). Rather than becoming Truth tellers, we are encouraged to become tellers of our own personal, radical “truths,” regardless of whether or not our personal opinions are actually grounded in fact, regardless of whether or not our personal opinions are actually based on an understanding of the realities that surround us.

Look, I’m all about honesty. It’s a wonderful thing. I encourage everyone to be honest as part of their practice of satya. But let’s get honest here–honesty is not always the same thing as being Truthful. (And to be really honest, this misunderstanding of satya also ignores yogic philosophy regarding the nature of the True self, purusha, and the realities of avidya, ignorance, which lead us astray from understanding the Truth of our self and the world.)

I believe that to truly practice satya, we need to recognize that there is something to Truth beyond just honesty. We need to recognize that adhering to Truth demands more of us than an accurate, honest reflection of our own ignorance. It demands a commitment to understand reality, a commitment to uncover facts, and a commitment to radically express them.

The fact of the matter is, in this Trumped up age the Truth is often unpleasant, uncomfortable, and complex. The yoga industry often avoids this reality, this Truth, because when you are trying to sell something to a mass audience it’s easier to use a quick gimmick and a surface level understanding of satya than to really challenge our students and our selves. It’s easier to promote a false representation of the “truth” as simple, because it’s easier to sell simplicity. We are comfortable with simple things; complex things tend to scare us. Complex things make us uncomfortable. So instead, it’s easier, and more lucrative, to encourage a fantasy understanding of the world as simple, a world where happiness is achievable (if you can just pay enough, or just consume enough), a world where we are encouraged to remain in the bubbles we surround ourselves with that make us feel safe and comfortable, but which are not really True.

In this Trumped up age, I think it’s important we understand satya as a radical commitment to the Truth that surrounds us, even if it is unpleasant, dangerous, or risky to express. We must become radical Truth tellers, not simply tellers of our personal, radical “truths.”

Reinterpreting satya as a commitment to radical Truth implies a responsibility to combat falsehoods, to speak out in support of what we know to be fact. It implies a responsibility to act with honesty and integrity in the face of lies in ways that don’t just serve our ego, but serve those most affected by the realities of our unequal world. It implies a responsibility to utilize Truth to mitigate harm being caused, in accordance with ahimsa and in ways that actively, radically encourage others we encounter to do the same.

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It means not being complacent to the harm perpetrated by the systems we are a part of by remaining silent in the face of injustice. A radical practice of satya must promote radical Truth focused on social justice, equity, and inclusivity, and continue to seek the complex reality beneath the charade of simple falsehoods.

Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that we cannot do this alone. The myriad of falsehoods we face is simply too much for one person to bear the cognitive burden. We must band together, form coalitions, and support organizations and independent news agencies that are committed to promoting the Truth, to preserving fact, and to engaging in investigative journalism. We must form networks of trustworthy, reliable, radical Truth tellers. To combat ignorance and promote radical Truth in the face of radical lies, we must continue to resist together. We must continue to organize, together. We must continue to utilize social media to network with others committed to Truth, and we must continue on-the-ground community organizing to create strong local governments and support systems that value a truthful understanding of reality as it is, not as we want it to be.

We must continue to speak out, even when it is uncomfortable to do so, even when it is potentially dangerous to do so. We must resist efforts to be silenced, and we must be willing to take on the burden of radical Truth-telling despite the risk.

Despite all the horrible, depressing, anxiety-producing news lately, I have been encouraged and inspired by those who are committed to sharing radical Truth, who insist on working towards a better future, a future that values facts and is willing to face the unpleasant realities of our world so that we may solve them. Radical truth is a creative endeavor, and I want to leave you with some of those creators and artists who have begun the brave process of speaking out and calling up. I think it is important for us to all begin to utilize the tools at our disposal to educate, to advocate, to agitate for a better world.

Seek radical Truth. And in the words of a friend of mine, “Stay radical. Stay woke AF.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This image is from an organized action in Oakland, to find out more go here.

I also highly recommend the following speeches that happened at Women’s Marches around the United States:

Transcript of Activist Kelly Hayes at the Women’s March in Chicago, Illinois

Angela Davis speaks at the Women’s March on Washington:

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Cultural Appropriation, Yoga, and You

(Because all great titles are a list of three things. #ThingsILearnedInAcademia)

This is not a post about what cultural appropriation is (to learn about what cultural appropriation is, see my past post here or my recent academic article, “Eating the Other Yogi,” here). This is not a post about whether or not cultural appropriation happens in modern postural yoga. Hint: it happens all the time. This post is an exploration of why and how cultural appropriation happens in yoga, and what this means for those of us who are yoga practitioners or teachers. Where do we go from here? How do we deal when we are trying to be good people (aka, not appropriative) while continuing on a yogic path?

Across my dissertation research, I’ve grown to realize that most of the yoga practiced in the Western world is culturally appropriative. That statement will likely piss off a lot of people who are very attached to their practice and don’t want to believe this. In fact, it took me a long time to come to grips with this fact too, and to really understand what that meant. But you know what? Too bad. To say that most yoga in the West is appropriative is to speak the truth (satya, anyone?), and while truth is sometimes hard and uncomfortable to face (especially for those with privilege in the yoga world, including myself) I believe wholeheartedly that people always deserve the truth, and that the truth will ultimately set us free. Also, side note, a deep practice of yoga is a practice of truth (not the truth as you want it to be, but the Truth as it is, which is a moving target most of the time). The practice of yoga is also a profound practice of non-attachment even to yoga itself, so if you are still up in arms about the claim cultural appropriation happens all the time in yoga, I suggest taking some time to reflect on why that bothers you so much.

Consuming Yoga

The fact is that cultural appropriation is often done with the best of intentions by the appropriator. If it wasn’t enjoyable, pleasurable, and desirable, it wouldn’t happen. Period. So please don’t give me the “I don’t appropriate yoga because I love it” speech. I’ve heard it before in my line of work, more times than I can count. You can be a “good” person, have the best of intentions, and still do bad things, like engaging in cultural appropriation. People culturally appropriate because they are drawn to something. They consume other cultures often with the best of intentions, out of genuine interest in the cultures they appropriate. But they also often seek out these cultures from a place of power and privilege, and without a proper understanding of the cultures they are engaging with, and this is a dangerous line to walk, often resulting in appropriating the cultures they revere. According to work by bell hooks (1992:24,26), the appropriator often sees “their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality… they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change… [they believe] the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives.”

In the Western yoga world today, most people desire such life-sustaining alternatives to the often demoralizing, alienating, isolating, and damaging capitalist societies we live in (especially the USA). People are drawn to yoga because they think it offers a solution, a way to mitigate the pain and suffering they are experiencing in their day to day lives. They desire it. And they are actively encouraged to desire it by an industry that sells yoga to the masses as a quick fix to underlying, systemic conditions.

Stuck in a job that requires more than 40 hours of work a week, doesn’t provide paid holiday/sick leave, and doesn’t give you any maternity/paternity leave? Do yoga! Experiencing secondary trauma from the seemingly never-ending video evidence of murders of black/brown people by police? Do yoga! Stuck in the prison system that dehumanizes non-violent offenders locked up for life because of crap mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws? Do yoga! Can modern postural yoga actually solve these issues? No. Not all all. It will take systemic changes to actually solve these problems. But we are encouraged to use yoga as a stop-gap measure, as a way of treating the symptoms of a much larger and more complex disease. Because when you can treat the symptoms (for a cost) but never cure the disease, it’s possible to make a shit-ton of money. Cue: yoga is a booming $16 billion dollar industry.

This is no coincidence. As yoga became more popular in the West with the countercultural movements of the 1960s, yoga became appropriated and reinterpreted through a Western lens that imposed ideas of individualism, capitalism, and consumerism on the practice. It was turned into a “profession,” as something to be bought and sold–it was turned into a commodity. We are taught to consume yoga, to find pleasure in it despite the fact that yoga is not about finding pleasure. We are sold yoga as a “30 day transformation” and as a way to “find your bliss” and “manifest joy.” We are never actually sold yoga. We are sold an appropriative misrepresentation of the practice designed to get us in the door and spending money.

