Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming
Francesca Cervero: 00:00:00
Hello and welcome to the Mentor Sessions. I’m your host Francesca Cervero. The Mentor Sessions is a meeting place for Yoga teachers who want to be supported and thinking critically about their teaching. While you’re here, expect to have your ideas about right and wrong challenged and your deepest need for nurturing and support met by a fellow sister on the pad. Today we have a really special guest talking about his newest book. I have Matthew Remski joining me on the podcast today and we’re talking about his new book Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing and Yoga and Beyond.
If you don’t know Matthew, let me just tell you a little bit about him before we get started. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with Commentary and Reverie. As a survivor of two cults, his work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized Yoga and Buddhism and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. He facilitates modules in philosophy, history, culture and community health in yoga teacher training programs internationally. He lives in Toronto with his partner and their two children. Matthew, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:30
Thanks so much Francesca, it’s really great to hear your voice again and thanks for the opportunity to speak about the book. Continue reading “Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming”
A few months ago there was an interesting thread on Yoga and Movement Research Community about the difficulty in establishing medical causality for yoga injury. The debate was vigorous as always, but this time reached a pitch that suggested to me that there are many things beneath the surface.
What I’ve learned in talking with the medical people who treat yoga-related injuries is that they are cautious about attributing exact causation to any particular moment or movement. They know that there are simply too many pre-existing injuries, repetitive stresses and loading patterns at play to pinpoint a particular action definitively as the cause of a new injury. Continue reading “Talking About Yoga Injuries Can Be a Way of Talking About Other Things”
One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.
“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”
As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.
And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.
I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free. Continue reading “When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between”
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.” Continue reading ““So Now What?” A brief composite of convos with yoga teachers after #WAWADIA? workshops”
So far, a key focus of this project has been upon how the well-worn language, metaphors, and platitudes of modern postural yoga either conceal an unexamined metaphysics, or actively distort the goals that practitioners say they have. I’ve asked what Ashtanga culture might mean by saying “lazy people can’t practice”. I’ve asked what the “geometry of yoga” implies about the eccentricities of the human form. I’ve examined the assumptions underlying the comparison between Mr. Iyengar and someone who carves religious idols out of stone. I’ve looked at what it means to say “Anyone can do these [elite, advanced] postures.” I’ve looked at ways in which the empathy that practitioners claim to develop can be confounded by redirection, blaming, and dismissal through self-referral.
Following along these lines, this is a post about a bit of language that we don’t use. And how, if we did, things might be a little more clear. Continue reading “WAWADIA Update #23: “Kino Has a Beautiful Practice” vs. “Kino Is Talented””
The IGG campaign to support this coming book is galloping to its conclusion. (Four days left, 3K to go!) Thank you to every contributor so far, and to everyone who’s spread the word. Thank you especially to my crack editorial/promotional team: Jason Hirsch, Carol Horton, Roseanne Harvey, Laura Shaw, and Alix Bemrose.
Oh chosen one, oh frozen one / Oh tangle of matter and ghost.
— Leonard Cohen, “The Window”
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m about to take some time off from the post-pushing phase of #WAWADIA to plunge into a few corners of quieter research. One of them will be this:
A crucial but mostly-unacknowledged premise that roots the tree of modern postural yoga is the principle of prescriptive kinesiognomy.
Of course, if I make up a term, I have to define it. “Kinesiognomy” would be: The practice of assessing a person’s character from the appearance of their movement. MPY makes this practice prescriptive insofar as it suggests postural and movement solutions for insufficiencies of character. Anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem are presumed to be remedied by altering the architecture and flow of physical poise. Freshly sculpted poise is taken as evidence of moral and emotional change.
I believe that analyzing this premise is crucial to the discussion of why – beyond practicing with poor instruction in biomechanics or receiving harsh adjustments – some people injure themselves in asana. It’s not enough to understand that practitioners can drive towards postures and movements that are constitutionally inappropriate for them. It’s not enough to understand that some are influenced by the charisma of teachers who are actually elite athletes affecting the public personae of therapists without appropriate training. It’s not enough to understand that many hounded by an advertising discourse that relies on as much or more manipulative female bodily objectification as any other industry. Intense drive on the mat is not only provoked by dreams of physical prowess or idealized visions of beauty or sexuality. Driven yogis are also breaking themselves against the physical premise of psychological virtue.
