Yoga Fundamentalism

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 4th, 2008 at 12:33 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.

19 Responses to “Yoga Fundamentalism”

  1. guy Says:

    I know we in New York are jokingly called the Ashtanga Fundamentalists (with the “fun” bit left out) by our West coast friends. It seems that more so than in other parts of the USA, or the world we love to stick to the precise form we have learned. This may have been due to the fact that we started learning with Guruji at the same period, in the early 90s and observed a very consistent method in his teaching.

    I dont think there is necessarily anything wrong with fundamentalism – focusing on fundamental principles, but obviously fundamentalism has got a bad name from certain religious groups.

    There are many reasons why a strong form is extremely valuable for the student:

    One of the meanings of the word Guru is “weight” or “heaviness” – implying deep and significant knowledge. Now I would not for a minute consider myself a Guru, but what I try to do in my teaching is to impart my teacher’s method as precisely as I can – and from my experience and the experience of thousands of others, his method works extremely well – it has significant weight. Why change something that is perfect?

    A lot of times we are confronted in life with our likes and dislikes, laziness, apathy, greed etc…. in yoga practice too! If every time as a practitioner we say: “today I dont feel like doing any forward bends, only backbends, or today I feel like breathing through my mouth” and the teacher says: “fine, whatever”, then the student will never develop a true and healthy practice.

    Part of going into yoga is over coming our subjective likes and dislikes and going through a process of dissolving the ego. For this strong and consistent discipline is required. If the practice is changing daily it cannot act as a reference point for Self knowledge, if the teacher also changes his or her tune daily, he or she can also not act as such a reference point.

    In spite of the fact that the ashtanga form remains consistent, the teachers relationship to each student and the way he or she imparts knowledge of the practice to each one is individual. As you pointed out, Guruji suggested some exercises or variations as a support for learning challenging postures. Additionally, Guruji’s relationship and method with different students varies enormously: some students he pushes beyond their limit, some he holds back, some he apparently loves unconditionally, others he shuns to a certain extent. This is part of the method. Yoga teaching is not just about asanas but also about moral evolution.

    The notion of helping students evolve morally is probably quite unpalatable in the West. It is one thing to pay lip service to the yamas and niyamas as some kind of absolute model for the yogi’s behavior, another to help students understand why certain limitations in practice are the result of samskaras which need to be addressed.

    Fortunately the system of Ashtanga Yoga is so perfect, that the teacher does not have to get mired down in justifying or explaining. Even a fundamentalist Ashtanga teacher who lacks any insight about the inner experiences of the student can impart a method which works – ultimately the student has to do his or her own inner exploration.

    Although the fundamentalist approach works very well for many people, it may ultimately seem like a dead end to some. After years of struggling with a posture, a frustrated student may just give up or go to another teacher who will give them what they pay for: as many asanas as they can stomach!

    Unfortunately the practice lesson has been missed. At a certain point the student is challenged to make fundamental lifestyle changes in order to achieve a certain asana. Refusal to do this and following the path of least resistance takes one away from the goal – which is Self knowledge.

    Personally I see the fundamentalist approach both as an acknowledgement of the profound wisdom contained in Guruji’s teaching and the relative immaturity of the teacher (this is not to say that non-fundamentalist teachers are necessarily more mature).

    When we compare our short life span as teachers to the 70 odd years of teaching experience Guruji has had it seems totally inappropriate to change anything. When you add to the techniques of teaching asanas etc the profound scriptual knowledge accessed by Guruji, one can only feel totally humbled and immature as a teacher. Now if you compare Guruji’s knowledge to that of Krishnamacharya, again you see that his knowelge is miniscule compared to his teacher. On a mundane level – advanced Western teachers may know something like 150-200 asans, Guruji learned something like 600 asnasa from his Guru Krishnamacharya, Krishnamacharya learned something like 3000 postures of the 70000 postures his teacher knew. And in a similar way yoga theory must have also declined with the passing of time. So who amongst us is really mature enough to change the system?

