Where am I and how did I get here? /// Getting interviewed about a lot of stuff.
Scott Johnson of Still Point Yoga Centre in old London-town wanted to interview me about some stuff in advance of a visit to their Spring Gathering in April. Here’s what I said.
Hey Matthew, we are really looking forward to you coming to teach your first philosophy intensive for us at The Spring Gathering. How have you ended up teaching yoga philosophy?
It’s been a long and winding road. Through Buddhism, various meditation practices, lots of asana — but not as much as you’ve done! — and studies in the vidya arts of Ayurveda, Jyotish, Hasta Samudrika. I’m neither a Sanskritist nor a philologist, but I’ve spent years hanging out with those who are. I take Douglas Brooks’ advice that the deep textual work is the province of language specialists, but that those specialists don’t own philosophical discourse. Everyone who participates in yoga at any level can be a stakeholding interpreter of its rich history of ideas. One of the primary gifts of the postural movement the world has inherited from T. Krishnamacharya is that embodied practice seems to expose the concerns of yoga philosophy where they unconsciously percolate – in our very tissues.
As interpreters of yoga, we come with prior biases and learning strategies. My undergraduate studies consisted of Religion and Literary Theory; the latter demanded a certain fluency in continental philosophy, which I happily used to disrupt the former. I dropped out one term short of my degree to pursue my first unpaid career as a poet and novelist. So when I finally encountered the classics of yoga, a part of me naturally approached them as literature, with an ear tuned for language, context, history, comparative and interdisciplinary study. To me, no book really has covers: each is an open addition to a conversation never ends. I felt this to be true of the data derived from oral teaching relationships I had as well.
When I first encountered the Yoga Sutras, it was like picking up a crystalline poem from another world. It wasn’t simply instructive. Its aphoristic mystery evoked a quiet, minimalist, pragmatic approach to self-inquiry. It was so unlike religious discourse. There was nothing coercive about it, or even overly hopeful. It didn’t promise a new world for me to covet, but rather illustrated a process of quiet inward turning. So I tangled with it for years, and then wrote about my findings.
So what made you want to remix Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and have you had any negative reviews from historians?
No substantial criticisms yet, although I’m sure that a few of my broader conjectures will be taken to task over time. This will be fair and welcome: I’m a generalist by nature, and it’s not entirely cricket to gum up a conversation about Patanjali with references to psychoanalysis and deconstruction!
What I haven’t been surprised by is folks grumbling about my impiety or lack of training. One guy wrote to me privately after not even reading my book (!), claiming I had no right to write about yoga, because obviously I hadn’t ever experienced samadhi. I asked him if he could also tell with his superpowers whether I’d ever tasted roast squirrel. Yogis attacking each other’s subjective experiences or attainments may be a venerable pastime, but it’s very stupid, and it doesn’t move the discourse along in any useful way.
My main motivation in wanting to “remix” was to open a conversation about how we interact with functionally obsolete but psychologically resonant paradigms. If we’re going to hold the Sutras up as some kind of user’s manual for life, we have to ask some hard questions of it. Do we really believe that our ultimate goal as human beings is to ascend into the splendid isolation (kaivalya) of pure consciousness? Do we really want to maintain good hygiene so that we can discover how disgusting our bodies are? Do we think that meditation can allow us to be bodysnatchers?
It’s “no”, I think, to all of these. So why has this text been translated and commented upon uncritically as an object of faith for the last 150 years with vanishingly little regard for the paradigm it is encountering currently? Why is an ascetic meditation manual advocating anti-social goals at the heart of the modern postural movement, as if it has anything specific to say about asana? Why is it held as a textbook to salvation, when it can’t even come close to addressing the complexities of neoliberal narcissism or radical climate change? I wanted to really chew on these questions. David Gordon White’s forthcoming “biography” of the Yoga Sutras will clear up many of the historical weirdnesses that swirl around the book. But what I’ve done — I hope — is to introduce a framework for evaluating the psychological and evolutionary value of the text, and to suggest how we might read it to best interact with current crises. I often say that “What Would Patanjali Do?” is the t-shirt for the book.
You’re writing online is very prolific and inspiring. You use words incredibly well? Who are your literary inspirations/who inspires you?
