Friday, February 1, 2013

Ashtanga and the Universalizing Drive

"Man, so long as he remains free, has no more constant and agonizing anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship. But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable, indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together. For the chief concern of those miserable creatures is not only to find something that I or someone else can worship, but to find something that all believe in and worship, and the absolutely essential thing is that they should do so all together. It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time. For the sake of that universal worship they have put each other to the sword. They have set up gods and called upon each other, 'Give up your gods and come and worship ours, or else death to you and to your gods!' And so it will be to the end of the world, even when the gods have vanished from the earth; they will prostrate themselves before idols just the same."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David Magarshack

These past couple of days, I have been rereading The Brothers Karamazov, in preparation for next week's meetings of my Introduction to Philosophy course. It might be a bit much to expect a bunch of people who are taking their first philosophy course to read Dostoyevsky, but I suppose there's something to be said for jumping in the deep end, no? And besides, I'm pretty sure that many people--or even most people, if I dare to allow myself to be a little more optimistic--will have thought about the sorts of things that Dostoyevsky brings up above at one point or other in their lives. I have this notion that even college freshmen will have pondered these questions ever so briefly (perhaps, say, after an especially hard Friday night of parties and beer-pong) in the course of their as-yet-budding academic careers. Am I right about this, or am I being the naive professor who has spent too much time in the Ivory Tower and lost touch with what college freshmen think? Well, one way or the other, I can at least hope... At any rate, I'll find out the hard way next week :-)

But as I was reading the above passage this afternoon, it also occurred to me that what I call the universalizing drive--this notion that if my belief in X is right, your belief in Y must be wrong, and therefore you are damned unless you give up your erroneous belief in Y and switch over to believing in X--is found not just in religion proper, but also in yoga, even though, as we all know, yoga is not a religion. And, I'm embarrassed to say, this universalizing drive seems to be especially virulent among practitioners of Ashtanga, or Ashtangis, as we are commonly called. Although, to be fair, it's not always easy to tell how much of this perceived Ashtangavangelism is real, and how much of it is due to the projections and distortions of the anonymity of the internet. But if "scandals" such as Kinogate and Shortshortsgate and the more recent Mysore-video-gate (which are all probably just different aspects of one big "Gate", when all is said and done) are any indication, it would seem that Ashtangis not only direct their universalizing drives to non-Ashtangis ("What?! You practice Power Yoga? Don't you know that is a derivative (and therefore diluted and inferior) form of Ashtanga?"), but also to other Ashtangis who do not share their Ashtanga worldviews and/or their personal visions of how Ashtanga should be taught and presented to the world ("What?! You wear short shorts and teach Ashtanga via Youtube? Did Guruji do that? How sacrilegious!").

Whew! That last sentence was a long one; it's the sort of sentence I always tell my students not to write. Well, but none of my students read this blog (I hope), so what the hell. But I hope you get what I am getting at. But here's another way of looking at all this. It is natural for humans to stick to something that works well for them, whether that something is a yoga practice or a religion, or even a favorite dish. To use a very mundane example, if you were to discover a coffeeshop that serves the best coffee in the area, you would naturally recommend the place to all your friends, and maybe even be quite evangelical in making sure that your friends have been there at least once. If your friends were to disagree with you or to fail to see what you find so wonderful about this coffeeshop, you would probably be rather disappointed, maybe even become upset at your friends for failing to see what seems so painfully obvious to you.

Well, maybe a coffeeshop isn't necessarily the best example to use here; after all, not everyone likes coffee. But I can't think of a better example here. But I guess what I'm trying to say is this: The universalizing drive is not something that just popped out of nowhere. It came out of a very natural human desire to want others to experience the same good thing/s that you have experienced. But somewhere along the line, something went very wrong, ego reared its ugly head, and... well, you know the rest, so I won't belabor the details here.