    Perhaps if you want to change the agenda of yoga you can justifiably change the methods to suit your cause. But first you have to be clear about what that agenda is. Yoga is a very powerful tool, and the student makes him or herself vulnerable to the teacher’s teaching, and with this comes enormous responsibility.

  2. Steve Says:


    I would call that a compelling response, which is strength that generates willing assent. You are up to the challenge of a dialogue. You offered intelligence demanded by the question as opposed to a response more stupid and regressive than the question. Just the fact that a traditional Ashtanga teacher could read this without hurling invective at me…

    Oppose this to using the teacher role to assert power over others, and to cultivate sheep-like behavior among one’s minions, and to give them comfort in the role of subservience. And to give you comfort in your ego’s need to be a popular yoga teacher, or to take care of sleepless nights of wondering how to pay the bills (or to keep up with the all-star Vinyasa stud in the other room who keeps pulling away all your babes) by the same discovery that Karl Rove had: fundamentalism sells!! George Bush won a second term!

    I’ve always known Guruji to have a love for pure expressions of spontaneous creativity, and a shrewd eye for it. I love Eddie Stern because he embodies this quality in an unusually large way, just in case anybody thinks I’m pointing the finger at him. I’m not really pointing the finger at anyone in particular so much as attempting to illuminate tendencies that any of us may show at times, some more than others. I’m not critiquing firm traditionalism so much as power-over-you-which-gives-me-glory fundamentalism.

    I lot of “California Vinyasa” is way to loose for me baby. But I’m seeing more Ashanga that is way too tight, kills life, promotes idiocy.

    My basic justification for being a traditional Ashtanga teacher is that here in the West, and really throughout the world, including India, the sacred form still needs to be put in place, (or restored in the case of India) which can only happen if things are set up in an appropriate way. This includes a confirmation of the idea that a sacred form really can exist, sacred here implying a living transformative tradition which can do so much more for a person than just “today I don’t feel like doing that”. One aspect of shallow materialistic flatland culture not only denies the possibility of sacred form but actually strives to “knock it down to size”, or eliminate the threat altogether. So we’re still at the level of nuts and bolts, creating structure strong enough to withstand such an assault.

  3. Nancy Deville Says:

    Dear Steve,
    This is a beautifully written and eloquent analysis of yoga fundamentalism. I would not have even thought of the possibility of yoga being fundamentalist had I not heard you say “We are not fundamentalists” in response to my apologetic admission that I only do 3 Surya Namaskara A and 3 Surya Namaskara B. Since then I have been thinking more about yoga fundamentalism and perhaps attracting it to me, much like forcing someone to look your way by staring at them. Now I have to understand how to extract myself in a peaceful way the next time I am faced with a rabid fundamentalist.

    Thank you, Steve.
    Nancy Deville

  4. David Says:

    Well done! Question: Was there a particular incident that inspired this blogging — reading “The Guru Papers” or something else?

    It is unfortunate that the majority of yoga teachers feel impelled to invent rather that be humble and patient, and practice with an effort to understand the what, how and why’s of a tradition before adjusting and modifying things. The fact is, we already automatically interpret that which we hear, read, see, do. We do not need to try so hard to make it new — it already is new in the moment for us — we would do well do try and understand the timeless truth of ‘it’.

    Guruji is a good man…

  5. David Says:

    When I posted the above, the screen was old & unrefreshed. So, I had not seen them until just after clicking the “Submit Comment” button.

    Both you and Guy offer clear and well balanced perspectives. I tend to see more value in explaining why tradition is good, and how to approach it in a healthy manner rather than spending time pointing out how tradition is flawed — viz. by the mis-use / abuse of one’s position or authority. Hopefully bad behavior is obvious. But, from this bad behavior, has arisen the fundamentalism of bashing tradition as being either antiquated or abusive. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Tradition, when approached with the right attitude — as Guy said: But first you have to be clear about what that agenda is — has so much to offer us who are too easily swayed and colored by our conditioning.

    Baby crying, bye…………

  6. guy Says:

    “Oppose this to using the teacher role to assert power over others, and to cultivate sheep-like behavior among one’s minions, and to give them comfort in the role of subservience.”