So far, I’ve received overwhelmingly positive response to this initiative. But there have been some strong objections that I take seriously, and would like to respond to.
1. This project will scare people away from yoga.
This is possible, but unlikely. Most readers of this book will be stakeholders in the culture who may not agree with all of my findings, but will be none- theless eager to engage the issues that I raise. In the end, a call for greater honesty and sensitivity in how we approach the mat as students and teachers will actually be an encouragement to the richness of practice. I also think that the culture is strong enough to withstand robust examination and critique that digs beneath the advertising.
2. Injuries in yoga don’t make sense. If it hurts you, it’s not yoga.
This is useless pap, and cruel to boot, often deployed to either minimize or dismiss injury stories, or to blame the victim. It attacks the integrity and intelligence of so many people who have practiced in good faith. The resounding fact is that that there are many, many yoga practitioners who have been injured by working with mindfulness, according to the instructions they’ve received from sources they believe to be reputable. Not only that: there are many streams of yoga that acknowledge pain as a necessary and even desirable mechanism of practice.
3. William Broad tried to debunk yoga, and that’s what you’re trying to do.
I realize that Broad’s work in The Science of Yoga casts a shadow upon my own—but no. Broad mainly wanted to review the scientific literature concerning the health claims made since the days of Swami Kuvalyananda (1883–1966) and others. He did a solid job with this, in my opinion. My only real overlap with his work is in the broad themes of this history: how Hatha was ordained “therapeutic” through the complex interactions of scientization and anti-colonial politics.
One criticism leveled at Broad’s work is that it failed to cross-reference yoga-related injuries with other categories of injury, and so made the former appear inflated. For me, there’s no question that yoga injuries are fewer in number than tennis or jogging injuries. But this is not the point. I’m focused on promises and expectations. No one plays tennis or gets into gymnastics or modern dance lured by the promise of therapeutic benefit. Yet this is the golden carrot of yoga promotion, from Krishnamacharya through Sivananda and beyond. My project investigates the gaps between the promise and the reality, along with all of the psychological and sociological baggage that contribute to injury. So my scope is quite different from Broad’s.
4. You’re out to backstab particular lineages and teachers, and cause people to lose faith in their practice.
I’ll address the second part first. I absolutely want to challenge some usages of faith in yoga. While it’s true that faith may be an essential part of whatever placebo effect yoga may have, it also can distort our relationships to knowledge, authority, and even the voices of our bodies in pain. I think the most mature relationship to faith is existential, i.e., that it is reasonable and good to have faith that working patiently and intelligently at any develop- mental process will yield good results, and is in fact its own good result. This would be opposed to faith that a given practice or teacher has answers we cannot understand and therefore should not ques- tion. The faithful attitude gets people into trouble when they use it not as a support to a generally positive attitude, but to pretend to know what’s absolutely true or best for them or others.
As for the rest: I try to be an equal-opportunity analyst and critic. What may appear to look biased from the outset comes from the simple fact that there are dominant forms and teachers in MPY, and one really can’t avoid naming them when speaking about how and where people get injured. In my blogging support for this project so far, I have openly or implicitly criticized the Anusara, Ashtanga, and Iyengar systems, which together represent a large swath of global asana-intensive yoga practice. The injury stories emerging from these systems also reveal psychologies that are problematic, and I’ll be contrasting these with lineages—or more often, the methods of former teachers within these very systems that have now gone independent—that seem to be more protective of bodily health.
These magnets for critique beg a deeper question. Why have these forms of practice become dominant? Why have we, as a culture, preferred methodologies in which injury seems to be a reg- ular casualty of therapeutic ideals? Through their popularity alone, these lineages serve as a window into collective desires and motivations. What they espouse becomes a mirror for what many seem to be seeking from yoga.
In all cases I will avoid the black-and-white position that suggests that if teachers and lineages are not all good, they must be all bad. We learn and grow through a mixture of positive and negative influences.
5. Your interview subjects are self-selected for injury. Where are all the good stories?
This is a valid concern. I did not initiate the project with a randomized sample, but with a particular call for stories of injury. The premise that many people are getting injured in yoga practice and we’re not talking about it enough has been my starting point, and forms a definite bias.
