Yoga at the Threshold: abstracts for feedback

I’m putting together a collection of essays entitled Yoga at the Threshold: Critical Meditations, for release in early 2014. It examines the various thresholds that contemporary yoga practice both represents and faces as it finds its global relevance.

The 2012 publication of Threads of Yoga benefited immensely from crowdsourced feedback, so I thought I’d present the following abstracts publicly at this time to begin this process again. I’d be most appreciative of any comments — confrontative or tangential — that you might have to offer on any of the subjects below. Those abstracts that are in quotations are from essays that have already evolved through several drafts, or have been published in draft form online.



“Whether connecting histories, languages, disciplines, cultures, identities, or states of being, a threshold is a site of creative and uncertain transformation. For me, yoga and meditation have always been threshold activities, both personally and culturally. The essays and meditations I’ve gathered together for this volume reflect not only my liminal practice, but also, I think, the transitional nature of yoga culture as it finds its contemporary mandates. We can see this plasticity in its social organization, philosophy, the economies and aesthetics of practice space, and the strange and fragrant masalas emerging from transcultural and transhistorical exchange.”



1. Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism

An examination of how vestigial asceticism and the individualism of consumption-driven self-help poses challenges to the formation of yoga culture that serves community needs across the full spectrum of life events. Republished from 21st Century Yoga, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey.


2. Grounding Anusara

Distilling lessons from the structural and energetic failure of a transnational yoga corporation.


3. Does Yoga Encourage Progressivism?

The ethical precepts of the various threads of yoga practice are either too generalized or too contradictory to foster a coherent political agenda. But we know that the embodiment practices of asana and breathwork can lead to key improvements in the tone of some of the same neurological functions that lead to less reactive and more cooperative social interactions. This essay explores the framework for discussing the potential impacts of yoga practice upon political attitudes and commitments, and proposes that the very relevance of practice might be best defined by these measurements.


4. Are Yoga Teachers Therapists?

The language and mood of yoga pedagogy is becoming increasingly therapy-oriented. Training programmes are beginning to frame asana instruction with concepts like “holding space”. Studio owners and practitioners alike are beginning to identify their spaces as sites where therapeutic experience or intervention is likely to occur. This trend – if it is to avoid superficiality and grandiosity – calls for enhanced training. Standard 500-hour certifications – to say nothing of the 200-hour programmes – cannot provide enough instruction or experience to serve these needs. How can contemporary yoga instruction meet its therapeutic aspirations safely?


5. The Guru as Artist

“If we recognized that what we were attracted to in the guru was the war they were waging on their own pain, we would just watch them with whatever degree of empathy we could scrounge, see what their rage drove them to see, wonder at the ways in which their language bends the typical arc of the mind, and feel their terror expand our hearts into a greater tolerance for uncertainty. But we would not do what they told us to do. Because we would know that they were on their path, and we were on our own. Because we would know that the directions they really really want to give us are meant primarily to fulfill their own needs.”


6. Writing about Gurus: Insiders, Outsiders, and other Problems

“I am aware of hundreds of people who say that their gurus helped them to grow, and to grow up, illuminated hidden resources within them, and encouraged them with the feeling of being loved “unconditionally”. I’m still friends with some of these folks. Moreover – and this is where it gets complex – I remember their story and its feelings from my own life, and I remember defending those feelings from other questioners and critics.” An exploration of who is qualified to say what about a religious or relationship experience.


7. Fathers and Sons, with Douglas Brooks

In a lecture one night, Douglas Brooks described being about ten, and how his father (“who lived to be ninety, and that was about how many words he spoke”) indulged his religious curiosity by driving him to a church, opening the door, and silently pointing him towards the gothic entrance. He contrasted this with the story of meeting his academic and spiritual mentor in South India, who adopted him as a son. For this essay, I travel to Dr. Brooks’ home in upstate New York to talk with him about how the yearning for paternal intimacy intersects with what Julia Kristeva calls “the incredible need to believe.”




8. Julian Jaynes and Arjuna’s Dilemma

The dialogue of the Bhagavad Gita presents a turning point in the individuation between humans and their gods. Arjuna is an everyman negotiating the evolutionary shift between what Julian Jaynes calls “bicameral” consciousness, in which both the gods and the natural world speak seamlessly to and as if from within the human mind, and “modern” consciousness, in which the human is discovering his “own” interior identity through a whirlpool of self-awareness, doubt, and ambivalence. Arjuna’s rebellion against his social duty represents the deterioration of the gods’ ability to possess the human person. Krishna’s answer to the doubting Arjuna is that he has no choice but to surrender the evolutionary novelty of his personal will to what has become an external agent of divinity. The self-conscious and therefore ironic nature of this surrender sheds light on the central tensions of religious sentiment in the Axial Age and beyond.


9. Internal Authority on Trial in Encinitas

The very purpose of modern yoga has come under legal scrutiny in a case being heard in Encinitas, in which a school asana programme funded by the Jois Foundation has been attacked by some Christian parents who object to its alleged Hindu content. Supporters of the yoga programme have gone to great lengths to reject the claim that the programme violates the Establishment Clause. Both sides have made compelling arguments. The most interesting aspect of the plaintiffs’ argument is their claim that even if asana and breathwork can be shown to not actively promote an overt Hindu religiosity, the fact that these practices are said to “empty the child’s mind” expresses a religious state that leaves the child open to sectarian or even harmful influences. In other words, a mind that is “empty”, i.e., not possessed by the “right” gods, is vulnerable to its own desires or unknown nature. With this argument, the plaintiffs resurrect the Jaynesian conundrum: how do we as human beings negotiate our interiority? Do we trust our children and ourselves to have open and unpossessed minds? (This essay will incorporate the legal findings of the case, which has yet to close.)


10. Hatha Yoga and the Primal Scene

Matsya, the mythical founder of the lineage of Hatha Yoga, is said to have come upon his knowledge after having been swallowed by a whale. The whale dove to the ocean floor, where Siva was teaching the myriad techniques of yoga to Parvati in a secret air bubble. Matsya eavesdropped on the father-mother deities before being found out. In one version of the story, his eagerness to learn makes him Siva’s adopted son. But in another version, Parvati is enraged at Matsya for his intrusion upon her modesty, and curses him to a life of solitude and inexpressible revelation. This myth meshes intricately with the Freudian notion of the “primal scene”, in which the child is traumatically initiated into the secret eros of adulthood, which he cannot understand, but by which he is excited. This essay will use a Freudian reading of the myth to explore the psychosexual preoccupations of the third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: “On mudras”.


