Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Western yoga, utopia, and smart people (and stupid people)

I mentioned in my update/addendum to my previous post that I found Patrick's recent post on the ambiguous relationship between yoga and mainstream contemporary American culture (and maybe even mainstream western culture at large, although I cannot say for sure, since I have never lived in Europe...) to be most insightful and brilliant. I have been meaning to say a few things about this wonderful post for the last couple of days, so I'll do it now.

First, if you'll bear with me, I'm going to start by quoting Patrick at some length. He writes:

"You will see a double tendency [in the western yoga scene].

One branch of it is that the yoga is political, or feminist, or engaged with culture. The yoga can DO THINGS, man!

The other branch of it, which oddly comes as sort of a package deal with the first one, is that the yoga is separate from culture. Is above culture, more noble than culture, and in particular, CLEANER than culture. And in this branch of thinking, people get so, so very upset when yoga "proves itself to be dirty" and sure, that's my language, but that was very much a thing in the recent yoga scandals. Look around the rhetoric surrounding the John Friend scandal or the Bikram Choudury scandal. There is a clear flavor of "these men have corrupted yoga" in there and it's not at all hard to see.

So then.
If we wanted to see these two tendencies as one unified thing, we'd do it this way:

The yoga comes from far away and/or long ago (you know, like Star Wars), and it can HELP US, man. It can redeem us from our corrupt Western culture, and we so badly need enlightenment, we MUST HAVE THE YOGA. But (and here's the surface-break of the other half of it) we have to make sure that the West/false gurus/the NSA/unclean people/bad teachers/some other threat-du-jour doesn't CORRUPT OUR YOGA so that it does us harm instead of good."

As Patrick goes on to observe in the rest of his post, many people in the western yoga scene are either unconscious of this double tendency, or are conscious of it, and have wholeheartedly embraced it as a good thing. And why, indeed, wouldn't they? After all, if yoga is really this wonderful spiritual panacea that has come to us from long, long ago, from a galaxy far, far away (a.k.a. India), and it has helped us find relief from such physical ailments as back pain and insomnia, as well as attain a measure of spiritual contentment on an individual level, it must surely stand to reason that if more people in society were to practice yoga, we should expect to see nothing less than a drastic transformation of our presently corrupt western society into a yogic heaven populated by yogic beings for whom the observances of the yamas and the niyamas come as naturally as breathing air or drinking water. Such a yogic heaven must surely be a Utopian paradise. And who in their right mind wouldn't want to live in such a world?

Sounds good so far, right? So what has gone wrong? Well, for starters, people of such a Utopian bent of mind will quickly discover that although the yoga can do things, it cannot do things on its own; people must go out there and spread the good word. And the good word we are spreading isn't merely relief from back pain or being able to get a good night's sleep, or even the sort of temporary yogic sugar-high one gets from a brief experience of Samadhi in one's deepest meditative practices. All these things are cool things to experience, of course, but they are merely small change compared to the truly society-transforming potential that truly empowered feminist/social-justice-conscious/"smart" yoga can accomplish in this world.

And of course, if you are somebody who is enlightened to this Utopian potential of yoga (an "enlightened one", if you will), it would be totally naive and irresponsible of you to just assume that others are just as enlightened as you are. So, being the un-naive and totally responsible enlightened one that you are, it falls upon you to educate the benighted masses of gym- or shala-going yogis who have tragically yet to awaken to yoga's truly Utopian potential. So you would, among other things, take it upon yourself to write smart-sounding articles on websites like Yoga for Smart People, in the hopes that at least some of these benighted folks out there will awaken to the stupidity of their uncomprehending ways, read what you have to say, absorb it like amrita, and, well, get with the program.

But what's wrong with any of this, one may ask? After all, again, if yoga really has such Utopian potential, and all that is needed is for a bunch of resourceful, enlightened and indefatigable cadres to get the word out and educate the masses (and, maybe, in the process, send a few really recalcitrant stupid people to re-education camps located somewhere in the New Mexico desert), why not get with the program and do it?

Well, being rather tragically benighted myself, I can't really answer these questions properly. But I'll just go ahead and say a couple of rather confused things here anyway, and you decide if you can get anything out of what I have to say. First, if yoga really did have such Utopian potential, why didn't the ancients (you know, the Sadhus practicing in their Himalayan caves or the Brahmin householders) recognize it? I'm no yoga scholar, but I really have never heard or read of any such ancients forming cadres of enlightened activists to change the world in the name of feminism/social-justice/smartness (or whatever the ancient Sanskrit names for these progressive terms may be... perhaps herein lies the problem: My Sanskrit isn't up to snuff either, so if these ancient activists existed, I would have no way of knowing about them. Note to self: Need to go take some classes to brush up on Sanskrit.). In any case, if yoga really has such Utopian potential, and the ancients either did not know about this or did nothing about it, wouldn't this mean that our contemporary western enlightened cadres are way more enlightened than those benighted ancients, that they have single-handedly taken yoga to heights that our benighted ancestors cannot even dream about? Damn, yoga really is evolving, isn't it?

If it is indeed true that contemporary yoga activism has brought yoga to heights unprecedented in its five-thousand (or however many thousand) year-old history, then this would be cause for nothing else but celebration and rejoicing (yay! Smart Yoga...), and I should just sign off here (indeed, I probably shouldn't even have written such a reactionary article in the first place; I'll probably get sent off to New Mexico tomorrow...). But there is another possibility: What if yoga was never meant to be a tool of mass social change or revolution? Could the ancients have known something we don't? What if trying to use yoga as a tool for Utopia-engineering--indeed, as a tool for anything at all--is like trying to eat dinner with a hammer (or trying to cut vegetables with a chainsaw--pick your favorite non-metaphor)? What if being benighted and stupid (or whatever) is simply part of the human condition, and what yoga can do (if it can do anything) is simply to offer us a way to look at this condition with some measure of equanimity and perhaps live with it in a more-or-less productive manner? What if trying to get yoga to do things it's not built to do is like that story of the innkeeper who tried to make all guests fit into his beds by sawing off their limbs or forcibly extending them (ouch!)?