My initial impulse was to follow up on the seven years of anecdotal evidence that I’d accumulated over the course of my career as a yoga teacher, community organizer, and Ayurvedic therapist in Toronto. (I recount the fuller version of this story on the WAWADIA resource page.) It had seemed to me that injuries were common, yet rarely discussed openly, especially when they involved teacher-stu- dent interactions, or pain resulting from postures claimed to be therapeutic, such as headstand and shoulderstand.
The wish to understand injury contexts was the driving impetus behind this project, and my findings will reflect that interest. I do hope, how- ever, that the reader will be able to look through the concentration on injury to glean general lessons about the confusing pathways of embodied self-inquiry, and how innovative we can be when we engage it fully. My study cannot claim to be definitive of the culture or representative of all of its practitioners. All of my analysis will be mindful of this fact.
And actually, there are many good stories. Virtually all of my interview subjects have turned their pain—whether caused by overexertion, poor instruction, invasive adjustments or even ambiva- lence to pain itself—into sources of self-inquiry and sometimes community activism. Many have gone on to create more balanced and thoughtful forms of practice for themselves and their students. In the process, they are slowly transforming the face of MPY. Our current fascinations with biomechanics, trauma recovery, non-violent communication, and anti-authoritarianism all arise, in my view, from this maturation process.
While the starting question of my book might be: “Why do so many injure them- selves doing a reputedly ‘therapeutic’ practice?”, the ending question is becoming: “How does yoga deepen and develop through injury recovery?” Perhaps this question widens in the end to an existential horizon: “How do we learn from and give meaning to pain, in both asana and in life?”
(A post in support of the #WAWADIA IGG campaign, which finishes up on December 1. Please support if you are so moved.)
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he injury stories alone have provided all the motivation I need for taking on this stupidly ambitious job.
Somebody is encouraged to “lengthen” their hamstrings through passive stretching. They are told that this will cure their lower back pain.
Somebody is taught tripod handstand without the disclaimer that any weight placed on the cervical spine is discouraged by many medical professionals.
On the general advice of their practice culture and colleagues, somebody holds plow pose for yin-lengths of time to soothe their neck pain.
Somebody’s told that their shoulder pain is karmic, related to some past misdeed, and that it’s good that it’s “coming out now” rather than causing a crappier birth next time around.
Somebody’s told that practicing the same 90-minute sequence six days per week can’t lead to repetitive stress injuries, because the sequence itself is “therapeutic” – and you can’t overdo therapy, right?
Somebody latches onto a studio’s “unlimited” introductory month and isn’t discouraged from coming to three elite-level classes per day, or from signing up for the studio’s popular green juice cleanse, even though she looks very slender and somewhat wan.
Somebody is shown how to do a posture that demands torsional stress on the knee. They injure their knee attempting it, and then are told they can avoid injury in the future by working on their “ego”.
A teacher asks whether there are any students in the class who’d rather not be adjusted. Somebody with PTSD puts up their hand. In front of everyone, the teacher asks them what their problem is.
Somebody’s encouraged to keep practicing while injured, to “keep the prana moving”, but isn’t given any corrective or therapeutic movements, because the instructors are certified in yogacheering, but not physiotherapy.
Somebody is told to stop crosstraining because it will stiffen them up and because “asanas are all you need to be healthy.”
Somebody has their hamstring attachment torn by an instructor who decides it’s a good idea to lay their full body weight across the student’s back while they are in Supta Kurmasana, because, you know, ‘openness’.
Oh, and then somebody gets slapped in the head by an abusive instructor. It goes on and on.
In each of the above, you might as well replace the word “somebody” with “many people.” Because I’m pretty sure the stories I’m collecting aren’t isolated. So yeah: I have a lot of motivation. But every once in a while I come across a piece of yoga culture that gives me that little extra kick.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]onsider this anonymous, borderline-abusive post from the Ashtanga Picture Project on Friday, entitled “The Yoga Is Not The Problem… You Are.” On one hand, it chapped my ass hard on behalf of those who tell the stories above, plus myself, plus countless others who injure themselves or are injured by teachers in the strange shadow of yoga’s therapeutic marketing. On the other hand, seeing the megalomaniac victim-blaming hubris of modern postural yoga parade in full monty makes my job a lot easier, if a lot less pleasant.