I’m glad that some things are resonant. And I would thank you for the compliment, but it’s a bit of a condition, really. Borderline hypergraphia. I have a host of heroes who I struggle to mimic. Or I simply keep their books piled around me as though I could osmote whatever madness possessed them.
The late American neurologist Julian Jaynes. British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. American philosophers Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain), Drew Leder (The Absent Body) and David Abrams (The Spell of the Sensuous). Most recent French philosophers, but mainly Julia Kristeva and Maurice Merleau-Ponty before her. People who drive me nuts with their internal conflicts, like Leonard Cohen. Crazy writers like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace who are (were) writing nothing that could fairly qualify as either fiction or non-fiction. Richard Brautigan, whose suicide still haunts me. Andrew Solomon is a non-fiction master. The list goes on.
Among academics in my field I love David Gordon White and Douglas Brooks and Mark Singleton and James Mallinson and so many others. But then there are my online colleagues, from whom I’velearned so much through the years and more recently. Carol Horton, all of my co-contributors to 21st Century Yoga, Julian Marc Walker, Doug Keller, Jody Greene, Sean Feit, Bob Weisenberg, the folks at YogaBrains, Angela Jamison… again, so many others. We don’t agree on everything, and that’s what’s really precious.
I’ve been quite closely inspired by my friend Michael Stone, with whom I exchanged long letters almost every day for nine months while we prepared for our sons to be born. We’re working on turning those letters into a book. I don’t know anybody else who has had as much disciplined spiritual-type training as he has had and yet is detached enough from it that it never gets in the way of the strange and joyful terrors of his life. He’s really helped me see something that my history with spiritual paths never quite made visible: that discipline need not harden a person, that its real aspiration is nothing more grandiose than making the practitioner more attentive. He’s had healthy relationships with his teachers, which helped me understand that such things are possible.
Then there’s my partner Alix, who is always inspiring me in conversation and by example. I’m fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time working from home, and it’s a rich pleasure to thrash out heady stuff with her while making dinner or changing diapers. She’s a writer, dancer, asana teacher, and she’s in school to become a psychotherapist. I can’t imagine a better colleague.
What I also love about you is that you’re not afraid to tackle the contentious issues that the yoga and contemplative world sometimes raises (Cameron Shayne for example). How do you find people take being critiqued online?
My challenges to authoritarianism — whether it’s masked by piety, sentimentality, or charisma — come from a deeply personal turbulence for me, which seems to be gradually calming down with time. I grew up in an oppressive religious culture that liberally used corporal punishment and psychological hazing. That the religion happened to be Christian didn’t help, because something within me fetishized the image of the crucifixion, which, along with its motif of the necessary sacrifice of life into time, also has the very strange purpose of confusing love with cruelty. So when I see cruelty masquerading as love or wisdom, I respond with a wrathful heart. Of course a wounded person can be easily mistaken about what he sees.
I have openly criticized four teachers in my posts, only one of whom I had a personal relationship with. My efforts to deconstruct the world of “Geshe” Michael Roach arose from the association of his organization with the exile and death of Ian Thorson, who I had known as a dharma-brother in the late 90s. I broke that story to the world media, and a lot of good has come from it. Roach hasn’t been in touch personally, but hundreds of his ex-students have — to thank me. I don’t regret that work, but it made me realize that I’m still a pre-digital person in that I didn’t consider that publishing would forever link me with Michael Roach via Google, and that my descriptions would appear frozen in time, as if nobody changes. Part of me wants the whole thing to disappear, and it won’t.
When John Friend’s pants fell down on the interwebs, I criticized not him but the Anusara organization for allowing charisma and corporate scaling to obscure the promise of “heart-centred” learning. I think the analysis had something to offer to the burgeoning discussion of what “yoga community” actually is, and how it can be confounded by charisma and long-distance travel. But some people felt that I should have been an insider to really qualify to comment, and they were hurt by my intrusion. I understood their point, and empathized. Our devotions and investments carry such strong emotions. So when you wade into critiquing what is both an entrepreneurial structure and a spiritual family at the same time, it’s going to be messy. I’ve been happy to be able to apologize personally to a few folks for some presumptuous lines that an editor might have struck (– such is blogging).