11. Converting to Atheism Is a Religious Experience

A personal essay about the relational, emotional and physiological similarities between the conversion both into and out of religious belief, language, and sentiment. An opening exploration into a possible “history of atheist conversions”.


12. Kaliyuga Is a Lie

The prevailing mythology of both ancient and contemporary yoga culture suggests that we are practicing within the era of “Kaliyuga”, in which human morality, intuition, and access to knowledge are depressed. One doesn’t have to be a romanticist of progress to know that this story is factually untrue by virtually every measure of human development we have. Its only use might be as a metaphor to provoke a deeper zest for learning. The casualty of promoting this myth literally today is visible in the deep strains of anti-intellectualism within modern yoga culture, to the extent that scientific, social, and psychological advancements are taken in themselves as signs of human devolution by several prominent conservative teachers. The paradox, of course, is that our advancement in many fronts is at the root of our environmental crises. If Kaliyuga has come, it is not through our ignorance, but through our splendid but destructive intelligence and ingenuity.



13. Beyond “Body-Mind”? “Flesh” and the Existential/Identity Pendulum

As certain threads of yoga culture become at long-last sensitive to issues of oppression, privilege, cultural and gender identity, the discourse around existential concerns versus identity concerns is polarizing, and may spotlight the Cartesian splitting that some contemporary yoga seeks to heal. An example: several years ago, inspired by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I began to use the word “flesh” as a substitute for “body-mind”, which was not only clunky but seemed to amplify the very split that it was trying to mend. “Flesh” not only tries to harmonize the principles of material and non-material experiences, it also lends a sense of existential commonality to the target of yoga. “Flesh” implies that we share the same basis for experience and practice. But this may be true only from a privileged perspective, if we become honest about the exclusionary meanings of “we”. Those who are economically or culturally excluded from participation within yoga culture, for example, often do not feel that they share equal bases for experience and practice. New languages and understandings around the subjective experience of social oppression, and how it alienates on the basis of bodily difference without regard for “minds”, suggests that the Cartesian dichotomy is now less a philosophical mistake than a political necessity. Allies of the oppressed need to understand that the body-mind split cannot simply be collapsed through language, without ignoring the fact that certain bodies are demeaned by normative culture, as bodies.


14. Psoas: an Anatomy through Interoception, Symbol, and Evolution

The psoas muscle is foundational to our structure, and it is under continual stress, mainly because we are bipedal. Our evolution towards standing compromised hip relaxation and stability, and broke our groundedness with the earth. As we use it in an over-elongated form to stabilize (rather than motivate) what for quadrupeds are more relaxed actions of standing and walking, the psoas develops a constant tremor, riding right alongside the emotionally charged sites of digestion and sexuality. A detailed study of this delicate, powerful core muscle will lend insight into the richness of human evolutionary aspiration and its price.


15. The Mandala of the Microbiome

Any pre-scientific metaphysics of the “Self” must change as it encounters recent developments in microbiology, or become completely irrelevant. Researchers are discovering a heretofore unseen and unimagined stratus of the homeodynamism within which we live. We now know that the human is colonized by over ten trillion microorganisms – more than ten “others” for every cell we deem to be “ours”. The vast majority of our cohabitants are either commensals (harmless) or mutualists (favour-traders), and our health both physically and perhaps even emotionally depends upon whether or not they are thriving. Add to this discovery the century-long development of endosymbiotic theory, which strongly suggests that the very mitochondria of our cells were once stand-alone microbes that were eventually appropriated into our cell structure. The implications for theories of “self” and “other” are staggering. But upon examination, we might find that these discoveries have been predicted by those strains of yogic practice and poetry that have thrived upon blending the two categories, not to mention techniques of Tantric ritual that break scatological taboos, or visualize the flesh as inhabited by countless dancing deities.




16. Mantra Comes Before and After Language

A brief meditation upon the mantric origin and resting place of speech. Influenced by birdsong and baby babble.


17. Oral Tradition and Intimacy

Every significant text of yoga practice and philosophy is transmitted within the context of intimate dialogue. Parvati listens to Siva, sons listen to fathers, Dhritarastra listens to Sanjaya who is listening to Arjuna listening to Krishna. In the later literature, aphorisms demand commentarial discussion to be comprehensible. Meaning is never created in solitude, or at the learner’s pace or sole discretion: it is the product of relationship. Books cannot stand alone. This impacts the nature of narrative as much as the nature of accessibility. In dialogue, an idea must scroll from beginning to end, as if communicated between friends on a walk (using their “pada”-s: “feet”) through the forest. Compare this to the folio text and now the internet, where data can be randomly accessed in solitude. As yoga philosophy shifts from dialogical to textual pedagogy, it must become sensitive to this loss of intimacy.


18. The Paradoxes of the Yoga Critic

“In both form and content, the work curated by Aghori Babarrazi presents a jagged paradox, true to his pseudonym, that defibrillates the limping heart of yoga philosophy. His crew consistently speaks for yoga-as-egoic-dissolution – through the most singular and eccentric voice of modern yoga literature. They repeatedly invoke the austerity of complete personal responsibility, while delighting in trash-talk from behind the scrim of anonymity. Aghori’s editorial paradox mirrors the dueling desires of yoga itself: to become, but to disappear. His masala of cruel empathy flavours the absurd task of making us naked and strange to ourselves, forcing us to wriggle, shift, and grow in the glare of our own contradictions.”


19. Yoga’s Polysemic Lexicon

In her brilliant 2002 book about modern Ayurveda, Fluent Bodies, Jean Langford describes the humoural and energetic language of this healing art as having a “polysemic lexicon”. “Earth element” (prithvi mahabhuta), for example, carries multiple meanings as rock, soil, stability, resistance, resilience, emotional groundedness, political conservatism, and the capacity for memory. Yoga philosophy uses words in the same shifting way: prana, tapas, bhakti, karma – each term carries countless meanings. This means that the language of yoga will consistently resist the objective gaze of science. Not only are the experiences of yoga self-reported and unmeasurable, but the language of yoga is built upon necessarily indefinable quantities. An important issue to consider as yoga meets the scientific paradigm with its essentially poetic discourse.


