The Shadow of the Yogi

Psychologist: “Oh shiny yogi!! Your own bliss prevents you from ever seeing your shadow! But some of us can see it quite easily.”

Yogi: “Why are you scientists and mytho/poetics hanging around in the muck when the light is so exciting, and feels so good?! I know! It’s because you have no way of getting out of the muck!”

I got a degree in Counseling Psychology but wrote my thesis on yoga for this reason: it seemed psychotherapy worked quite well for relationships but I noticed a gap in effectiveness around actually helping individuals transform themselves. Indeed, the field of psychology seems to rely more and more heavily on pharmaceuticals to help in that regard, a treatment that directly changes one’s chemistry, instead of just using the talking cure. People in trouble need strong stuff it would appear, and drugs can be dosed up as strong as one could want. But as I was practicing ashtanga, especially the backbends, I noticed that this was strong stuff, was altering my chemistry, blowing junk out,  far superior to any drug I’ve ever taken. Of course, in the short-term, it doesn’t appear as easy as drugs…

But the undoubted challenge that Western Psychology has to offer yoga is that of the shadow, and shadow work. I’ve been belaboring the point lately that yoga in the West does not feel all that mature, that it’s often like a bunch of bees (save the bees!) chasing after some special buzz, it’s all tied in with the celebrity paradigm (high flying characters with raging shadows and egos, highly disinclined to look at either), or popularity contests, it becomes a haven for behavior that wouldn’t last a minute in psychology circles (including verbal abusiveness). Not that psychotherapists are perfect,  far from it, but they’ve got a leg up on us in this regard: part of their game is supposedly a willingness to face the shadow.

Easy indicator of a New Age flake: as soon as the going gets challenging on the “self-improvement” quest, an easier or different path is sought, i.e.: one who is allergic to looking at his own shadow. “This hurts and is unpleasant, God must be wanting me to do something different.” Why? Because the shadow is not always such a nice thing to look at. And for yoga to exit the shallow realms of  sweaty workout with the tunes cranked, or the novelty spiritual item, and actually take root as a possible and durable path to self-realization within Western culture, it needs to go through a winnowing, and a trial of the shadow, and survive.

Much of this flighty approach to spirituality can be seen as a wholesale swallowing of the media culture’s promise of unending delights surrounded by beautiful people, a topic well covered by George Leonard in his book Mastery. Leonard cautions that any actual mastery path will hit what he calls the plateau. The plateau is where much of the student’s development will actually happen, quietly, behind the scenes, and where  unending delights and beautiful people may become scarce.   There has also been a confusion of celebrity with guru. Celebrities often get highly rewarded with massive attention for immature behavior;  it is built into that system to never need to mature as a person; in fact, a celebrity matures at her own hazard. And contemporary Western culture is beyond gaa-gaa for famous people, notice how much importance people place on a simple celebrity sighting, as if they were Gods who could confer a massive blessing and seeing them is a mega-darshan.

Yoga Journal has propagated this in the yoga world, with their elite stable of special photo-op teachers who have at times dominated their pages to a ludicrous degree. The divergence between actual creative power and celebrity has always been quite wide and in yoga it amounts to the difference between those who have slowly cultivated a special kind of presence and those who have had the spotlight placed upon them with little connection to yogic capacity. The sad part is that Yoga Journal was a fairly interesting magazine, when for example Rick Fields (author of “Fuck You Cancer!”) was the editor, over ten years ago. Rick’s dead now (of cancer), and the magazine has migrated towards Cosmopolitan with a green bent, which admittedly serves an important role out there in the mainstream media; it’s slickification is unfortunately what  got it onto the big stage. (Admittedly, when compared to other magazines that have made it to the grocery store check-out line, Yoga Journal seems positive and spiritual).

A widely accepted critique of our current society is that of Flatland, (a subject in which I’ve found Ken Wilber to be helpful.) This is entirely apart from celebrity-addicted shallow culture, but rather a lamenting of the lack of value that is allowed in materialistic discourse, which in this setting translates to: there can be nobody who has a higher state of consciousness than you, and the idea of spiritual depth is a dangerous elitist illusion. So, one who has steeped herself in alchemical yogic processes over the period of a long life has nothing to offer of value. And in turn, without depth we get narcissism and nihilism: there is no depth or such a thing as spiritual development, so the only thing left is to  find the instrumental means to storm the gates of popularity, celebrity, power, materialistic knowledge and wealth, to ease my pain and gratify my own ego.

