Between the academic rock and the traditionalist hard place: finding the open source for yoga philosophy today

Between the academic rock and the traditionalist hard place: finding the open source for yoga philosophy today

(This post is a draft of a section from the introduction to a work-in-progress called Yoga Philosophy Digest: three core texts for students, in which I’ll be trying to present the most helpful reading and contemplative strategies for students who wish to navigate the Bhagavad Gītā, the Yoga Sūtra-s, and the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. Any and all feedback is appreciated.)



The feeling that yoga philosophy is an inaccessible practice is not only fostered by the current structural limitations of Modern Postural Yoga trainings (max. 20 hrs. within 200!), but by two deeper forces: the abstract academic study of yoga that seems to turn it into a lifeless artifact, and traditionalist teaching structures that demand faithful allegiance as the price of transmission. The forces are inimical to each other, in a tangible display of what anthropologists describe as the “outsider-insider” problem. Academics claim that insider traditionalists are too enmeshed in their practice to understand it objectively, and traditionalists claim that outsider academics lack the requisite faith that makes yoga comprehensible. At the center of the tension spins the vortex of the ambivalent value of “religion”.

The academic discourse has accused Indian philosophy in general, and yoga philosophy in particular, of being religious, and therefore unworthy of analytical study. As Richard King (1998) and Bina Gupta (2012) point out, this attitude has colonial and orientalist overtones that prejudge Indian philosophy as the exotic artifact of thinkers who had not progressed beyond magical spells and mythic stories. For example, the darśanas (“ways of seeing”, of which yoga is but one), categorized into different “schools” by many Western scholars, are often presented in professional academic literature dating back to the mid-1800s as if they are closed dogmas – stories of long ago – rather than living practical models, forged through vigorous debate, that change over time and support waves of innovation.

I can see two reasons for the academic-reductionist view. Firstly, Euro-American academics have generally relied upon the flattened textual presentations of the various schools to form their opinions, without access to the ongoing and vibrant oral commentaries that bring them to life. This betrays a profound ignorance towards the Indian ambivalence towards written sources (a topic I’ll explore in Chapter One) compared to personal instruction. Secondly, Indian philosophy in the academic world has been primarily under the jurisdiction not of creative philosophers, but of Sanskritists, whose core responsibility has been to generate accurate translations of root texts, rather than to engage the texts’ actual ideas in a vigorous way. The conservational task of many academics has lent a conservative and even reverential air to the process of transmission. But as Douglas Brooks points out in almost every talk he gives, the academic in general and the Sanskritist in particular occupy relatively small roles within a community of inquiry that demands broad skills and approaches. Practitioners who have not had the time for or access to Sanskrit studies can contribute to yoga culture in equally profound ways, by acting upon the inspiration of the old books, and continuing their dialogue.

The traditionalist position uses the meme of religion in the opposite way, claiming that yoga philosophy derives its validity precisely from a commitment to the authority of its transcendent sources, the Vedas, and to the methods by which they’ve been transmitted. (I’ll take up the question of whether yoga is in fact religious, along with the role of “revealed knowledge” in Chapter One.) This insider claim is often enshrouded within the language of hereditary exclusion. Traditionalists present the capacity to understand and engage with the concerns of yoga philosophy as dependent upon an apostolic or genetic linkage back to a cultural or geographical source. The apostolic linkage is forged through dīkṣā (initiation) or śaktipāt (direct physical transfer of spiritual energies. The genetic linkage recalls the father-son dialogues at the root of yoga literature, dating back to the Upanishads. Both apostolic and genetic linkages are combined within the notion of paramparā (“one following the other”).