    Certainly there are teachers who like to assert power over others, however, the traditional method of cultivating subservience has tremendous value in its appropriate context. We in the West have enormous problems with this. Either we too readily want to give someone else responsibility for our personal problems, or we are too filled with ego to give up control – finding a happy medium is almost impossible.

    The inner aspects of yoga are too subtle to transmit to the neophyte. This is hard for us to accept as we think of the information age as the “democratization” of knowledge. However it is important to distinguish between “information” and “wisdom”.
    Patanjali makes the distinction between relative truth (satya) and absolute truth (rta).
    The nature of wisdom, deep understanding, is that it comes after long periods of time in ignorance.

    The Guru knows the process, understands the deeper picture and knows that realization can only come through service to truth (humility). Service to the Guru is a transitory phase during which the Guru takes on the role of “Purusa” or the embodiment of the ultimate truth. If the Guru is a true teacher, this subservience can produce perfect conditions for receiving the ultimate truth. Stories of this nature abound in the Hindu literature.

    However, if the Guru does not have wisdom, the student may become some kind of a slave. Unfortunately for such false Gurus they become tied to the karmas of their students until each one attains liberation and have hence increased their own bondage.

    In a western context this power play, where there are clearly no “true” Gurus results only from the ignorance of the teacher. Because the teacher is insecure of his knowledge of “real” yoga, he has to set up a rigid system for the students to unquestioningly follow.
    Incredible liberation from this problem results from the recognition of Guru paramapara (acknowledgment of the lineage of teachers) – “I am just imparting the limited knowledge I received through a lineage of wiser men, I am not the teacher, I am just the messenger.”

    Discomfort with this type of humility may result in presenting a rigid system as a kind of religion, but if the system is not changed and if the system is perfect, the small omission of my ignorance as teacher, or that the true receptacle of knowledge lies somewhere else will not necessarily pervert the results. Ultimately the learning practice is an internal one, and the asanas are just there to create a stable foundation.

  7. Steve Says:


    Thanks for your replies. Yeah, I’m trying to offer something balanced, not just a reaction against tradition. Look at Shankaracharya’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya: the entire book is set up as a dialogue with those who challenge his views. He gives them many pages to express their dissent. He then offers his responses- he’s not threatened by the challanges, he embraces them as part of the dialogical process of coming to higher understanding. He holds firm to Vendanta throughout without demanding that the dissenters or questioners pick up their mats and leave as it were. He gives them a full hearing, right there in his own book.

    My blog might appear threatening to some Ashtangis but I’m OK with that. When this dialogical process happens in our lives, it can make us feel insecure. Fundamentalists will go all the way to murder on a mass scale in order to avoid feeling this insecurity. But the unknown that we feel when latent stuff gets activated is a sign that a bigger picture is trying to push through. Valuable traditions can withstand such a trial and, so far, Ashtanga has survived my trials, whereby my reverence for it arises. But little changes find their way in, they always have.

    My challange to Joel Kramer is this: do you think there can be a way of being more mature than just doing pluralistic freedom which digs out power abuse? This digging for problems is what smart teenagers do. And yet, responsible parents need to hold up standards and ways of being, even though they know that their children will attack. And parents know that their lives are full of contradictions, that’s just the way life is, despite what teenagers want. We can’t just tear shit down; those who are into destruction need to be asked, “What have you built lately?” Those who love to challenge traditions need to be asked, are you strong enough to hold firm to the higher vision that appears to you after that which you feel needs to be destroyed has succumbed? When the higher vision is attacked, or begins to give in to entropy, can you defend it, are you willing to do the arduous work of holding it up? Also, is free floating pluralistic freedom better than enacting a living tradition which is receptive to this present moment? My vote is that the latter is better, and so I am a committed Ashtangi.

    I wish you well as you build your take on the tradition up there in Bend.


  8. Saral Says:

    Dear Steve,

    I meant to thank you for your blog before I left. I enjoy reading it. I was thinking about it today and it sparked some thoughts.

    I think the argument between those who favor traditional structure and those who favor freedom within that structure misses a more foundational and necessary conversation: Does the traditional structure of Astanga serve it’s intention – which is Union with Self? I wonder if the time has come for a new approach to yoga in the same way it is time for a new approach to religion.