20. The Holy Bikini

In 2011, a swimsuit company provoked Hindu protests when it showcased a bikini with the goddess Lakshmi silk-screened onto the buttocks. The case represents a convergence of two contentious issues in contemporary yoga: cultural appropriation and representations of women. This essay focuses on the first issue, and the problem that technologies of simulacra pose for those who wish to resist cultural appropriation. In an era of cheap, mass-produced Hindu iconography, the value of a religious image is democratized and then devalued by default, even for those who claim it as their own. The incident further shows the complications that the Hindutva evangelical impulse runs into when it broadcasts its signs through a global medium, but cannot control the message.


21. Yoga as Performance Art

The proliferation of yoga photography, beginning in the late colonial period, has created a visual semiotics of internal peace and sagacity, while spreading the fame of individual charismatics. Posture, gaze, and backdrop are all highly crafted. How do we negotiate the space between these visual performances and the internal sensations and epiphanies they are meant to disclose? The almost exclusive focus on asana as the sign of practice has deepened the question: is photography consistent with the aims of yoga? What does revelation look like, if it looks like anything at all?



(108 bead-like reflections on the meaning and usage of rosaries and mālā-s.)


  • This will be a great book. I have never read anything you’ve written that I did not find absorbing and fascinating, even when I have written strong rebuttals to this or that point of view. Engagement is for me a symptom of fascination.


  • Quick comment on “1. Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism”.

    It’s not clear to me why all Yoga enthusiasts need to be social activists any more than they need to be all anything else. The Yoga Culture I embrace is one of grand diversity, not conformity, not even conformity to such a laudable goal as social good.

    My own personal Yoga, for example, is a highly fulfilling Gita-driven spiritual underpinning to my natural hermit-like tendencies. It’s helped me feel a lot less Catholic-like guilt for not being the social activist I know I should be in the ideal world, where, as your abstract suggests, everyone, at least every Yoga practitioner, would also be helping out in the metaphorical soup kitchens of the world.

    It seems to me any concept of Real Yoga Culture should embrace this diversity, as opposed to being one-size fits all social activist model. The Gita explicitly embraces such diversity, why not modern “Real Yoga Culture”?


    • It’s true Bob — the title is hyperbolic, but for a reason: in my opinion we’ve paid too little attention to social action so far in yoga culture. Time for a little pendulum swing, I say.

  • Good explanation. I have no problem with provocative hyperbole at all. (Although I still wonder why your would choose the soup kitchen for your metaphor instead of something more encompassing and impactful, like health care or education or human rights.)


    • Cause it’s a metaphor! It should be sharp and evocative, and point to a broader sentiment… That said, the actually essay does actually address community building through food sharing… But yes — I’m pointing to the larger need for a service mindset in all areas.

  • Makes sense. Thanks. I did read the original essay, of course, in 21st Century Yoga (which follows the same “Yoga Needs to Be Activism” theme in many of the chapters), but I’ll go back and take another look.


  • Finally got around to reading the rest of your abstracts above. I love that you are collecting some of your favorite essays in one place, precisely so they get the larger audience they deserve, and don’t get lost in the blogs where they have been published in the past.

    This takes on added significance following on heals of Threads of Yoga, because there will be a lot of follow-on readership for this new book due to the success of Threads and all your engagements around the country on its behalf.


  • This could be called, “The Thinking Yogi’s Book of Essays.” So interesting. I wonder, however, if the trial in Encinitas is not just about internal authority being perceived as anti-Christian. I see it also as being a trial of the image yoga projects externally. If we don’t want to be seen as religious, then perhaps we should stop preaching dogma in class? Or, if we teach from a spiritual perspective, then how can we be upset if someone in the room does not share the same view? It’s hard to have it both ways.

  • 14. Psoas: an Anatomy through Interoception, Symbol, and Evolution
    The psoas muscle is foundational to our structure, and it is under continual stress, mainly because we are bipedal. Our evolution towards standing compromised hip relaxation and stability, and broke our groundedness with the earth. As we use it in an over-elongated form to stabilize (rather than motivate) what for quadrupeds are more relaxed actions of standing and walking, the psoas develops a constant tremor, riding right alongside the emotionally charged sites of digestion and sexuality. A detailed study of this delicate, powerful core muscle will lend insight into the richness of human evolutionary aspiration and its price.

    Can’t wait to read about and fascinate upon the psoas. I have heard it referred to as the “muscle of the soul”.

  • 4. Are Yoga Teachers Therapists?
    The language and mood of yoga pedagogy is becoming increasingly therapy-oriented. Training programmes are beginning to frame asana instruction with concepts like “holding space”. Studio owners and practitioners alike are beginning to identify their spaces as sites where therapeutic experience or intervention is likely to occur. This trend – if it is to avoid superficiality and grandiosity – calls for enhanced training. Standard 500-hour certifications – to say nothing of the 200-hour programmes – cannot provide enough instruction or experience to serve these needs. How can contemporary yoga instruction meet its therapeutic aspirations safely?

    I lead teacher trainings – the 200 hour format IS NOT ENOUGH. People should not be leading classes with only a 200 hour certification. Even my trainees who graduate and begin teaching successfully fall into bad habits than endanger students once they graduate and are not receiving feedback on their teaching. At the same time, I would love to see every yoga student attend a 200 hour training. It is a transformational experience and has a positive effect on people.

  • Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism

    That is an absurd statement. I’m with Bob on this one, Matthew.

  • Hi Matthew, I’m so glad that Bob introduced me to your writings. I appreciate your commitment to the liminal as well as the boundary stretching direction of your inquiry. Though I’m less enthralled with the quasi-academic tone, I recognize that certain distinctions (may) require it.
    I’m wondering what kind of feedback you’re seeking given that the writings have already gone through several drafts.
    In reviewing the abstracts it seems like some of the chapters maintain the openness and “un-decided” nature of liminality while others seem to have crossed into the land of opinion. I enjoy both – but wonder if your introductory remarks clarify your intention.