As always, I don't have answers to any of these questions. But being the rather tragically benighted being that I am, I nevertheless am unwilling to look stupid. So I'm going to try to sound a little bit more smart by quoting the following words of some smart person whose works I've been reading lately:

"If we are told that these contradictions will be solved in some perfect world in which all good things can be harmonised in principle, then we must answer, to those who say this, that the meanings they attach to the names which for us denote the conflicting values are not ours... that principles which are harmonised in this other world are not the principles with which, in our daily lives, we are acquainted; if they are transformed, it is into conceptions not known to us on earth. But it is on this earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act...

Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of forms of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human." 

Isaiah Berlin, "The Pursuit of the Ideal"

Whew, that was quite a (benighted) rant. Thank you for reading, if you made it this far. I'm going to get some something to eat now. More later--if "later" is not a time where I find myself somewhere in New Mexico, that is.    


  1. Although your "rant" is to the point in decrying modern narcissism cloaked as socially progressive agenda...

    Here are your ancient activists, in sanskrit:

    Mangala mantra
    svastiprajābhyaḥ paripālayaṁtāṁ nyāyena mārgeṇa mahīṁ mahīśāḥ |
    May the well-being of all people be protected by the powerful and mighty leaders be with law and justice.

    Hatha Yoga Pradipika
    surājye dhārmike deśe subhikṣhe nirupadrave |
    dhanuḥ pramāṇa-paryantaṃ śilāghni-jala-varjite |
    ekānte maṭhikā-madhye sthātavyaṃ haṭha-yoghinā || I.12 ||
    The Yogî should practise Haṭha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.

    1. Hmm... I'm of the opinion that the ancient activists you mention are only activists in a very attenuated sense. First, w.r.t. the mangala mantra, having a desire that all people be protected and law and justice prevail is not the same as going out there and working for this to be the case. As for the passage from the HYP... it pretty much assumes that the yogi already practices in a country where justice is properly administered. Again, not the same as actually going out there and fighting for justice.

    2. So literary expression doesn't count as activism? What are the great sanskrit epics, if not stories of going out there and fighting for justice, the upholding of dharma?

      What you won't find in the Sanskrit canon is any scholarly accounting of actual history. In Sanskrit there is no equivalent to Sima Qian in Chinese, or Thucydides in Greek, or Tacitus in Latin. But we can infer from the values put forth by those nameless authors, that someone cared enough about social justice to commit these entire texts to memory. Back in the day those people would have been Brahmins, who were responsible for educating the Kshatriyas, who were responsible for seeing to the well-being of the populace.

    3. "So literary expression doesn't count as activism?"

      No. Because if it did, we would have as many activists as we have had writers throughout the entire history of humankind. Which might also make me an activist, if I may be so immodest as to suggest this. But this is clearly not true, because even I am not arrogant enough to fancy myself an activist just because I write a few things here and there.

      "Back in the day those people would have been Brahmins, who were responsible for educating the Kshatriyas, who were responsible for seeing to the well-being of the populace."

      It is true that the Brahmins played such an educational role. But it is totally possible (in fact, I think it is quite likely) that the objective of such an education lay in reinforcing the status quo and the existing system of authority by passing on certain values that perpetuate the status quo. Surely you wouldn't call this activism?

    4. It's one thing to be a writer, and it's another to be a writer who catalyzes social change. Why was freedom of the press made a constitutional right? Because everyone knew it to be a danger to the crown, and in a totalitarian state those who express their political views in writing, without state approval, are the first to get arrested. Ask the people who threw Ai Weiwei in prison if he's just an artist.

      But anyways. Ironically, we can find your point in the second sloka of the Mangala mantra -

      gobrāhmaṇebhyaḥ śubhamastu nityaṁ
      May cows and brahmins enjoy perpetual prosperity

      Not so egalitarian, eh? But then -

      lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhinobhavaṁtu ||
      May all worlds find comfort

      Contradictory, or no?

    5. Well, if we combine the meanings in those two lines, we get:

      "May all cows and all brahmins in all possible worlds find comfort."

      Hmm... I have no idea whether this is egalitarian.

    6. lol, good one.

      But going back to the point of your post -- it doesn't matter much what anyone does, or what their relative state of empowerment is. Everyone is already free, it's just that not everyone realizes it. Like Adi Shankara says in his commentary on the Brahma Sutra:

      'Liberation is the state of identity with Brahman, and hence it is not to be achieved through pruification. Besides, nobody can show any mode whereby liberation can be associated with action. Accordingly, apart from knowledge alone, there cannot be the slightest touch of action here.'

  2. Taos New Mexico is lovely any time of year. The feminist part of the rant may have something to do with the ratio of western lady girls involved in some sort of yoga practice or another. Also that darn Gita suckers you into wanting to go out there and try your darn best not to be awful. Santa Fe is also very nice.

    1. Well, I have actually never been to either Taos or Santa Fe... heck, I may as well confess that I've never been to New Mexico. So maybe I should have used some other place in the U.S. for my example, to be fair to the lovely inhabitants of that wonderful state. But I can't think of any other place (Guantanamo? But that isn't even in the U.S.... and besides, I also have never been there...). Ah well.

  3. I found patrick's blog to be pretty angry and lacking in compassion. He might want to think about what it is in him that makes him see this way.

    1. I don't think Patrick is lacking in compassion. He's just saying things the way he sees them.