Krishnamacharya is the elder behind most of the yoga in the West, and, although his life had a hint of celebrity in it- he hobnobbed in the corridors of power at times in his life-  we’re talking about something different than our present Western culture. He was the essence of long slow patient intense labor, of great material sacrifice in order to follow a deep sense of his calling in alignment with a profound art and to properly develop it. Of perseverence in the face of unpopularity and material insecurity (he raised five children as perhaps the first professional yogi once his royal patronage dissolved). Of a person who still developed in his fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, hundreds. His mingling with the “illuminatti” of his time and society was based on recognition of value in his achievement. His students BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois also embody beautiful fruits of long patient labor, and have also become famous in a different way, as a recognition of the value of mastery: not as celebrities, but rather  as accomplished teachers who happened to have received media attention.

In short, celebrity is often based on charisma (and luck) and guru is based on mastery. The two can converge, but often don’t. Charisma, beauty, luckiness and popularity can be wonderful, but mastery is a different beast. It is also something very real, and there are individuals walking in the world now who embody it (i.e.: Mata Amritananadamayi: Ammachi the hugging mother). Personally, I try to support yoga at whatever level it is operating, but at the same time, depth is real, and I want to be a voice for the possibility of mature spiritual development in a shallow materialistic culture.

So, what happens if we persevere with this, continue practicing and living yogically, spiritually? Does it bring us straight to the light? Well, yes, but I would say it needs to go through the shadow to get there. What is the shadow? The Jung/Freud tradition has characterized it in two ways: 1. the repressed shadow, which had aspects of our personality that are disturbing to us and of which we are vaguely aware but have pushed down to protect our ideal of who we are and 2. the total content of the unconscious, where the personal connects with the collective, including the vast as yet undiscovered regions down deep. Either way, steady yoga practice will get us into the bliss zone one day, but the psyche responds to bliss by initiating a release of a deeper layer of stuff, as if it senses that everything is ready. And the stuff: some of it ain’t fun, won’t look good on the cover of Yoga Journal, advertisers aren’t flocking to it. (Actually, there is a shadow side to media-frenzy culture: the love of the scandal, and the sheer delight of malicious gossip.) Anyway, here’s an excerpt from a response to a comment I left to the March 2007 entry :  

Depth sounds nice but the reality is a bit different than “nice”: there’s chaos down there: worms, bugs, grim dark dangerous warriors on strange murky quests; the little blessings that we’ve relied upon may get snuffed out, our good luck may turn bad, our antanae get confused and receive strange unwanted songs, etc.

Why go deep at all?

Because we have to if we want to be free. Resolution of chaos ultimately allows the mind successive degrees of quietude. And my claim is this: the great sages didn’t know everything, ie: they can’t sit down and speak Icelandic, but, they had resolved their internal history into a state of beautitude, saw the bigger picture which rendered the chaos into aspects of a great order, could hold that energy with a quiet mind. Such a mind is closer to the anabolic state, the healing state. The sages dropped deep into the heavies and resolved it for themselves, and for humanity. They weren’t air-heads: they had mastered strong fields such that they could move among them with ease.

      The shadow can be dark scary stuff which, if subjected to practice over time,will transmute into something we understand, into something we can accept and love, where it becomes the fuel for brilliance. We pull old stuff out of the ocean and lift it up to the heavens. In alchemy this is the “long slow opus”. Basically, we can be comfortable in a limited setting for a while, but eventually there is an urge to break through to a deeper level. This urge can either be the result of a stretch of inspiration or a need that arises in the wake of a crisis, or simply a necessity that arises from the demands of daily life.  The title of Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, The Laundry expresses the inspiration part: after the delight and excitement wears off, we find ourselves in this bigger realm,  outwardly and inwardly, and,correct if I’m wrong, it appears that you can’t go back without regressing.  Evolution seems to be hardwired into the human nerves.   Once we become aware of a reality, we either hold it as something we know and engage, or we repress it. This a normal occurrence and therefore repression is a big part of the psychology story, the disassociated material contributing to the fund of the repressed shadow. Why do we repress it? Because knowing it is too scary, we’re not big enough to hold its charge.

So, the chaos part: the bigger realm, in addition to containing psychic voltage beyond what we knew, also contains entities that don’t harmonize with the meaning of the smaller world we used to live in. They show us contradictions within the smaller world that we didn’t notice before, which suddenly become unacceptable. The new system is not worked out yet, but we are living in it anyway: chaos. That’s the alive anxious side of it. The other side is the drudge part: massive immovable objects that we now can no longer ignore, and act like black holes in the psyche. The laundry, the chaos, these come forth because going higher also means going deeper, and in the depths is our personal and collective shadow. It needs to be worked with or it will eventually drag us down, regardless of how cloistered we try to remain, and we won’t be able to move beyond.