This is exacerbated by the professionalization of yoga as a career. The “job” became predicated on a prescribed set of skills that we can look up via a quick google search for “yoga teacher job description.” Take a look at some of these gems garnered from just such a search:

Yoga aims to create balance in the mind and body through exercise, breathing and meditation. As a yoga teacher, you will teach yoga as a form of exercise that increases fitness and wellbeing. (National Careers Service UK)

As a LifePower Yoga Instructor, you will provide various Yoga training services that offer members programs to maximize workout efficiency, improve fitness, increase stamina, enjoy their fitness experience and improve overall sense of well-being. (A job listing from Monster.com)

Yoga instructors help to guide students in yoga through a variety of postures, or asanas, and breathing exercises referred to as pranayama. Instructors provide hands-on direction to make sure students are performing movements properly and applying the breathing techniques. Yoga instructors may work in a class or in a one-on-one setting. (LiveStrong)

Are we teaching yoga, or are we just physical fitness trainers? At least the first description mentions meditation and “breathing” (did they mean pranayama here? Because I hate to break it to them, but that’s not exactly what the sanskrit term means). Although of course the description of what a teacher actually does has nothing to do with either of those, and only discusses yoga as “exercise” and “fitness.” And LiveStrong at least mentions pranayama, although again defines it incorrectly as just breathing. This next one from Best Sample Resume is probably the most ridiculous (cue laugh-cry):

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise originating from the country of India. Yoga has been known to help people exercise without straining themselves. It is quite fast and effective and this is the reason why it has become so popular in the west. Many gymnasiums now offer yoga as a form of exercise with other unconventional exercises like aerobics, pilates, etc…

Duties and Responsibilities of a Yoga Instructor

  • Yoga instructors have to teach their students about the various yogic positions…
  • They have to take into account the health problems of the students and teach them accordingly
  • They also have to take the age of each student into account as their students can be anyone
  • They have to monitor each of them carefully to ensure that they are doing the position properly
  • They have to be experts themselves and have to be in great shape
  • They can even offer dietary advice to their students but they can do it only after consultation with a dietician
  • They mostly teach their students proper breathing techniques as they are most important aspect of yoga [yet of course this “most important aspect of yoga” is mentioned as a site note in the last bullet of the job description”, talk about hypocritical!]

Because clearly yoga was just ancient exercise. That was sarcasm, in case it didn’t come across right. And don’t even get me started on the statement that yoga instructors “have to be in great shape” comment.

What is so troubling about these descriptions of the job description for a yoga instructor is that we have defined the skills and activities of such teaching primarily on asana alone, or postures, and more specifically on the teaching of those postures in a group class setting (or less common, but more lucrative, private classes). Breathing is sometimes mentioned, but often misrepresented in these descriptions. The profession of yoga is predicated on a job that isn’t actually teaching yoga, but is just teaching a fitness class in the vein of Jane Fonda’s workout videos of the 80s.

The industry supports this, with most “yoga studios” only offering group fitness classes and rarely incorporating other aspects of the practice in their classes, workshops, or retreats. Add in yoga products that present the practice as something that you “do” at a set time, in a set place, through consumption (buy the mat, buy the props, buy the clothes, buy the class). Oh, sure, in these settings you may have a mention here or there of some philosophical aspects of the practice, and a breathing technique or two. But these are out of context, usually incredibly brief, and may not even be completely understood by the people teaching it.

Ex: alternative nostril breathing is a practice often taught completely devoid of the philosophical roots, meaning a yoga instructor will walk you through how to do it but won’t explain why. In fact, the teacher might not even know the philosophical, energetic and tantric reasons behind what they are trying to teach as most TT programs only offer 20 total hours of philosophy, pranayama, and history of yoga combined. And it’s optional how TT programs divvy that time up (usually pranayama is the first to be cut, as it is the most complex and requires the most background to understand). In short, the vast majority of what we are taught to teach, and subsequently get to teach via the yoga industry is group fitness classes that without more context and background are, at their heart, at their essence, culturally appropriative. And if someone wants to go into teaching yoga as a career they will likely be locked into this system where if they want to earn a living in said industry, that is what they have to teach. It’s risky for one’s career to actually teach yoga. But it’s big business to teach yoga fitness classes that are appropriative and that commodify the practice.

So we are stuck, consuming yoga even as we appropriate it horribly.

But isn’t yoga just a moving target, anyway?

A recent facebook post by Matthew Remski drew attention to this paradox many yoga teachers face today, but it also proposed a disturbing solution.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood. Just joking.

Seriously: they pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity is hanging in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker: a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity, presenting ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors. They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress [injuries]. They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. They’re inspired by the ancient wisdom literature but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined. They cherish the feeling of practice transmitting an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work but they’re bothered that yoga is mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. Sometimes they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder how many ways there might be to feel freedom. They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile, and seem okay with it. That’s cool. But there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity, I feel a prickle, and I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: “But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom? Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about everything — exactly what you wanted? Didn’t you always want to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether it’s been taught or written about?.. Maybe not being able to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave a provisional name.

My issue with this approach is that it argues it doesn’t matter what we do with the practice so long as we, personally, feel that it is yoga. Remski argues that this doubt that people experience because they are finally coming to realize their practice is appropriative is just totally fine, don’t worry about it. Look, I get that learning is always an uncertain process where we are confronted by doubt. This is especially true when the things we learn are polluted by culturally appropriative histories, commodification, and consumerism, not to mention colonialism (both past and present, because colonialism isn’t ancient history, folks–just ask the Native Americans involved in protesting the DAPL). It’s harder to wade through the mess of appropriative, commodified yoga to a deep understanding of what the underlying practice is. But there is an underlying practice.

Yes, yoga has been part and parcel of many different traditions, across a variety of religious, spiritual, and atheist demographics throughout its very diverse history. But there is an underlying unity in the philosophical aims of yoga and in aspects of the practices used that it is possible to point to. Sure there is diversity in how we interpret this underlying unity, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is something underneath it all. While Andrea R. Jain (in her book Selling Yoga) and many other researchers like Georg Feuerstein (in his book Yoga Traditions) do make it a point to talk about how yoga has taken many forms depending on the time and the social group in question, they admit it is still possible to point to an underlying shape of this thing “yoga”; in other words, it’s not just anything we want it to be (cue: white desires that spur and subsequently justify appropriation), there is something we can trace called “yoga,” otherwise these histories of the practice couldn’t exist.

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For me, I like to think of yoga using the metaphor of a blob. And yes, I’m still working on a better comparison, but bear with me. We can think of yoga as a shape made up of a set of practices, beliefs, values, norms, etc. (a cultural object), that are bound together in a networked, fluid form. It is constantly shifting as the circumstances of where that shape is in space and time change, as it adapts to it’s environment, but at the same time as the outer edges shift and change shape, the center of the blob for the most part remains the same over time. So although yoga does shift a bit in different settings, as all cultural objects do (because we consume and produce cultural products differently across space/time to make them relevant to our needs in that moment, this is what makes cultural objects living history), in general the ways we consume and produce yoga do have similarities across space/time that allow us to point to this blob and call it “yoga” across space, across time. We are able to trace this thing called “yoga” because there is an underlying essence to trace.

So trying to argue that as many western yogis finally begin to realize that the thing they have practiced and taught for so long might just be a commodified, appropriative version of something much deeper and greater creates a doubt that isn’t justified somehow because yoga has evolved over time is an attempt to justify appropriation because we don’t want to believe we are appropriating yoga. It’s not truth. We can’t come away from discussions of cultural appropriation in yoga with the claim that appropriation doesn’t matter, that we should just not care, or that anything is yoga because yoga doesn’t exist at all, or that to doubt that what we are doing is yoga is actually what the underlying practice of yoga is at its essence. This doubt many yogis today feel reflects a deep disconnect between a commodified, appropriative version of yoga taught in the West, and a realization that this is not what yoga is at its heart, that the underlying essence of yoga is much, much more.

Sure, this doubt a symptom that they are finally breaking through the nonsensical constructions of the practice that have arisen in recent decades. They’ve entered a deep stage of the learning process where we learn to doubt what we once believed, where we come to deconstruct false conceptions. This is a necessary and difficult part of learning–it is the uncovering of samskara and falsehoods that become embedded in our selves and lives. But that doesn’t mean the doubt and confusion of that stage in the learning process is what the practice is, or what the practice is about, or that we should just ignore it because it doesn’t really matter.

Remski’s post captures some very profound and important developing debates about the westernized yoga most people practice and teach today. But just giving up and saying “who cares, it’s all yoga” and that “if your confused, that’s what yoga is, so just stop worrying and keep doing what you are doing anyway” is not the solution, and not even a yogic solution to those questions. Instead of turning away from the confusion and doubt because it’s uncomfortable, or just living there in that doubt because we are afraid of what may come, we instead need to plot a course that takes us straight into that feeling so that we come out the other side with deeper faith, a better understanding and sense of the practice, and a better sense of how to engage in the practice in a way that is socially just and doesn’t damage this thing we love and live.

In other words, we need to work through the discomfort to actually learn how to practice and teach in ways that aren’t appropriative and aren’t continuing the commodification and watering down of yoga. Because let’s face it, in the West today we have watered down the practice so much it’s possible for students with over a decade of practice to enroll in a TT and not even understanding that meditation and yoga aren’t separate (no joke, that’s straight from my field notes, y’all). Imagine, studying for over ten years but never even realizing that yoga is a practice of meditation. That’s the yoga world we live in, because that ten plus years of study took place in an industry that doesn’t actually teach yoga, but instead teaches group fitness classes and calls it “yoga” to make it more desirable. To make it easier to sell.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously, the practice has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. That blob has transformed so much I think we do need to ask the question, “Is this still yoga?” Because most of these recent changes have been driven by commodification and appropriation of the practice in ways that water the practice down monumentally and turn it into a fitness craze, and this is intimately tied to practices of colonialism and white privilege (hence, appropriative).

