Thursday, April 26, 2012

Truth, subjectivity, Mysore, and the practice

"The absurd is the measure of the intensity of faith in inwardness. There is a man who wants to have faith... He wants to have faith, but he also wants to ensure himself with the help of an objective inquiry and its approximation-process. What happens? With the help of the approximation-process, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it becomes extremely and exceedingly probable. Now he believes it, and he boldly supposes that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but only after long consideration. Now he is prepared to believe it, but lo and behold, now it has become impossible to believe it. The almost probable, the very probable, the extremely and exceedingly probable: that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a greater degree and exceedingly almost know--but believe it, that is impossible, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith, and only that can be believed."

Soren Kiekegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript    

A few days ago, I finally got around to reading the New Yorker article about Ashtanga Yoga by Rebecca Mead that was published in 2000. Many thanks to Steve over at the Confluence Countdown for providing a link to this article in a recent post; I had wanted to read this article for the longest time, but did not know how to access it without subscribing to the New Yorker (being the cheapie that I am, I simply wasn't willing to renew my lapsed subscription to the magazine just to read this article).

Being a somewhat regular New Yorker reader, I find the tone of the article to be very much in keeping with the periodical's usual left-of-center skepticism towards any movement that is spiritual and/or religious, especially any such movement that involves the participation and endorsement of Hollywood celebrities. I would have even gone as far as to pronounce this a healthy skepticism, if--and this is a very big if--it weren't for the fact that I happen to be personally involved in the movement: As most of you know, I am only a Mysore trip away from being a full-fledged card-carrying Ashtanga Fundamentalist... well actually, let me amend that! In my excitement about my upcoming Mysore trip, I have forgotten that you don't actually have to have been to Mysore to be a legit Ashtanga Fundamentalist (see this post); please accept my apologies here.

Okay... so I am a card-carrying Ashtanga Fundamentalist (some day, I should write a post about what exactly makes an Ashtanga Fundamentalist an Ashtanga Fundamentalist...but this will have to wait). Being the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am, I find it more difficult to approach this article with the usual detached interest that I would normally approach any kind of reporting about spiritual or religious movements. Why? Because there is an entire universe of difference between observing a spiritual or religious movement from the outside as a disinterested outsider, and looking at the same movement from the inside, so to speak, as somebody who has a significant emotional/psychological stake in it. Consider the following excerpt from the article:

"A good number of the students I met were first-timers in India, and some of them thought of visiting Mysore the way a devout Catholic regards a trip to the Vatican... Most of the students had made sacrifices
in order to practice yoga: once you become an Ashtangi, I was told, you don't want to go out at night, you don't want to eat rich meals or drink alcohol; your non-yogic friends start thinking that you are no fun. One of the constant topics of conversation among the students was whether you could have a satisfying yoga practice and also have a more conventional life: a job, a home, a spouse, a family. The general consensus seemed to be no."

From a purely objective point of view, many things in this passage are probably true. For instance, it is probably true that many people who make the trip to Mysore for the first time go with some level of expectation that it would be a life-changing experience on some level (otherwise, why bother?); I'm not quite sure what to say about the comparison with the Vatican, though. It is also probably true that many (if not all) of the lifestyle changes (giving up meat and alcohol, going to bed early) that Ashtangis undertake are regarded as sacrifices, even austerities from an "objective" outside perspective. I don't quite know what to make about that part about having a more "conventional" life... I mean, many Mysore-going Ashtangis that I know do have families and spouses and jobs... sure, it is a big challenge to juggle all of this and go to Mysore every year, but, well, what life doesn't have challenges? But I suppose we also have to remember that things were very different back in 2000, when this article was written: We have to remember that in pre-911 and pre-great-recession days, the "conventional life" (which, I'm guessing, also includes having a "real" job, a car and a mortgage, and all that good stuff) held far more sway in the minds of most people than today... (need I say more?)   

In any case, I get the sense that somebody who previously knew nothing about Ashtanga would quite probably conclude after reading this article that Ashtangis very likely belong to some bizarre cult whose members undergo ridiculous austerities (i.e. imposing great restrictions on their lifestyles and diet) in order to go to some little city in South India, where they wake up every morning at some ungodly hour to do a set of very strenuous physical exercises that may or may not be good for one's body and mind, under the watchful eyes of this Indian guy they call "Guruji"... Oh, and speaking of Guruji, here's a description of the man:

'When he is asked about yoga, Jois doesn't dwell on God or the possibility of enlightenment. Instead, he talks about how yoga is good for maintaining physical health. He seems to regard the global spread of his discipline as only to be expected, given its efficacy. There's much about the popularity of Ashtanga, though, that Jois doesn't like, and the thing that he seems to like the least is other people making money from his system. Jois has a particular animus against Beryl Bender Birch, the author of the popular book "Power Yoga," a very accessible guide that is based upon the Ashtanga series. "Only money-making," Jois told me sternly. (In reply, Birch says, "My objective was to bring this system to mainstream America, to a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have been comfortable trying yoga. As far as I can see, we have all benefitted from it.")'

Again, I have a feeling here that somebody who previously knew nothing about Ashtanga would quite probably conclude from reading this and other descriptions of Guruji in the article that Guruji is nothing more than a money- and power-loving (or even, dare I say, money- and power-hungry) self-made guru.

And really, who could blame the reader for having such impressions of Ashtangis and Guruji? To be quite honest, I probably would myself, if I didn't know any better. And one certainly can't accuse the reporter in this case of shoddy reportage; indeed, in the best tradition of empirical, fact-checking reporting, she actually spent some time in the spring of 2000 in Mysore, immersing herself in the Mysore Ashtanga culture. So, what gives?

What gives, in my opinion, is the difference between the detached outsider perspective, which observes and weighs everything through the lens of material gain and profit, and the insider perspective of the practitioner, which sees everything through the eyes of faith and devotion to a practice that is sacred. (Yes, yes, I do know that faith has a bad rap here in the west (see this post), but just go along with me for now. And then you can disagree later if you want to :-)). Seen from the perspective of material gain and profit, the whole idea of the Ashtanga practice and the Mysore "pilgrimage" is totally absurd: Who in their right mind would forgo meat, alcohol and lots of sex (not to mention sleep), and spend a substantial amount of money on a regular basis to go to this little Indian city to practice yoga? Yeah, these people who do these crazy things do look healthy and have a nice glow to their skin (then again, so do many cult followers...), but surely there must be ways of getting this healthy look and nice glow without subjecting oneself to such austerities (ever heard of a tanning salon?).

But we get a very different story, as many of you probably know, when we switch to the insider perspective. From this perspective, what draws us out of bed and onto the mat--and maybe, out of this country and into Mysore--is this powerful belief that this practice works for us on a deep level. Because of this belief, we willingly dive into the seeming absurdity of subjecting ourselves to uncomfortable positions, both physical and mental. We willingly subject ourselves to the absurdity of organizing our lifestyles and daily schedules around this thing that we do in the morning (or evening, as the case may be). Why do we submit ourselves to such absurdities? I'm not sure why we would, unless we believe that doing so would change us on a deep and meaningful level.

So what are we supposed to take away from all this? What is the moral of the story, if there is one? Well, I probably should leave you to decide this for yourself. But I'll venture to say this much: Perhaps in certain things in life, we simply cannot hope to get at the heart of the matter by adopting a disinterested, "objective" perspective. Perhaps, as Kierkegaard would say, some of the most important truths in life are purely subjective.          


  1. Thank you so much for the link to the New Yorker article. I too have been trying to read it (for free) for years!!