    • Thanks Eric — the “too academic” comment is something I’m familiar with. What does “quasi-academic” mean to you? Is it that I’m not actually an academic? I think one interesting issue is that modern yoga literature is a blend of academic and non-academic discourse. Its all blending together for me, along with the rest of literature. I’m sure this disturbs some academics, and alienates some laypeople. What to do!

  • 4. Are Yoga Teachers Therapists?

    This is an area that needs a lot of discussion. Are we therapists? We certainly work in a therapy-type role. But that comes with great responsibility that I fear not enough yoga teachers take seriously or are adequately prepared for.

  • I meant to just cruise this list at this late hour but was captivated by the enormity of the undertaking and so read every word. Really, only Matt could be this ambitious. I’ll look forward to its unfolding. I don’t mind that I don’t or do agree on all opinions Matt holds but find his ability to forge words and his bravado in speaking his mind quite delicious. (I like Michelle Marchildon’s comment on the Encinitas case. I’m glad to see yogis take an objective view.)

  • I don’t think it’s absurd, having the studio function as an activist station is different than “requiring the individual practitioners to be involved” does that make sense?

    This seems like a VERY encompassing and intriguing bit of work! Looking forward to it

    PS reply function on comments would sure be nice.

  • Very much enjoyed reading your threads – looking forward to the full essays, especially as a teacher and teacher of teachers your two on gurus (“The Guru As Artist” and “Writing About Gurus”) and as an ashtangi who thinks (and writes) about yoga beyond the mat a lot (“Internal Authority on the Trial in Encenitas”).

  • Matthew, I am quite blown away by the richness of topics. And I hyperbolically and practically am with you on the soup kitchen idea. Service is part of yoga. Sacred activism is yoga. At the same time, some yogi activists I know, who do more soup kicthens than asanas, they need to work on their own diet and asanas.:-) Bhakti, jnana, karma, hatha, seva, dharma, rasa.. it’s all yoga.
    I am looking forward to the book!

  • Yow! Twenty tasty morsels – mushrooms and green peppers which Matthew has evidently marinated well and is skewering on his sharp prose. Can’t wait till this yoga barbeque comes off the grill.

    No kidding, these are really intriguing topics. I especially like the ones on father-son, Freud and Matsya, Arjuna at the soul’s historical emergence. The ones on social activism don’t light my burner as much (my personal viewpoint: enlightenment either does or doesn’t make you more socially conscious, depending on what you’re made of; beyond that there’s not much to argue about). And I confess that my brain finds the language of abstract #13 a bit hard to penetrate.

    But other than that this roundup looks tremendously appealing, ambitious and impressive. It promises the same imaginative insight as Threads, which ambushed my brain so delightfully last year. Loud cheers and encouragement to the author from the grandstands…

    Thanks Bob for the heads-up that this is in the blogosphere.

  • I think it sounds really interesting and I’m eager to read it. My only hesitation is the inclusion of Encinitas and Anusara. They may feel like yesterday’s news by 2014.

  • So much here. These are the quick notes I took as I read:

    – Modern Yoga takes infinite forms, and creates culture regardless of whether it doubles as a soup kitchen (and I don’t just mean literally.)

    – Learning lessons from the failures of yoga corporations = good idea.

    – Yoga does inherently impact political attitudes and commitments. But, given the varied interpretations and use of yogic practices to suit any number of inclinations, I don’t think you can say “Yoga” leads to any one particular view. Now, if we agree that yoga is say of a nondual tantric nature then I’d say that yoga and a progressive political viewpoint go hand in hand.

    – Yoga teachers are yoga teachers, not therapists. And the issue is not hours of training but what is being taught during said hours. Increasing hours of training that teaches people injurious practice will not make for more qualified teachers (even if the information is technically correct.) Employing essential principles, including “scope of practice”, there is no reason why someone can’t learn to teach safe and effective yoga practice with a therapeutic orientation in 200 hours (I have witnessed it myself.) Of course, people come to training with different levels of existing knowledge and if those 200 hours are happening in the course of two-four weeks, as opposed to 6-12 months, then I agree that the training is insufficient. Lets just not fool ourselves into believing that creating academic hoops to jump through will move modern yoga in a safer direction. I”m with Carol Horton here, and believe that the only answer is through interpersonal interaction, friendship, and mentorship.

    – Guru as Artist to understand our relationship to teachers = one of my favorite things I have ever read of yours. I found it deeply insightful and helpful.

    – Exploring the guru/disciple relationship = always interesting

    – Father and Sons with Douglas Brooks = while I find this personally intriguing, it feels out of place with the others listed so far.

    – Gita analysis …. I don’t know.

    – Encinitas trial? The decision just came down today in favor of the defense. Lots to unpack there.

    10-15 Feel more academic in nature, not as engaging to broader sphere.

    – Traditions and Intimacy = now were talking.

    And 17-21 = totally on the money. More please.

    As a general note, just cause you asked, when I have shared your writing with students from the center, the feedback has usually been that the more academic style writing you sometimes offer was a bit too dense to digest. But when you have brought it done to a more personal and intimate level, even in the language, readers feel more invited in and it has a greater impact.

    All in all, very exciting work you are putting forth.

    • Thanks JB. The soup kitchens thing was hyperbolic, and I’m glad it got people talking. Great point about scope of practice: maybe telling YTT students on day 1 — “this is what you will NOT be qualified to do when you graduate, but this is where you can learn more” would be good. I’m hoping that the interview with Douglas Brooks will provide an extension to the issues of gurus/students, mentorship, and gender.

      The issue of density is hard for me! I think my writing reflects my eclectic reading, and I can’t seem to settle on a particular voice or level of complexity…

  • Now we’re talking! Thanks to everyone for joining us here.

    Matthew, take a look at your WordPress settings and turn on replies, as Aminda suggested above, but even more importantly E-MAIL NOTIFICATIONS. It’s hard to generate any back and forth discussion without e-mail notifications because very few people have the time to check back repeated to see if there are any replies or comments, so a lot of potentially great discussions just won’t get started.



  • There is so much packed into these proposed 21 essays it’s difficult to comment – where to focus, what’s important, how can I possibly say anything meaningful in the wake of all of this?

    My gut reaction reading through ? It’s so academic, and seems so removed from what I know as yoga, which is experiential knowing. It’s this thinking about that or that thinking about this.