Traditionalists claim that yoga philosophy, springing as it did from the ritual knowledge of ancestors who sat on the bank of a certain river or at the foot of a certain mountain, is powerful insofar as we can determine where it comes from, how it has been preserved, and who it has been transmitted by. It has integrity within the practitioner to the extent that s/he can make not only a matricular but an hereditary claim upon it. It is braided into the roots of a tribal memory, and protected by purity taboos. It is felt in the bones and sustained in the family temple. It cannot be exported to the libraries of the world’s universities without being diminished or corrupted. A translation of Patañjali in English on the shelf of a New York bookstore carries little if any of the tradition’s power, and could never enter the DNA of its reader. Unlike the academic, who derives his philosophical authority from the capacity for objective research, the traditionalist derives his philosophical power from his devotion to what he preserves. We see this attitude as a functional principle behind the dynastic influence of the most prominent Indian families on the religiously-inflected side of MPY: the Jois’, the Desikachars, the Iyengars and the Mohans.

This apostolic/hereditary structure of traditionalism is enriched through a self-reflexive relationship to the content it attempts to transmit. The notion that knowledge has a pristine, revealed origin, and that its meaning depends upon its devotional preservation and the ongoing purification of corrupting influences, makes knowledge itself an analogue for the ātman, which some yogic paths seek to extract from the devolutions of time and materialism (while some deny it exists at all). In this mode, knowledge is not conceived of as a cultural product, but as an eternal and unchanging essence, like the soul, contained discretely within the flesh of the lineage-holder, and by association throughout the initiated knowledge-tribe. Knowledge is neither purchased nor matriculated, nor made accessible through simple intellectual merit, but rather reincarnates in a traceable lineage, migrating from body to body through the unconditioned technology of Sanskrit: from teacher to student, from parent to child. Yoga philosophy, from the traditionalist viewpoint, is not something that one does, but rather something that one is given permission to hold and echo. It is seen not as something merely learned, nor something that one can teach oneself, but rather something that is given. Dīkṣā and śaktipāt are the rituals of a symbolic death and rebirth, by which ātman-like knowledge is authorized for transmigration in its “pure” form from the older teacher to the younger student. The structure of knowledge-transfer both mirrors and contains the metaphysics of reincarnation, illustrating Marshal McLuhan’s insight: the medium is the message.

Pointing out the mirroring of medium (paramparā) and message (reincarnation of the ātman) begs the ancient philosophical questions: do things really work this way? Do any objects of matter or knowledge contain eternal, irreducible essences? Does some part of a person survive her death, beyond the legacy of her children if she had them, her artifacts, and the memories of those who knew her? How is that part separate from the dying part? Similarly: does the essence of an idea exist separately from the person who holds it, such that it can be transferred whole if that person utters a mantra, or dies? While these questions survive as they must in songs and poetry, contemporary science, philosophy, and cognitive theory (not to mention various strands of that other pesky yogic path: Buddhism) have dismissed them. To believe in reincarnation today is to be willing to overlook the fact that there is not one shred of empirical evidence to support the survival of consciousness beyond organic death. Likewise: to believe today in the irreducible truth (rather than just the usefulness) of an apostolic or hereditary knowledge-stream is to be willing to say that knowledge is not the unstable product of contemplative, social, and cultural evolution, shared through oral and written language, subject to linguistic slippage, and shaped by innumerable competing forces over millennia in a continual act of construction. It is to believe that belief and believer are separate, that the belief is carried whole rather than continually interpreted and re-presented, that believers are carriers, as it were, of a sacred parasite, who uses its host for its own propagation. This religiously-inflected diminishment of creative agency in the process of yoga philosophy might do as much to ossify its will to evolve as academic reductionism does.

It’s unfortunate that while they strut at each other, the two strands of academic and traditionalist power can both discourage yogic experimentation through their shared proprietary and conservative attitudes. Both claim ownership over the access to knowledge: the academic through professional credential and the traditionalist through bloodline or initiation controls. Which means that both can overshadow the fact that most prominent yoga philosophers throughout history have been social and political outliers who have crafted their realizations as explicit rebellions to established modes of knowledge. The evolution of yoga – from the existentialism of Arjuna to the democratization of Patañjali to the taboo-smashing excesses of Svātmārāma – is a parade of challenges to entrenched social, physical, and psychological patterns. Yoga is not a conservative act. So when Jois’ hazy injunction to simply “practice, practice [i.e., whatever has been given]” is colluded with the conservatism of academic and traditionalist modes, the contemporary student – who is generally neither academic nor a traditionalist– is hardly encouraged to creatively participate in an evolving philosophical dialogue. This is a lost opportunity.