I’ve laid into the Ashtanga Picture Project before, back when its Admin suggested that attaining “impossible” postures is a simple matter of believing in yourself and working hard, and ergo has nothing to do with particular physical traits, dubious functional movement goals, and lots of leisure time. I really don’t mean to hound this blog, because its heart is probably in the right place and all that, but when this particular post gets over two thousand Faceblot hits… come on. It’s a drum corps march of every tone-deaf, dangerous, pious, evading-serious-issues, “you’re on your own” platitude you’ll ever hear in Yogaland. I won’t quote much of it, because this is how it starts:
Whatever pain you are feeling from yoga, it is caused by you. It is caused by your attitude. It is caused by your actions. It is caused by your interpretation of the shape. It is caused by your thoughts.
In other words: yoga practice happens in a psychic bubble of me-ness that attempts physical shapes and gets injured in the process because of … character flaws? Also – practice has no interpersonal context. In this slice of Admin’s world, there are no teachers, techniques or instructions, and no communal goals. No people advising other people on what to do or how. No differing levels of training in biomechanics. There is no learning from each other, or from groups, or from temple friezes in Karnataka, or from Lilias on PBS, or Richard Hittleman’s 70s classic, or Kino’s YouTube channel. In short, Admin seems to claim that yoga operates pristinely, outside of culture.
It’s not true. People learn asanas from other people, just like babies learn any type of movement at all: through imitation, instruction, hands-on manipulation. The most antisocial yogi in the loneliest cabin in the most remote forest is practicing under the influence of a culture. Today, in a fractal-explosion of the photoplates of Light on Yoga, some people even learn about asana through the yoga-selfies of people they’ve never met. That’s what APP is all about, no? APP is fostering a culture of yoga, while saying, in this post at least: there is no culture. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is also fostering culture. If you click through you’ll see that it’s just a little bit different.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]here could this “you are the problem” argument be coming from? I reached out to the APP Admin to try to understand this better, but they didn’t respond, so I’ll take a crack at a few possible answers.
Superficially, APP’s post tops off a messy layer-cake of recent Ashtanga aversion-and-attachment manifestoes. In layer one, Annina Luzie Schmid baked up a searing defection notice, which was quickly smeared with enough commentary-custard to be reposted by Yogadork. Layer two popped out of the springform pan of Jessie Horness, whose unfazed devotion to practice seems to mean that she doesn’t care enough about any of the cultural issues that Annina raised to actually address them. Next, APP drizzled a coulis of refutations, and then added the post in question as icing. So in a way, it’s all just an old-fashioned yogasphere confection: bitter, tart and sweet.
(Of course then – I have to mention – Zoë Ward took that cake and smooshed it in the internet’s face with this eerie mashup of hate and love, reframing the rejection-allegiance tension down to the moment of the vritti – the no-and-yes of practice. I appreciate that this piece actually describes the deep ambivalence at the heart of the matter, rather than staking out territory.)
In a broader scope, this post is a reminder of the pervasive effects of neoliberal brain damage. It’s been twenty-five years since Dame Thatcher proclaimed to her Conservative party Conference that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.” How many of us have internalized this, surrendered to it, and perhaps think we can recast the hostility of our political zeitgeist as the backdrop of some heroic vision quest? How many of us have yogawashed the hyperindividualism of the age into the wish that transformative narcissism is a viable path? The entire culture is saying: Things are good. You’re on your own. You’ve been given the endless-growth truth about human life: don’t be ungrateful. The playing field is as level as a yoga mat. Whatever happens on it is between you and God. Whatever pain you are feeling from your culture, it is caused by you. Go on, manifest!
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ut the APP post reminds me of something else. It communicates something developmental, which unfortunately doesn’t read well in print. Admin’s thesis might be useful in a moment of one-on-one confrontational psychotherapy. But putting it into print is a kind of violence.
I grew up, as I imagine almost everybody does, in an objectivist, essentialist mood. Susan Gelman describes it well in The Essential Child. The world was filled with objects and populated by people, and it was my job to go out and learn about them and decide what they were – not to me, but in themselves. In developmental psychology, it’s a mood that pervades ages four to seven, a period of almost continual extroversion that seeks to name and hopefully control the world. It opens the door a few years later to the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, who are never paralyzed by the question “Who am I?” The adult version of this mood is nourished by Sherlock Holmes. We love Cumberbatch in that role because it feels like he’s about six years old, without a shred of self-consciousness. (How he becomes a sex symbol through that is a whole other story.)
