Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What isn't yoga?

I'm having a lot of fun following the recent conversations in the blogosphere about whether or not yoga is self-expression. In fact, I had so much fun that I even ventured to give my two cents' on this subject yesterday. Which is not something I have been doing much of lately. I don't want to jinx myself here, but I have this good feeling that blogging about this subject is helping me to get my blogging mojo back after what has essentially been a rather lack-luster few weeks of blogging. But we'll see.

In any case, continuing with the whole yoga as (not) self-expression conversation, I just read the latest post on the Babarazzi about this subject. As always, the people at the Babarazzi (what do they call themselves? "Babs"?) have pulled off a scathingly witty critique of contemporary commercial yoga culture; which is something that I, with my long-winded ponderous meandering writing style, can never hope to aspire to. In this latest post, the Babs make the following astute observation about commercial yoga culture:

"It’s pretty hard to find moments when we aren’t expressing ourselves. For instance, when we help a homeless man covered in a million bags hop a turnstile, we’re expressing our love of a thrifty deal... Self-expression seems to be a pretty f’ing constant occurrence.

Commercial yoga culture uses the ubiquity of self expression as a way to make yoga culture forever relevant to consumers by defining “yoga” as the very thing we can never not do. It’s a wondrous logical coup that allows commercial yoga culture to package and sell back to consumers whatever it is they want, and at the same time call it “yoga.” Think about it: If self-expression is all we ever do, and yoga is self-expression, than yoga is by definition anything you ever feel like doing.

  • If painting is a form of self-expression, than painting is yoga.
  • If dancing is a form of self-expression, than dancing is yoga.
  • If singing is a form of self-expression, than singing is yoga."

I think you know where this is going: We can easily extend the logic of this argument in some very interesting directions. If we were to take the notion that self-expression is all we ever do to its literal conclusion, then every single thing that we do in our lives is, by default, self-expression. So we get:

If taking a shit is self-expression, then taking a shit is yoga.

And maybe, come to think of it, taking a shit is yoga. After all, I have often wondered about the laxative effects of the Ashtanga practice. Okay... but here's something else that the Babs wrote:

Personally, I don’t really get the arguments laid out above that are pro-yoga-as-self-expression. It’s kinda like saying, “Eating a banana is the same as sucking a penis, ’cause both go in your mouth.”

Well, I really don't know if eating a banana is the same as sucking a penis, although there is probably good reason to believe that at least some of the same muscles that are involved in the former action are also involved in the latter. But here's something else to think about: If every single thing that we do in our lives is self-expression, then we would have:

If sucking a penis is self-expression, then sucking a penis is yoga.

Now, now... wouldn't this be a great idea for a new yoga style that caters to a particular fetish? Yoga for Penis-suckers, anybody? And notice that the enterprising yoga-preneur can actually create two different fetish yogas out of this one notion: There can be (1) Yoga for people who are into sucking that particular part of the male anatomy, and (2) Yoga for people who are suckers about that part of the male anatomy. The possibilities are endless...   


  1. As defined by Patanjali: yoga is Self-realization, not self-expression. This is absolutely the most basic fact that those who subscribe to a "lineage" need to understand, in conjunction with understanding the difference between the Self (purusha) and everything that is not the Self (prakriti).

    Sutra 2.17 - draṣṭṛdṛśyayoḥ saṃyogo heyahetuḥ (Confusion between the Seer (purusha) and the Seen (prakriti) is the preventable cause of suffering)

    Significantly, the following Sutra 2.18 touches upon the importance of leveraging prakriti: prakāśakriyāsthitiśīlaṃ bhūtendriyātmakaṃ bhogāpavargārthaṃ dṛśyamḥ (The Seen is made of light, action and inertia, and it exists for the purpose of experience and liberation)

    These two sutras neatly summarize the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice: use your mind and body to transcend your mind and body.

    Regarding self-expression, the "self" is part of the Seen, prakriti. These practices (chocolate yoga etc) which commonly go under the name of yoga are more appropriately referred to as tantric. However the word tantra has acquired a lot of unfortunate connotations, as the ideas about fellatio yoga and defecation yoga would reflect.

    1. Interesting. Much to think about here. Thanks for your clarification of this in light of the purusha/prakriti distinction.

    2. You're welcome.

      It may also help to know that the tantra has a similar dualism, shiva/shakti. Whereas yogic practices cultivate viveka (discernment) between purusha and prakriti (enabling the yogi to see purusha clearly), tantric practices leverage the power of shakti to unite and integrate with shiva. Not sharing the yogic concept of Self as unaffected consciousness, the tantra views Self as the ongoing engagement of the two dualities of shiva and shakti. Hence the regard of all phenomena as opportunity for tantric practice, which could be called self-expression or trendier terms like "rockin' your shakti."

      I hope everyone is now sufficiently confused.

    3. Hmm... I'm actually more intrigued than confused. Well, here's a question I have: Do you think it is possible to have your (tantric) cake and eat your (yogic) cake too? You know, maybe "indulge" in tantra to a certain extent, but not so much as to lose sight of the yogic goal, which is to attain Self-realization?

    4. Check the stories about the rishis, they were householders and had fits of passion just like everyone else. Probably indicates a yes to your question.

      The sanskrit term alankara is the aesthetic concept of embellishment, particularly in correct proportion. Western aesthetics treats the same subject extensively, for example with ornamentation in baroque music. The idea is that too little embellishment fails to engage the senses, too much obscures the subject, so the artist's task is to add the right amount. Seasoning your food is an obvious example, from which we derive the saying "variety is the spice of life." There is a lot of emphasis in yoga on controlling the senses, which can serve the purpose of practicing the fifth limb but which also can serve the purpose of alankara.

      Eventually though you have to decide what your theoretical orientation is. Is the Self pure awareness, or is it the reflection of your integration with the world? Tantric practitioners regard Patanjali as nonsense. They want their vrittis because in their worldview, if the vrittis cease to exist then their Self ceases to exist. But the thing is, some people's vrittis compel them to sociopathic or otherwise self-destructive behavior, as we've seen illustrated this week. This is the source of tantra's bad reputation.

  2. Well, truly said, yoga really helps to maintain the health of our body. It not only helps to keep our body fit but it also helps to keep our mind fit as well as it balance both our body and mind.
    --Fabrizio Neves

  3. Well, honestly speaking,yoga is really an wonderful exercise to do.with the help of yoga we can keep ourselves fresh and healthy physically and mentally.its an very ancient exercise that our ancestors used to do for fit and fine health.

    --Fabrizio Neves


  4. I really agree with u Jake this really fantastic

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