The has been likened to the alchemical lead or base metal, a long ways from gold, but which will transform in that direction with, for example, focused sustained learning yogic attention. So,  as the theory goes, chaos or sludge slowly gets organized in the auto-poietic system, reaches a state of some degree of competency, becoming finer material, and then the evolutionary urge thrusts the system into the next level of inclusiveness, the next unknown realm, process begins again. This goes until the individual runs out of evolutionary fuel.

The personal experience of this: the chaos phase has moments of great excitement and highs, and rather intense bummers, the latter of which can be seen as a grappling with something about which we have no clue. So, to return to that yogi-psychologist dialogue at the top of this piece: yoga is fabulous technology for getting things well organized, and it also reveals deep shadows to put  into that work. But psychology, in my view, has come up with interpersonal dialogical methods which point out shadow with greater effectiveness, in large part because so much of our shadow is bound up in our relations with other. The two together is a good combination.

Finally, yoga will get us high, but the bliss of the yogi doesn’t care if it’s high or low. True bliss is OK, period, although such residence in the unaffected witness is admittedly a major achievement. Living fully means moving beyond what we know, the willingness to encounter what we don’t know, and is not addicted to being high, even the most natural pure healthy high. And what Jung calls a moral response beyond the ordinary is the willingness to engage the darkness, and not just flit back to the light we know. And I would add: if you go into the shadow, you better bring your yoga with you, because you want a chance to get back out.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 30th, 2007 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “The Shadow of the Yogi”

  1. insideowl Says:

    Dear Steve,
    What you say here will resonate with many practitoners. Thanks for the boldness: I hope you have more to say on all this. The sanity of your perspective, and your ability to cut through the BS unreactively are a valued support to this student… especially since encountering the procession of tormentor-sages who open third series has dislodged truly unspeakable shit in my previously way-too-easy practice. My demons are having a party.

    I sense that you’re tempted to disown our great American yoga culture, but choosing to engage it—and not out of a shadow attraction to the chatter. If you have made that choice, it’s inspiring and a little mind-blowing. Hermitism too easy in a world in which laundry exists? I think that’s what Krishnamacharya would have said.

    I have often thought, but lacked the courage to blog, that the greater yoga community provides the perfect conditions for Wilber’s mean green meme to flourish. Who am I to comment on the easy-target actor/ model/ “teachers”? Someday, when I’ve processed the reactions this culture gives me, I’ll try to write about this interesting situation: the hub of American yoga is itself a Hollywood sub-market. E.g.: Yogaworks directly targets models and actors for TT programs: it’s what you do when other celebrity-paths don’t pan. It’s another field for careerism, and all the ways it gets accessorized. But as you say: when you live in a world in which reputation and looking great and money are the only graspable bonifides, when the pursuit of so-called wisdom directly conflicts with the pursuit of this “happiness” (and could be just a legitimation racket for the disappointments of getting older), I guess that makes sense. Enter the green meme, on an AUM and an ujjayi breath.

    Finally, not to write a whole dissertation on you, but: on the claim that, developmentally, you can’t go back. Yeah, systems theory/cybernetics says this. But, if I may advocate for the devil, I suspect this teleology is a story we tell to give ourselves hope—itself the other side of defeatism (Kornfield is good, if I remember, on undercutting this kind of it’ll-all-turn-out-in-the-end optimism). Looking around, I see plenty of people go into dark nights of the body/heart/soul and never again emerge. We forget that life can be deeply degrading: not only if one is a war victim but whenever one opts for the materialistic path you described so perfectly–of casting off the sentimental belief in growth and embracing shallow, immediate crap because it’s all you’re sure is real. I’d submit that development is a choice! And this is what makes makes committing to it, and committing to the development of others, so urgent.

  2. Steve Says:

    Inside Owl:

    Well, you’ve done it, that third paragraph of yours is what I’ve been waiting for. I’m going to read it again.

    It’ll get a few thousand hits just having it here.