The scary thing is that this endangers the survival of the practice as something more than just an exercise regimen. I often compare this process of slow death by appropriation to the appropriation of Native American traditions. Entire tribal cultures have died out through various forms of oppression, both physical but also cultural (appropriation). It’s a shame, it’s unfair, and honestly we are starting to see this happen in yoga, where the appropriative and commodified versions of the practice are being sold back to places like India and are replacing the more traditional understanding of what yoga is, even for native populations. Obviously the case of appropriation of yoga is not as extreme as the case of Native American traditions/cultures which has been going on for far longer, but I truly believe it could become as extreme unless we start to make efforts to retain the heart of the practice in ways that allow it to be protected, even as we also allow it to shift over time to serve the needs of the modern world (because all cultural objects need to evolve, it’s what allows culture to retain its relevancy). But we do need to engage in a mindful evolution of yoga in a way that consciously works toward doing no harm not just to ourselves, or to others, but also to yoga itself.

I get that it’s easy to misinterpret all of this as an argument for Hindu nationalism (which many yogis, especially white, non-Hindu yogis, think claims of cultural appropriation are arguing). But that’s not the case either. Because we can acknowledge the religious (multiple) roots of yoga traditions and practice in ways that are not appropriative without having to ascribe to a specific religion. Saying that cultural appropriation is widespread in yoga doesn’t mean we can’t practice it as white people, or that we have to suddenly support Hindu nationalism. What all this means is that we need to respect the roots of yoga, and begin to teach in ways that honor those traditions, history, and philosophy even as we do make it relevant for us today.

I honestly don’t think this is too much to ask of people who really love the practice and want to share it, and who want to live it (ahimsa, y’all, it’s a thing, look it up, and it also applies to doing the practice no harm too). It’s just that the way the industry is set up right now, if people want to make money teaching yoga it’s incredibly difficult to actually represent yoga accurately in a way that is not appropriative. Especially when most students of yoga think of it as “just exercise” (especially for women, white people, and affluent people, let’s get real). That’s essentially how most people think of yoga today. As a workout. Because: appropriation of the practice. These things are not separate.

If individual yogis and teachers want to resist engaging in appropriation within yoga, I hate to break it to you but they do need to change some of the ways they teach. We can’t just keep doing what we have been doing because we like it, find pleasure in it, or just don’t want to face the discomfort of change. We need to represent yoga more holistically, incorporating actual teachings on the history and philosophy of the practice(s). Does this mean students need to convert? No. But I think it’s a valid expectation that students should learn about where yoga comes from, and about the philosophy that is ultimately the practice (it’s not just asana, y’all). Teachers need to start offering more than just group fitness classes, and when they do offer asana classes they need to begin speaking about why not just how in a way that gets beyond, “because it makes you feel good” or “because it will help you lose weight” (barf), and instead talk about the energetic and philosophical reasons behind the physical practices.

Let’s be frank here. For most teachers out there in the commodified, appropriative yoga world today who have only experienced brief stints of Westernized TT certification programs, this might mean maybe you just don’t know enough to teach yoga yet without appropriating the practice, and if being a yoga teacher is the path you really want to walk maybe you need to go back and study more. Perhaps you need to rethink whether or not you are really, truly qualified to teach. Are you? Really? Truly? Why do you want to be a yoga teacher, really, truly? If, in asking yourself these questions, you realize all you wanted to be is a positive life coach or physical fitness trainer, maybe you need to switch fields and go into those professions. Again, I don’t intend to be cruel here, but if you really want to teach yoga, and really want to be truthful, and really want to engage in non-harm, and really want to live your yoga practice, these are the types of deep reflection that the practice requires of us. These are the types of difficult, uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves. Believe me, I know, because I’ve been grappling with them for years.

And heck, if you think that’s asking a lot, get this: the more difficult thing is that most teachers, if they want to earn a living at this and avoid appropriation, also need to push back against the system and industry that makes it difficult to teach yoga for realsies, not just yoga fitness classes in the vein of Jane Fonda. In other words, asking those questions at the individual level isn’t enough, because even if someone comes away from those questions with a resounding “YES I AM QUALIFIED AND I’M GOING TO TEACH YOGA DAMMIT” they are still going to have to do so in an industry that will fight them every step of the way. If someone really wants to teach yoga, and be truthful about that teaching, and engage in non-harm, and live the essence of yoga, they are also going to have to start pushing back against the industry that has commodified and appropriated it.

And that’s where we get to this crisis and doubt that Remski spoke about in his post (despite the really weird, white privileged denial of the problem at the end). The paradox arises, the crisis arises, the doubt arises because it’s hard to make money at yoga and also present it deeply, holistically, and accurately. How do you sell a practice that is difficult, that asks us to face the darkest most disturbing parts of ourselves? That asks us to do so over and over, constantly, until the day we pass on from this life? That Patanjali himself argued is painful? Because 2.15 says: “To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind.” How do you market that? How do you sell that? It’s hard to teach yet not appropriate in an industry based on appropriation/commodification of the practice, based on a lie of what yoga is at its essence. It’s so much easier just to say, who cares, to use our privilege and succumb to our attachment and desire for this thing we have created that is not yoga, but is called yoga anyway.

But hey, no one said yoga was easy, right?

Oh wait, I guess the yoga industry did that when they appropriated and sold “yoga” to us as a quick fix to all life’s ills (for a cost).

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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Healthism, Yoga and the Body as Machine

As some of you may know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been dealing with a minor shoulder injury. When I was around ten, I fell through a metal jungle gym, fractured my left wrist during the ten foot drop, and landed on my left side while at school. After going to the nurse and then having my parents take me to the ER, my wrist was treated and healed. But I didn’t realize until much later after I had became a more dedicated yoga practitioner that my shoulder had also experienced impact trauma and hadn’t healed properly, leading to over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. This is actually very common with impact trauma, as the instinctual reaction is to protect the area of the injury, often leading to postural habits that imbalance the body; for me, my instinct was to protect my left side even if I didn’t realize I was doing so.

Part of the lingering problem included an ability to slightly dislocate my shoulder, allowing my clasped arms to wrap around, up, and over my shoulders all the way to the back (yes, crazy I know). Yet for years, not understanding why I could do this and its connection to my lingering shoulder injury, I would dislocate my shoulders. It often felt like a great stretch through my upper back (even while I wasn’t learning to utilize my muscles to stretch the back). Admittedly, there was also some part of me that enjoyed the novel identity it brought, being able to do something so many people couldn’t do, especially considering I was never very athletic (book worm much?). Obviously, I have since stopped doing this.

As I have been going through my teacher training, I found that my practice was beginning to aggravate my shoulder. I’ve been practicing asana more than I ever have, and between the activity, weight bearing, long holds, and adjustments I’ve had to back off my asana practice for a bit and seek some medical and therapeutic help to let it heal properly, finally, after nearly twenty years. I am getting a variety of bodywork done to realign my left shoulder to proper placement, and am now trying to relearn proper postural habits to overcome over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. For me, this minor injury has actually been a profound learning experience in my own personal practice and has helped me think more deeply about my research, about what we are doing in asana, and about how we learn and think about yoga and the body in the Western yoga world.

Why do we think of yoga as only asana? In what ways have Western modalities of thinking influenced our understanding of the body as machine, and prevented us from a holistic connection and proprioceptive understanding of the body? What does it mean to have a deep yoga practice? How do certification programs reproduce and perpetuate limited views of yoga and the yoga body? And ultimately, how can we teach yoga as more than asana?

In sociology, we talk about how our ideas of health are socially constructed. What a healthy body looks like and the practices it engages in are socially determined through culture, socialization experiences, and medical practices. In the last century, western medicine has become a primary driver in our determination of “health,” often in ways that moralize the division between healthy/unhealthy, normal/pathological, pure/impure, such that marginalized populations are typically ascribed the status of “unhealthy.” In sociology, we call this approach healthism, and it is equally common in the yoga world where ideas of health, asana, and the body as machine mix in often dangerous and unanticipated ways.

Let’s look at an example of healthism in action. Women’s natural health systems, including pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause have been medicalized and pathologized for centuries. This is what I like to call (pseudo-)scientific sexism, and in the past included ideas that a woman’s uterus could travel through the body disrupting normal functioning (a “pathology” called female hysteria among Western psychology that wasn’t removed from their list of diseases until 1959), that a women who was menstruating was impure and dangerous, and (during the height of eugenics) that mental or physical exertion could actually damage future unborn children, an idea that was used to restrict access to higher education for women as it might “tax the brain” and damage our capacity for reproduction. And it’s important to note that these type of myths are not dead and gone! They survive in popular culture ideas that women are more emotional, that we experience PMS that interferes with our judgement (for which there is NO sound medical evidence), and misnomers like the popular “women shouldn’t lift weights” adage. In yoga, we often hear outdated ideas about not practicing certain poses while during our periods, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence as to why this might be necessary.

