Jonah, Matsyendra, Jivana Heyman, and Northrop Frye: Keynote Address to the Accessible Yoga Conference, Toronto, 2018
Given in the Victoria College Chapel,
University of Toronto,
May 23, 2018
I want to thank Jivana for inviting me to make a few remarks here today, near the closing of this groundbreaking event.
Fun fact: I used to go to school here. I dropped out. There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I couldn’t at the time see what the point was, what kind of job or living could come from a literature degree.
I didn’t want to break a spell. I’d spent several years reading books in these rooms, immersed in a dreamlike experience that shone a light into some internal space. It was like the sweet spot in a yoga career. I didn’t want to wake up and be productive. I wasn’t so interested in achieving anything. I didn’t want to perform, or conform. Maybe these sentiments sound resonant to some of you after this weekend – especially if you took the training earlier this week.
Just downstairs, I would go to the lectures of Northrop Frye in the year before he died. Frye was a famous Canadian intellectual. You Americans and others we’re hosting here might be familiar with a more recent and even more famous, and much wealthier Canadian intellectual, also tenured at this University. I’ll just say that Frye was very different from the current celebrity: he didn’t become rich and famous by mocking the emotions of marginalized people or by dismissing their needs, which the dominant culture already makes invisible – such the need of trans people to be recognized as who they are.
Like our current celebrity, Frye was also a Christian, and he appreciated Jung. But you can be sure that if he was still alive he’d be marching down Church Street this weekend in the PRIDE Parade.
Frye was truly a thinker, and a generous one – a literary critic and theorist who articulated several revelatory ideas that forever changed the way a lot of people read books.
He was a United Church minister, but his ideas were pretty yogic. One was the notion, broadly stated, that there are no single books in the world. It’s like the covers that separate books on shelves are simply there to allow you to pick them up more easily. Each person’s work, Frye argued, fit into a “continuity of the word”, reiterating and expanding upon primal themes handed down through the mythic frameworks by which societies live and grow. It wasn’t the critic’s job to judge an individual book so much as was to give it voice within its proper context, to see how it fit into the whole landscape of human dreams, how it mobilized the forms of the past for new purposes. He didn’t see himself as a gatekeeper of what was correct or proper, but as a facilitator of imaginative experience. That has inspired me throughout my life.
I’m opening with this recollection here, because I believe Jivana and his colleagues are doing the same thing with this organization, this movement. They look at bodies and consciousness in the way Frye looked at literature – as one broad continuum of potential experience. They aren’t high-brow. They are not gatekeepers. They don’t believe in gates, unless they’re already open.
I think you’ve gotten the download this weekend on what Accessible Yoga teaches, so I’ll take a moment to get more specific about what Frye taught. The class I took downstairs walked us through the repeating motifs of Biblical imagery, and the recurrent peaks and valleys of human joy and trouble. He showed how these patterns spun out into the present day in novels and films. In his lectures he would punctuate his intricate theory with examples that sent shivers up my spine. This was another yoga preview for me.
For instance: he said that the Jewish listener, hearing that Jesus was laid in the tomb, would have recalled the fable of Jonah being swallowed whole by the whale. Both men shared a temporary death, and then emerged from the darkness after three days with a message from the deep.
I remember listening to this comparison in a trance state and focusing on the sensations that both stories evoked: darkness, cold and wet. I had this deep embodied sense that the feelings and textures of those experiences were the actual treasure, and that I had access to them as well, even though I wasn’t a hero. That made me shiver, again.
Years later, Frye came back to me in my yoga studies when I first heard the story of Matsyendranath, who was said to be the founder of Hathayoga. You know “fish pose”? This is the guy. Early 10th century.
Matsyendra was said to have been born under an evil star. In Jyotisha (or East Indian astrology), this would be a portent for madness, demonic possession. Or in contemporary terms: mental health challenges. So his parents dumped him out of a boat, and into the sea.
Let’s just pause to note here that this part of the history of Hathayoga begins with a story of childhood abandonment and trauma. It begins with the story of someone being judged, marginalized and made invisible. It begins with the story of someone being plunged into a world in which they cannot be free, and kept there because those who should care for him, who can care for him, do not.
I think Northrop Frye would have a lot to say about how many of us here today find this medieval story to be resonant, and how many of us have repeated it through our lives, in ways both large and small, like a mythic refrain. Frye would also be tuned in to how this story unfolds in real time: as when, for instance, some children, because they don’t belong, are thrown not into the sea, but locked in cages in empty Wal-Marts in the desert.