    Yet… that said… I see the enormous value in what is being put forward. #21 for example is something I muse on often, as I publish a yoga magazine online and am mindful of the images I’m using to portray “yoga”. How can I capture the essence of yoga in an image, beyond the idealised perfect pose that is so often used? If yoga is presence, can presence be captured in image? Or do only those who are “present” rather than in their minds, capable of recognising “presence”, and all others merely clock the visual cues…

    So yes, despite the academic nature of the offerings, I’m excited to read more.

    • Busted: I am sort of a borderline academic. Sounds like a diagnosis. I do my best to ground ideas in experiential reports, because I agree with you: that’s what yoga demands.

  • I’m not clear about 2. Grounding Anusara;
    Distilling lessons from the structural and energetic failure of a transnational yoga corporation.

    He might find it interesting to contact John Friend about his new way of doing physical Yoga called Roots; it is amazing for proper alignment whilst doing Hatha Yoga.
    I think the book has a lot of good issues, however it seems a bit fragmented for a good read. Each subject unto itself could be an entire book. As a reader I would like to have a thread binding all of the info together. This may be addressed by the writer himself weaving his own personal experiences into each chapter and what happened to him that even motivated him to write about each subject. I like the topics but probably wouldn’t buy it because it would take too much mental energy to focus on so many topics at once. Good luck and I hope it turns out to be a good read.

  • Matthew
    It’s not that big words are scary – it’s more a question of their value. Using academic distinctions work, for me, when they highlight something that can’t easily be explained using more pedestrian lingo.
    Most, if not all, human development/spirituality disciplines have their academic and non-academic writers. I find your work (I ordered your Sutra Remix) after reading this post) to almost always walk the lovely razors edge. You bring in the good-viveka of the ivory tower without locking the discourse into academic mirror gazing. It seems to me that your focus is always on liberation. And while I don’t agree with all your assumptions and conclusions – I love your willingness to swing for the bleachers.

  • Eric. Good description. Matthew uses more words I(Stanford Lit. major)don’t understand than just about anyone I read. But somehow I’m always completely engaged anyway.

    As I just told Matthew in an e-mail, when I read a book like “Thread of Yoga”, it’s like I’m having an intimate conversation with the author. That means slowly, with a lot of imaginary interchange with Matthew. (Many times on elephant, those imaginary conversations turned quite real as we wrestled back and forth in the comments section. I need to go back and extract some articles from those encounters.)

    He puts his heart and soul into his books, and I find myself responding with my heart and soul, whether it’s in spite of or because of his challenging writing style, I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter.


  • 1. I LOVE the audacity of “Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism.” Only a very literally-minded person would find this absurd. The hyperbolic metaphoric language seems obvious to me and the powerful ‘matter-of-factness’ seems to DEMAND a response!

    2. With all due respect, I am so over the anti-intellectual and anti-academic mind-set of contemporary yoga. We NEED MORE ‘thinking through’ important, dense topics such as these you raise. When I read Kara-Leah’s comment (“It’s so academic, and seems so removed from what I know as yoga, which is experiential knowing. It’s this thinking about that or that thinking about this.”) I can only imagine what the deep-thinking philosopher-yogis of the past (from the nameless sages of the upanishads, and the buddha to Patanjali, Shankara and so many more) would say in response! As Georg Feuerstein often said, yoga is a ‘whole-brain’ experience, requiring both reason, rational and critical thinking as well as experiential knowing.

    I’m looking forward to this book, Matthew. AND to bringing you down here to Tucson… Let’s talk!

  • Speaking as a recovering intellectual myself, I would offer that ‘academic’ refers to studies on a subject in which the author strives for an objectivity on the subject matter — taking it on its own terms — without betraying a hint of what the topic means to him personally. Academic treatments try not to let the field of knowledge ABOUT a given topic get mixed up in any personal revelations of wisdom gleaned from trying to live it.

    I don’t think anyone would or should accuse you of that, Matthew.

    Beyond that, the charge of ‘intellectual’ has less to do with the size of words, than with the sufficiency of neatly limned and rarified concepts. For an intellectual, the clarity of ideas and their truths is enough. For the rest of us — and even the intellectuals, once they are out of their armchair and into the kitchen, the garden, or onto the mat, inspiration to live and to embody is wanted, as well as guidance that speaks from the complexities of experience rather than the pure demands of ideas.

    Philosophy has always been the ‘love of wisdom’ from which it takes its name. It has never been academic, though academics have made a topic of it.

    But it has always been a delicate balance between inspiration and thought; those who complain of intellectualism are looking for more inspiration. But as we’ve seen in the past (and can still see in the present), excessive fondness for inspiration leads to empty triviality, just as excessive fondness for ideas leads to dry irrelevance. Can’t please everyone, and never will.

  • Decidedly not true, Frank! Georg Feuerstein would most assuredly say that the history of Yoga is so startling rich and varied that it ranges from the most obtuse intellectual to the most determinedly anti-intellectual. (Reference: The Yoga Tradition).

    Even the Bhagavad Gita itself recognizes four major types of Yoga, one for each personality type, the most intellectual of which is the Yoga of Knowledge, then Karma Yoga for those who prefer action over intellect, the Yoga of Meditation (not really very intellectual as prescribed in the Gita), and the Yoga of Devotion for those who prefer ecstatic realization to over-thinking.

    Bob W.

  • …moreover, the sages of the Upanishads themselves, which you cite explicitly, were anti-intellectual and anti-academic for their time. Many of the stories in the Upanishads are about non-scholars upstaging all the most learned Vedic scholars of the time with exquisitely simple truths, profound and livable. The most famous Upanishad is one page long, and thought to be complete, even at that.


  • …I know far less about the Buddha (think “Siddhartha”, “Demian”, etc.) , but I did once read a whole book about how, in the view of the author, the Buddha’s simple method and philosophy had been hijacked and hopelessly over-complicated by the more intellectually minded Buddhists that followed him. (And “Zen Guitar”, for what it’s worth written by a Buddhist monk, was all about getting out of your intellectual left brain and into your more experiential right.)


  • Bob,

    I am telling you what he said to his students all the time. He was very critical of the anti-intellectualism (as well as the emotionalism — as he put, “bhakti is not the mere emotionalism you see at most contemporary kirtans”) found in contemporary yoga.

    I spent many late night-hours talking with the man about this, Bob.