    But the great hope: Krishnamacharya was and Patabhi Jois is…beautiful, charismatic, and so real it makes your heart ache. Mastery like that FEELS SO GOOD (when it doesn’t hurt like hell or make you feel like you can’t breathe).

    thanks for that
    xo Steve

  3. cody pomeray Says:

    wow! it’s a treat to just try to follow along as two ashtangi intellectuals (intended as a compliment) address a couple of really key issues surrounding modern/western yoga.

    my only comment is that isn’t there an aspect of quality here? That elusive, undefinable differentiator between the great and the rest? I just don’t believe that the “quality” of Yoga, the core wisdom, is even capable of being diminished – regardless of how commercialized, bastardized or westernized it becomes. In fact, if less than 1% of the “samplers” find the juice within, then the wisdom has spread and grown.

    great post!

  4. Steve Says:


    Thank you.

    I agree with you with one reservation: the Hindus and yogis must have had a few reasons for their zealous protection of the inner sanctum over millenia. You might say the cat’s out of the bag now.

    Patanjali implies that yoga is so powerful that it can blow up one’s ego to profound proportions, which isn’t going to help.

    I think yoga is so great that I believe it can help us all with our planetary constant crisis. I’m just trying to stir things a bit, according to my view of what’s good.


  5. karen Says:

    The whole cat can’t get out of the bag on its own, though. You can put on the yoga clothes and puff up your ego with poses, but that’s not the whole cat. Getting the whole cat out of the bag involves the work of the individual and deflation of the ego and then as the tip of the tail finally emerges, the realization that the cat and the bag have always and never existed.

  6. guy Says:

    I think from the perspective of yoga, the shadow is as much an illusion as the ego.
    Certainly where practitioners have the aspiration to evolve spiritually, they may be less aware of their failings – especially with a practice such as Ashtanga Yoga which can make the body beautiful and hence make the practitioner vain. But not necessarily so.

    I think it depends on the personality and the motivation for practice. Unfortunately (perhaps) most people have no idea or particular interest in the true goals of yoga.
    These practitioners will be particularly unaware of their own character faults, gaining pleasure as they do from the transformations and improvements they experience.
    Along with this comes the notion: “Do your practice and all is coming” – so nothing else remains to be done.

    However, the question as to what is practice? Or how far does practice extend? Is not usually asked. We know very well that asana cannot stand by itself, it has to be supported by lifestyle and moral changes. How do we know what has to change? we see our faults (shadow) and adjust accordingly.

    But we know that practice is actually much deeper than this. We know that yoga is about controlling the mind, not just the body, and for this continuous discrimination and practice is required. Yoga is somewhat bizarre and schizophrenic in saying that reality is non-dual and the perceived world is just an illusion, a temporary collection of atoms, which dissolves and changes at every moment, and at the same time says: “You (You must have some substantive part) must change to perceive this reality”

    There are those who are interested in a continuous monitoring of their own moral failures and attempting to transform these, but mostly we say : “This is who I am, if you dont like it, go and **** yourself”

    I completely share your frustration with the West’s appropriation of yoga to its own materialistic and narcissistic ends. However, I think Yoga Journal is already beyond our help as is much of the rest of society’s perception. I think the only thing we can do is to teach and present a deeper and fuller yoga without fear that this might frighten potential students away.

  7. Steve Says:

    Thanks Guy.

    The part of your response that I really like is that schizophrenic thing, which taps into the contexts within contexts within contexts infinitely thing: is there something to hold onto or not? Of course, there is: for most of us, the phenomenae in the present moment are totally concrete. But in yoga we are attempting to make the concrete fluid. But you can only do this if you get stronger and more solid. But that is a practice which will snare you in its structure and never allow any freedom. But freedom is unbearable unless you get stronger. But you need to be strong enough to let go of your structure. But you let it go too soon and now you are just koo-koo.

    Yogis are ecstatic schizophrenics.

  8. guy Says:

    This central philosophical axis is the most problematic in my opinion.
    The more you think about it rationally, the more elusive it becomes.

    The world is dual for now, but unitary in reality. So how can the now which feels so real be just an illusion? And if it is just an illusion, who is it that is experiencing the illusion?

    Only Purusa has awareness, and its awareness is perfect, so how could we be possibly under an illusion if this is the case?

    The schizophrenia is perhaps related to the dual polarity of extraversion (sense experience) and intraversion (reflection/meditation) which necessarily occurs.

    “But in yoga we are attempting to make the concrete fluid” – we know that material phenomena are transitory, but we dont necessarily believe the soul is eternal – this is what, I think, produces all our anxiety – we believe everything will come to an end, and then what? A deep void.

    I dont think its about strengthening structures, its about deepening and strengthening a feeling for Self identity. The deep confident inner stillness which is produced by intense practice is re-enforced on a daily basis. Grasping for understanding can undermine this, so its better just to sit with it if questioning just produces more anxiety and doubt.

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