My criticism of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram’s handling of the Kausthub Desikachar scandal brought out mixed responses as well: gratitude from those who were disenchanted and those on the fence, and some expressions of hurt from those whose deep connection to the institution and its people was already perhaps wounded by the revelations of Kausthub’s alleged predation, and didn’t appreciate my outsider spotlighting. But my main point there wasn’t personal either. It couldn’t be: I don’t know any of the principals, and I was working from public documents only. My point was to ask whether global yoga is overburdened by a fascination with its cultural icons that allows us to project spiritual virtues onto people as flawed as anyone else. As if I really needed to ask — but here we are.
The process of tackling Cameron Shayne’s ethics was different. It confirmed the sad fact that too many people really can’t tell the difference between a philosophical or political disagreement and a personal attack. I made it clear throughout the scrap that I don’t know Shayne, that if I knew him I might even like him, that like everybody who doesn’t know him personally I have no way of assessing his personal behaviour, and that therefore I have no personal regard for him either way, but that this in no way diminished the validity of challenging his written views in a written form. Here was somebody arguing that yoga practitioners should be allowed to make up their own ethical codes as they go along by virtue of their self-reported wisdom attainments, up to and including sleeping with their students, power differentials notwithstanding. In fact, they must keep their own counsel alone in order to stay “authentic” to their personal journeys.
I wasn’t the only one who yelled “Wait a minute!” But everyone who spoke against his views was immediately dismissed as being judgmental or unyogic or “too intellectual” or whatever. “Everyone has their own path” was a common sentiment of deflection. It was one of those moments when one realizes that a substantial part of modern yoga culture is like two cookies of libertarianism and anti-intellectualism sandwiching a thick and creamy centre of consumerism. I joined the call-out because Shayne’s presentation of My-True-Self-is-the-Centre-of-the-World simply amplifies the narcissism coiled in the potential Achilles’ heal of any self-inquiry movement.
Your London workshop with us is titled ‘Yoga Philosophy Digest’. What can the people of SYL look forward to with your workshop?
No answers for starters. And hopefully no presumption of expertise, either taken or given. I have an agenda described in the event copy, and I notoriously over-prepare, but I hope questions and discussions derail me, because that’s where the best stuff happens. I’d like it to be “digestible”, so we’ll take as much time as we need, and finish each session with Yoga Nidra, which is very good for brain metabolism. A weekend doesn’t scratch the surface of interpreting the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, but I do aim to provide a framework for how to develop life-long conversations around the questions that these books raise: “How should we live? Who am I? What are we capable of?” This is the surest route I know of for making jnana yoga both passionate and actionable.
And I’m serious about workshopping the questions in real time. I have a series of brief journaling assignments that I sprinkle into the discussion, and we’ll share the results in pairs, or to the group, for those who feel comfortable with that. A typical question that might arise out of considering Patanjali’s definition of santosha would be: “How do we practice contentment when are immersed within and perhaps even defined by consumerism?” Or, considering ahimsa: “Should anyone preach non-violence to indigenous peoples protecting their lands?” I’m happiest when people argue passionately in yoga studios about how best to care for the world. Argument on that level means that community is happening.
In the opening presentation, I’ll lay out some groundwork for the appreciation and use of yoga philosophy, considering some “best practices” with regard to historical clarity, the pluralism of paths, intercultural exchange, and other issues. From there, the content of yoga philosophy can be approached with intelligence, respect, and the healthy skepticism that’s the hallmark of all creative paths.
It’s great that you are coming to The Spring Gathering and London. What are you looking forward to while here?
Maybe taking a class with John Scott, although I’ll be in child’s pose for about half of it! And then there’s meeting you! And everyone else I’ve only got to meet so far online. I’ve started traveling a lot over the past year or two, and it’s been splendid to grasp the warm hands that have typed so many messages to me… I’m looking forward to meeting people’s families as well. It helps me when I travel because I really miss Alix and our son Jacob. I try to Skype with them, but the bubby gets irritated when he can’t reach through the screen to pull my beard.
You are undertaking a fascinating project on injury and asana called ‘What Are We Actually Doing In Asana‘. Tell us more…..
It’s a qualitative research project into the experience of pain, injury, recovery, and learning through asana practice. I’ve conducted about 40 out of a projected 100 interviews with practitioners with injury stories to get a better picture of the landscape. I’ll also interview about 30 biomechanics specialists: physiotherapists, osteopaths, neurologists who have worked on the injured-yogis parade.