    Both yoga and organized religion began as paths to union, but what seems to have happened in both cases is that instead of being the paths they were designed to be, they both became objects of reverence, often followed and worshipped in and of themselves. The arguments one observes from the outside (and I acknowledge that I am an outsider in both arenas) tend to be about the form and the structure. Should we deviate from the traditional structure and how much? Is it okay to skip a couple of Asana’s and breathe through your mouth? Do we ordain gay clergy and have a rock band instead of a choir?

    People go deep into these conversations as though they were of essential importance, (and, on one level, perhaps they are). But what this way of seeing does is separate people into camps, either for or against adherence to traditional structure, for or against a more masculine or more feminine approach. It doesn’t seem to me that conversations on this level seem to ultimately bring us to any new levels of awareness or grace. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves and each other if the various forms of traditional yoga and religion actually serve us? Have they transformed us in the ways we longed to be transformed?

    I think we are at an important crossroads. Individually and collectively we are being called to let go of a whole way of seeing and doing. It is a lot to ask of us, but I think evolution is quietly, and not so quietly, insisting.

    For humanities sake, we must find a place beyond dichotomous conversations. To get there requires a profound letting go of identity, that to which most of us are deeply, and often unconsciously, attached. Perhaps the truth found in the paradox of death and eternalness can help assuage our deepest fears. That which dies can also live on. Being willing to step out of our differences and precious (I do not mean that facetiously) identities to find that which unites us, (the personal and collective “Knowing” which is often called God or Ultimate Reality), will allow for a radical new way of Being.

    Somewhere along the line, in both religion and yoga, the form became an end instead of a means, and in both cases what seems to get lost is what was once the primary intention: a connection with what is both in and beyond us, our deepest inner knowing. Religion and yoga are at their best when they help us to follow that knowing. I think we find ourselves in what may be the shadow of the masculine, having pursued something so myopically that the forest has gotten lost through the trees.

    The masculine is so gifted at steadfastness and focus, at staying at a thing and getting it done, at going deeply, at traveling a direct line. The feminine is more receptive to chaos, to seeing many things at once, to a non-linear path, to intuition and spontaneity. Together they create wholeness and holy-ness, but neither can create that wholeness without the other.

    It’s no accident that our lives literally come about from the union of the incarnation of the masculine with the incarnation of the feminine through a union which, at it’s heart, is a profound expression of love and respect. How beautiful is that! Examples of the essentialness of the union of the masculine and the feminine abound. It’s time to understand, (literally “stand under”), reverence and emulate what creation shows us as the path to regeneration and new life. It’s right here to help guide us.

    Why is it that instead of emulating a harmonious marriage between the feminine and the masculine which creation so generously shows us, we seem prone to creating the opposite? Look at both yoga and religion and you can see painful and divisive splits between the more masculine and the more feminine approach, each defining itself in its reaction to the other. Most of the conversations seem to occur between those two camps. But what about the middle path, the one that has the depth of the masculine and breadth of the feminine? What about seeing beyond the superficial differences and discussing and living the core questions of union?

    What if the torch bearers of the ancient paths of yoga did what the best of the torch bearers of traditional religion are just beginning to do – help their followers to transcend the limits of their tradition to an entirely new playing field, to a whole new way of thinking and seeing. Instead of imposing form from the outside – “these are the poses”, “this is the dogma”, what about teaching the poses and the wisdom as a launching pad to ones own inner knowing?

    What if yoga and religion stopped treating their practioners and parishioners like children who will never make it past adolescence, and instead actually prepared them for full adulthood, for separation and exploration? I think that is the only way true evolution can occur – through an ever-increasing spiritual adulthood.

    For me Astanga is a remarkable system which strengthens nerves and structures, but my sense is that it comes from a particular time and a particular culture, with a very strong masculine ethic. Strong roots but not enough top growth. Like so many of the structures of the world, it may be calling to evolve.

