Monday, July 11, 2011

What is the blogosphere for?

I would like to say a few things about a question that has emerged recently in the blogosphere: Why blog? In a very well-written and thoughtful recent post, Carol Horton writes about why blogging adds value to our personal practices and to the yoga community as a whole. I'll start by considering Horton's insights, and then pose my own question, which is, roughly: What is the blogosphere for?

Horton writes:

"Contemporary yoga practice (at least in North America, the only terrain I really know) is unbalanced. There’s an excessively heavy emphasis on asana, while other aspects of practice remain relatively undeveloped... with the centrality of asana comes an insidious tendency to replicate the weird combo of bodily obsession and disassociation that dominates mainstream culture. Sure, the yoga community earnestly talks the talk of body-mind-spirit integration. Frankly, however, I think we’re still pretty far away from walking the walk.

Certainly, there’s a lot of focus on developing the body through asana and associated practices (e.g., healthy eating, bodywork, outfitting ourselves in cool yoga gear). There’s relatively little emphasis, however, on similarly developing the mind. True, there’s a lot of detailed study of anatomy. Beyond such bodily focused thinking, however, the yoga community has generally hummed along to the tune of “get out of your head” in ways that start to sound suspiciously like “turn off your brain.”

Consequently, the spiritual dimensions of yoga – which are commonly, although not necessarily, tapped into through asana practice – are all-too-often cognitively untethered, divorced from the more rational, analytical, or simply questioning parts of our minds. As a result, there’s a pronounced tendency to shoot straight from a more purely physical practice way too far out into the Woo."

What Horton says here is very insightful. However, I wonder if her words may not go down so well with some Ashtangis. After all, Guruji famously says, "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." I suppose there is more than one way to interpret this statement, but one could understand this to mean that the major insights and breakthroughs of yoga (i.e. the ones that lead to genuine growth) are the ones that come to us through the course of the practice; these insights are so profound and esoteric that words can never hope to do justice to them (for the record: I don't have any such insights, beyond maybe being able to tell you a few things about how to say, open your hips safely, or avoid certain injuries, simply because, being the reckless egotistical person that I am, I have suffered my fair share of such things.)

All of this makes the practice something whose greatest gifts can only be felt and perceived, not expressed through words. Which is a very beautiful thing. But I think it is possible to take this line to an extreme, and dismiss any attempt to talk about the practice as "mere theorizing". Which strikes me as being a rather strange position to be taking. Why? We are beings who do things in the world; at the same time, we also think, reflect and talk about these things that we do in the world. We talk about our day at work, about what we had for lunch, the movie we saw last night, the asshole who cut us off in traffic, etc, etc. Yoga is also a thing that we do in the world. Why not talk about it? Or maybe the idea is that the only things worth talking about are the nuts and bolts of the practice: how to get into such and such asana, anatomical issues, injuries (how to avoid them, how to heal from them if you have them, etc., etc.). Anything beyond these are intangible things that cannot be adequately expressed by words; indeed, any attempt to talk about these things may well result in misunderstanding and/or misinterpretation, which is dangerous.  Perhaps this reluctance to go beyond these things is also motivated by a certain relativistic mindset: You are just as entitled to your version of the truth as I am entitled to mine. Who am I to impose my version of the truth on you by talking about my insights as if they are to be universally accepted (and vice versa)?

So, on this line of thinking, we should only restrict ourselves to talking about the very tangible nuts and bolts of the practice, and pass over everything else in silence. After all, the nuts-and-bolts are things that we can be pretty sure everybody needs to do their practice; moreover, being very physical and tangible in nature, they can be empirically and objectively verified, leaving no room for the sort of messy, contentious to-and-fro that often arises with discussions about spiritual matters. Hmm... sometimes I wonder if this is why I myself tend to writes mostly about such things :-)

But talking only about nut-and-bolt issues results, in Horton's words, in "other aspects of practice [remaining] relatively undeveloped...", so that beyond bodily focused thinking, 'the yoga community has generally hummed along to the tune of “get out of your head” in ways that start to sound suspiciously like “turn off your brain.”' So if Horton is right, there is then a need for an avenue in which yogis can think and reflect on their practices, and use the insights gained from such reflection to enrich their practice. And the blogosphere has at least the potential to serve this function; in this way, the blogosphere can serve as a tool through which contemporary yogis living in an increasingly fragmented world can connect, develop a community, and help one another  to develop the remaining seven limbs of the yoga practice.