  • Bob,

    In response to your other comments responding to mine: zen in particular reeks of anti-intellectualism. And THAT is precisely one of it’s problems.

    AND note, I quoted Georg (and agree with him) that this is a “whole-brain” project. As I describe in my book, the buddha’s awakening had integrated elements of the “ah-ha” of rational, critical thinking and the “ah” of intuitive insight.

    I’m with Nick Cave who can write a lyric that speaks of the eroticism of thinking: “You turn me on like an idea, babe. You turn me on light a light bulb.” I think it’s pretty darn sad when I am invited to lecture on yoga philosophy and students have clearly not been taught how to think. They just want information. The outcome being a lot of confused thinking, with professed beliefs often at odds with unquestioned (metaphysical) assumptions!

  • Good points, Frank. I was just talking about what Georg would say about Yoga history. I know you’re right about his distaste for much of contemporary Western Yoga.


  • As someone from a highly academic background who opted out of that and into the yoga world, I deeply appreciate the intellectual bent of your writing Matthew, and I also appreciate your ability to write in a diverse manner – I enjoy the scope of academic to experiential references. I think that people who are great thinkers, writers, artists, teachers are adept at making connections between diverse thoughts and life experiences. You can be inspired by the sunshine or by Proust (both work for me). Not all writing is for everyone and trying to please people dilutes individual sensibility as well as potency of expression. All this to say that I appreciate your academic pieces as much as your personal essay approach and find them equally valuable. We don’t need to choose and having our preferences keeps things interesting.

  • I actually can’t think of a yogic text that advocates social activism. I think that idea or link between spirituality and activism arose later, in the Middle Ages in Europe with movements such as the Beguines. It may have been implicit (though not clearly explicit) in the development of the Buddhist idea of compassion, and amongst the poet saints of Maharastra in the 13th century. But not in yoga per se. Rather, I think developments in European (Christian) mysticism led us to have the same expectations toward ‘yogic’ spirituality as it was introduced to the west.

    That said, since yoga is essentially reinvented from age to age, it is legitimate for us to say this is what we want yoga to include in the present age. But we can only argue for (and perhaps about) that: there is no intrinsic necessity to the idea.

  • Hi, Doug. I’m so glad someone who knows wrote this, since I am not widely read enough in the texts other than the big three (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutra) to say what you just did.

    That said, some would dispute that social activism is not at least strongly indicated by the Bhagavad Gita. There is the whole Yoga of Action thing (Karma Yoga), which many interpret that way.

    But it’s pretty fuzzy, since the most specific action at hand is going into battle. Ghandi took that as a metaphor for doing one’s duty, no matter how difficult and without attachment to results, and did convert it directly into his somewhat socially active life.

    There are a few stanzas in the Gita that are pretty direct, though. Consider:

    Though the unwise cling to their actions,
    watching for results, the wise
    are free of attachments, and act
    for the well-being of the whole world. (BG 3.25)


    With no desire for success,
    no anxiety about failure,
    indifferent to results, he burns up
    his action in the fire of wisdom. (BG 4.20)


    If this is beyond your powers,
    dedicate yourself to me;
    performing all actions for my sake,
    you will surely achieve success. (BG 12.10)

    where “me” is the universe itself talking, as in this:

    He who acts for my sake,
    loving me, free of attachment,
    with benevolence toward all beings,
    will come to me in the end. (BG 11.55)

    And this:

    He who has let go of hatred,
    who treats all beings with kindness
    and compassion, who is always serene,
    unmoved by pain and pleasure,

    free of the “I” and “mine,”
    self-controlled, firm and patient,
    his whole mind focused on me—
    that man is the one I love the best. (BG 12.13-14)

    There are more, I’m sure. But you get the idea.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

  • Everything I know about both the Indian, yoga, Judeo-Christian and Western humanist traditions would suggest that Doug’s point is quite right. I believe that the idea of spiritual activism is essentially rooted in the Western tradition and has been grafted onto modern yoga – originally, however, by Indians themselves.

    As I explained in “Yoga PhD,” Vivekananda is widely known in India as the “father” of BOTH modern yoga AND Indian nationalism. That linkage was not a coincidence, but very much a part of his work and teachings, which melded what he saw as the best of Indian and Western tradition. Many more examples could be added.

    So, while I see the social engagement in yoga as a Western influence, I also believe that it’s been a more powerful one in India than the US. Here, we’ve generally preferred to treat yoga as a way out of the complexities of modern society. (Which is why I think that the title of Matthew’s 21CY essay is right on – nothing wrong with some literary license when placed in good hands 🙂

  • Hi Bob,

    I anticipated that the Gita would be brought up, and I don’t blame you for that. The context makes the book challenging: the purest teachings are straight out of the Upanishads, and yet the context is that Arjuna is fighting the war for the sake of ‘dharma,’ which coincidentally includes the more self-serving reason that he and his brothers will be reinstated to rulership (and Arjuna knows that and feels guilty — in the beginning he owns up to the selfish reasons and says it would be better if he were killed). The ‘dharma’ of the Gita has to do with reinstating the social order (which at the time of the writing of it was getting unstable — some in the lower castes, including untouchables, were getting wealthy through trade and were buying into political power, and the brahmins were freaking out. The age was described as ‘Kali Yuga’ because everything was turning upside down socially. Duryodhana represented the illegitimate leadership of those whose birth certificate was in question (shades of today) — darker skinned and not the pure Aryans of Aryavarta (literally the “Heartland”)

    We assume that benevolence toward others as recommended in the Gita is the same as positive social action — but the essence of “If you take care of dharma, dharma takes care of you” was that if you maintain the social order, every one would be taken care of properly (even though it was becoming obvious that they weren’t), and so the emphasis was upon maintaining dharma, not on progressive social change (which would include reforming the caste system, which was still an issue by the time of Gandhi.) So benevolence toward others applied mainly when everyone stayed in their place and didn’t get uppity (like Duryodhana) To act for the well-being of the whole world meant fighting to maintain dharma, even if that meant fighting an all-out war in which nearly everyone died.

    And of course the purity of the teachings of the Upanishads does not jive well with the reality of what Krishna was advising — ‘See God in others — and then go and kill them, because dharma (with devotion) makes it OK.’ The end — Dharma — justifies the means.

