Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yoga Origin Story, Part 1

This is my first attempt at a "serious" post since all the talking-shit-about-neither-here-nor-there posts of the last few days. It's hard to come up with a "serious"post with the beginning of the semester, when a million and one things are clambering for one's attention, and it feels like a million and one people are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. But at some point, one has to draw the line, and say, "Enough is enough. Good writing (or at least what I hope is good writing) must abide." So here goes.

This post is inspired by a recent article by Laura Miller on Elephant Journal titled "What's Your Yoga Origin Story?" (Many thanks to Claudia for bringing my attention to this article). The basic premise of Miller's article (which I vehemently disagree with) is that the nature of our yoga practice will never transcend our starting point. As Miller herself puts it,

"no matter how long we practice, what our practice is about is implicit in its origin story. If you want to know about a person’s practice, ask him why he began it.... If you began Yoga because you wanted to perfect yourself, your practice is always going to be about perfection, either achieving it or deliberately abjuring it, but it will always have perfection as a touchstone. If you began the practice because you wanted to have superpowers, your Yoga is always going to be in some right about acquiring and displaying power and achievement.If you began Yoga because you are a generational yogi and one of your parents did it, your practice will always have your parents about it. If you began Yoga to be a rebel? To heal from body image issues or disease or addiction? To find religion? To have a great ass? You get the picture."

As I mentioned, I strongly disagree with Miller. One of the very first tenets of yoga that I encountered from the earliest days of my practice is, "Yoga allows one to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy graceful." Yes, I understand that this line is also attributed to Feldenkrais, but I think it very succinctly expresses the objective and spirit of yoga practice for myself, and, I suspect, for many other yogis out there as well. The basic idea is that through consistent and assiduous practice, we can draw upon the transformative power of tapas to alter and eventually free ourselves from the samskaras that have defined our lives for so long.

But if Miller is right that our practices will never transcend our starting point, it would imply that no amount of practice can alter the samskaras that we thought defined us at the starting point. Genuine self-transformation would then be impossible. What, then, would be the point of practicing? (Need I say more?)

Of course, there might be another sense in which our practice never transcends its starting point. For example, I might start doing yoga because I wanted to heal a particular injury or treat a particular medical condition. Somewhere along the way, I healed my injury, and also discovered that there is much more to the practice than its medical benefits. I might discover its spiritual benefits: For instance, I might discover that it makes me a more accepting person who is more able to embrace differences in others. One can claim that there is a sense in which my practice is still about injury healing: By claiming that my practice is NO LONGER about injury healing, I am implicitly acknowledging the influence of this starting point on my practice and my life; thus, in this sense, my practice still has not transcended my starting point. Or so one might claim.

But surely this is a stretch. To acknowledge that something is my starting point and relate my present state of practice and being to it is not to identify myself with that starting point. (Bob Weisenberg made this same point in his comment on Miller's article). Indeed, genuine transformation can only begin when one first accepts the reality of one's starting point and relates oneself to it. But to accept and to relate is not to identify. And so long as one does not identify, transcendence is an active possibility.


  1. Ridiculous. Didn't go read the article and can't be bothered to!

  2. Yes, Susan, my sentiments exactly. Although in my case, being who I am, I actually read the article :-)

  3. ridiculous, yes, but if there is some truth to it, then my yoga origins aren't that bad for me. i started yoga because a childhood friend who I respect inmensely has done it all of his life- as does his wife. they lead exemplary lives. now, that's not such a bad beginning. oh, what does that mean, i have to lead an exemplary life? oh oh. that's a lot of sacrifice. haha.