Fair enough. I actually like this idea very much. (I really do; I'm not being sarcastic). But something tells me that if the yoga blogosphere is to fulfill such an exalted function, we are going to need more objective standards for evaluating discussions of the spiritual aspects of the practice in the blogosphere. I do not know how these standards should be drawn up, or who should decide what these standards are (I think this "who" question is the really sticky one; why should person A or person B get to be the arbiter of all things spiritual?). But I can't get over the feeling that some set of objective standards needs to be in place if the blogosphere is to be able to step up to the plate, so to speak, and fulfill its lofty potential as a provider of spiritual resources. Yeah, I can already hear some of you out there hurling silent (or maybe not-so-silent) accusations about me trying to be the "spirituality police", or something to that effect. But before you hurl your e-stones at me, allow me to briefly categorize the kinds of blogs I have observed so far in my short time as a blogger (I only started blogging in October 2010). Most blogs do not fall neatly into one of these categories. More often, they fall into two or more of the categories below; for instance, in my estimation, this blog probably falls under both (1) and (3), with a little of (2) and (5) mixed in. The purpose of this categorization is also not to make any value judgment as to what kind of blog is "better". There are different kinds of blogs out there with different kinds of content, and I just try to tell it like it is. So, in my humble opinion, these are the categories:

(1) The tell-everything-under-the-sun blog:  As the name suggests, in this kind of blog, the blogger basically says anything that strikes his or her fancy at that particular moment in time. Sometimes there is some kind of an attempt to relate whatever is being said to yoga, sometimes not.

(2) The pseudo-private journal/blog: This kind of blog is similar to (1) in many ways. The blogger basically says anything and everything that strikes his or her fancy at any particular moment in time. The difference is that the pseudo-private journal/blog usually has a more uncensored or unedited feel to it; the blogger is usually quite unreserved about venting or ranting or otherwise expressing his or her raw feelings about certain things in the immediate environment that either piss him or her off greatly, or make him or her super-ecstatic. 

(3) The provider of nuts-and-bolts-information-about-yoga blog: In this kind of blog, the blogger tries to provide a service to the community by providing objectively verifiable information that he or she thinks would add value to readers' lives. Specifically, with yoga blogs, the idea is to provide objectively verifiable information that the reader can then use to further and enrich his or her yoga practice.

(4) The purveyor of all-kinds-of-information-about-yoga blog: This is somewhat similar to (3), except that it is more ambitious: In addition to providing nuts-and-bolts-information about yoga practice, it also tries as far as possible to provide unbiased reporting on developments in the yoga/spiritual community, in the hope that this information would help the seeker of spirituality become better-informed, and thus be in a better position to make sound decisions about his or her spiritual paths.

(5) Humor/satire blogs: These blogs seek to entertain and provoke by offering satire and spoofs of developments in the yoga/spiritual community. 

(6) Blogs run by recognized senior teachers/figures in the spiritual community: As the name implies, these are blogs run by senior teachers or well-known spiritual figures who usually already have an established teaching career independently of their online presence. They use their blogs as an additional avenue to reach out to more people, and to provide information and resources to both existing and potential students.

Again, I want to emphasize that the purpose of coming up with these categories is not to make any kind of judgment as to which kind of blog is "better". Indeed, if we compare the blogosphere to a garden with many different kinds of flowers blooming, each of these kinds of blogs are valuable in their own right. But if the blogosphere is to be more than simply a garden, if it aspires to be a "vegetable farm" of spirituality which seeks to provide well-rounded nutrition to the spiritual seeker hungering for spiritual nourishment, we would surely need a more systematic and objective way of organizing the blogosphere, so that the seeker of spirituality does not consume too much of one kind of plant, or too little of another (or God forbid, gets poisoned by eating poisonous toadstools... well, maybe this analogy has gone too far... my apologies :-)).