    Through you and John, Astanga taught me about my nervous system, about different fields of awareness, but I wasn’t able to take the asana’s I learned and apply them as effectively as I would like to as an agent of change to my particular structure, my unique wiring. I felt I was, at times, able to do that in private sessions, but on my own I don’t have the confidence. I am still a novice, which is not entirely my fault. I don’t think the tradition is designed to mentor me into full adulthood, into my souls own path to Union with Self and God.

    The Astanga primary series is like an electrician’s handbook for wiring a house. It is an excellent handbook, but it doesn’t take into account that no two houses (bodies) are alike. Over the years I would say that I have developed a “first level intermediate understanding” of that handbook, but that isn’t enough to help me translate it to my particularness. I am unable to deviate enough from it to be as effective as I want and need to be. I am not suggesting a mere deviating from structure, but actually using the structure to eplore the territory that lies beyond it.

    What would it be like if each student were given a strong, basic understanding of yoga and yoga asanas and then, with this foundation of knowledge, they began to be led by their own inner awareness (with the help and expertise of a teacher), into an individualized practice. Just like in spiritual direction, there might need to be several years of discernment before the student is able to begin to have some mastery in distinguishing between a true inner knowing and the voice of his or her fear or the tempting pull of habit. Led by this foundational knowledge of self and guided by ones own inner wisdom, it would be possible for the soul to begin to be led by it’s own deeper knowing, the kind that when followed brings about true and lasting structural transformation.

    Imagine a mysore class where students practiced side by side, all ages and abilities, honoring their bodies and their life paths, rewiring, re-vitalizing, restoring and strengthening the unique wiring of their structures, responsibly participating in their own unfolding, their own growing awareness. Think of the beauty and the possibility of that level of listening and responding. Yoga, along with all spiritual paths and religions, is meant not to insist on any particular path, but rather to guide the individual towards their own path of awakening, into the divine vortex of the present moment, to union with God and to the fullness of his or her being.

    When I think of a class where people could come with the expressed purpose of listening and following their own somatic wisdom, my soul smiles. That level of adulthood inspires me. I think my longing for a class of this sort is part of a collective calling to step beyond the outwardly imposed structures of the past, whether it be yoga or religion or politics, into a time of inwardly guided actions, responding to each moment as it unfolds. I think I am part of a collective longing for a more “soul-friendly” universe.

    As we attempt to make this collective change from primarily valuing outwardly gathered wisdom to reverencing and utilizing our inner connection to the wisdom of Creation itself, I think it is so important to deeply honor and value long held traditions, to co-create with them, whether that is Astanga Yoga or the Catholic Church. I understand people’s fear of using tradition to step into the void which lies beyond that tradition. In the past what so often comes is the opposite of the depth one is seeking: new age spirituality or watered down practices that actually lack depth and meaning. But I think there is this third, less explored option, this inclusion of both, this middle path that calls us to the deepest roots of all, the ones that lead us to the wisdom of our own hearts and souls. Why is it so hard to be part of the “metanoia” that Jesus suggested, this being led by the wisdom of our hearts (God, Spirit, Ultimate Reality) not the constructs of our minds?

    And you?

  9. Steve Says:


    Thank you. I have response:

    I agree with you entirely except in this: I see higher realization as including the lower levels and not just chucking them. I have a neo-cortex in my brain but I make quite regular use of my reptile brain, and don’t think it would be a good idea to cut it out. I see Ashtanga in a similar way. I’ve done Primary and Second series so many times, I can’t tell you. But instead of needing to alter it according to my desires on the asana form level, I take advantage of having the vibrational foundations covered, and from that place I scan for higher information. The large and subtle forces in the cosmos require improvisation on the part of the players who deign to place themselves in upper stages, nothing else has a chance. Doing my practice, I don’t need as much concern with the physical, I trust Ashtanga to take care of that. Which implies this: I see the practice of witnessing bodily process to be a full yoga, but simply living in the body and putting lots of concern about what pose to create next is more primitive; witnessed body can be quite high, simply being in a body and expressing it is lower. And I’ll take challenges to that statement if it bugs anybody. Ashtanga is not just exercise or physical expression, it is, in part, the genius of creation which is the human body and mind experiencing itself with ever greater awareness of the nearly infinite possibilities of its complexity.

