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.