Like Jonah, Matsyendra is swallowed up by a great fish — a matsya — which is how he gets his name. Indian stories always go a little overboard – so instead of the mere three days that Jonah and Jesus spend submerged, Matsyendra is in that whale for twelve years. That’s because he has a lot to learn. The whale takes him down to the bottom of the sea, and hovers, apparently sleeping, beside a bubble that’s glowing with golden light. Inside that bubble sit Siva and Parvati, together. They have retreated from the visible world to discuss the secrets of yoga. Through the ribs of the whale, the boy listens in rapt attention to a conversation he wasn’t meant to hear, but which will help him build his life and sense of self.
To review: Matsyendra’s parents tried to kill him. When he was born, they saw something about him that confused them, made them disgusted. He was so different they needed to make him disappear. By luck or grace, he is swallowed by something that looks and feels like death, but which protects him. In the belly of the whale, he descends into the living sea and overhears a divine mother and father discussing the methods by which he might reconnect with his fundamental self-worth.
It was because I took that class with Northrop Frye that I could connect with the feelings held within Matsyendra’s story. The people and times and purposes are different, but there is a series of core sensations around which a transformational moment occurs. An archetype can be conveyed through words and images – but these are all wrapped around feeling states. Jonah, Jesus, and Matsyendra – all probably trauma survivors, also maybe non-neurotypical – all felt the same cool, enclosed darkness. They were held there, immobilized. They all learned something from it.
And of course women did as well. And trans people. But that’s another speech.
Why am I telling you all this? Perhaps you can already sense the strange connection between what Frye helped people understand about mythology, and what Jivana and his colleagues have helped us understand about bodies and sensations and consciousness. Across ages and cultures, we share archetypal feelings. If we pay attention to them, they reveal something about our lives. When Jivana teaches Fish posture, the details of the form aren’t important. They are circumstantial. The details are performed by bodies that are different from each other, and perpetually changing.
He’s not sharing the details. He is sharing the archetypes of sensation: extending, opening, closing, compressing. He’s sharing how those sensations create meaning and relief. And he’s saying that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what your body is like now, or how old you are, or what your trauma load is: these archetypes of sensation are your birthright, and any spirituality that makes them inaccessible is actually no spirituality at all.
I’m telling you all of this for another reason, which is to situate why I am here. I mean, I’m not exactly sure why I’m here, but I’ll give my best guess. I’m definitely not here to talk about cults. You’re welcome. Although Jivana… if people start calling you Swami Jivanaji, we’ll have to have a chat.
I’m also not here as someone who identifies as having a disability – although I will have disabilities in the future: that’s guaranteed. I’m here as a yoga practitioner, and as a cultural interpreter and critic. And if I can emulate Frye just a bit, it’s by focusing on context more than judgment and declaration. I’d like to suggest that Accessible Yoga is continuous with the oldest forms of self-inquiry. And so, as in the Bible or the Indian Puranas, it recycles some very old values. At the same time, it expands upon those themes in such a way that the entire culture could be transformed. Jivana is not just serving an unmet need, or filling a niche market. He’s changing what the practice actually has to offer to everybody. He’s adding a chapter to a wisdom tradition where the books have no covers.
I’ll switch gears now to describe how Accessible Yoga has changed my life, even through brief contact, even as a temporarily able-bodied person. It’s done so in a uniquely yogic way: by helping me see through an illusion.
When I first started yoga, about ten years after that class with Northrop Frye, I was enthralled by the relief it offered. Within a few classes of feeling that breathing and movement could be mobilized to meditate on my basic human condition, I felt a kind of armor dissolving. I felt relief from the burden of an isolation and individualism I didn’t even know I was carrying. I immediately felt more porous and open to others.
And then I made a mistake. Or, more accurately, I was fooled by the capitalism of modern yoga. I falsely attributed those sensations to the specific techniques of the class, the method – more importantly, to the whole vibe and aesthetic. To the way things looked. To the marketing. And I wanted to buy more.
This was not by accident. My first yoga class was in the original Yogazone studio in Manhattan. For those of you who don’t know, Yogazone was founded by Alan Finger, whose family goes way back in the yogaworld. In the 1990s, I’m told Finger was good friends with Michael Gordon, the founder of Bumble and Bumble, whose hair products studio was in the same building. Finger was also a photographer with an eye for fashion. Before Lululemon, there was Yogazone wear – which was pretty much the same, except for the gusseting, the little pockets and flares. The people modelling the clothes in wild yoga postures set a now-familiar standard – and many of them also modelled hair for Bumble and Bumble upstairs. I’m not joking. The globalization of modern yoga has always been tangled up in notions of the body beautiful, fashion, the performance of zen detachment, and gentrification.
And objectification and sexualization and gender essentialism… but that’s another speech. I hope to hear Sarit Rogers give it sometime from the perspective of yoga photography, if she hasn’t already.
Those first years of my yoga experience were tangled up in something else, so pervasive it was completely invisible. Everyone in that shiny world was young and athletic. Why didn’t I clue into that? Was it because that’s what I wanted to be? Because it was a plausible enough ideal for me to want to pay to be part of it?