I'm not quite sure what else to say here, since I don't have any solutions to this problem of the innate drive to universalize that is probably inherent in each and every one of us. Well, maybe I'll leave you with a question: At what point does a simple and pure desire to want to share something that you love with others become an ugly drive to dominate and universalize? Are there any "warning signs" that we can kind of look out for before it becomes full-blown? If you have any thoughts, I'll love to hear them, as always.

In the meantime... have you heard the good news about Sky Cake? If you haven't, check out the following video. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably have already seen this. If not, enjoy!



  1. When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion, thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.

    When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures, shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation, then the goal of Yoga is thine.

    Bhagavad Gita, II.52-53

    The universalizing drive is characteristic of more neophyte practitioners, who feel a need to justify their sacrifice and commitment by casting aspersions on other practices. This is not unique to Ashtanga. Mature practitioners generally find other practices that are complementary to the Ashtanga method, including practices other than the third limb.

  2. Also sutra II.48 - Thereafter, one is undisturbed by the dualities.

    1. I like that passage from the Gita that you quoted. I think it holds much truth. You may be right that the universalizing drive is more characteristic of neophyte practitioners; at any rate, I can hope you are :-)

  3. There's a deep seated fear at the core of the need to universalize - don't you think? A fear that all the years of commitment and adherence to a particular religion or philosophy could just be a big waste of time - since we really don't know with complete certainty what happens when we die, or why we are here, or if there's going to be a "return" on all these efforts.

    But....if everyone starts doing as we do, worshiping as we do, that's reassuring. We think we must be on the right track if we can get others to worship - or practice - as we do.

    (Great quotes from the Gita and the Sutras, Anon. So then, this attitude, too, is a form of attachment to the fruits of our actions.)

    As for guards against this: in my case, it was a brutally honest but wise admonishment years ago that shook me out of my Ashtanga proselytizing:

    "You sound like a Born Again Christian."

    That was all I needed to realize that, in my sincere and loving efforts to "share" the practice and convert the uninitiated, I was really being an ass about it.

    1. Hello Michelle,
      I think there is a lot of truth to what you say about a deep-seated fear being at the core of the need to universalize.

      I suppose there might also be such a thing as a Born Again Ashtangi, then? :-)

  4. as for warning inability to have a sense of humor about what you believe in. when you can't laugh at probably aren't going see that your point of view is not the only one.

    also, aren't there some things that should be under a universalizing drive?..though i wouldn't group ashtanga or coffee among them.

    1. Yes, the ability to laugh at oneself (or the lack thereof) seems to be a good barometer here.

      "also, aren't there some things that should be under a universalizing drive?"

      What would these be?

    2. my initial thought when i wrote that would be ahimsa/noviolence, not killing. although exactly how all of these are defined..seems much more fuzzy when i start to really think about it.
      maybe it is just the universalizing drive in me that wants to find things that are absolutely true, etc.

    3. I also think that if anything is a universal guideline or "rule", ahimsa would be it. But it is difficult to express the timelessness and universal applicability of such a "rule" without succumbing to the universalizing drive, as I described it above.

    4. Your writing is entertaining and I do appreciate your clever insight. However, I think there is something to be said about simplicity and pureness. Small words vs. overly eloquent. Pure Ashtanga vs. Homogenized Ashtanga. Pure Yoga vs. Westernized yoga. If there are no set rules, things can run amuck. Rules do not rule out freedom or choice. Part of being an Ashtangi is discipline. Rules are part of the discipline. I guess in the's all in the marketing. But, if people are not informed of authenticity, how can they chose what to follow? If people are fed a watered-down version of the practice and not know any different, they are being victims of a disservice.

    5. Thanks for sharing your insights here, Anonymous. I've never thought of my writing as clever or eloquent or anything else; I just try to say what I want to say in a way that (hopefully) reaches people.

      I am on board with everything you say about the importance of rules. I also agree that rules and discipline do not rule out freedom (I can say much more here about this here, but then you'll probably think I'm being overly eloquent :-)).

      Are you from the greater Milwaukee area, by any chance? I don't why I would think this, but I'm just guessing...