Perhaps, looking at my categories, one might say that only (6) can qualify to serve as a "certified provider" of spiritual nourishment: After all, it can be argued, the established teacher running the blog already has a proven "track record" (excuse the mundane language) of providing reliable spiritual guidance to a sizable number of students. But if this is so, then it is the particular established teacher in question, and not the blogosphere as an independent entity, that has the ability to provide spiritual guidance. In this sense, the blogosphere is dependent (some might even say parasitic) for its worth on the "spiritual power" of these established teachers. All of the rest of us bloggers are just... flotsam (or worse... but I'm fine with that; I've never claimed to be anything lofty.).

So, to conclude, I guess what I'm saying is this: While I agree with Horton that the blogosphere has the potential to offer us the spiritual resources to carry out the other seven limbs of our yoga practice, I think that, given its present state, it is not yet capable of fulfilling this potential. But maybe you already knew this all along. Well, then, why the hell did I just spend half an afternoon writing this? For your entertainment and mine, of course! :-) Many thanks for reading this.        


  1. Yes blogging in my opinion is still in its infancy, in my reply post to carol I discussed how I think the internet has made possible something that had not happened for a looong time, which is to have different schools and practitioners discuss yoga out in the open, and compare notes, chat, comment... I have learned lots of things about yoga from categories 3 to 6.

    I think there is something very especial about practitioners wrestling with the practice first hand and opening the door for others to see, and I believe that sometimes the very advanced practitioners may forget how it was in the beginning, hence the blogsphere providing a bit of a "stepping stone"

    It is a wonderful discussion, glad to see you posted your ideas too :-)

  2. Yes, interesting point you bring up, Claudia. In many ways, the blogosphere is indeed still in its infancy. But if we look at it from the perspective of encouraging healthy dialogue and debate among practitioners of different schools, I think we can say that the blogosphere may well indicate that the contemporary yoga community has reached a particular milestone in its development; a move from relatively isolated communities practicing by themselves to a more mature global community. Very exciting :-)

    I miss writing this kind of "thinking aloud" posts. I should do this more often :-)

  3. Very interesting! I'm glad that Carol initiated this conversation on elephant, and I love the enrichment that you've provided.

    I agree with you and Claudia that the yoga blogosphere is still in its infancy. I think this is what makes the community so interesting: the challenge to live up to its potential.

    I think that the power of blogging (in general, not just about yoga) is that it democratizes information, and makes people's stories and experiences accessible and available to everyone. Previously, only established teachers had the vehicle to publish their ideas and experiences, primarily through magazines and books. But blogging makes it possible for us all to learn from each other, no matter where we are on the path. I find this incredibly exciting.

    I have to say that I love your categorization, and I think it's very astute. You should make a poll! Or, even more ambitious, some kind of quiz so that bloggers can answer some skill-testing questions to determine what category they fall under.

    I think my blog might be a 4...

  4. yikes. i guess i'm one in your ranking. but one is a good number. i'm not good at ranting because, if you meet me in person you would know, i don't display anger easily. which one are you? you need a category for analysis of it all.

    i started blogging because of calorie restriction, not yoga, then found the online yoga community. i felt i needed to write about my life. i'm too complicated to only write about one thing. but yoga and spirituality is definitely a big part of my life.

    a friend who was a professional writer - he's a business consultant now - said that the best blogs where those that mixed everything. sometimes people tried to maintain different blogs for the different interests in their lives. but he thought it made more interesting reading if a blog mixed all the facets of the person's life.

    cheers (and keep up your good analizes.)


