Archive for February, 2008

Yoga Fundamentalism
Monday, February 4th, 2008

The world does not need one single person more stuck at the fundamentalist level. A  job of the yogi is to help people get beyond this state. This is urgent.

A disclaimer right at the outset of this: I’m directing the following challenge, ironically, toward those yoga teachers who are, for the most part, members of a hatha yoga lineage, such as Ashtanga or Iyengar, traditions which, as their basic premise, reach towards imparting spiritual development in their practitioners. Unfortunately, many yoga classes in the market today aren’t even in this class, don’t go far beyond the sweaty mass experience of sexy fitness; they’ve never honestly had a strong spiritual tradition anywhere near their radar. The irony here is that it is the teachers who are attempting to interpret the real deal, ie: the actual lineages, that often get caught in the fundamentalist tangles. I believe this stems from the daunting task of channeling the wisdom of tradition-  and bearing the strength of its voice-  into contemporary real-person-in-front-of-you situations.

How can we characterize fundamentalism in a yoga class? To me, one basic indicator is this: I, the teacher, state what I want you to do. You, the student, respond with a reason why you want to do it differently. And here’s the true test: at that point I, the teacher, either hear what you say and take a pause to consider it, or I don’t and rather simply insist that you do it my way. The difference between a dialogue and a dictation. (See note 1 below).

Joel Kramer, an old-timer yoga teacher in Northern California, co-wrote the book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. From what I know of Joel, I have some reservations about his capacity to surrender to tradition and teacher, but much of that book is an illuminating application of post-modernist power critique to Gurus and Yoga. And, to put it mildly, the power plays in our field are typically far more crude, naive and easier to spot than much of what the humanities in academia began deconstructing in the sixties.

In an intelligent, sensitive and exacting dialogue, traditional Ashtanga Yoga will not wilt: there are many very very good reasons for doing it traditionally. Here’s a metaphor which has helped me: when I have traveled around parts of Tamil-Nadu, for the most part I have been allowed into the outer sanctums of a Shaivite temple, but denied access to the inner sanctum. I’m not a converted Hindu, or a wanna-be Hindu, but at  first I was irked by this. I was thinking about Joseph Campbell, who wrote  that this is the era where the secrets of the inner temples must be opened for humanity. I was thinking about the Dalai Lama, who in centuries past was completely sequestered, his Buddhism only for the select; then  the Chinese came in and smashed everything up, which forced our current Dalai Lama onto the world stage, where he now is one of the most readily recognized humans on the planet; he is with his people, and he’s with us, and Tibetan Buddhism is for the world, and the world is better for it.

But inside the inner sanctum of a Shiva temple is a Lingam: a penis in a vagina, with milk poured over it. Draw the parallel to a woman’s vagina: she doesn’t just let anybody in now, does she? Why? There must be something to be protected, something dear and intimate and vulnerable,  the matrix for the profound beauty of life itself, a field of subtle particles that can be disturbed, something to be treated with care by only those who know how to do so and have passed the series of tests and challenges.

When I first got into yoga, early nineties, Southern California was the land of Vinyasa flow (still is really), and most teachers had never been to India. I found this yoga culture appealing, helpful. But when I began to do traditional Ashtanga, first with Chuck Miller and then in Mysore, something much bigger happened, much more powerful, the depth was so compelling. Something quite amazing in terms of its transformational potential had been cultivated and allowed to mature over time, had been protected and preserved. Adherence to a tradition had made possible the proliferation of a subtle particle field. I was astounded and in awe to recognize these qualities.

But here’s the paradox: the intelligent engagement with what is arising now, and an openness to its suggestions and influence, this is what keeps the subtle field alive. Frozen dogma, applied with the hand of subtle violence in a conscious or unconscious attempt to maintain control or power kills spiritual life, and simply attracts students who are engaging a doomed attempt at solace and security and need someone to tell them what to do. The subtle Ashtanga spirit lives in brightly both the rooms of Tim Miller and Richard Freeman, two teachers who have gone into deliberate variation on the stated traditional themes. Ashtanga needs to be more than just a reaction to shallow professional yoga, but rather the clear statement of the strength of a lineage preserved and enacted in the now.

September 11, 2001, and aspects of the American response to it, now stand pretty clearly in the light of their actual motivations: blatant attempts at power and revenge, and the willingness to kill thousands of people to get it. In such a climate as this, what do we make of individuals from generous Western homes arriving at a true-believer version of Yoga, taught without tolerance for variation, and offered in a mean-spirited militant manner, replete with abuse and humiliation tactics? After coming so far, the Western seeker of truth and evolution arrives at this?

Ashtangis themselves would do well to recognize the Krishnamacharya strain weaving itself around the perimeters of what happens in Mysore. If Krishnamacharya created and taught the (then) four series of Ashtanga during the Mysore palace days, he later would evolve it into the precursers of Viniyoga. Guruji’s book Yoga Mala offers several practice variations for people in different walks of life. Guruji himself has offered variations, such as Ardha Matsyendrasana for those who have knee trouble in Marichyasana D; and he showed me a work-up pose for Pashasana, not in class but later as several of us sat on his porch in Luxshmipuram: go against a wall and walk back slowly with your hands.  A look at how the form of the practice has changed in Mysore over the years, from drishtis, to subtle vinyasa details, shows us that Guruji is actually not anal about some impossible ideal of the perfect form, but rather has been moving his way along, allowing things to evolve, wise and patient with both paradoxes and apparent unclarities.

This is called the dialogical process, the journey of coming to knowledge, the willingness to look at what you do, to receive and integrate energy and information from others, and to refine your approach. The disinclination to this, the desperate grab for dogma as an attempt to avoid the existential discomforts of life, is also a way to obliterate the uncertainty that comes from evolving past what you knew: the urge to not evolve. The USA was gripped by such a seizure following 9-11, and the results were a commendable showing for the prize of the ugliest batch of Americans ever. So what do we do with The Ugly Yogi?

I would advise students of Ashtanga and yoga this: you are the final word on what you do, any Guru’s job is finally to help you find your own inner Guru. If you feel something to be a truth, and your teacher negates it, the final word rests with you. This is not to say that a teacher cannot be further along the path than you are, or that holding onto our little ego is the right thing to do in yoga. Also, it may bring up a conflict of uncertainty about what is the right way to proceed; as uncomfortable as it may be, such struggles are really good for development and far better than unconsidered surrender. And this is also to say that in order to get to the stated purposes of yoga, we must go way beyond any petty insistence on form or the power-over-others assertions of a teacher. Before a teacher is entrusted with any kind of transference, which I hold to be the higher possibilities of what a good teacher can offer, you need to decide whether you want to let this teacher into your inner sanctum. You don’t want your teacher to be a fundamentalist.

Note 1: This doesn’t mean that the teacher agrees with what the student says, or views it as wise. It doesn’t mean that I give her the OK to do it that way in my class. It just means that I take the information in, and respond to it, as opposed to simply ignoring it or basically stating that this isn’t a place where we do dialogue. Also: implicit here is the recognition that each person passes through the phase we can associate with fundamentalist thinking as he or she develops; everybody starts at step one. Understanding where a person is and offering skilled compassion is a more effective way of helping him get to step two, as it were.


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