Not everyone was doing yoga glam – I also got hooked into various Iyengar circles in which people were given therapeutic options and the demographic was older. But these were marginal spaces. The public face of yoga belonged to those who performed grace and virtue through intricate and artful postures. None of them had disabilities. Not visible ones, anyway.
As I watched and imitated my teachers and the colleagues I was jealous of, I became confused. I got swept up into the performance of postures, and left behind the sensations that had actually awakened me to some deeper core of my life. I lost touch with simple, archetypal sensations in a neurotic hunt to reproduce them through increasingly difficult postures. I began associating yoga with complex movements and gestures that I prayed would show me some simple thing that I was forgetting. Over time, and without recognizing it, I had stopped practicing yoga, and had started anxiously exercising my ableist privilege.
So here’s a punchline: I had made yoga inaccessible to myself, while I was practicing postures that were inaccessible to most people, and while I was under the illusion that everyone should be able to do what I was doing. I didn’t think about the ramifications of all of this performance stuff for people who weren’t like me. But at the same time, it could all feel so terrible and empty. No wonder so many of us got so disillusioned.
Actually: it was really market capitalism that made the yoga inaccessible. And globalization. Because how were Finger and the Jois family and Choudhury and Iyengar and John Friend going to expand their content and market share without making up levels of attainment and competence? How were they going to sell anything without continually dangling a carrot in front of our inadequacy? And when the goal is continually pushed forward and upward, who but the most privileged would be able to reach it?
It took me about ten minutes of listening to Jivana at the Yoga Service Conference last month to have a startling thought: the modern yoga industry is a $20B ableist pyramid scheme. (As with Indian myth, I tend to go overboard. Also: so much for avoiding judgment and declaration!)
Jivana seems so calm and placid, but really, he’s shaking the foundations of that pyramid. It’s not just him – it’s all of you really, in your various ways. You’ve all dedicated yourselves in one way or another to the decommodification of self-inquiry. And it’s revolutionary.
Ask yourselves this, given all of the work your doing: how will yoga teachers of the future think of the yoga path as something to progress upon instead of something that unfolds uniquely, but archetypally, within bodies that are different from each other?
The Trauma Sensitive Yoga movement, to take an example, reminds us over and over again that 1 in 4 human beings carry Type 1 or Type 2 trauma loads, and many think that that statistic is low. That fact alone reveals every bit of yoga media content and marketing that focuses on skill accumulation, performance, demonstration, and prowess for exactly what it is: a glorification of inaccessibility.
But the Trauma Sensitive movement – a subset of the Accessibility movement – tells us something else, something older. It tells us that the body remembers. The body forms itself around its inner and outer conditions. The body is a record of experience that should be listened to. It tells us that Matsyendra needed care, he needed access to teaching, even if he was invisible. Perhaps moreso, BECAUSE he was invisible. He didn’t need fancy postures. He didn’t need Bumble and Bumble, although some shampoo and conditioner might have been nice after all that time in the whale.
Let me take this a step further.
When I facilitate training modules in yoga history and, at some point I try to steer the conversation around to an old word at the heart of many yoga traditions: moksha. The literal translation is something like “unbinding, loosening, unknotting” – which is both cool and strange, given that a key meaning of “yoga” is to bind things together.
I always tell trainees, however, about an eccentric translation one of my teachers gave me: he said that moksha meant “the end of infatuation”. I tell the trainees this while we discuss the meanings and politics of yoga on Instagram, of yoga in the age of performance, of yoga as something we are told we are doing if it looks right. These are all things that dampen those internal sensations, even while their glare makes so many people invisible.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced many “ends of infatuation”. I’ve been infatuated – brainwashed really – by ways of thinking about the world and other people that have been blinded by privilege. This has taken a long time to face.
For instance: immersing myself in racial and gender justice resources disrupted my infatuation with the idea that the world was equal. I couldn’t be exposed to Black Lives Matter or #metoo for long without understanding that basic safety and dignity are simply not accessible to some people, because they are not like me. My basic safety and dignity are so assured, I don’t have to think about access needs. Before I really interrogated what being white gave me, what being male gave me, I was under the illusion that the world was made equally for everyone. I thought I was just living and acting and being rewarded according to my merits. I thought – not consciously, but stubbornly, with a sense of entitlement – that what this body could do was simply what should be done, which meant that bodies that couldn’t do those things, or who had to do them differently, were less-than me.
In the exact same way, I didn’t understand that the yoga and meditation practices I had encountered had also been made for me, for the money I had, for the way my body seemed to be, so natural and capable. That they could work as complimentary care to the other health services that I already had access to. That they had been crafted for export to suit my values and needs. That they were hosted in spaces that felt naturally welcoming to me in ways I didn’t even notice, and that just blended in with the rest of my gentrifying life. Oh look: a yoga studio, Right on: a health food store; Cool: a microbrewery; Yay: David’s Tea!
