Monday, January 21, 2013

Can yoga deliver us to a promised land beyond the intellect? Or, a not-quite-review of Carol Horton's Yoga Ph.D

I just read this Elephant Journal review by Jay Winston of Carol Horton's book, Yoga Ph.D (which I, incidentally, have not read, but will hopefully do so soon, when my procrastinating self gets around to it). Since I haven't read Carol's book, I can't really say anything about it, much less recommend it to you. But the title and subtitle of the book ("Integrating the life of the mind and the wisdom of the body") sounds too intriguing and intellectually tantalizing not to make it worth a read at some point. So, well, I guess I am recommending the book anyway. :-)

But back to Winston's review. Like me, Winston also first began practicing yoga in graduate school. It seems to me that the things that drew him to yoga, as well as his motivations for practicing, are quite similar to mine. For instance, Winston writes:

"I first got into yoga as a graduate student—more specifically, a graduate student on the edge of losing the mind I was trying so hard to cultivate...

To bleary bifocaled eyes, the local studio seemed a calm happy oasis in the harsh, deconstructive deserts of my overly intellectualized existence. In place of the valorization of the intellect above all, body and spirit—whatever the hell that meant—were nurtured. From a place where distance from one’s subject was considering essential, on the mat, knowledge was largely experiential, the test subject always oneself. In stark contradistinction to a milieu where it would be embarrassing to admit that I found the books I planned on dedicating my life to studying personally meaningful or moving, feeling was held in higher esteem than thinking. Never mind that I hated downward facing dog.

Still, it wasn’t until after I got fed up and left academia that my practice got serious. And then, crotchety intellectual that I remain, I couldn’t help but start thinking about it, and soon realized that, yes, it is probably a good thing to try to feel more and think less if you’re seriously going to try and swallow the ludicrous affirmations and blatant contradictions that pass for so much of popular yoga philosophy.  (And, y’know, seriously, in a society where most people are doing their best to avoid knowing about looming environmental catastrophe because it’s depressing, what could be more appropriate than making a conscious effort to think even less so we that can enjoy the simple pleasures of our conspicuous consumption?)"

There is much here that speaks to me personally. With the benefit of some hindsight, I can say that one of the main things that attracted me to yoga in the first place was my perception that in the yoga practice (and in yoga blogging as well) heart matters as much as mind, if not more. As Winston puts it, "feeling was held in higher esteem than thinking." As yogis, we do not hold feelings in high esteem in order to psychologically or psychiatrically evaluate them at a detached intellectual distance; at least, we are not supposed to do that. In other words, there is no intellectual agenda. Or, to put it in yogic terms, we simply let ourselves be in the present moment with our feelings without evaluating or judging them.

If I may be so bold as to speak for other people, I believe that it is this apparent lack of an intellectual agenda that attracts many people in our overly-analytic world--a world which holds that anything that is of value or that is worth taking seriously has to be analyzable in materially-quantifiable terms--to yoga. Actually, come to think of it, this may also explain why the majority of people who practice yoga in this country are folks who have a certain amount of formal education. Many of these people may also possess advanced degrees (I happen to know one of these people very, very well...). Which stands to reason; people who are most likely to be disenchanted and distrustful of intellectual agendas are people who have spent a big part of their lives following or even contributing to these intellectual agendas, and who have realized that no amount of materially-quantifiable intellectualizing can get us anywhere close to the ultimate nature of reality, or help us come to terms with our place in the order of things, whatever that might amount to. It is in such a space of disenchantment with and distrust of the mind that yoga enters into these people's lives, and promises a more heartfelt and heart-ful way of exploring and understanding self and reality.

The obvious question to ask here would be: Has yoga delivered on its promise? Or, to borrow a biblical image, has yoga succeeded in delivering us to this promised land where the mind is free from the shackles of material analysis, a land where words, thoughts and deeds supposedly flow from the depths of truth--a truth that is just as obvious as, yet is much deeper than, say, 2+2=4?