    Moreover, the teachings of benevolence and compassion at the time were forms of practicing equal vision and selflessness, for the sake of renunciation and liberation. To refuse to see differences, and to refuse to have antipathy toward those who are ‘lower’ than you (in social terms) is the highest renunciation of ego. It is not a positive call to action to change what is wrong — only an ultimate caution against participating in evil.

    I’m not saying that I agree with this, or that we are bound to that version of renunciation as the essence of yoga. But I do feel that our moral sense of the need for positive, even progressive action and social change is something that we read into these texts, when it is not truly there. The problem is that a reading of the texts (rather than our interpretive books ABOUT them) do not bear this out, leaving us confused.

    I am all for honoring the wisdom of the past — which involves seeing it with the clearest eye possible — and also recognize that just as the philosophy of yoga was written in the past and has much to teach us, yoga philosophy can likewise be written today, incorporating all that we have learned, and the many ways in which we have evolved in the meantime. The reference for the meaning of yoga cannot be solely the past.

    I’ve written this in a bit of a hurry since my time is short tonight. I may regret that.

  • Thank you Carol — you’re right about Vivekananda, and especially about the infusion of Indian nationalism into the very idea of yoga, which haunts us today in the Encinitas case and so on. He and the intellectuals of his day were also responsible for installing Patanjali as the central expression of ‘Yoga’ as we think of him today, largely because the tantrics of his time were an embarrassment to Hindu nationalists seeking a place for India on the world stage. Patanjali could stand toe to toe with Aristotle and the other western philosophers in a way that the tantrums (as they were perceived at the time) could not. That decision has also distorted our understanding of yoga for quite some time now.

    And Vivekananda was talented at making yoga appealing to the west, which means in many ways he could appeal to the expectations we already held regarding spirituality, especially from our own established tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman (all of which were Americanized versions of Vedanta, established before Vivekananda set foot on our shores). Vivekananda was certainly seeking social action — contributions for the charities he was establishing or supporting in India. Though he didn’t really succeed at that in the way in which he had hoped, he did gain fame which made India take notice and begin to respect its own spiritual tradition once again, and also in the bargain set in motion a more socially conscious version of yoga which appealed to the western judeo-christian temperament, which among people like Emerson was already beginning to break free from traditional associations with religion (Emerson coined “Spiritual but not religious”) while maintaining its non-sectarian conscience.

    In all, the social conscience was read into the more ancient scriptures, not from them.

    Vivekananda was indeed a bridge, landing at precisely the right time in history. Recognition should be given to Ram Tirth, who directly preceded him and lay the ground for a modern understanding of Vedanta (in a very western vernacular) through his lectures at Harvard.

  • Excuse me — autocorrect changed ‘tantrics’ to ‘tantrums’ in my last comment, and I didn’t catch that. Ooops.

  • Doug,

    Thank you for this! I have the darnest time trying to get students to see that we need not agree with all aspects of tradition and that true respect for the tradition requires that we not project our own values upon those of the ancients!

    That is why I have such respect and admiration for what Matthew is doing (as with his Threads). Many contemporary teachers say things like “Yoga teaches us…” or “Patanjali says…” or “The buddha says…” and then present their interpretation. Now, HAVING interpretations is fine and legitimate, but we do our students a disservice if we aren’t intellectually honest about what we are doing.

    For instance, Sw. Prabhavanada says right out that he is offering a Vedantic interpretation of Patanjali. But someone like Michael Roach teaches Vajrayana and New Age concepts as what is actually in the YS. OR the contemporary interpretation of the Gita’s line about “better to do your own dharma poorly than that of another well” as if this is some “follow your bliss” teaching on authenticity. As you point out: it’s not that at all for the Gita and it’s original context. It’s all about maintaining the social order of the caste system. Better to be a shitty servant than a good leader….

    Choosing to interpret Gita teachings (or early buddhist teachings) as supportive of human rights and social action is anachronistic and devalues by ignoring the immense value of the western enlightenment values of critical thinking, historical consciousness, egality, fraternity and liberty….

  • Thanks, Doug.

    Sure, I’m aware of all that historical analysis. I think any ancient text is of only historical or religious value if one insists of trying to make sense of all the anachronisms and cultural difficulties within them.

    Still among all the difficulties you enumerate above and more (see my “Why Is the Gita So Upsetting At First?” ) there are startling insights and profound truths to be enjoyed.

    A kind of selective remix is required, as seekers have done with all ancient (and not so ancient texts) for a long, long time–as Matthew here just did with the Yoga Sutra in “Threads of Yoga” and I did in a very different way in “Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell”

    (And I would suggest that there was certainly a great variation in interpretation even back then, not a monolithic set of beliefs, and that we can’t really know for sure how they were interpreted back then. We don’t even know who wrote them.)

    Bob W.

  • Thanks Frank, I do agree entirely, and students do look at me strangely when I try to make a point of this. Interpretations of earlier texts based on the teachings of later ones do tend to twist my dhoti a little. My analogy is: Aristotle was used to help us understand Christian concepts (via the scholastics, such as Aquinas); but that doesn’t mean we can use christian concepts to understand Aristotle. It does a disservice to both to attempt to do so.

    I honor what Matthew is doing too (and quite explicitly, even owning up to ‘patricide’ in his essay). I do think that Patanjali would choke a bit on Matthew’s reference to ‘interconnectedness’ in the context of reinterpreting the Sutras, since Patanjali would likely have thought that concept was/is the very root of the problem of identification and ignorance.

    A more receptive work to interpret thusly might well have been the Pratyabhijnahridayam.

  • Sure, Bob, I agree that this is what we do, lest we remain the kind of ‘academic’ I mentioned earlier. As long as we’re honest that it’s a selective remix aimed at deriving teachings relevant to our lives, and not ‘THE’ authoritative interpretation of the Gita, or the representation that ‘this is what the Gita says.’ Like Gandhi (who gave his own ahimsa-oriented remix) we can say ‘this is what the Gita is saying to me’ — or ‘this is what I hear.’

    The Gita was written over time, and it is a socio-political that does have an agenda. This doesn’t devalue the essence of many of the teachings, though it does call upon us to exercise informed discrimination in how we take it. Many of the concepts we take for granted didn’t exist at the time of the writing, and honestly we can’t go back to understanding exactly what it meant in their minds. But we do have to be aware of the distinction.