I didn’t realize that when yoga came into English-speaking countries, it was bent and twisted to resonate with my values, my hang-ups, my culture, to attract my dollars. Not that there’s anything wrong with things that change. I was under an illusion – that I was going out and pursuing something difficult and/or authentic. That was partially true. I didn’t realize that it was also a commodity, and that I was consuming it like other commodities.
Jivana faces this down in a way that makes this all sink in for me, although I’m sure it’s nothing new for you. The body can be racialized and gendered, and those constructs will intersect with abilities and non-abilities to create a spectrum of marginalizations. He’s showing me that those marginalizations dehumanize everyone. He’s showing me that really listening to the needs of people with different bodies and nervous systems from mine does way more for my soul and the world than trying to get better at postures or meditation.
So here’s my latest flicker of moksha – of the lifting of infatuation. I once blindly believed that a spiritual practice should, naturally, serve and reflect and challenge my able-bodiedness, rather than help me see it as temporary, illusory, and socially constructed as valuable. I now understand it as something to share the advantages of, while I have it.
So one of the most precious things I believe Accessible Yoga points to is that we can reach through the display and armoring of privilege, to find a place where the gifts of yoga can be shared. The world might be seduced by spectacles of racial, class-based, gendered, and ableist oppression, but parallel to that spectacle – back stage, off stage even –there might be a simpler place, where yoga isn’t some hybrid of physics and engineering, Crossfit, and a glamour shoot. It’s a plain, everyday room where experience is simple, internal, and shared.
This all brings me back to Northrop Frye. Why did I start with him? To review: his whole opus was about making experiential connections across time and culture. This meant seeing how Jonah, Jesus – and I would argue Matsyendra – all went through something deep and cold and dark. To me, Jivana does something similar when he teaches cobra posture to a class where people practice with paralysis or three limbs or an anxiety disorder. He helps them all feel something archetypal in that spinal extension – even if it is only visualized. That shared experience – internal, performed for no one, and which is not about becoming better citizens but more fulfilled beings – brings us into a kind of union across time, space, and difference.
And the most cutting-edge thing of all about it? The way in which Accessible Yoga represents perhaps an integrated expression of yoga concerns? It’s that it is so perfectly about and within the body, but because bodies are so different, it simultaneously has to be about something beyond bodies that is shared and shareable. For Frye, this something beyond was myth. For Jivana this something beyond seems to be our sharable sensations of healing or enlightening experience.
Last thing I’ll say to close the circle on Frye. When I attended that last course he taught, he was in his late 70s. He was sharp as a tack, spoke in full paragraphs and sometimes pages, never from any notes, quoting chapter and verse from the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare or Henry James with a proficiency that I’ve never seen anywhere else, outside of watching the old priests in India chant the Veda. He was know for other forms of dexterity. My future father-in-law remembers passing by his office and hearing him typing at a crushing speed. He said it sounded like a machine gun. Frye had first come to the College in the late 1920s, having won a scholarship in a speed-typing competition.
But as I listened to him speak, I knew he was dying. He had trouble standing, though he stood there for an hour, so Anglo and stalwart. He had to be helped up and down the stairs to the dais. When he sipped water I thought I could hear dentures clicking close to the microphone.
If I am not suddenly disabled before I reach that age, I will be like that someday. However it happens, I will become intimate with those changes in my body in a way I cannot now imagine. I might die typing. But my fish pose might get very subtle, or be invisible to everyone but me.
When I was Jivana’s class at the Omega Institute last month, he taught us how to do a sun salutation against the wall. He said, “Imagine this is the only sun salutation that you are able to do.”
I suddenly started to cry. I realized that I was being given a kind of end-of-life care, preparing me for being unrecognizable to myself, for the dissolution of these privileges that I took to be essential to me, but the power and meaning of which are ultimately ephemeral.
Jivana didn’t do all of this work for me, obviously. He did it for people who need it. But there are ripple effects beyond his explicit audience.
One ripple is that the privileged are being invited to fine yoga underneath the ableism of their world. They are being invited to really contemplate who they would be without this particular body, brain, or mind. That may resonate with contemplating who they would be without this racialization, or that gendering. Who they would be if they were refugees, refugee children perhaps. If they were traumatized, if they weren’t self-sufficient, if their lives depended upon the care of others.
Those are powerful contemplations. On a social level, maybe they will lead to increased accessibility activism. But privately, they may lead the earnest practitioner into a direct confrontation with the core yoga questions that keep returning, like images from ancient myths:
“Who am I within or beyond this body?”
“How is this body changing?”
“How might this body feel differently, if people valued it differently?”
“How will it all end?”
Accessible Yoga is marketed as serving particular populations. But the secret is that it serves everyone.
Well played, Jivana, well played.