But with amazing speed the barriers of academic and traditionalist exclusivity are lifting. The global yoga community is now awash in an embarrassment of available philosophical resources. The transfer of knowledge throughout the Indian yoga diaspora has been broad and varied. Practitioners now have the hard work of generations of both Indian and non-Indian Sanskritists at our disposal. Every major text of the MPY canon is available online, for free, in various translations. There are dozens of brilliant new theorists of yoga philosophy whose current work in the margins between scholarly and popular modes – much of which is being published online – will surely be referred to in the future as a kind of renaissance of mutual learning and mentorship. Yogis and scholars of diverse backgrounds routinely swap perspectives in studios, universities, fitness clubs, community centers, at conferences, and over curries. Lineage allegiances are becoming increasingly flexible as people learn from each other. No generation in history has enjoyed such broad access to the panorama of yoga’s written materials and experiential transmission.

Traditionalists will often mourn the erosion of the top-down gurukula learning structure, accusing the modern practitioner who cherry-picks according to their interests and needs of being selfish, arrogant, and non-committal. “Find an authentic teacher” they will say. “Surrender to him.” (It’s usually a “him.”) “Choose one path and follow it to its end. Each path is complete.” Setting aside the issue of whether any script for personal evolution originating a millennium or more ago could possibly be “complete”, there are good points to consider here, including the lost intimacy of oral tradition, the banality of data overload, the superficiality of all consumerist agendas, and the potential neurological benefits of limiting one’s study paradigm to learn more by immersion than by comparison.

But our contemporary exposure to dozens of paths and their evolutionary relationships shows in itself that no single path has ever been complete, anymore than a single text can hold meaning without reference to surrounding texts. When we consider the breadth of yogic practices laid out in practical, non-denominational resources ranging from Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition to the tiny ‘zines published by Community Yoga Vancouver, to apps that instruct in basic Sanskrit pronunciation, to web-channels broadcasting instructions for vinyasa sequencing, to chapbooks of poetry published by the Center of Gravity Sangha in Toronto, to the incessant chatter scrolling out from the bottom of yoga blogs – it no longer makes sense to think of pathways of practice in isolation from one another, or even as singular unto themselves.

While the practice of yoga may once have demanded conformity to a particular set of controlled beliefs and practices administered by a recognized authority, it now involves learning how to dialogue with and participate amongst the beliefs and practices of many authorities in order to reclaim or be inspired to invent the practical and contemplative tools that are appropriate to immediate circumstance. Fuelled by technology, this implicit social rejection of the exclusionary paradigm of lineage elides with an emerging yogic ideal. Knowing that our species survival depends upon our capacity to protect and celebrate diversity, we are beginning to also understand that “my path” is meaningless without “your path”. My fulfillment depends upon your fulfillment, and it’s very likely that you’ll get there differently from the way I do, by applying yourself uniquely, using the tools we can now share across the divides of power, whether academic or religious.



  1. Um…

    If direct quotation is the gold standard of intellectual honesty in this conversation, “traditionalist teaching structures” is kind of problematic.

    Mat and Matt, you two are a good pair. This argument does waste some time, but it’s nice to see that in the end you can find each other’s edges. That’s what you’ve been looking for all along.

    I’ll note that you, Matthew, interviewed me privately to see if my tradition could be ID’d with this behavior, and found that what you imagined might be there indeed was not. Perhaps, though, in the meantime I’ve provided enough new material for whatever other blog post you may have brewing. I am happy to do so. In this age, traditions don’t really need to conceal their motives and methods.

    Matthew, do you think that there are ways to interview practitioners/ gather information and that more fully express the transparency you’ve been discussing lately? Perhaps, for example, it would be good to tell interviewees the motivating argument of your research queries?

