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”
I’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.
It’s been a common theme in the interviews I’ve conducted so far, but I’ll illustrate with a personal example. Ten years ago, I greatly admired my teacher’s ability to slide into Hanumanasana without warming up. We never talked deeply about the philosophy or psychology of the pose, but we didn’t need to. I unconsciously correlated his psychological openness and emotional intelligence to his postural mobility. So I began to pursue this posture and others like it with conviction, feeling that if I could be that “open” in the pelvis, I would have a renewed inner self. This feeling kept me working at the posture long after it began to tear up my hamstrings. I felt like my pelvis was a tangle, and that using the pose to loosen that material knot would loosen the etheric knot of my soul. Along the way, I surrendered to the fact that it would be painful.
Did the postural work fulfill the expectation with which I burdened it? Not on the surface. Not according to the implicit claims of the Iyengar-influenced teachers I studied with.
But then again, I’ve often wondered whether meditating on the pain of that posture eventually helped to push me towards psychotherapy, where my knots, which were interpersonal in origin, could actually be loosened on their own terms. I gradually understood that my flesh held and perhaps had shaped itself around psychological meaning, but that forcing a new shape upon the flesh would only twist and complicate that meaning.
With kinesiognomy, MPY presents a newish take on an idea as old as the hills. Physiognomy was the practice of assessing character according to physical and especially facial characteristics. It held pride of place within many pre-scientific-method medicines from East to West. In Greece, Aristotle set the stage for Galen’s theory of “temperaments” in the Prior Analytics, 2:27 (trans. A.J. Jenkinson):
It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections.
In India, the earliest strains of Ayurveda related bodily proportions and features to predominances of dhātu (the energy-textures of kapha, pitta, and vata), and then those predominances to psychosocial behaviour and affect. In a crude form, this theory remains in active service in today’s global Ayurveda, played out in countless dosha questionnaires and on the blogs of Ayurvedic hobbyists. It provides a way for selves to be diagnosed with a deterministic “constitution” to which specialized products can be marketed. I analyzed this a bit back in the spring with this post.
Although some researchers – like psychologists Jerome Kagan and Hans Eysenck – have broken new ground in relating personality traits with physiological tendencies, physiognomy in both Eastern and Western forms is now mainly regarded as pseudoscience. Yes: we feel we know things about others based upon their stature, features and movements, but these feelings are rife with cultural biases and cognitive fallacies that strip them of every power but that of poetic speculation. Yes: we encounter differences in others, and these differences mean something. They may even lead to rich therapeutic discourse. But we can never give positive definition to these differences in any clinical way. Those who try are playing at the margins of the fascist eugenics that claims that physique equals destiny.
Pseudoscience or not, the physiognomy of archaic medicine has survived, morphed, and thrived through the prescriptive kinesiognomy of modern postural yoga. Today it is ignorant to the point of absurdity to suggest, for example, that a facial or structural (or racial!) feature of a person is evidence for a particular emotional characteristic. Yet we have no hesitation in correlating all kinds of character traits with the achievement of posture. It just seems to feel right, and MPY alignment strategies capitalize upon this primal intuition.
My questions are: Do we even know we’re practicing kinesiognomy? How does it impact our assessments of self and other? What embodied voices and needs do we override in light of this hidden premise?
The roots of the phenomenon make sense. Early MPY figures — Krishnamacharya, Ghosh, Yogendra, and Kuvalyananda, among others — sympathized with the anti-colonialist Indian physical education ideals of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which viewed postural strength as being essential to the reclamation of moral, spiritual, and cultural power in a land yearning for freedom and dignity. (See Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body for more on this.) But today, kinesiognomy has reached far beyond this early revolutionary thrust.
Beyond its obvious display on the magazine stands, the elision between form and virtue is now pervasive in most globalized branches of MPY, with the possible exceptions of the Sivananda brand. It’s as prominent on the vinyasa side of things — represented by the teachings of Jois and his students — as it is on the alignment side, held by the legacy of B.K.S. Iyengar. Brad Ramsey, senior student of Jois, says (in Stern and Donahaye, 2012): “The series is just a mold toward a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe.” Iyengar says, while demonstrating a ramrod Tadasana (time cue 5:08 in this video): “All of these practices make us into a true human being, because we are still not fit for the divine level.” Beyond the hallowed halls of Mysore and Pune, this attitude lurks in every studio where the air is thick with the teacher’s adjusting gaze, where at times it feels that you are there to be corrected more than you’re there to explore your uniqueness, or to simply play.
To see how this premise has been furthered refined while being stripped of overt religious content, consider the marketing of David Regelin, which is taking the form = equals virtue meme to new and dizzying heights. For Regelin, virtue and posture combine at the horizon of geometrical abstraction. A few months ago he released this promotional video for his alignment-based method, which he calls “Vesica”. The video is called the “Geometry of Yoga.”
Oh boy. There’s so much to say here in terms of culture, aesthetics, and politics.
The boutique-y feel. The incredible wealth of a private lesson taking place in a two thousand square-foot repurposed working-class space that no working-class person can now afford to enter. The predictable assortment of physiques, belonging to (it seems, for this is how it is presented) slightly stiff guys who want to be softer men, and bendy yoga-model women who seem intent on obsessing over their perfections.
Everybody is white. This accentuates one of the most interesting ironies of cultural appropriation in MPY: the majority of folks who are employing the kenesiognomic technique are not using it to rise up out of the cultural humiliation of colonization, but rather to exercise the surplus meaning of privilege.