We’re about forty years into widespread global asana practice inspired by the students of T. Krishnamacharya, we’re at an ideal point in time to be asking some tough questions about how it’s all working out. We’re familiar with the positive stories and the occasional miracle: these are at the heart of our obsession with asana, as well as the moments of common bliss it illicits, along with the longer term sweetness so many begin to feel. But it only takes meeting three or four asana yogis scheduled for hip replacements way too early in their lives to send up the red flags.
When you poke around a bit, you realize that very few people haven’t been injured through asana practice, whether through poor instructions, invasive adjustments, or internal or socialized anxieties pushing them harder than is tolerable. My hope is that by exposing these stories clearly and analyzing them a bit, we’ll begin not to eliminate injury, which would be impossible, but to have more transparent discourse about what we want and what we’re willing to pay for it.
I think most of us have overlooked, whitewashed, or are simply unaware of the fact that some key pioneers of the modern yoga movement were influenced by two cultural constructs that are at great odds with the therapeutic promise that attracts most practitioners to the mat today. On one side, it’s highly probably that T. Krishnmacharya, like anyone committed to haṭhayoga coming out of the 19th century, carried age-old penitential and transcendent attitudes towards the body that informed the intensity of practice seen later in his students. The other influence was the general culture of British-inspired public physical education in Mysore in the years in which Krishnamacharya broke his teeth as a creatively driven young gym teacher.
As Mark Singleton relates from his interview research in Yoga Body, Krishnamacharya was hired by the Maharaja of Wadiyar to elevate yogasana from its degenerate and effeminate public perception into a virile, indigenous artform, while to integrating it into the body-building and competitive sports that the Maharaja was sponsoring. We have to imagine: what was the pedagogical mood of this 1930s Mysore gym culture as India campaigned for independence and theorized what it may need to prepare for potential strife? We can be pretty sure it wasn’t all Montessorri and sharing circles. We have to ask: did we really want to inherit antiquated pedagogical attitudes, and globalize them?
I’m bringing this out into the open not to detract from anyone’s contributions or to muckrake. The gifts of the modern postural movement are deep and will be long-lasting, and everyone who rolls out a mat today owes a huge debt of gratitude to our well-known innovators and popularizers. Nobody has shown as much curiosity and dogged inventiveness in correlating postural detail to psychic reality as has BKS Iyengar. And before Pattabhi Jois died, he managed to show an enormous number of practitioners that the full arc of practice – from ethics to ecstasy – could be mined through a graceful focus upon breath and movement, and that an asana room could become a pulsing temple. Who else in the 20th century really took such an idea seriously enough to push it as far as he did? These are extraordinary accomplishments that have left their mark upon every single stream of practice since.
But so many practitioners have been and are still being injured, both physically and psychologically, by a tapas we struggle to understand. The tapas has internal drivers for sure, but there are also cultural factors. And the ranks of the injured are far greater than we know: most of them just disappear into the street.
So far my research has shown that in addition to a poverty of biomechanics education and awareness — something that’s improving with each year’s refinement of YTT curricula throughout the world — the vast majority of asana injuries are correlated with three interwoven phenomena: 1) radical and invasive bodily adjustments administered by authorities to students to take them “deeper” into poses they cannot accomplish on their own; 2) attitudes of anxiety generated within the practitioner by the harsh pedagogy of attainment; 3) a confusion within students themselves about the perception and meaning of pain which can involve a range of psychological attitudes towards the value of the body, and even metaphysical commitments to certain ideals and the authorities that represent them. While we’ve made great strides in therapeutic intelligence, all three of these very current phenomena have a history to them, and are being handed down or sometimes amplified through current yoga heritage, where they are still hurting people.
My overall goal with this project is to offer some sobriety to the whole excitable enterprise. To let the poetry of pain, injury, disenchantment, recovery, and re-enchantment keep the marketing honest. Yoga culture in its present iteration is very youthful, and more than a few have been dazzled by its otherness and miracle stories. Growing up presents so many moral, emotional, and existential challenges. If we want to make good on the promise of yoga I think we all feel in our bones, we’ll do it. I’m reminded of what my therapist said once about relationships: it’s only when the romance finally dies that you actually have the chance to learn about love.