Although I have not read Yoga Ph.D, I hereby shamelessly surmise that questions such as the above are among some of the many interesting issues that Carol tackles in her book. At least, this is what I gather is going on in the book from reading Winston's review. Yes, I am essentially reviewing a book I haven't even read, based on a review of the same book by somebody else! Talk about intellectual integrity (or, more precisely, the lack thereof...).  

But since I have shamelessly started this not-quite-review, I may as well finish it. Quite naturally, the above questions raise yet more questions: Is yoga even a reliable vehicle for getting us to the promised land, in the first place? If it's not, is it then just another exercise-wellness fad clad in ancient-looking clothing? Is yoga really just aerobics or Pilates with some Sanksrit nomenclature thrown in? Twenty years from now, will people look at us yoga practitioners in the same way in which we look at adherents of, say, step aerobics today (just so you know: I have nothing against step aerobics per se)?

But let's be a little more optimistic: Let's assume that yoga is not an exercise-wellness fad clad in Sanskrit clothing. Let's just naively assume that most yoga practitioners today (as well as their teachers and gurus) are all engaged in a good-faith attempt to preserve and pass on a tradition that has been handed down to us from the wisdom-filled depths of antiquity (again, just so you know: I am not assuming that anything that is from antiquity is by default filled with wisdom.). And finally, let us also suppose that these teachers and gurus have done a pretty competent job of passing down these teachings and traditions.

Now here's the million-dollar question: If, despite the best efforts of these gurus and teachers, yoga still does not succeed in delivering us sincere yogis from the shackles of materialistic analysis, where does the problem lie? Is it because we as practitioners haven't worked hard enough at freeing ourselves from our minds and their assorted chitta vrtiis? Or does the fault lie with the teachings themselves? Could it be that, just as many western bodies are not able to sit in lotus posture for hours (or maybe even at all) due to the nature of our culturally-conditioned physical environments, many western minds are also not structured in such a way as to be able to operate without engaging in discursive thought and analysis about the world around them due to the nature of our culturally-conditioned social environments? If this is true, then if a westerner is ever to succeed in fully integrating the yogic teachings into her life and free herself from discursive thought, she would have to overcome centuries, if not millenia, of cultural conditioning.

Which brings us to yet another question: Is it worth overcoming our cultural conditioning just so we can attain self-realization, or whatever the final goal of yoga practice is? I mean, if some people are correct in holding that cultural conditioning is part of our "cultural DNA", then we would have to basically transform ourselves into beings that are unrecognizable by our native cultures in order to attain the final goal of yoga. If cultural DNA is an integral part of our identity, as some people out there claim, this would mean that in becoming yogis, we are in an important sense discarding certain important parts of our identity.

Well, as always, I'm just thinking aloud here: I ultimately do not know if any of the things I said above is true. I know this sounds like a cop-out: I basically just said a whole bunch of things and made a whole bunch of hypothetical claims, and then tried to absolve myself of intellectual responsibility by saying that I don't even know if they are true! But maybe intellectual responsibility is a little overrated... Anyway, maybe if you read Yoga Ph.D, you will find some answers to these questions there :-) On this note, I promise to read it someday soon...        

Update: Erica has just informed me that I am actually quoted in Yoga Ph.D (see comments below). Since my ego cannot stand knowing that I have been quoted in some book without wanting to know what I am quoted on and how, I went ahead and placed an order for the book on Amazon just a couple of minutes ago (circa 4:30 p.m. MST, January 21st 2013). Hmm... this makes me wonder how many other people out there have quoted me in their works without my knowing it... Moral of the story: If you want people to read your book, quote them! On a different note, this probably also means that you will actually get to read a proper review of Yoga Ph.D on this blog in the near future. Stay tuned.


  1. Nobel, you had better read this book! You're quoted on page 55 in the chapter called "In Praise of Modern Yoga." I'll keep the rest of it a surprise! Nice work!

    1. What?! I'm quoted, and I don't even know it! Darn, ain't Carol lucky that I am not Bikram ;-)

      Anyway, I'll stop procrastinating and go order the book right now...