    • I think we misunderstood each other. A few days before I published, I wrote to ask you about a separate subject: about whether you felt outsiders where culturally excluded from the philosophical heritage of Mysore:

      “After encountering the numerous references [from the Jois family] to shastra and chanting and philosophy and puja being “too difficult” for “us” to learn, but that 99% practice will do for Westerners — I’m wondering whether the ritual-scriptural involvements that they obviously adhere to represent a higher or more complete pathway. The easy way of asking is: Do they believe in the natural conveyor-belt efficacy of asana for themselves, or do they believe that they must nurture their jnana activities to attain the full picture — which is something that most non-Indians will simply never be able to do?

      I think I’ve heard “practice and all is coming” enough times to begin to understand its various layers. I’m wondering whether there are
      sentiments in that statement that express exclusion, whether the intention is provincial or simply fatalistic. I also wonder whether the dictum, as a typical response to the philosophical questions of Western students, indicates an inability or unwillingness to engage with conflicting disciplines and epistemologies. Perhaps simple language difficulties play a significant role.

      I also wonder whether it’s off base to assume that Mr. Jois was a philosopher. [A friend] told me that privately he would answer
      questions with direct quotes from shastra if he thought the student was truly interested. This is straight-up parampara training, and I’m starting to see how little this has to do with the dialectic that I associate with philosophy. If he considered shastra as a storehouse rather than as the beginning point for conversations, I can understand why he might shrug with bewilderment when strange new people knock on the library door.”

      You responded, in part:

      “PJ was a philosopher (and held a post as philosophy professor)… there was still something going on there
      that was beneath caste, culture and language. The most psychedelic experience I’ve had was with him. Everyone reports those experiences, of course. And, I’m guessing the Tibetans showed you early on how cheap they can be. Miracles Are for suckers. But still, PJ was dialed in to the source and on some level. I don’t think he cared what form the method and culture around the source’s expressions
      took. The shastras have energy, that’s all. It’s not crucial to preserve them for the sake of truth or method or whatever. Just as the ashtanga postural method – it is the followers that confuse nama and rupa. PJ switched up the poses regularly, always claiming he taught exactly as his guru taught him, no exceptions. That wasn’t some sort of irony.”

      I didn’t reference or implicitly use our exchange because I’m still digesting it, and it doesn’t really speak to the more general critique of the “traditionalist/academic” dichotomy that I’ve presented here. I realize the dichotomy is clumsy, and it breaks down easily under analysis, but I would maintain it still models the rock-and-hard-place constrictions that beginning students of MPY face, especially in the YTT contexts that I’m familiar with over the past six or so years. The practitioners I know really are intimidated by scholarship on one hand and parampara on the other, and this makes them wary of creatively engaging with what should be basic questions. That’s the point. Ironically, in discussing it, we have to acknowledge the level of specialization in this dialogue, lest it becomes a third category of alienation.

      Your description of Jois making stuff up while claiming heritage (not a surprise, cf, “Yoga Korunta”) brings the whole issue to another level of meta-crazy that I’m sure has its beauty and inspiration, as well as its darkness. It’s an amazingly American theme, and something for another post.

      If I had thought that my specific question to you about Jois was a necessary theme in this post, I really would have opened my email with “I’m writing this piece about ________; would you have any insight into _______?”

  2. You lost me at sociopathy, Matthew.

    Given my background, that is not a word (or concept, or metaphor) I take lightly.

    Love to you all and peace out.

    • I don’t either. I meant it as shorthand for “social pathology”, which seems pretty clear from some available videos, but it’s better to change it to “darkness”. So I will.

  3. Matthew, how else should we interpret ‘traditionalist teaching structures’ other than the broad Dharmic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism? When coupled with your relentless assault on tradition elsewhere in this piece, in your other writing and your astonishingly brazen attempt to re-write the Yoga Sutras – you leave no room for your reader other than to associate Dharmic traditions as being backward, whilst your take is progressive. You might want to try again. But if not, well – we have reached the end of the road I think?