We could take this further to discuss (pseudo-)scientific racism, as well as popular ideas of size as a determinant of health that are similarly problematic and rooted in cultural and social myth rather than fact, but I think you get the idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that, especially in the Western world, we often like to think we understand what “health” means and how to practice it. But sociology teaches us that these ideas, like all knowledge, are socially constructed, historically situated, constantly changing, and can often lead to flawed understandings about the body, especially bodies of marginalized groups like women, people of color, larger bodies, queer bodies, and so on.

And if you are feeling reactive in light of this information, and want to proclaim, “Amara, how can you say that health is constructed? That PMS is a myth? WHAT?! *mind blown*,” know you are not alone. When I teach medicalization in my classes, my students often have similar reactions. This is because we are taught from infanthood to accept these ideas as absolute, indisputable “natural,” “truth.” It’s very uncomfortable to challenge something we have internalized and believed in for most of our lives. In fact, a great deal of social psychological research shows that people who are confronted with their own biases become defensive and reactive. But ultimately, confronting deeply ingrained misperceptions is the art and practice of yoga: to acknowledge the biases that we have internalized that drive our actions, and to overcome these illusions to get at a more accurate and pure understanding of our Selves and the world around us so that we can act from a place of knowledge and intention, with mindful awareness (which we can think of as a practice of vinyasa krama).

In yoga philosophy, we refer to the biases of the mind as maya, illusion, or avidya, incorrect comprehension or ignorance that clouds our perception, that is the “accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years” (Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga). Such habitual bias colors the mind, obscuring our clarity of perception and preventing us from achieving true understanding of our Selves and world. The art of yoga is about overcoming this ignorance and illusion to foster a deeper understanding, so that we can avoid and alleviate suffering in our lives and others.

Healthism, Yoga, and the Body as Machine

During the past century our understandings and ideas about the body within yoga have been heavily influenced by Western medical practices and healthism. Historically, the incorporation of anatomy into yoga was driven by an interest in eugenics in the early 1900s (a topic thoroughly researched by Joseph Alter) and by the cross-cultural transmission by yoga gurus like B.K.S. Iyengar, who often utilized medical science to appeal to a Western audience and to legitimize yoga in the modern world. In this process of transformation yoga increasingly became defined as asana, which was more accessible and easier for Westerners to understand as it corresponded to already existing ideas of fitness practices and provided a tangible path of progress to follow. It was also easier to teach in group class settings than the more classical understanding of yoga as a philosophical practice.

What this meant is that yoga became synonymous with asana, disconnected from philosophical practices, and tied to medical science, particularly the use of anatomy, predicated on dividing the body into separate parts and systems rather than viewing the body as a holistic physical, emotive, and mental being. So we now take classes, solely teaching yoga as asana, that “focus” on specific parts of the body: a class to work your hamstrings, a class to open the hips, a class to work the core abdominal muscles, a class to work the butt muscles, and so on. We learn that this pose is good for this ailment, this muscle, this system. And in teacher training systems we teach the body as consisting of seemingly separate parts: poses that work the legs, poses that twist the spine, the separation of the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems, a division between structural and functional movement patterns. We divide the body up into parts of a machine, that work together but are presented as separable. And “health” becomes constructed as purely physical and as something that we achieve by isolating and maximizing the utility of seemingly disparate parts of the physical body without a clear end point (something illustrated clearly by the creation of numerous sequences in the Ashtanga method beyond the primary series; there used to be just one until the practice was Westernized and the later series were added on to meet the demand and expectations of students).

This view of the body and of health in yoga is flawed; the body is not divisible, and all the parts of our body are interconnected. The organs are not separate from the muscular and skeletal systems, but are intimately tied together into a functioning whole. The muscular and skeletal systems are interconnected, and alive; habitual functional movement patterns can actually change our skeletal structures over time. We cannot isolate the core muscles from other parts of the body, or target particular body areas to work on in isolation and when we try to do so we disconnect from the sense of the body as whole, the body as holistic, the body as flesh and blood rather than the body as machine. We also potentially increase the risk of injury. Not to mention that the body is not simply physical but also a mental and emotive being. Emotional and mental states can change the physical body, which, for example, is at the heart of current research on the psychology of eating. In asana, ideally, every pose is a entire body practice, not just of the entire physical body, but also of the mental and emotive body.

And these aspects of the body are not separate from the world around us, either. We are not contained in an isolated bag of flesh; as Stacy Alaimo argues in Bodily Natures, the body is transcorporeal and interconnected to the world around us. What we put on the body, like body products, enters into us through the pores of our skin. The toxins we are exposed to become a part of us as we breathe, and the social, cultural, and institutional influences on our lives have a profound effect on the physical, emotive, and mental practices of the flesh. For example, research has shown that poverty affects our mental behaviors and attitudes, as well as the physical being as those who are poor are more likely to suffer from a variety of health concerns like obesity, mental illness, or toxic exposure. Gendered socialization can actually change the way the brain works. The body is ultimately permeable and porous, and as yoga philosophy teaches us all of these things are constantly in change, constantly in flux (even our bones).

This holistic, transcorporeal approach to health is gaining ground in Western science, and is being corroborated with recent biomechanical research on movement and stretching, on the new science of pain, on the psychology of eating and weight loss, on the existence of the microbiome, and in bodywork circles on the way emotional and physical trauma is held in the body across time. But most of the Western yoga world is woefully behind the times, as the regulations for teacher training systems have not been updated in decades and most certification programs primarily teach yoga as asana according to the body as machine approach to “health.”

In this “yoga as asana” approach, yoga becomes constructed as the achievement of various positions of the body, rather than a way or method of moving the body to prepare for the deeper, more meditative practice. Rather than think about how we practice asana, as a methodology of moving meditation and philosophical application practiced through the physical body, where the physical is joined with the emotive and mental and whose movement takes place in the world, we focus on disjointed poses or positions of the body and rarely pay attention to the transitions between postures. We focus on staying bounded on a mat, restricted in space, stuck in a box, rather than recognizing the movement in every moment, in every transition and position, as an extension and engagement with the world around us, wherever we are.

I like the term “chasing asana” to describe how we have become focused on chasing the sensation or achievement of individual postures, without a clear reflection or understanding (self-study, anyone?) of why and how we seek to attain these positions. What is the purpose of posture? In the Western yoga world, we teach students, and train teachers to teach, that the focus is on achieving the 2-d pose we see rather than feel, typically on social media and through popular culture (produced by the yoga industrial complex that profits often of this consumption-focus). And don’t be fooled! We are taught yoga is something to consume. To buy. To sell. To practice in small quantities in ritualistic and disparate spaces (studios), to keep on the mat, or to take asana off the mat, rather than as a way of living life throughout every moment, for a lifetime. And as a form of consumption, we can also think of this interpretation of yoga practice as a type of indulgence, because chasing asana is ultimately a practice of stroking the ego rather than non-attachment. Frustration that may come through injury demonstrates this, as we are attached to chasing asana, to yoga as asana, so that when we are unable to practice this interpretation of yoga we lose sight of the path, we lose sight of the practice entirely (although personally I haven’t been frustrated with my injury, I know many many yogis who have been with their own, and I have experienced this myself in the past when I was younger and did not understand yoga as deeply.)

We chase a construction of asana as individual positions, regardless of whether we have to force the body beyond its ability to get there, regardless of whether we are capable of muscular stability to prevent injury and ensure proper alignment. We don’t develop proprioception through deep self-reflection, mindfulness, and meditation on what we are doing, in every second, in every transition, as well as in every “end-point.” We are told to “listen to the body,” but never how to do so, or why. We are encouraged to “feel” but never taught how to interpret what we sense within the context of the lifetime, in the context of sustainability in our practice across time. We are encouraged to chase poses that biomechanically speaking often require us to go beyond a safe range of movement in the joints. We are encouraged to seek ego and pleasure through asana instead of practicing vairagya, non-attachment, in order to understand what is best for us and avoid being clouded by bias, illusion, avidya. We are encouraged to want to practice, rather than utilize practice to achieve what we need and encourage functionality.

We don’t teach asana within the context of yama and niyama, within the context of yoga philosophy. We don’t learn the classical purpose of asana as a means of learning to sense, understand, and master the body in conjunction with pranayama for the purpose of self-realization and elimination of suffering. Traditionally speaking, asana was one part of a larger practice of yama, niyama, pranayama and meditation, all of which allowed the yogi to, in a simplified sense, control the instinctual flight or fight response that leads to reactivity, instead developing a constant practice of acting with intentionality, knowledge, and purpose. The path of yoga is the path of learning how to act with intention through the development of self-realization, so that we may be a stable balance point in the sea of constant change, enabling us act from this anchor.

The construction of yoga as asana is exacerbated by the Westernized, militarized format of classes, which have changed from the individualized, one-on-one instruction between a student and teacher to drill-style group classes geared towards the average individual. This is based on the factory-style educational program that began after industrialization in the West which was also incorporated into the military, and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, including India.