Everything is impeccably clean, yet somehow not good enough. Every body part is be placed just-so through an endless series of micro-adjustments, addressing flaws undetectable to the uninitiated. The corrections are so subtle, they must be referring to esoteric aims, visible only to some divine eye. The filming gives David this eye. His good looks are exalted to Greek-god levels by his magical finger-wand that traces post-production Euclidean forms over his student’s leggings and feet in a fantasy of symmetrical flesh. The graphics are phallocentric: if circular forms exist, they emerge in perfection from a priori vertical lines.
The optics are mesmerizing, but it’s what Regelin says that’s crucial to understanding the zeitgeist of kinesiognomy today:
In any given posture my goal is to help the student find the centre of themselves. and from that centre you create a circumference, and you develop a radius from centre to circumference. This becomes a skill you develop, an imagery that you develop… that you can superimpose over your whole practice.
The body is designed to fit together, and there are certain proportions that can be measured from left to right and from top to bottom…
When you have a basic sense of this design, and you approach all of the postures with this in mind, you’re looking for a good fit in any given posture. You wouldn’t settle for a compromise. Yoga means to join to unite to link to bond things together. Art is the practice of putting things together. The word “vinyasa” means to put together in a special way…
People tend to use one hemisphere of the mind over the other. One hand over the other, ear over the other, one eye over the other. You start to actually use your mind in a different way. You see things differently, you hear things differently you consider yourself differently. And interestingly, people consider you differently. I believe that everyone is reacting to one another’s posture, and you learn to read by reading yourself, by examining yourself. Once you see the relationship between yourself and your own posture, you see it in other people, and I believe that this develops empathy and compassion. (0:44 to 3:51)
Our body’s language is the transcription of our consciousness. So our particular posture is an articulation of our own personal narrative. Yoga offers an archetypal framework, a formal method based on universal ideals. Yoga postures are universal forms, which we as practitioners attempt to join, unite, and bind our personal form with. The role of a teacher is to leave people in a better position with regard to themselves and their surroundings. To guide, tune, and adjust them so they are more stable, well-adjusted, inspired, and insightful.
When a musician has mastery over their instrument, it is a joy to play. Mastery, however, is attained effort precision, skill, grace, and inspired, intelligent practice. Yoga is an art, a science, a discipline, a path to self-knowledge, a means by which someone can reform and ultimately transform themselves.
How one fits one’s body together with one’s mind: this is what it means to be ‘well-adjusted’. (4:29 to 5:33)
Here are the ideas, paraphrased:
- The “centre” of the body is correlated to the “centre” of the self. An asana teacher finds this centre and extends the student’s self, through the body, from that centre, and encourages them to overlay their bodies with the fantasy of perfected forms. Until one does this, one’s not fully alive.
- The body has a design, or is a designed object. If you learn this design you will be more able to exercise the artistry of yoga, I mean the science of yoga, which we can see inthese artsy-sciency diagrams. If you are aware of the design, you will understand and value symmetry, and your world will change. It will begin to appear well-designed. So will you. People will know your truer self by how you hold yourself and how you move.
- Postures are universal ideals, Platonic Forms, to which the disciplined student moulds her own body. This process reveals personhood. The change happens through a discourse of mastery. Teachers adjust students towards revelation.
Is this what we believe? At what cost to the variability and eccentricity of the body? To what extent can we really know ourselves and each other through our shapes?
No one would never deny that general mobility or stability-improving movements, along with easy breathing, have substantial and immediate impacts upon one’s moment-to-moment psychology. No one would deny that these simple changes can have a cumulative effect upon emotional resilience. Countless practitioners feel the enormous benefit of standing a little taller, or being able to roll their arms just a little more outwards to relieve shoulder and neck tension. There are limitless movements — gentle and strong, balancing and asymmetrical, assertive and receptive — that obviously release stress, impart confidence and ease, and seem to naturally if fleetingly create the contemplative state that asana is supposed to invite. Some people benefit from a lot of formal guidance in exploring these movements, while others need less. Still others — including most of Krishnamacharya’s legacy students — seem to figure them these movements on their own, or make them up.
So much to ponder as the interviews continue.
How much farther are we going to push the importance of postural finesse? Is the level of prescriptive kinesiognomy expressed by Regelin the natural outcome of a market-saturated physicalist culture that cannot be satisfied with asana as preparation for contemplation, or simply an adjunct to a functional life? Are we watching MPY paint itself into a highly artful corner? How much stress is involved in the micromanagement of posture? Where else could postural concern and refinement progress after this video, this aesthetic?
The kinesiognomy of MPY projects a silent but grandiose claim: that form is a key to unlocking the value of the person. John Friend called it “finding the optimal blueprint”, by which the person can be bootstrapped into a higher realm. The blueprint may be a paradox of uniqueness and universality, but — glory be! — the teacher can see it clearly, a shimmering destiny, and they can encourage the student’s body to build it. But perhaps more importantly — to hold it, so that it expresses an embodied teleology towards enlightenment. The reformed body that remembers its progress is on the path.
And what happens with improvements that are held? Can we stiffen into improvements we believe must continually reflect the permanence of ideal forms? Is the internalized monologue of a thousand postural tweaks the MPY superego — sculpting and moulding, whining and harping, convinced of its pious mission, even when the body complains or simply wants to dance?