While I was trying to become an adult, I had two insane gurus. They smashed whatever was left of this objectivist mood with their one-trick pony wrath. “Reality is subjective!” yelled one. “It’s all in your mind!” bellowed the other. For a while, I cruised through an almost unbearably lighter world. It was indeed freeing to flip the cognitive error of childhood: to consider my own interiority as the common denominator of all experience, perhaps even the source of it. What couldn’t I change? The world wasn’t the problem. I was. I could start with the man in the mirror, to quote Michael Jackson’s impossible pledge — he who looked into so many mirrors and probably couldn’t see a stable self to start with at all.
I get the sense that “It’s all in your mind” is the vinyasa that the APP Admin is flowing through right now. In fact, in one of their answers to complaints about the post, they write:
How is saying that you are responsible for your life shaming? To me, it is freeing.
To which I say: yes, it can be freeing. For a while. Until you see that neither position is really true, let alone sustainable. Reality isn’t objective, and it isn’t subjective. If we can find reality at all, it’ll be somewhere in the middle, where we realize with a shock first sickening and then poignant that we actually have no idea where we end and where our culture begins.
I think we soften that shock in the yoga shala, by realizing that we really don’t know where the teacher’s body ends, where the body of the fellow student ends, and where our flesh becomes ours alone, if it ever does. By realizing that while asana can feel solitary, it’s never alone, because movement connects identities by breaking them down.
This all means that it really matters how we treat each other. Because the body is culture.
The following reflection is featured in the full prospectus for WAWADIA, released Nov 1 in support of the IGG campaign to help fund publication. In the eventual book, this piece will help to set the historical stage for the current flood of change and innovation sweeping through the world of modern postural yoga. Notes and citations are are the end. I welcome all feedback.
All of these practices make us into a true human being, because we are still not fit for the divine level. —B.K.S. Iyengar
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n August 14th, 2014, the news flashed through the yoga world that Mr. Iyengar had been admitted to a private hospital in Pune following a three-week illness. He was accompanied by daughter Geeta, son Prashant, and their family physician. His blood pressure, regulated by decades of equanimity in standing postures, was dangerously low. His breathing, famous for demonstrations of control and retention, whistled shallow in his barrel chest. The doctors placed him on a ventilator for the first day, but he insisted it be removed. His heart, which had thumped faithfully through countless backbends, was feeble. His feet, which had stepped on the backs of devotees prostrated in child’s pose, which students gazed at for hours as he instructed the subtleties of ball-mound rooting and inner-arch-lifting, and which, in later years, devotees touched to show their respect, were now swollen with deoxygenated blood and pooling lymph.
By August 18th, the man who had introduced the principles of “kidney breathing” to the world of postural yoga was placed on dialysis, as his kidneys began to fail. On the 19th, doctors administered a nasogastral feeding tube. Reports of his earlier refusal to be hospitalized expanded, suggesting that most if not all of these interventions would have been unwelcome. The man who had enthusiastically worked to open dialogue between yoga and biomedicine was now firmly in the clinical grasp of the latter. It would seem that a precious goal of the experiential yogi—to be able to feel the approach of death unmediated and in solitude—was now lost to him. In his last hours, his lifelong passion for self-observation—for carefully monitoring the qualities of every twitch and pulse for the signs of grace or its absence—was occluded by the clinical gaze. If he’d been able to continue to listen to his heart, its faltering thump would have been drowned out by the heart monitor that amplified it.
On August 20th at 3:15 am local time, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar died. On social media, some refused to use the word “death”— insisting on “mahasamadhi”, which describes the ultimate absorption of a meditator.
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]lowing tributes flooded the web, hailing the “Lion of Pune”, the supreme innovator, inspiration of millions. Hundreds described how Light on Yoga appeared in their lives at critical junctures, and changed their paths. They posted photos of their broken-spined copies, scribbled on on every page, held together by rubber bands. Senior students issued somber and tender memorials.
Amongst my several thousand yoga contacts on Facebook, only one dared to share an openly conflicted response. She wrote that she was grateful for his “keen eye and passion for precision,” but mindful of his “patriarchal, old-school guru” persona, known to “humiliate, bully, and shame his students.”
Another friend posted a possibly sardonic homage: a photograph of a female Lego figure stuck to a Lego baseplate in a hands-free headstand. The caption read: “Thanks, Guruji.”