In one-on-one instruction the teacher would create and gear lessons to the students’ individual needs and level of understanding. Lecture and discussion of philosophy and readings were common, and asana was taught according the individual student’s ability in conjunction with other yogic practices. But in the drill-style, group class setting there are time restrictions, we can’t assign homework or reading, there isn’t the degree of student-teacher contact, discussion of philosophy is limited to the brief moments of stillness in the midst of chasing asana. And even if teachers want to break free from this mold it can be extremely difficult, as many make a living teaching and in order to earn their income must meet the expectations of paying, student consumers who learn about yoga through popular culture and come to class with prior expectations of what they are paying for that put pressure on teachers to present yoga as only asana. While there are some ways around this, such as offering teacher trainings where trainers can teach yoga as more than asana (to a very limited degree), private classes, reading groups, and the like, these are more difficult to achieve and to find strong student support for.

So I’d like to leave this post with a few questions for myself and everyone out there to think deeply on. What is the purpose of asana, and why do we chase it? What are we really gaining by achieving more complex postures, or practicing 108 sun salutations (which, really, no one should do if they want to avoid repetitive stress injuries)? At what point do these practices become a practice of ego, and devoid of the deeper aspects of yoga? To what extent do we consume yoga, rather than practice or study it, because of industry expectations and encouragement? If the body is transcorporeal and holistic, rather than a machine, then how can we transform our asana practices to reflect this? How can we utilize asana as a tool to gain self-knowledge and self-realization, a tool to practice the deeper philosophy of yoga? (Because a tool is only as useful as how it is wielded; a hammer can just as easily injury you as build a roof to sleep under.) What are we teaching about the body and self if we are not reflecting on the bodily habits (physical, emotional, and mental) in our everyday lives, both on and off the mat? In what ways do we compensate physically, emotionally, and mentally in our practice, why do we do so, and how is this written in flesh?

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

Yoga : Magic : Meaning Making

One of my previous posts, Yoga, Magical Thinking, and Satya explored what it means to be truthful. Today I want to talk about the nature of magic, because I think digging deeply into what we mean by “magic” reveals a great deal about the nature of yoga.

Yoga has been associated with the magical for a long time. During British colonization of India, Singleton (2010:35) notes that “yogins were more likely to be identified by their critics (both Indian and European) with black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity” than with yoga as we think of it now. Tantric yogis were similarly associated with occult powers. Samuel (2011:311) notes that: “If we want to understand what early Śaiva Tantrics were doing, for example, it is surely relevant that they were probably doing it, much of the time, in the context of being employed as official sorcerers, healers and magical practitioners by local rulers and ‘big men’… we have to see similar contexts for much Buddhist and Jaina Tantric practice as well.”

The association of yoga, tantra, and magic only grew stronger in interactions with the West, where such affiliations were stereotyped and reproduced in various forms of popular culture, including literature and movies. Ultimately, “the fakir-yogi was the object of an intense fascination for European occultists, who naturally emphasized the wondrous magical powers that such figures could acquire through yoga” such that “the supposed siddhis or magical powers of some such yogis resulted in the association of hatha yoga with occult magic” (Singleton 2010:64-66).

But can we dig deeper into this connection between yoga and occult powers? Why is yoga associated with magic?

What is magic all about?

The heart of magic is the art of knowing the true essence of something. This is the root of folklore about the power of knowing something’s “true name,” the idea of a sacred language that captures the true essence of the referent. The most common example of this is the tale of Rumplestiltskin, a story pattern common across many cultures. In the tale, the woman can defeat Rumplestiltskin only by learning his true name. Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away also utilizes this same story pattern, as the young girl can only win her freedom when she is able to remember her true name (for those Miyazaki fans out there).

 

My favorite author, Patricia A. McKillip, utilizes these ideas of magic throughout her corpus of award-winning fantasy books (of which I’d highly recommend The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and The Song for the Basilisk). She describes magic as the power of naming, and the gaining of magical power as developing a deep understanding of something such that by knowing it’s true essence one can become it, or manipulate it.

“There are no simple words. I don’t know why I thought I could hide anything behind language.”
Patricia A. McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe

Words, for McKillip, hold tremendous power, not because of the word itself, but rather because words can become powerful when one comes to understand what the word truly means. Magic entails a recognition that enables a replication or manipulation, and is thus a way of doing something, not something itself. It is how we do things that produces magic. Anyone can say “fire,” but those with magic (at least in McKillip’s books) will say “fire” and, understanding the true essence of fire, the word itself will burn. So magic is the power to name, to come to know the true nature or essence of the world, and by doing so gain the knowledge to predict what may yet come, reproduce what already is, or manipulate the world around us.

Magic is thus not something distinct from us that we draw on, but rather a viewpoint, something internal to us that shifts and morphs and changes in a way that changes the way we see, and by doing so grants us power, or magic. By changing the way we look at things, the things we look at change. It is a way of looking at things so as to understand them deeply, and ultimately a way of doing (of acting) with knowledge and reverence, so that every action we engage in is done with mindful devotion. We can think of magic, then, as a form of wisdom, a way of seeing what has always been before you in a new and never-before-thought-of way and then acting based on this knowledge (with control and mindfulness).

“A riddle is a tale so familiar you no longer see it; it’s simply there, like the air you breathe… until one day you look at it and something shapeless, voiceless in you opens a third eye and sees it as you have never seen it before. Then you are left with the knowledge of the nameless question in you, and the tale that is no longer meaningless but the one thing in the world that has meaning any more.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Magic requires mindfulness, in that, like Sherlock Holmes, with mindfulness we are able to detect how things work in ways that seem magical, genius, or supernormal. This is the way we are able to, like the turning on of a light, see and know the true essence of things (including situations). It is also the way we are able to exert force upon things or situations by understanding and identifying pressure points so that we can change or manipulate the situation or thing to actualize a specific orientation or goal, in the process moving the course of the world around us in a concerted direction reflecting our will.

This wisdom is thus magic, and grants power (understanding the true essence of something gives you power over it). With it you can affect change along a predetermined path; with it you can manipulate a path; with it you can forge your own path. As with all power, without ethical guidelines it can be abused. But it can also represent the power to understand problems and to find solutions. With it you can affect changes that might seem impossible to someone who does not understand as deeply. Magic makes the impossible, possible. This can frighten people at times. But it can also inspire or be used toward positive ends.

So what does magic have to do with yoga?

Knowing the true essence of something is the art and magic of yoga. This is the nature of the eight limbs of yoga; as we practice them in concert, as we practice yoga as more than asana and journey on the eightfold path we are able to attain a higher state of consciousness. This is particularly true regarding our engagement with the final four limbs of yoga: pratyahara, the service of the senses to the mind; dharana, holding focused concentration in one direction; dhyana, the movement of the mind in continuous communication with the object of our attention; and ultimately samadhi, becoming one with the object of our attention, or the merging with the object of meditation. Desikachar teaches that “when dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are concentrated on one object, the resulting state is samyama… when a person is constantly focusing on one particular object [such that] he or she will come to understand it progressively more deeply” (Heart of Yoga: 110). By doing so we are able to empathize and understand the true essence of whatever we turn our concentration to. And this is yoga. Yoga is the art of meaning making. It yokes our senses and enhances them and our ability to interpret the world; it provides us with knowledge that can seem magical, supernormal, and that is powerful.

Many yogis refer to such powers as siddhis, supernormal perceptual states that are beyond what is typically within the purview of the normal range of perception. Now, regardless of whether you believe it’s possible to defy gravity, as with all myths there is truth embedded in the tales. While some recorded siddhis are likely exaggerated, such as being able to reduce one’s body to the size of an atom (because really, that’s an anachronistic interpretation anyway),  others are obviously quite real and many instances of supernormal feats have been recorded and are undeniable. For example, other siddhis include: knowing the past, present and future; tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities; being undisturbed by hunger, thirst, and other bodily appetites; dying when one desires; checking the influence of poison; perfect accomplishment of one’s determination; or orders or commands being unimpeded.

Ultimately, then, the practice of yoga is a practice of magic, of acting with mindful devotion, with knowledge and reverence. And when we understand something someone else does not understand, the conclusions we can draw and the action we can take can seem magical. What is magic, but an understanding deeper than what is normal, so that it seems extraordinary? What seems like magic is ultimately a trick, as with all magic shows, but in the case of yoga is a trick of awareness and understanding the true essence of the world around us so that we are able to act in ways that appear, to all intents and purposes, like magic.

Yoga as Controlled Folly

Yoga is also the recognition that the world is inherently unpredictable, that there is always an element of chance, and thus we are always playing the odds, playing with risk. This knowledge allows us to be detached to the outcome, because we know that all paths are disrupted at some point. This detachment allows the yogi to act without fear, as part of what Castaneda calls controlled folly in his book, A Separate Reality. Thus, recognizing that: “nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts, he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.”

“When you put your hands and mind and heart into the knowing of a thing … there is no room in you for fear.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Those who practice the magic of yoga are able to minimize the risks,  minimize the chance of disruption, and when it does occur (because it will, inevitably, at some point) it becomes possible to focus to make these disruptions as small as possible, to ride the wave of the storm, to submit to and thereby influence the outcome. As in martial arts, the yogi is able to turn the power of an opponent in on itself; the yogi harnesses the powers of the world to accomplish seemingly impossible feats.

