Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Can Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga be taught at the University level? Or, can we change higher education without actually changing it?

On one level, the answer to this question is: Yes. Obviously. Many colleges and universities around the country already have Ashtanga Yoga classes on their intra-mural/recreational sports programs. At the university that I teach at, students can even take yoga courses for one or two credits, in much the same way in which they could take, say, Golf 101 or Bodybuilding 101 for one or two credits (and get a proverbial easy A in the process... what's not to love about it? :-)). And actually, the University of Virginia's Intramural/recreational sports program has gone one step further: In collaboration with the Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) at UVA (which, as many of you may already know, was set up earlier this year as a result of a generous $12 million donation from Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia), the university's Intramural-Recreational Sports program will be offering a traditional Mysore Ashtanga Yoga program at the university's fitness center six days a week, taught by KPJAYI level 2 authorized teacher John Bultman.

Which is very exciting news, of course. It is really wonderful that this wonderful and powerful practice will be so widely available to college students for the first time. So on one level, the answer to the question of whether Ashtanga can be taught at a university is very simple: If the question is simply whether students at a college or university can be exposed to and taught Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in a systematic way like it is already taught in traditional Ashtanga shalas, the answer is a very straightforward yes. Obviously.  

And that's great. But the Joneses (Paul and Sonia) have much more ambitious plans in store for Ashtanga in setting up the CSC. In a recent press release, Paul Tudor Jones reveals that the CSC's mission (of which the Ashtanga program is a core component) is to serve as a center dedicated to the study of yoga, meditation and mindfulness training (I'm just going to use the acronym "YMM" to refer to these collective practices for the rest of this post), and to eventually extend these practices across all of UVA's 11 schools, so that these disciplines (of which, again, Ashtanga is a core component) will become a basic fabric of a UVA education. As Jones puts it, “UVA has had, for a number of years, remarkable expertise in different sectors... What we need now are threads to tie them together and weave them into a greater whole.” (For more details, see this article in C-ville weekly).

As I understand it, Jones's vision (and that of his brainchild, the CSC) is that YMM will be the thread that ties together all the disparate academic disciplines at UVA. Or, to use an image that most of you are probably already familiar with: If the various academic disciplines at UVA are mala beads, YMM (of which, to repeat for the umpteenth time, Ashtanga is a core component) is the sutra or thread that will tie all of them together, thus grounding all these otherwise disparate disciplines in a common theme of mindfulness.

Which sounds exciting and wonderful. Anybody who has attended college (and who didn't just party through the whole experience) will no doubt be aware of the fragmentary nature of contemporary American academia: The student is basically paying a lot of money (and very likely, getting into a lot of debt for many many years to come) to study subjects that have little to do with one another and, perhaps more importantly, often have little to do with what the student will encounter in working life after he or she graduates. I mean, when was the last time that obscure theory about organizational behavior you learned in your sophomore year useful in resolving actual conflicts in your workplace?

I really shouldn't be saying any of this; after all, I do teach in a university, and my livelihood depends on there being students who are willing, year after year, to learn these useless theories. Oh well. But let's come back to the topic at hand. In light of the current state of American academia, if the CSC succeeds in executing its ambitious mission, it would have succeeded in accomplishing a sea-change in higher education in this country, giving a much-needed human-centered foundation to what is otherwise becoming an increasingly fragmented and dehumanized (and dehumanizing) system.

But here's the hard question: Does the CSC actually have a shot at accomplishing its mission? If YMM (and Ashtanga) is to become the thread that ties together all the disparate academic disciplines, it would have to have something substantial to offer students and teachers in all these disparate fields. Something along the lines of "If you meditate/practice Ashtanga/do X-mindfulness technique everyday, you will be more effective and efficient in your work as a business student/pre-med student/scientist/professor/whatever" is simply not going to cut it. If this is all that mindfulness/meditation/Ashtanga has to offer the academic community, what difference would that be from professors and students just going for Ashtanga or meditation classes in their own spare time? Sure, the presence of the CSC (and the Mysore Ashtanga program offered by Intramural-rec sports) would make it more convenient for them to do so, but that is just a difference in degree of convenience, not a real qualitative difference in the quality of their academic experience. In other words, if the CSC (and its Ashtanga program) is going to be just a souped-up version of the fitness and wellness programs that are already available on campuses everywhere, I really don't see how it can really change UVA (and by extension, American academia) on a fundamental level.