I took it this way: Iyengar’s yoga seems to recall a child’s dream of perfect order and uniformity. As if a body—a woman’s body especially—unfolded its potential by being folded just so. As if a teacher is meant to provide a template in absolute symmetry with his idea of virtue, if not with the curves of the world. But there was also a touch of melancholy in the Lego image, glinting out through its sepia Instagram filter. It seemed to say: Yoga has made children of us, in good ways and painful ways. Maybe we recaptured a sense of play and wonderment. Maybe we regressed into depending upon a new parental energy. Now that he is gone, we must grow up, and put away our toys.
The best mourning is complex, avoiding mystification and hagiography.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Iyengar family brought the patriarch’s body home, dressed it in ivory silks for the cremation rites, and laid it out on a simple bamboo mat. They draped it with garlands of flowers. I imagine they felt the silent questions of every mourner: Where did his movement go? Where is the prana he sculpted and nourished for seventy years? Where is the cellular intelligence he spoke of now? Does it just fall silent? Is it in the air around him? Has it become part of us?
Those more remote are left to wonder what this death, for all of its preparation, felt like. Was it different from any other death? Did his obsession with breathing yield some final flash of insight or consolation as it collapsed? Did he feel the skittish rise of udana vāyu dart through his spine with his last exhales? Was that sensation obstructed by the feeding tube? Did radiance slowly fill the space left by his retreating senses and mind? What did his yoga do for him in the end?
No one can know. Iyengar’s body in death is as enigmatic as it was in life, as silent and strange as the millions of photographs he leaves behind. The most demonstrative yogi in modern history used this body to form shapes purported to be windows to a brighter internal reality. His brash display both allied him with a revisioned Hatha heritage and alienated him from the philosophical bent of other streams of yoga evangelism, like those initiated by Vivekananda and Aurobindo. With every extension, flexion, and rotation, he insisted that the material perfection of a form—or the actions towards a form, however subtle—was sacramental. To a rapidly disembodying world, he offered forms of the body in attitudes of sombre praise. Students the world over learned and mimicked those forms, and many now testify to transformation and healing. But their reports are marked by equal amounts of pleasure and suffering.
We can never grasp the internality of another person—even less, perhaps, one upon whom we project our wishes. We have the artifacts of Iyengar’s flesh: his words on paper, his bombast on scratchy video, his fading echo in the spines, hips and shoulders of the thousands who studied with him in person. But no one can say for sure, without quoting Iyengar’s grand self-reporting, how his yoga felt for him. No one knows the ratio of bliss to pain in his body, how he managed the anxiety of that youthful dream he confided to Victor, and what dissatisfactions drove him to demand so much of his students. We cannot ask him: Was it worth it?
Had his life-long experimentalism not collided with the ancient rites of his family, Iyengar may well have donated this vacated body to science. No one would have been more interested in his autopsy than him. Was his marrow transformed by a lifetime of practice? Did he avoid the brain-tissue calcifications of other men his age? Did his arterial system remain plucky and plaque-free till the end? Were his lungs really as enormous as they seemed from the outside? Did he have the world’s largest diaphragm?
But there can be no autopsy of the guru. We cannot dissect him, for this would reduce his body to the same substance as our own. We cannot find his myth within his corpse, for either it is departed, or we realize it was only ever in ourselves. The Iyengar family is both abiding tradition and protecting his devotees when they scramble to cremate him at the earliest possible time.
Early on in the research for this book, I tried to parse one of Patabhi Jois’ more provocative aphorisms in an article online. One slightly chafed reader suggested that I pick on Mr. Iyengar’s words instead, because he was “still alive to set me straight.” She was pointing out something I’d long felt in my own practice—that if I were ever to make it to Pune, all of the niggling questions about technique that his senior students seemed to disagree on would be resolved. I could ask him exactly what he meant by this instruction or that, as though it would help me understand my body or my life better. Well, he can’t clarify anything now. Soon enough, we will have to stop asking what he meant, forced to turn to our peers for less certain answers. Arguments and insights into the great man’s methods, dictates, gregariousness, warmth and tantrums will dissolve as his living memory dissipates.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he giants of the modernist age of yogic entrepreneurial globalization are now all departed, debilitated, or disgraced. Sivananda is gone, along with most of his disciples. Kripalvananda, who taught asana as the dance-like expression of spontaneous bliss, is gone. Muktananda and Swami Rama are gone, their magic and abuses leaving a trail of the ecstatic wounded. Yogi Bhajan is gone, leaving his aphorisms blurring on millions of wet Yogi Tea teabag tags. Pattabhi Jois is gone. T.K.V. Desikachar, one of the last living links to the grandfather of modern postural yoga, T. Krishnamacharya, is reportedly suffering from dementia, and has been hidden away by his family, ostensibly to save face. In a completely different and ignominious fall, Bikram Choudhury is now facing charges of having raped several students.