With love, light, and… yoga ❤

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Castaneda by Nicolas Rosenfeld

Taking Yoga Off the Mat: Sustainability and the Yogic Path

“Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Within yoga culture there is a great deal of discussion about the need to take yoga off the mat. Part of this is driven by the increasingly popular practice of seva, or selfless service, that is usually interpreted by the yoga community to mean some form of community service, often involving teaching asana classes to populations considered at risk or in need. Social justice activists have been drawn to this idea of taking yoga off the mat because it implies a moral imperative inherent in the practice of yoga for yogis to get involved in advocacy around and involvement in social justice causes. While I wholeheartedly agree with both these interpretations of taking  yoga off the mat (although seva should arguably entail a bit more than offering “karma” yoga classes…), I’m going to talk today about an additional viewpoint that discusses the popular trend of yogis being involved with a more general cultural ethos of organic eating and green living.

It’s very common for yogis to be interested in other cultural trends relating to healthy, organic eating (including the popular, if somewhat troubling, trends of green juice cleanses). Eating whole foods, lots of vegetables, and supporting local producers are common elements, as are a number of green consumption practices like reusable water bottles and buying products made in green ways (like the popular–and awesome–green yoga legging company Teeki that makes their products from recycled water bottles). And while there are less sustainable consumption practices orientated with the yoga lifestyles (like high end athletic or boho fashion industries) I think the interconnections between yoga culture and other green and sustainable living practices indicate there is an inherent attraction and similarity between these cultural elements. In fact, I would argue that if we are really going to adopt the yoga identity and live a yogic lifestyle we must take our yoga off the mat, not just through seva or social justice, but also through the practice of sustainability in all areas of our lives.

Yoga is more than simply asana. As a process and way of knowing, yoga can be used to achieve any goal or end, including ones that are less than just. This is why we have seen the yoking of yoga and mindfulness practices to consumer capitalism and industry in recent years with the McMindfulness phenomenon. However, yoga, as a process and way of knowing guided by ethical principles, has the power and potential to do great good and help us build better selves, better societies, and better futures. I think it’s always important to be skeptical of “tradition,” because traditions by definition rarely change and not all past traditions are appropriate to the times we live in and the needs and desires of people living now (rather than then). I have to admit I’m not a yogi who blindly believes in the philosophical traditions of yoga, and honestly I think blindly following anything is a recipe for some form of damage. Critical awareness is necessary in all areas of life, including yoga, in order to lead healthy and balanced lives as our practice encourages. But I do believe that the ethical guidelines in yoga are key to taking yoga off the mat in a way that is beneficial to our lives and the lives of others.

According to Patanjali’s eight-fold path, these ethical principles are called the yamas and comprise the first limb of yoga, dealing with our behavior in connection to others. The yamas include: ahimsa, roughly translated to nonviolence; satya, or truthfulness; asteya, or non-stealing; brahmacharya, often interpreted as a virtuous form of self-control involving a voluntary restraint of power (usually associated with being celibate or faithful to your chosen partner); and aparigraha, or non-covetousness or non-possessiveness. If we want to live our lives true to these ethical principles, taking our yoga off our mats, it’s imperative that a yogic path also be a sustainable path. Sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean some of the trends we see in the consumption of alternative green and organic lifestyles popular with yogis today. It can, but not necessarily. In fact, a lot of popular green/organic living trends reflect attempts to practice sustainability without a critical reflection on what sustainable means, and what it means to truly be sustainable (I am guilty of this too).

So let’s break it down. Sustainability… sustain… ability… Sustainability is the ability to sustain, keep up, or keep going, toward a particular goal, maximizing the use of our limited resources in a way that conserves those resources. Sustainability means living in symbiosis with our ecosystems so that we minimize our negative impact, instead building positive relationships that replenish the environments (including social ones) around us. It involves the cultivation of a contained, mutually beneficial web of interconnection with the world around us that I would argue is one of the best applications of these ethical principles of yoga we can see in the real world.

Do no harm? Sustainable systems, if they are truly sustainable, seek to minimize harm and maximize the positive impacts of their processes. Truthfulness? Sustainable methods can only work if we deeply understand the nuances of our world, including ourselves and the environments we live in. To do so, we have to seek truth, and deep truth, not just truth when it suits us. Non-stealing? Requires an understanding and recognition of the needs of the systems we are embedded within and the social worlds we are connected to. Sustainable paths support the needs of the worlds around them in ways that help them thrive (the very essence of non-stealing). Self-control? Sustainable systems demand the practice of self-control, of limiting our desires to practice forms of self-restraint to only use what we need and not live beyond those means. Non-possessiveness? Living sustainably means living with as little impact on the surrounding environments, so it naturally involves minimizing our possessions and recognizing (and supporting) the needs of others through a non-covetousness nature.

Getting behind the idea of sustainability is easy enough, but in practice it’s much harder to do. This is largely because our social systems (as they are now) make it very difficult for people to live sustainably. It’s often expensive to disconnect from unsustainable systems (like, for example, trying to live on green energy solutions, which are largely only available to the wealthy, or attempting to live off the land which is only available to those who, unsurprisingly, can afford to buy property and have the start up capital to make such living feasible from the outset). Our economic system, and our workplaces, require us to live in unsustainable ways in order to simply live. It’s also difficult because we are socialized into cultural systems that don’t value sustainability, so we often internalize cultural values that encourage us to engage in lifestyles that are at their very root unsustainable–for example, consumerism. So I understand that living sustainably is a challenge, and a huge one, and one that I myself am still very far from achieving because of the very reasons I just mentioned.

But if we truly want to live a yogic path, adhering to the yamas of yoga in our practice both on and off the mat, we have to do so sustainably. And this must go beyond the cultural ethos popular in yoga today that encourages yogis to achieve sustainability primarily through consumption. It’s not enough to practice sustainability by consuming green products, we have to question the need for those products in the first place. We have to think about the art and practice of consumption itself, and begin to deeply question why we consume, not just how we consume. If we are going to be truly sustainable we must change how we orient our actions, including consumption, in ways that fundamentally alter the game itself.

We have to change our orientation to consumption, orienting toward different goals. This means cutting back on the stuff we buy in the first place (reduce). We have to acknowledge the insidious nature of stuff, and orient our approach to long-term use, potentially life-time use of the products we buy. For those things we do get rid of, we need to do so responsibly and encourage reuse and recycling as much as we can. And this ultimately means we need to be more careful in our product choice, doing more product research before purchasing to be sure we are meeting sustainable needs. (And yes, I realize this is difficult for some populations who might not have the means to do so, like the poor, uneducated, or elderly. So we also have to help make these types of lifestyle choices more accessible.)

When applied to yoga on the mat, this means we need to orient our practice towards sustainable health and well-being of the body and mind, and practice asana devoid of ego with long-term, lifelong goals in mind. What type of practice will, in the long term, support your body and your long-term needs? How can we practice asana in sustainable ways, ways that sustain our body and allow it to maintain strength and health over time? How do we deepen our practice in a way that don’t simply pursue “growth” as more advanced postures, more intensity, or more time on the mat, but that are instead is aligned with a broader mindset of growth in sustainable ways? We have to orient our practice not towards “bigger-ing” our practice (recall the Lorax by Dr. Suess), towards constantly “growing” for the sake of growth itself, and instead focus on growth towards the goal of sustaining a quality of practice across the long-term.

We cannot force our practice, or force growth in our practice if we are to be sustainable. Sustainable systems do change, and grow, and evolve, but if you try and force that evolution too quickly bad things happen (really, just watch the Jurassic Park film series). The thing about growth is that it must happen organically. Forced growth leads to complications, because all living beings have natural limits that can be stretched, but if stretched too far break. Healthy growth demands time, patience, and prolonged favorable conditions like proper nutrition so plants can develop a proper root system to thrive. Sustainable systems give back, benefiting the environment around them in symbiotic ways, the plant returning nutrients into the ecosystem as it grows and eventually dies. Forced growth is not only potentially dangerous, it takes more energy, leaving us with less to give back into the systems surrounding us in supportive and sustainable ways.

When we take our yoga off the mat, or practice it on the mat, we need to try and do so sustainably. And understand, too, that we live in a world that makes sustainability a difficult thing to achieve even for people with the best of intentions. I hope you enjoyed these thoughts of mine and that they struck a chord within you; sometimes I am led down strange roads. Love, light, and… yoga ❤

Creating Innovative Yoga Teaching

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power to that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” ~J. K. Rowling

I was thinking yesterday about what it would mean to create innovative yoga classes. If I completely abandoned my preconceptions of what a “class” should look like, and how we should learn things (the traditional drill style–historically Western, White, and Capitalist), what would a yoga class look like? How can we really teach yoga, the practice, rather than yoga, the exercise routine? What is the best way to educate someone on the essence of yoga?