In my very humble opinion, if the CSC is to have even the slightest chance of changing the academic environment at UVA (and, perhaps by extension, the environment of American academia in general), it would have to become more like these conventional academic programs in the way it goes about administering and teaching YMM to faculty and students. At the undergraduate level, for instance, YMM classes (including Ashtanga) will have to be accredited by some suitable accrediting body (hmm... what body would this be? Yoga Alliance? :-)). What this means is that a rubric would have to be set up for accessing students' progress in say, asana or meditation or mindfulness, just like we now have rubrics for assessing student performance in most undergraduate courses.

If you are thinking, "But wait! How can mindfulness or progress in yoga (beyond, say, being able to bind in Mari D or being able to grab one's heels in Kapotasana) be assessed by some external measure like a rubric?", you've got my point. Herein lies the biggest and, in my view, the most fundamental divide between western education, which is premised on the empirical objectivity that underlies western scientific method, and yoga and mindfulness practices, which is based on the premise that the most important achievements that an individual can attain are spiritual, subjective, and mostly not empirically measurable or testable. Sure, we all know that Krishnamacharya was able to do amazing things like stop his heart for a long time or turn the electric lights in the Mysore palace on and off using only energy transmitted from his nerve centers; all of which are feats that are measurable by modern scientific devices. But Krishnacharya himself--not to mention Patanjali--will tell you that these feats are at best superficial achievements that can distract one from the fundamental goal of yoga, which is self-realization. And self-realization, as I understand it, cannot be measured by any rubric.

But didn't Guruji originally meant for Ashtanga to be done in a research kind of way? After all, wasn't the KPJAYI originally named the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute? I believe it is with this in mind that John Campbell, the present director of the CSC, recently remarked to Sonia Jones that "one exciting way of really truly honoring the great legacy of Jois would be an academic university based research center” focused around the great master’s teachings. And according to several sources, it is this remark, among a few other things, that led Sonia and Paul to initiate the chain of events that eventuated in the setting up of the CSC.

I hate to be a wet blanket here, but I would like to respectfully suggest here that Campbell's understanding of the word "Research" in "Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute" is, well, wrong. The research that goes on in daily Ashtanga practice is a process in which one uses external things like asana as tools to look within oneself and "see" for oneself how the asana practice, as part of the tristana method, changes one's internal state of mind and spirit. To put it crudely, we can say that it is a process that leads from the outside to the inside. The research that goes on in western science, by contrast, is purely concerned with the outside. For one, western science has no place for such hocus-pocus like prana or spirit which cannot be measured by any scientific instruments (even if we can measure things like blood circulation and blood pressure, which may or may not be related to changes in prana flow). The only things that exist, as far as western science is concerned, are things that can be measured and quantified empirically; there is nothing else beyond this. In other words, there is no "inside", as far as western science is concerned. To come back to Ashtanga, what this means is that to talk about the kind of research that Guruji had in mind when he named the institute in Mysore the "Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute" in the same breath as the kind of research that goes on in western science is to make a category error; the two uses of the same word ("research") refer to two very different and diametrically opposed methodologies. It's like talking about apples and oranges. Well, actually, it's more than that; at least apples and oranges are both fruit.

I guess I better wrap this post up; it's getting way longer than a blog post is supposed to be (then again, how do you write a short post on a topic like this?). I guess the upshot is this: The only way the CSC can succeed in its mission is to have its course offerings or programs or whatnot become more like the academic programs it is supposed to bring together. In other words, become more scientific, more objectively quantifiable and measurable. And in the process, become less subjective, less spiritually-oriented, and--dare I say--less yogic. Which would, of course, defeat the purpose for which it was set up. Which is another way of saying that the CSC may very well be a self-defeating enterprise... Hey, I really don't want to be such a nay-saying wet blanket! Like many other people, I am only too painfully aware of the malaise that characterizes contemporary American academia. Like so many other people, I, too, desire to see a fundamental change in the orientation of American academia. And I would like very much to believe that the CSC is the answer to this desire. But is it, really? Well, maybe you can tell me I'm wrong. I'll love to hear from you.

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