    • I don’t know, Mat. The question is how else could you interpret it, given that nobody else has raised the same objection. “Traditionalism” is much broader than “tradition”, a word that I never use critically in the piece. I also never name any religion, except for Buddhism, which I hold out as offering an answer to the metaphysics of curation. (If we got deeper into the content, I’m sure that sub-schools of Advaita Vedanta obscured essentialism as well: the granularity never ends!)

      We had one exchange at the outset that I think you missed. You wrote:

      “The only other warning would be to caution against using the adjective ‘traditional’ since ‘traditional yoga’ is of course a retronym for ‘yoga’ mainly due to the imperatives of secular, corporatist society and prejudicial distaste for allegedly backward genres such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhim and Jainism.”

      I replied:

      “Good point about “traditional”. It seems I used it only in the title and once in the text, where mainly I used “traditionalist” and “traditionalism”, which I apply to anyone showing the exegetical attitude, regardless of faith heritage.”

      And then I changed it.

      As a critic yourself, you know that criticism rises up out of deep, conflicted love for the object of criticism. So no, I see Dharmas as sublime in many areas as they are backward in others — just like science, but in different ways. I also feel your conflicted love, Mat, and hope we cross paths in person one day.

  4. Well, for someone who seems to put a lot of effort into being precise, I am surprised you not feel at least a twinge of editorial responsibility or journalistic integrity when it comes to creating a clear distinction between the target for your ire – which seems to be virtually non-existent, (with a few noted charlatans and chancers aside) and thus avoid the obvious commutation in thinking between ‘traditionalism’ and say, ‘vedic knowledge systems’ or ‘dharmic traditions’ and all the direct cultural linkages to Asia? It just seems incredibly insensitive and arrogant. The reason why you have not as yet had any complaints on this sort of wide-ranging topic does not really suggest it it unworthy of attention – I suspect it would be mainly due to the demographic of your audience, which I is white, better than average educated, liberals based in North America? Well – that of course implicates your entire domain. It actually takes quite a bit of effort to acknowledge the depth and scope of the problem of fully respecting difference rather than simply digesting it, which seems to be what is happening in spaces like this? Do you not at least admit to trying to digest the cultural differences in work like this? and if you do, would you not do better to illuminate the edges of these concepts, as Angela tentatively suggested we have been doing in the bottom half of your Blog rather than offer false hope to an audience that may not know any better than to follow your exhortation to disassemble a system that clearly does not stand up to the sort of biased theoretical bigotry of the Christian Seminary, but rather more I think, it has provided a tested reality that has created common understandings and whose power and robustness have been proved over thousands of years. Indeed, the best collegiate ideals that you espouse in your project such as, ‘open source’ has been operating within the Dharmic paradigm for longer than you seem to want to credit it for and served human progress ever since the vedic knowledge was codified?

    • You have a good point, and I hope that my initial word-correction and subsequent attempts to describe my intentions have helped. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to “digest cultural differences” in the sense of homogenizing things, but rather to describe palpable cultural phenomena that I encounter on the ground as an educator in a demographic I don’t think you know, despite your willingness to defame it. But those few sentences in the lead paragraph that would have satisfied the focus of what I thought was a clear target, but wasn’t clear enough, are certainly worth working on in the future, so thank you.

      • Allise Rhode

        I have to admit, when I first began reading mremski, I thought I took from it an anti-intellectual bent. But ‘the dichotomy’9018 is there to be explored, not -fussed- over.
        –Certainly I never felt a dictate to be disassembling any kind of tower: -ivory or maiden.

        More of a call (and reponse) to an assembling of oneself. More of a post-precious stance.
        More Baroque, less Mannerist.

        Ah, get thy Renaissance (enlightened) self in tow, and join the many vibrant hues on offer.

        –If the mix-mix to too shocking, add a little grey/gray inky-ness. Perhaps a hint of the easily obtained stain of the indigo plant –or just a few grains of (very precious) cobalt blue.
        Tea will work. If there is any to be had.
        A coffee-wash will work to mute.

        All that brightness can be damped down by the cheap/mundane (terrible?) AND by the sublime, the rare. No barriers to hiding bushels!
        - Just no precious. It makes bad art.

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