    And of course, yoga goes further than mere bodymind witnessing: I use my bones and don’t really need to change them. I’m happy with how intelligently laid out they are, but really they’re just bones. Yet they allow me to live the creative human possibility and supports my soul as it reaches toward spirit and downloads ever-greater and subtle degrees of creation. Ashtanga asanas and pranayamas are also just bones, intelligently laid out but not to be confused with the whole story.

    It also gives the community a common language and resonance, and my experience is this: the higher spheres are fairly exhausting, and refuge in the the structure and community of a practice serves such knowledge and helps us stay up there.

    Saral, your vision is compelling and I’m with you without hesitation. I just think the freedom you invoke will get too messy and wild, and won’t be able to sustain itself, without disciplined structure at its root.

  10. insideowl Says:

    Steve, your writing is inspiring. I wrestle with the question of whether my involvement in ashtanga subculture might actually inhibit my growth in some ways… questioning whether on balance the communities of my practice are hostile to evolution. Thanks for being highly evolved, and being a little bit public about it. Means a lot to me and to many lurkers who I can confirm are out here.

    One of the integral theorists–I cannot remember if it’s somewhere in Wilber? Seems like I read it somewhere else–makes a useful distinction about Kramer and Diana Alstad. That they are correct in their unmaskings of authoritarianism, but it’s crucial to remember that they also lack any insight into the “real” energetic or spiritual power of any “guru” because they simply cannot perceive on that level. It’s easy for them: they don’t have to balance the awakening/delusion quotients of given teachers because for they think awakening is a lone-wolfish kind of deal. Their project fascinates me. They seem libertarian by disposition and nearly existentialist by (anti-)cosmology, and here they are making a very important argument about the dangers of authoritarianism to people who share neither their politics nor their cosmology/metaphysics.

    All my best.

  11. David Says:

    for a young practitioner, it may seem haughty or simply difficult to grasp, that it does indeed take about 15 years just to begin to understand yoga correctly; then it takes an additional 10 years to begin having a good understanding of yoga. only experience with a good dose of humility and lots of faithful and discerning study can bring a sadhaka to a good understanding of yoga. our job as humans is to try to understand what it is that yoga is according to what yoga actually is yesterday, today, tomorrow (it is eternally the same) — and in this way we contribute to the living tradition — not by trying to invent what yoga is or by trying to add “new” discoveries to yoga — and certainly not before you have developed a deep understanding and perception of yoga which requires that you have actually strengthened the mind and the body to the point of being able to perceive something profound in your sushumna nadi!

    “if the prana is not moving in the sushumna nadi then all the talk of yoga is merely non-sense, merely babblings like that of a mad man.” hatha yoga pradipika.

    i will defend and interpret tradition. interpreting is on ongoing and ever evolving process that unfolds layer by layer until only the true Self remains. the shastras are our guide, they are our map that steers us from the delusion and confusion by which we do not even know we are influenced to the dawning of clearer and brighter visions of Self.

    time get back to mula bandha & sadhana. see ya!

  12. Carl Says:

    How would you have benefitted by entering the inner sanctum of the Shaivite temple? Were you there to immerse yourself deeply in what you’d have seen there, or were you there just to check it out and bring some colorful stories home with you? Maybe Joseph Campbell is right — that the world’s faiths should be brought into the light for all to appreciate and understand. But is that accomplished by unlocking the doors to the temples or is it accomplished by reversing superficial attitudes regarding those faiths?

    And if Shaivites have to fulfill a lengthy study to gain access, then why should you be allowed to just waltz right in for a quick lookaround?

    The parallel of temple sanctitude to that of the woman’s vagina is merely external. Perhaps it’s more useful to consider that the inner sanctums of the world are protected from casual disruption exactly the same way that you create for yourself a deep inner space by meditation, and within which you attempt the more significant “alchemy,” symbolized by the physical binding of male and female.

    Perhaps you were forbidden access to the inner sanctum of the temple not simply to preserve the sanctity of the temple but rather to extend more deeply to you an invitation to go inside.