We’ve become so caught up our ideas of what a yoga class is, and how to teach yoga, and what the best way to learn is that we lose sight of the essence of the thing we are trying to teach. Yoga has not always been taught in the way we teach it now. The “standard” lecture or drill format of classes became popular only once yoga had become Westernized during colonialism with the influence of trends like Swedish gymnastics or military drill training among armed forces (see Singleton’s excellent book for more on this topic). But now we consider it normal to teach to a class of people, all of different levels, leading them through a set sequence where the teacher may (or may not) offer variations or adjustments, let alone individual attention to correct a student’s alignment or help lead a student deeper into a pose. I feel like in some ways even private yoga classes have become formulaic. But how often do we actually stop and think about what format, what sequences, what poses, what words, what “homework”, would really get to the heart of yoga and allow students to experience that rather than a nicely packaged and marketed form of exercise?

Not every thing can be taught in the same way. Often in Western-style teaching systems (including the Westernized style of yoga teaching that has become popular in the last few decades) we expect someone to be able to regurgitate exactly what we say, in the exact words we say it (Follow this sequence! Focus on these things!) that we forget that route memorization doesn’t reflect actual understanding. When someone understands something they are able to make it their own, to personalize it, to be creative with it, to recognize what is most important and retain those things while deviating within set lines. Understanding something deeply allows for the “regulated improvisation” of social actors because they are able to reinterpret and build on the material they have learned. Simply being able to repeat something doesn’t mean you understand it. Understanding allows for innovative solutions and problem solving; route memorization doesn’t.

Only with understanding can you have innovation, because innovation is ultimately about seeing the connections between things, understanding what things are similar and what are not, and how things will interact if they are combined. As Tom Freston said, “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way.” Innovation is the application of pressure in such a way that you affect great change with little effort because you are able to anticipate and influence the course of future events by understanding the factors at work deeply. To quote a great article from the Washington Post, “Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want.” So we have to learn to understand, not to simply to memorize. Memorization produces replication, not innovation.

Innovation requires seeing and actualizing the unimaginable, and the only way to do that is by imagining what doesn’t exist, by changing our entire worldview in a radical and profound way. The quote I started this article with from J. K. Rowling is exactly about this; how by using our imaginations we have the capacity to radically shift how we see the world and what we think is possible, to imagine better worlds and better futures. Ultimately imagination is the root of all empathy–the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. That’s a transformative power, just like yoga is a transformative practice. You have to have a vision of where you are going to get there, otherwise you never grow and change. To become better people and better societies we have to grow and change and innovate in our own lives. We have to understand ourselves and the world around us so we are capable of imagining a world and self that retains the things that we love but also improves upon them. This has been one of the deepest and most profound lessons I’ve learned through yoga; that I can constantly improve myself, but that it takes a deep awareness of my existing patterns and habits and the ability to imagine who I want to become, so I can recognize when I am falling into the trap of a pattern and redirect into an innovative solution.

But trying to imagine what doesn’t already exist is a difficult, sometimes impossible proposition. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender: “If she can see it, she can be it… how can she be what she can’t see?” When we can’t imagine something, we don’t even consider trying it, and definitely don’t actively work to achieve something. We are often so conditioned to think within narrow boxes we are incapable of even imagining an alternative method of doing something. We become incapable of innovation when we are taught in the Western education model to replicate and memorize rather than understand. This is exactly what Bourdieu (Logic of Practice: 55) is talking about when he claims that our internalized preconceptions of the world (the things we can easily see) condition us to think within a particular framework and to only consider certain things that are approved or expected as “possible.” In this way internalized preconceptions “generate all of the ‘reasonable,’ ‘common-sense’ behaviors (and only these) which are possible within the limits of these regularities, and which are likely to be positively sanctioned because they are objectively adjusted to the logic of a particular field, whose objective future they anticipate. At the same time, ‘without violence, art, or argument,’ it tends to exclude all ‘extravagances’ (‘not for the likes of us’), that is, all the behaviors that would be negatively sanctioned because they are incompatible with the objective conditions.”

Within yoga we often fall into the same patterns and habits, teaching yoga through replication and memorization rather than encouraging deeper understanding in our students. Classes are usually a one-time experience of following instructions students don’t fully comprehend and that may never be fully explained. Even private classes can often fall into a similar trap of using standard formats focusing on surface level “assignments” like doing a particular sequence of poses so many times a week. (But why those poses? Why that many times a week? Why in that sequence?). Students often aren’t able to innovate in their yoga practice because they aren’t given a firm basis of knowledge to build on; in standard classes we aren’t taught to approach yoga as a way of life or a practice (at least until more advanced training like teacher certification programs, yet even these are highly structured and only teach institutionally approved yoga knowledge).

I think this is why it’s so hard for many yogis who have only taken drill-style group classes to begin a home practice, which requires changing the way we think about yoga and how we do yoga from the dominant Western pattern of teaching (just follow the instructions) to something you work on, practice, and play with as you explore what you’ve learned on your own, with no lead instruction, and no set sequence already predetermined for you. Yoga isn’t always beautifully choreographed into a sequence of predetermined poses; once you transition to a home practice you begin to realize that yoga is in fact messy and full of awkward, silly, and embarrassing moments. It’s something you work on. It’s also full of pleasureful, peaceful, and triumphant moments too. But recognizing that yoga is in fact a practice is a radical, paradigm shift, and one I’m still working on learning to find joy and pleasure in and motivation for. A home practice helps you realize all the backstage work instructors do behind the scenes to present and teach the beautiful, fun, choreographed facade of “what yoga is.” But the facade isn’t substantive and rarely teaches the underlying practice; it doesn’t reflect the true essence of yoga.

So let’s return to the questions I started this post with. If I completely abandoned my preconceptions of what a “class” should look like, and how we should learn things (the traditional drill style–historically Western, White, and Capitalist), what would a yoga class look like? How can we really teach yoga, the practice, rather than yoga, the exercise routine? What is the best way to educate someone on the essence of yoga? I’m not entirely sure the best answers to these questions, but I’ll share some of my ideas to get the dialogue going.

Utilize a variety of instruction formats.

I think it’s important not just to teach (or learn) one way. We can get at multiple viewpoints by utilizing different formats for our teaching and learning methods. We can learn a great deal about sequencing from taking (and teaching) choreographed sequences of poses. And sometimes we can learn about poses through sequencing, particularly by building towards a more complicated pose by practicing poses that are part of the complex pose in a sequence which leads up to the peak challenge pose. But we can also learn a great deal from one-on-one instruction, from exploring one pose in depth using a workshop format, from playing around practicing with other yogis using no particular structure or format (hey, what you are doing looks like it would be fun, want to show me how?), from writings on yoga, or from talks about yoga.

Utilize technology to help students learn.

Utilizing photos or videos so students can watch or see their practice can be a great teaching tool. It can help students recognize patterns of misalignment or disconnect in their practice, while at the same time help them feel empowered by recognizing things they do with great skill and awareness that can help motivate them. A photo or video is in many ways an objective vantage point to view their practice from. It’s helpful to step out of ourselves sometimes, especially because social psychological research shows we tend to have many positive illusions, or unrealistically favorable attitudes, about ourselves. As the meme goes:

sterotypes of yoga

Technology can also be a powerful way to connect with more students. For example, utilizing video chats to teach yogis in other parts of the world (online privates or online small group classes) can allow students to connect to teachers regardless of where they live, something particularly valuable for both the student who may not have local access to a yoga instructor they like and the teacher seeking to build their business. Technology like social media can also be a great way to build a community of students that are all able to support one another and for students to learn more about their instructors and connect beyond the classroom. Being involved in social media is in many ways required in today’s yoga world, since it is often the way to build a large student base and create a more steady income flow through strategies like workshops, retreats, or online programs available for download to students (a great example of this is the Codyapp website).

Teach why.

I think sometimes we are either afraid or don’t even consider teaching why we do something a particular way. We shouldn’t shy away from explaining the why to our students, including things like why these poses, why this order, why this pace, why this alignment, why practice this length of time, why this meditation, why this adjustment. Knowing why is empowering and allows students to understand what they are doing on a deeper level, and subsequently make it their own, innovate, and be creative in their practice, as well as develop a home practice based on a sound knowledge of yoga. Many students want to deepen their practices yet struggle with having the knowledge they need to do so. Give it to them, or provide them with a resource they can use to learn about it on their own. Teaching why can also help us realize our own preconceptions and deepen our own knowledge when as teachers we realize we don’t even know why we do something a particular way.

Talk (and read) about yoga.

I think so often we forget that it takes talking with other people for us to think through things and come to our own conclusions. Narration is a powerful way for us to come to know something; sometimes we need to explore something verbally for it to become clear for us, so having space to dialogue about yoga, ask questions, think about what you have learned beyond just the physical exercise practice is important. Many students can benefit simply from talking about the practice, what the practice means to different yogis, what people have written about yoga, what types of insights we can gain from yoga, what certain yogic ideas mean. Similarly, reading about yoga can profoundly deepen our understanding of yoga as well (as both teachers and students).

Encourage students to be self-reflexive.