  5. Oh God, please don't tell me we have to take our Chitta vritti's seriously now. Quite enjoy reminding my critics in comments that it's just a blog and of no import. Our readers don't take us TOO seriously most of the time do they, were just playing here, no? The thinking it through happens after we hit publish, for me at least, sitting back there reading it through with my readers wondering along with them if I agree with what I've written. Hell I'll probably contradict myself the following week.
    Who was that great American blogger, Walt somebody, think he was on wordpress, Leaves of grass, that was it. Said something along the lines of 'do I
    contradict myself, so be it, I embrace all contradictions.' strikes me as a good motto for bloggers everywhere.
    That's the joy of blogging isn't it.

    Nice when we come up with a good post every now and again and when something stikes a chord with a reader but I'm not sure bloggers should be thinking too much about their readers, we all slip into it occasionally of course but think it skews the whole process somehow.

  6. Just had the best void verification ever, Noble
    SODIT : )

  7. Walt Whitman was a blogger, haha, he wrote Leaves of Grass. haha. We're in good company. Gee I have to stop hahaing.

  8. Hello Roseanne, yes, it is definitely true that blogging (and social media in general) has the power to democratize information and knowledge, making the transfer of knowledge among individuals less hierarchical in nature. I also think that with blogging and social media, exchange of information acquires a more "real-time", spontaneous feel. Which has advantages and disadvantages, I think. But all in all, I think it is always better to have one more mode of expression rather than one less.

    A quiz sounds like a great idea. I don't have much experience in designing insightful quiz questions. But I'll see what I can do :-)

    I really enjoy reading your blog, and your insightful posts :-)

  9. Yes, Arturo, one is a good number :-) Yes, I agree with your friend that a blog would make for more interesting reading if it brought together different facets of the blogger's life. Besides, personally, I just don't have the time to start another blog :-) I would describe my blog as being both (1) and (3), with a little of (2) and (5) mixed in.

  10. Good points you bring up, Grimmly. Should the blogosphere only be an outlet for all our Chitta vrttis, or can it evolve/develop into a good source of information to guide us on the path of practice? Of course, I suppose one could take a really hard-line interpretation of the "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" dictum, and say that 99% of all talk is chitta vrtti. In which case, the blogosphere would simply be a repository of chitta vrtti, nothing more :-)

    I suspect that I love blogging so much because it allows me to contradict myself without committing some kind of literary/academic faux pas :-) But then again, if life is full of contradictions anyway, why not let this be reflected in the writing (and blogging)? Is there always a need to try so hard to "clean up" our writing?

    SODIT, hahaha...

    I like the idea as Walt Whitman as the first non-blogging blogger... Makes me feel good about what I'm doing :-)

  11. Reading yours and Claudia's posts, along with the discovery new, independent food magazines the past couple of days got me thinking that there is enough talent, passion and content in the yoga blogosphere for a yoga magazine that lies between YJ and Namarupa in terms of tone and content. An Ashtanga magazine perhaps, one that features a mix of stuff - asanas, pranayamas, philosophy, personal experiences, workshop recaps, book/product reviews, teacher interviews, updates from KPJAYI...basically an amalgamation of everything in the Ashtanga yoga blogosphere at the moment, but in print, issued quarterly for US$10 a copy. Judging by the number of yoga blogs that exist today, there's definitely an audience for this content - it's just about putting it case anyone is looking for a new project ;)

  12. Hello savasanaaddict, I have been thinking a little about your idea of a print Ashtanga magazine that features a mix of the stuff that we see now in the blogosphere. I think this is a very nice idea :-) I'm just not sure who is going to do the work of deciding what gets to be in this publication, and other assorted logistical details... But maybe these things can be ironed out? It's a very interesting idea; a geeky "blogazine" that is not quite as austere as Namarupa, but isn't all glossy and s&$t, like YJ :-)

  13. Thanks so much for such an in-depth and interesting response to my blog about blogging! You raise lots of intriguing and important points. Too many in fact to response to fully in just a comment, so I'll just try to hit on just a few in order to keep it short(-ish) :)

    I'm not an Ashtanga practitioner, although I did take Ashtanga classes for a year, learned the primary series, and started my home practice that way. So I am familiar with the "99% practice" dictum and have wondered about its fit (or lack thereof) with my commitment to integrating the "mind" part of myself into the "body" and "spirit" dimensions of yoga (and life).