  13. (0v0) Says:

    Uh oh… ashtanga mindmeld.


  14. Steve Says:

    I presume Ms. Insideowl (Ovo) is referring to the comment several above this which I cut and pasted from an email exchange of ours with her permission. Maybe she was intuiting the astonishing surprise emergence of her shadow twin, the two seperated at birth yet destined to meet in a passionate many-armed Tantric schema.

    Please educate me if this is not the case dear OvO.

  15. (0v0) Says:

    A little of both, it turns out. Wow.

    I am still working on cultivating the limbs for such an embrace.

    And meantime, I won’t challenge you on the first long paragraph from your March 7 entry. I have been contrasting creative and contemplative embodiment for a while, asking whether in some forms they can occur simultaneously, and sensing that for all my love for the expressive… I’ll agree that contemplative, somehow “generalized” embodied practice is, well, “higher.”

    Still playing and as you know dancing with this though… and finding that play, too, is divine.

  16. Steve Says:

    Oh, I was hoping someone would contest that paragraph. Actually, my love for wild art leaves me vulnerable there.

    The human nervous system evolves wildly, rapidly, with genius, in all of us who choose (or are forced) to live courageously. But our bones evolve slowly, over millenia. Sacred systems like Ashtanga are somewhere in between the two- unfortunately, looks a lot like Krishnamacharya assembled it in the twentieth century from 8th to 15th century asana systems, and some older stuff- yet his learning was truly profound and the building blocks he used were mostly old and still alluring, just needed a little dusting off.

    But a legitimate change to Ashtanga needs to survive some test of time, which is very different from the genius of divine wild art. High witness in contact with basic bodily process is deep passion, gigantic love- what could be better than that? Also, I think two people can be doing apparently similar creative play, one from a primal state, one from high witness: the latter is more likely to generate true emergent forms. (A rebuttal to that might state that the youngsters coming up will spontaneously produce emergents simply by expressing what they are: the genius of history at its most complete in the present moment.)

    Regardless, the forms which have been out there for a while and still remain compelling are those which might find their way into stable wisdom teachings. I won’t argue against playing around with Ashtanga, playing with it just serves a different purpose. Having spent much of our twenties in wild art, Michele and I both took to Ashtanga with delight: finally some sanity! Too much wild creativity reaches into big kookoo, increases the chance for catastrophe, is an exhilerating and exhausting way to live, often has panic somewhere near the edges if not out front and center.

    Basically, when we don’t need to worry about the outward forms so much, we can turn attention to the inward: the mantra concept. And Ashtanga is a worthy physical mantra: open the pelvis, tune and strengthen the central channel, spend significant time upside-down, bring strength and life to the upper body heart region, all moves which conspire to reformat the nadi-net into greater moment-to-moment sensitivity and get it robust enough to take the larger themes. Certainly other asana combinations can have similar results, but spending time tweaking with the science of asana combination is different than receiving a good one, surrendering to it, and doing it into the heavens. As an Ashtangi, I’m obviously tilted toward the latter of these.

  17. (0v0) Says:

    Wild art, the Big Kuckoo… that is what Saturday is for!

    Recent Saturdays, I’ve been reflecting on your hypothesis after I emerge from the zone of spontaneity and self-expression (two qualities my ashtanga practice does not afford on an obvious external-bodily level, though both wild art and ashtanga are open to contemplative practice).

    You said:I think two people can be doing apparently similar creative play, one from a primal state, one from high witness: the latter is more likely to generate true emergent forms.

    This is really hard to judge, and yet the more I interact with others’ subjectivities amid wild art the more confident I feel about agreeing with you. Maybe wild art is a big Pre/Trans free-for-all. 🙂 I’m still learning though.

  18. Steve Says:

    Preemies in there with the Transe people. I think the latter put out some kind of high-elf glow which is discernible in altered states.


  19. (0v0) Says:

    Like the glow that brought me here after a month or so away at the same time you were (apparently) composing?

    Not that Patanjali’s magic charms–from clairvoyance to more superhero-type stuff, in the Fourth Pada–are what it’s all about or anything.

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