When I present on the tangled history of early modern postural yoga, I detail what we know about the teaching modes at the Mysore Palace, the privations suffered by the young Iyengar, and Jois’ accounts of beatings. I ask participants to consider whether it’s possible that this colonial-era cruelty and spiritualization of pain has vibrated through yoga pedagogy ever since, given the stories of intrusion and injury and abuse coming to light, which are made less visible under the stories of healing and awakening.
I ask them to consider whether the basic premises of bodily goodness, personal agency and consent in adjustments that the broader yoga culture claims to value might in some ways be occluded by these historical echoes, especially as they blend with any unresolved sadomasochism in the personal psychologies of those who practice. I talk about becoming aware of assumptions towards bodies, and the power of projection upon and transference onto teachers, especially if they are charismatic, and especially if their physical instructions are grounded in metaphysical imperatives or anxieties.
This can all feel sticky in a room full of yoga teachers. Sometimes a participant will approach me with a troubled look while I’m packing up my gear. We’ll have an exchange that I’ve had enough times that I can offer a composite here:
Participant: “That was a lot to take in. I teach (lineage x), and now I’m having doubts about whether or not I should.”
Me: (Oh shit.) “Um. Well, do you think the basic sensations and benefits you derive from practice will change just because you have more history on board?”
Participant: “Well, I’ll still have my practice, and its gifts.”
Participant: “I’ll still doing what I’m doing in the present. I know how it feels in my body. But what about for other people?”
Me: “Yeah. Yoga teachers are often taught to make subtle assumptions about what things feel like in other bodies.”
Participant: “How do we get around that? I want to be transparent about it.”
Me: “That’s hard. Have open discussions about experience with students? It really depends on class and student culture, and that’s sometimes out of your control. A lot of folks in (lineage x) do really well at fostering it.”
“It also helped me to examine my expectations for my students’ bodies. Like whether I felt gratified if they reported experiences that resonated with me, but bummed if they didn’t. That made the whole thing clearer for me.”
Participant: “Okay, but what am I supposed to do with all that?” (Points at my laptop, where all the jagged slides live.)
Me: “Um…” (fumbles with shirt).
Participant: “Well how do you deal with it?”
Me: “Lots of chocolate” (laughs).
“I mean, I’d been told that yoga is simply a good and holy thing that came from a good and holy place. I saw how that story can cover over the strange motivations and hidden wounds that I practiced with and maybe others did too. So it became an important point of inquiry in my practice, and made me wonder about the diversity of people’s experience.”