excerpt: “restoring embodiment”
excerpt from –
threads of yoga: a remix of patanjali’s yoga sutras, with commentary and reverie
by matthew remski
to be published in the fall of 2012
The legacy of yoga has been resurrected in our time through the innate pleasure of our flesh. The simplest techniques of breathing, spinal elongation, and joint fluidity have given countless body-alienated postmoderns a renewed sense of vitality, purpose, grounding, and connection. As technology changes the body — in some ways to the point of ubiquity or uselessness — the meme of modern postural yoga has called out our tissues into the daylight. And although there is surely spectacle involved, evoking complicated feelings about how the flesh should look or move, most practitioners know that yoga’s real gift is that of internal sensitivity. In modern yoga we are given a physical culture that rewrites the meaning of flesh from the inside out. If the breath isn’t relaxed, we know we’re not quite there. If thought has not stilled and focussed into the waves of present sensation, we know there’s more (or less) work to do. Further: if the pleasure of musculo-skeletal alignment and warmed circulation does not somehow sweeten our interpersonal relationships, lend resilient courage to daily life, and inspire us towards social and ecological justice, we know we’re missing something. Through modern postural yoga we have remembered that our flesh innately wants to rejoice, connect and serve, and that it does not lie.
This yoga renaissance is quietly rewriting a central theme of its parent tradition. The body has rarely if ever been considered as its own value in older yoga cultures. At best, the body has been seen as a vessel for an unseen higher essence, and therefore an instrument for its own transcendence, as per the many tantric and natha yoga lineages. Less positively, the body has been seen as the definitive proof of separation from divinity, as in the bhakti yoga lineages. And perhaps the most negative view of all — the body as the repulsive devolution of consciousness and an obstacle to the recovery of self-knowledge — has been the hallmark of many ascetic views that in no way reflect our present values, yet echo stubbornly through our discourse and unspoken sentiments. The yoga sutras of Patanjali fall squarely into this ascetic mood: compiled from the sayings of renunciates of many stripes who at the dawn of urbanization fled their families and social roles to tiny forest ashrams, where, with great austerities, they attempted to tame the unruly and desirous body towards the goal of transcendent epiphany.
Patanjali says little about the value of embodied sensation. He says little about interpersonal love, and nothing of children or ecology. He presents an ultimately internalizing path, in which ethics are a means towards social disentanglement, and the body has evolutionary value to the extent we are disgusted by it (sutra 2.40). In other words, he teaches exactly against the present zeitgeist of yoga culture. And yet his book is presented, largely uncritically, as a seminal text in most yoga education programmes throughout the world today. Our dogged adherence to it is either a sign of nostalgia for a bygone age, or, more problematically, a hidden wish to console our complex interpersonal suffering through social withdrawal and meditative narcissism — which some might say we’re already accomplishing through consumerism.
But we are also powerfully enthralled by Patanjali’s unwavering examination of conscious and unconscious processes. There is something mystically attractive about an Axial Age description of thought and psychological patterning presented with such quiet authority. My experience is that many who encounter the aphorisms have the immediate sense that they arise out of a non-distractedness that our world and culture can rarely offer. They suspend us in a mood of extended contemplation and confident stillness. One of the primary attractions of the text, regardless of the philosophy it presents, is that it highlights the relative crudeness of our speed, our data-saturation, our ambivalence, our vulnerability to alienation and the banal. And in a world of limitless copy, the economy of these aphorisms shines like the edge of a blade.
It is this close and precise attention that I wish to translate here, if not the metaphysics. Philosophy will change through discourse: all tenets are temporary and unstable. What does not change is the requirement of attention that makes our changing discourse evolutionary, as opposed to supplementary. I offer this text and commentary as an alternative speculation on what Patanjali’s attention and incision might offer us today, within a far different social-philosophical context than his own. A context in which renunciate withdrawal will not heal our interpersonal pain or speak to our social diseases. A context in which we desperately need re-embodiment and grounded connection to our ecology. A context in which that magic of bodily pleasure that got us practicing in the first place becomes the basis for reaching out with love into the world that made us, has always held us, and which we never wish to leave.