With the exception of Jois (through this grandson Sharath), none of these evangelists has left a successor of note, and those who have presumed to succeed them—Amrit Desai, John Friend, and Kausthub Desikachar, among others—have all been quickly cut down to size, on the surface by their own ethical failings, but on a deeper level by a more skeptical culture that is less tolerant of idols, and more seduced by irony than it is by charisma. The death of Iyengar marks another step towards the growing democratization of the yoga world—perhaps not in terms of who has commercial clout, but certainly in terms of who holds authority.
When no one is left to tell us exactly what to do, can we finally say we are adults?
The death of a great man also erodes the Great Man Story, leaving space through which more hidden stories may emerge. I’m thinking of Vanda Scaravelli, ten years Iyengar’s senior, one of his few female students who didn’t seem intimidated by him, who would punch him playfully in the belly and tease him about his weight. She went on to teach a small cache of students, one at a time, who have all gone on to influence yoga for decades without grandiose institutes, certification programmes, or even websites. Scaravelli died in 1999 in Florence, where she lived and taught for over thirty years.
I’m also thinking of Dr. Karandikar. He was Iyengar’s personal physician until he was reportedly worn down by the teacher’s constant stream of verbal abuse. Karandikar left the Ramamami Iyengar Memorial Institute to found Kabir Baug Sanstha just three kilometres away, across Pune’s Mutha river. Kabir Baug is a sprawling yoga therapy clinic and therapeutic college that serves thousands of mostly Indian clients and students every year. While Iyengar globally advanced the hypothesis of “yoga as therapy”, Karandikar seems to have quietly proven it by staying at home and using a seamless blend of ancient and modern techniques. Most injured clients who come to Kabir Baug for asana instruction receive a spinal x-ray before they even begin. This clinic is unknown to the global yoga community, I think, because Karandikar’s skill is not occluded by the projection of intuitive wizardry, but rather demystified through the medical technologies that have almost replaced divine vision. Karandikar has flown below the radar of Western fetish and orientalism, perhaps because his work is to show us that embodied insight is not the domain of a charmed few, but is democratically available to everyone.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ithin twelve hours of his death, Iyengar’s body was brought from his home to the Vaikunth crematorium by ambulance. It was laid in perfect savasana upon a pyre of sandal and rosewood. Prashant touched the flame to the kindling at 3 pm. There were only one hundred people in attendance—most of them Western students. The pujaris chanted Vedic hymns, perhaps including the oldest funeral verses of all: “I am because you have been. You will be because I am.”
A certain vision might emerge through the white smoke. It rises in the hearts of those who he loved, strutted before, taught, harangued, slapped, kicked, injured, hugged, and healed. It might reflect how his soul now sees itself, if one believes in souls:
It is of a white-haired man, walking through clouds towards a simple gate. His leonine bearing is disrupted by his worried mood. Perhaps he wonders if he is standing tall enough, breathing deeply enough, if he is pliant enough in his spine to adequately bow to his forbears, his austere guru, and the earth itself. He puzzles over which asana to assume to ask forgiveness from those he burned with his zeal. He frets over whether he is finally fit to honour the thrilling and awful gift of being a body.
Epigram: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=4t2OLXi2xvY&feature=youtu.be, time cue 5:08.
On August 14th, 2014 . . . Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Yoga-guru-in-hospital-stable/articleshow/40218765.cms. Other details come from the 8/13 edition of Indian Express: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/ yogacharya-b-k-s-iyengar-admitted-to-hospital/.