Without having any expectations, encourage students to think on and share what they have learned from a particular lesson or practice. In other words, encourage students to be self-reflexive about their practice and allow them to learn from their own experiences rather than interpreting those experiences for them. This can also help develop body awareness and mindfulness in other areas of their life.

Make yoga pleasurable and fun.

Encourage students to move from a place of pleasure and joy, to explore how their own bodies like to move, to become aware of their body signals, and to have fun with the process of yoga and worry less about looking perfectly choreographed and graceful all the time. Be willing to have fun with yoga in addition to the more serious meditative movement.

Practice moving within poses, then practice stillness.

Many times students don’t have body awareness of what proper alignment is. Standard classes often focus on holding a pose in stillness or on moving in only one direction within a pose for several breaths before transitioning to a different posture, but both of these methods can be limiting. Many times this type of queuing is a result of the quick pace that has become popular in most yoga class and/or teachers perpetuating instructions they heard from their own teachers or in their teacher trainings. Many teachers go too quickly for students to become deeply aware of their alignment in a pose, or they only plan to do a pose once in a sequence so there is no opportunity for students to repeat and build on the first appearance of the posture. For example, in warrior II we often encourage students to drop down deeper in the legs while holding the upper body in stillness. But when we fall into this trap of teaching using a “normal format” we may completely ignore encouraging students to move their upper body in ways that help them achieve (and understand) proper, neutral, and open alignment throughout the spine and shoulders. We may also completely ignore how much weight is being held in each leg, and many students often place too much weight towards the front rather than creating a balance between the effort of the front and back leg.

It is empowering to explore poses by moving within them in ways that help students discover body awareness and find neutral alignment for their bodies, and helps students uncover the why behind the pose. So for warrior II, maybe you can encourage your students to pull their upper body back (towards a reverse warrior) and then forward (towards extended side angle) while opening the shoulders, repeating that motion until they are able to locate their neutral spine and a feeling of openness in their shoulders and chest. Or encourage them to shift their weight more toward the front leg and then more toward the back leg until they are able to sense a balance in effort, and then drop down deeper in the legs. Once they are able to find their neutral position, only then encourage stillness. Stillness without exploration can miss the point of an entire pose. What we need is to move within poses until we find the point where being still becomes a practice in meditation, playing with our edge, and proper alignment and body awareness.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

The Origins of Yoga: Part IV

This post is the third in a series about myths surrounding the origins of yoga. You can read Part I here on yoga in Ancient Egypt, Part II here on the 5,000-year-old yoga myth, and Part III here on exactly how old postural yoga is.

This final post in my series of articles on the origins of yoga has been a long time coming. To be honest, this was a daunting post for me to write because it addresses why origin myths have been so widely adopted and spread within yoga today despite the fact that they are fictions. And this is a difficult question to answer. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts in this series, I ended part III asking: Why do so many yogis believe in origin narratives of yoga that trace postural yoga to some ancient tradition? What purpose do these myths serve? What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?” So let’s try to tackle the real, although messy, answers to these questions.

Why do so many yogis believe in origin narratives of yoga that trace postural yoga to some ancient tradition? What purpose do these myths serve?

There are a number of reasons why yogis believe in and perpetuate origin myths about yoga. First, origin narratives provide for shared experiences of group members that promote unity and social solidarity within a group. These narratives may or may not be true, as we saw in the case of yoga, but regardless they are usually simplified into a more easily digested version of a common, public history and become part of our collective memory, or the “memories” shared by all members of a group. So origin narratives allow for people to bond and feel a sense of social identification with the group as a whole and with other community members, where the group is incorporated into our sense of self and the self is experienced as an integral part of the the group. (As such, origin narratives actually provide us with a means of identity formation as well as group membership.) Benedict Anderson called this process the creation of imagined community, or a community that is socially constructed and imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. While members of the community will never know each of the other members personally, they are bonded together through similar interests and identification as part of the same group, united by collective memories of a shared history.

In the case of yoga, these origin narratives have become institutionalized as required instruction in teacher training programs throughout the United States and subsequently spread throughout the yoga world. Origin narratives within the yoga community allow us to bond together as part of a group of like-minded individuals who all have the same collective memory of yoga, and can therefore feel solidarity over our mutual identification as yogis, and a recognition that we all have something in common. (“Hi, I’m a yogi! You’re a yogi too? Awesome, let’s go do some headstands and talk about the eight limbs of yoga.”) For particular groups within yoga, like yogis of color who are often marginalized in the whitewashed Western yoga world, origin myths like the one I wrote about in Part I of this series, which claims yoga dates back to ancient Egypt, are a way to create a subgroup that seeks to reclaim yoga as a black practice. But the result is the same in both instances, as the Egypt origin narrative provides this subgroup of yogis with a means to bond and unite through shared (black) history.

So much for the first reason so many people believe in these myths. I think the second reason is related to a crisis of faith and spiritual commitment that has beset modern societies. There have been a huge number of studies documenting the decline of organized religion and the rise of those who are “spiritual but not religious.” In 2012 the PEW research center even published a much discussed poll that showed the increase of religiously unaffiliated people in America. This isn’t to say that no one is sticking with traditional religions–the majority of citizens in the United States do still religiously identify. But the number who don’t is rising, and younger generations are much more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. Add the fact that those who are religiously unaffiliated are also two times more likely to be liberal, and overwhelmingly believe that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics and we start to get an idea of the type of person that opts out of traditional religions.

In a modern world where organized religions continue to contradict science or support political policies that oppose liberal values of human rights, many Americans are beginning to opt out of the religious system entirely. But as social beings, we often still desire the meaning, community, and purpose that religion provides. Yoga has become a vehicle for many highly educated, religiously unaffiliated yet spiritually inclined individuals to fulfill these desires. And indeed, many yogis argue that yoga provides a sense of spiritually, meaning, and ritual within our spiritually bereft modern world that can be fast-paced, stressful, and anxiety-producing for many individuals. Many yoga practitioners describe “finding yoga” in ways that mirror spiritual discussions of “finding God,” and openly claim that yoga serves religious purposes within their lives. Origin narratives in yoga are seen as “proof” that modern postural yoga has spiritual roots, and a sign of authenticity for individuals trying to navigate a world of mass information.

What’s ironic is that while many may argue yoga is a 10,000 year old practice that has evolved over time to be the perfect solution and ailment to our modern conditions of high-stress insecure employment, postural yoga is a modern invention. It’s also ironic because yoga and other mindfulness practices have largely been used to prop up unsustainable practices of capitalism. The article by Purser and Loy on mcmindfulness is too good not to quote directly:

“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots… Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life… Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals…Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.”

In other words, as I’ve mentioned before yoga and other practices of mindfulness are often co-opted by corporate interests to avoid actually solving systemic problems. While mindfulness practices can help people learn to cope with the chronic stress and trauma in their lives, learning how to cope doesn’t eliminate or solve the real problem: that chronic stress or trauma has become normalized as a way of life in America. Simply teaching people to “cope” with problems caused by structural failure acts like a stop-gap measure, mitigating the effects of much larger problems that can only be solved by structural change and activism. Yet as the above quote notes, when some people try to promote a more socially responsible viewpoint most practitioners (who often are coming from a place of privilege) are quick to play the “authentic yoga is about non-judgement” card, implying that drawing attention to systemic problems is unnecessarily politicizing what mindfulness practices “should” be about. Such disturbing arguments are often based on fictional ideas of the origin of yoga: origin myths.

What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?”

The most important implications of the true history of yoga for our practice is the realization that yoga has never been just one definitive thing. Yoga has always been multiple and various, and has undergone a very drastic and complex evolution over time. What yoga is has changed at different moments in history for different groups to meet their needs and desires at that social and historical moment in time. So acknowledging that yoga is in fact a modern invention doesn’t make the meaning we get from the practice is any less real or authentic. Authenticity is socially constructed, so the fact that origin narratives widespread in the field now are myths doesn’t make postural yoga “inauthentic.” It makes it the latest evolution in a very long and complex process of cultural diffusion, innovation, and (admitably) appropriation. Acknowledging that the history of yoga is a history of evolution means that we should be able to consciously, purposely mold yoga to be what it needs to be for our group(s), at this time, to meet our needs and desires.

For example, if we admit yoga is a modern invention, then why not admit that some of the myths we’ve been adhering to might not be serving all yogis, or meeting all our needs and desires? Why not consciously change yoga to be more accessible and welcoming for all people and groups? Accepting and being actively involved in the evolution of yoga means we could adjust our asana practice to include more biomechanics and movement patterns rather than relying on “yoga speak” that tries to sound “authentically” ancient and wise but actually has no basis in science, or ancient yogic practices. Or maybe we and could begin to use yoga as a force for social change to combat structural problems. You get the idea? Abandoning yoga origin myths creates the possibility to consciously change yoga for the better since we are no longer locked in to ideas of what yoga should be, and frankly striving to improve yoga is a very yogic goal to have. I think the yoga world is ready to adopt a more accurate origin narrative for yoga, and that doing so could ultimately change yoga into something better, more powerful, more meaningful, and more relevant to our needs and desires.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