    Speaking personally, I found that it was denying too much of my authentic self NOT to start thinking in depth about yoga once I had had so many amazing experiences on the mat. There was (and is) a natural curiosity and interest. Squelching that felt (and still feels) wrong.

    I found, however, that initially I was somewhat fearful of starting to really question and reflect on my on-the-mat experience. Would I lose or water it down if I shifted into "thinking" mode? Would I become disillusioned if I read books such as "Yoga Body"?

    I have found the answer to be a resounding "NO." On the contrary, for me, feeling completely free to think about, talk about, write about, and otherwise process, extend, and share my asana-based experiences has been very, very positive. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I now consider it part of my personal practice.

    Does this mean that I think that everyone "should" do this? Certainly not. BUT I do think that holding back based on fear (which is most likely unconscious and unexamined) isn't good. Also, rejecting writing or thinking about yoga based simply on some pronouncement by an external authority is extremely disempowering - and also ultimately fear-based (e.g., if I don't do what I'm told I'll lose my experience).

    In short, I feel that for some people, an activity like yoga blogging can be a fruitful part of practice; for others, writing and/or reading yoga blogs may simply not be of interest, which is totally fine as long as that's what's truly authentic for them, and not based on "shouldn'ts" or "cant's" that come from some unexamined place.

    Finally, I think that connecting practitioners across different methods, philosophies, etc. who do share an interest in blogging and related activities could be incredibly enriching for the yoga world as a whole.

    If you're drawn to quality arbitration, I'd follow up on savasanaddict's idea of an online magazine, as that would have a stronger presence than an individual blogger and allow for a circumscribed forum of conversation.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  14. Hello Carol,
    I am very happy and honored to hear from the very person who started this whole conversation in the first place :-)

    I interpret the 99% practice dictum to mean that so long as one consistently does a practice that is appropriate for one, that takes care of the 99% practice component; one is then free to spend the rest of one's day exploring the remaining 1% theory, which includes yogging :-)

    You bring up a very salient issue here: The issue of respect for tradition/surrender of the student to the role of the teacher vs. blind obedience to authority/holding back due to fear. I believe a certain degree of humility and surrender is necessary for genuine spiritual growth, but it is not easy to know when this shades over into acting (or not acting) out of fear. I don't know where exactly to draw the line; in fact, I struggle with this issue frequently. At the very least, this is good material for a future post :-)

    I am really drawn to the idea of an online magazine. But I have no experience with editing or any of the logistic stuff related to such an endeavor; and there are also my professional responsibilities to take care of. But hey, I said exactly these same things about blogging before I became a blogger! If you have any useful information about how to go about gathering resources in this direction, I'll love to hear from you. Feel free to email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com

  15. interesting attempt to perceive the differing modes people are taking toward communicating in their blogs and writings, nicely done thanks ;-)

    also, wanted to ditto the following from carol's comment above,

    "..I found that it was denying too much of my authentic self NOT to start thinking in depth about yoga once I had had so many amazing experiences on the mat. There was (and is) a natural curiosity and interest. Squelching that felt (and still feels) wrong. "

    and just for disclosure, where do i feel i currently fit in?

    geez, you know, it's probably an eclectic shifting blend of most 1-3, with touches of 4 & 5, but nowhere near anything of # 6

    i'll have to "think" about it a bit more i guess ;-)

    had held your post nearly a week (along with an article from brooks hall on ej) - wasn't sure it was gonna be worthwhile, but both your article and the comment thread definitely were, thanks again nobel

  16. Thanks for your input, Adan. Yes, I agree that it would be unnatural, even inauthentic, not to find some way of expressing one's thoughts and feelings about something (yoga) that plays such a big transformational role in one's life.

  17. Finally, I think, across the different methods, philosophy, and others have agreed to blog-related activities and interests to connect employees, as a whole yoga world, incredibly rich.


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