By August 18th . . . Source: http://timesofindia. indiatimes.com/india/Yoga-guru-BKS-Iyengars-condition-worsens/articleshow/40424031.cms. The irony of Iyengar’s hospitalization wasn’t lost on the global community. On 8/19, Leslie Kaminoff posted the following to his Facebook wall: “Is this the way for “the Lion of Pune” to spend his last days on earth? He has lived an incredibly full and productive life for 96 years, and has nothing left to prove – except apparently to his followers, who make absurd declarations like: ‘…Everything is in control and as we all know Our Dear Guruji is a LION hearted man, he can come out of any storm . . . ’ As if Iyengar were some kind of immortal being not subject to the laws of the physical universe. I wish the people around this man would let him die with the dignity he deserves.”
On August 20th at 3:15 am local time: Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ Yoga-guru-BKS-Iyengar-passes-away/articleshow/40462779.cms.
Amongst my several thousand yoga contacts on Facebook. . . Denise Benitez, Facebook status update from 8/19/2014, 7 pm PST: BKS Iyengar, the great progenitor of yoga in the West, has died at the age of 96. As one of the minions who trained in and taught Iyengar yoga in the 70’s and 80’s, I am grateful to him for his keen eye and passion for precision and order. I learned so much from Iyengar teachers, and all of it changed my body and my life for the better. Probably none of us would be doing yoga without his influence, or at least not the way we do yoga now. I am immensely grateful for his presence on the planet. And yet, my “relationship” with him was complex. I never met him personally, but I saw him in action at Iyengar conferences, and he humiliated, shamed and bullied his students and teachers, mostly women. He was highly patriarchal and was an old school “guru” who expected his word to be obeyed without question. In the 80’s, one of his senior male teachers was inappropriately touching women in classes. I was one of those women. When this was told to Iyengar, he said that all of the women who had reported this were lying. So on the occasion of his death, I am left with an unsettling mix of emotions — the passing of an era, the jewel of yoga that he brought forward, his narcissism and ferocity, the fact that he had been homeless, sickly and lost as a boy, and that yoga saved him, as it has saved so many of us. All I can do is wish his spirit well, with all my heart. May his soul rest at ease.
Those more remote are left to wonder . . . Udana vāyu is the upward-moving “wind” of yogic physiology, said to be the material mechanism by which the atman is ejected from the flesh at death. The radiance of death is common trope in Tantric literature. Most famously elucidated in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, popularized by Sogyal Rinpoche in the 1990s.
Early on in the research for this book . . . http:// matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update- 10-lazy-people-cant-practice-thoughts-on-a-yoga-meme/
No one can know . . . Both Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo were antagonistic, to differing degrees, to the physical heritage of Hatha yoga. “Sacramental”: In my early Catholic education, a sacrament was defined as “an outward sign of an inward grace.” This formulation goes back to St. Augustine’s early catechism, later formalized at the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century.
With the exception of Jois . . . Note: many conversations with “older shala” students of Jois from the 70s and 80s, reveal the common opinion that Sharath does not command the same grandeur as his grandfather, who many considered to be a shaktipat guru.
The death of a “great man” . . . About Vanda joshing Iyengar: this anecdote comes from Sandra Sabatini via interview.
I’m also thinking of Dr. Karandikar . . . This report comes from an interview with David McAmmond, one of the few Western students to study extensively at Kabir Baug Sanstha: http://www.kabirbaug.com/.
Within twelve hours of his death . . . http://www.rediff.com/news/slide-show/slide-show-1-bks-iyengar-cremated-amid-vedic-chants/20140820.htm.
(A working bibliography is available at the end of the prospectus.)
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n November 1st, I’ll be releasing a 52-page prospectus for a crowdfunding campaign to support the two years I think it’ll take to produce this book. In preparation for the campaign, I’ve fielded a lot of really good questions online, from my interview subjects, and in various public forums where I’ve presented preliminary findings from my research.
(I was at Yoga Morristown two weeks ago, hosted by Omni Kitts Ferrara. Then I gave a brief presentation to the entire faculty of Octopus Garden in Toronto last Wednesday. And the second WAWADIA night at 80 Gladstone, hosted by Diane Bruni, was on Friday night. Everywhere, the conversation is searching, lively, and runs late. I’ll be at Evolution Yoga in Cleveland this Saturday, hosted by Sandy Gross, and at Portland Union Yoga on Nov. 8th, hosted by Todd Vogt and Annie Adamson.)
The questions I’m getting have a lot of nuance, but here are the nuggets:
WTF is your end-game here?
Do you really think you can stop people from getting injured in asana classes? Continue reading “WAWADIA Update #17 /// Question: Is Injury-Free Yoga Possible?”