    For instance, students read the Gita and then ask me “What is MY dharma?”, since the Gita talks about following your dharma. Students interpret it to mean a dharma that is uniquely individual; I don’t think the writers at the time would have even understood the question: dharma was socially defined. ‘Arjuna, you’re a warrior. That’s that.’ (cf. the story of Eklavya — perhaps there was an implicit critique of that way of thinking that led the story to be included. Hard to know; but Eklavya was praised for sacrificing his skills as an archer, since it was not his ‘place’ or caste to have them. He died a lowly foot soldier without a thumb in the battle, even though he was greater than Arjuna himself in his skill as an archer)

    The point is that while students are inspired to seek their dharma thanks to the teachings of the Gita, they won’t find their answer — and won’t even find their question addressed — there. The very idea hadn’t been arrived at yet. Not all answers are in the Gita, nor should we expect them to be. No disrespect to the teachings to be found there.

  • Here’s an interesting counterpoint to the argument that social activism is a modern Western spin on yoga.

    What I’m learning in The Origins of Yoga and Tantra (Geoffry Samuels 2008) throws an historical sidelight on the activist-recluse tension in yoga. This scholarly author describes a gradual transition in the role of the religious specialist occuring in Indic societies around 500BCE. Prior to this period, priests were primarily agents of the community, managing the gods on behalf of the people around them. Mainly, they used ritual to bring material good fortune to others.

    It was a kind of social activism. Like protesters today who militate against overpowering corporations and governments, the priests in this period agitated with the nearly all-powerful gods.

    But at around the middle of that millenium, religious specialists began to focus inward and to work – community be damned – toward their own enlightenment. This is evident, as it has been argued, in the Gita, the Upanishads, all the way through Vivekenanda and many of us moderns.

    So in a way, to say that modern yoga precipitates social activism is to bring yoga back to its origins from way back when. Once again, the specialists (yoga teachers now replacing vedic priests) are acting on behalf of their society. But we’re doing it from a different viewpoint now, , not by managing the gods, but by discovering ourselves.

    By directing the results of our practice toward our community, we finally may have brought yoga full circle! Or full helix…arriving at the same place, but at a different altitude.

  • That puts a nice spin on it, which perhaps works in a time in which there were smaller, tighter agrarian communities. As society became more complex and urban, the Brahmins had to appeal to the rich for sponsorship in order to survive, and it became evident that the role as bargainers with the gods was ultimately selfish and hypocritical, servicing only temporary desire. That was the critique presented by Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad. It also assumes that the yogis/ascetics and the Brahmins were one and the same as ‘religious specialists.’ They weren’t. The yogis regarded the Brahmins’ bartering with the gods to be a fool’s errand, given the fact of death. They sought an unmediated experience of true divinity and immortality beyond what the gods could give. One might call it selfish; they would call it smart (or wise). Their assumption was that this was possible through austerity and turning away from the world, not by good deeds. It was an other-worldly mysticism that was prevalent in the west as well (Augustine, Thomas A Kempis). The corrective to that came about in the 13th century with people such as Eckhart. But it was an evolution, not a return or circle. A spiral, perhaps.

  • Personally, I view the contemporary yoga practitioners who believe that practicing on their own “raises the vibration” and therefore produces concrete outcomes like reducing gun violence to understand themselves as being more in line with the history Mid points to than yoga service/activist types. It is a very different way of thinking about causality and change. The latter is what I’m thinking of in terms of Western roots, socially engaged spirituality, etc.

    No one that I’ve ever met who actually goes and does work like teaching yoga to homeless youth or in prisons believes that meditating or practicing yoga in your studio or home is going to achieve the outcomes they’re hoping to leverage such as healing trauma.

    On the other hand, I recently had an argument with someone very involving in YTT programs who wanted to make the case that meditation alone was equally effective. I asked him, “if you got hit by a truck in this middle of this street right now and I was in the apartment above, would you rather have me sit and meditate and send out good healing vibrations, or call an ambulance?” Amazingly to me, that was what it took to get some grudging acceptance of the idea that “real world” engagement has an efficacy in certain situations that practicing alone does not.

    Not the the latter is not important, of course . . . it is in many ways, just different ones.

  • Folks — thanks so much for this feedback. The crowd-sourcing of yoga theory is an amazing thing to be a part of. I’m having this cranky old site rebuilt over the next few weeks to accommodate better comment functions, including replies, so until then I thought I’d reply generally with a few thoughts.

    Re the comments of Eric, Frank, Susanna and Doug about “intellectual” and “academic”. I’m reminded in reading through Richard King’s excellent “Indian Philosophy: an introduction to Hindu and Buddhist thought” just exactly how much analysis, dialogue, and debate have been an essential part of yogic practice. The notion of darsana being “just theory” is a cultural product of the last 300 years of the institutional practice of professional philosophy, mostly in Europe. For yoga, darsana is soteriology: what and how one thinks and thinks about thinking is a material cause of evolution. And the Hatha Yogins disdain for the language of philosophy (to which we owe a part of our own anti-intellectualism, which has blended with the basic anti-intellectualism at the root of the American project) is only a small slice of the larger picture. I’m particularly interested in the grammarian-sadhaka Bhartrhari (500 CE) who argued that linguistic analysis (which we must perform on many levels in our transcultural and transhistorical inquiry) leads to liberation. He seems to predict Wittgenstein and others who have suggested that language, as the substratum of mental function, is the final frontier of contemplation, because it organizes time, and time is the progression of life.

    The philosophical process also evokes Daniel Kahneman’s “system two” of “slow thinking” associated with self-control, empathetic development, etc., while the experiential practices of MPY, including kirtan, are really working on the “system one” level of “fast thinking”. Maybe that’s another article.

    The discussion of the historicity of activism within contemplative traditions brought out by Doug, Carol, Bob, Frank and Mid is such an important story, because it really tracks a psychic evolution towards the formation of the modern subject who must learn to manage both the new autonomy of introspection and environmental/social ecology in equal measure, without the help of decaying metaphysics, alongside a growing awareness of a shared existential condition. (I’m starting to understand, Frank, why buddhism is so radical here.) As the gods decline and the priests begin to parody themselves, the locus of worship becomes the process of life itself, and the rituals of worship must account for and improve the conditions of life. The thinking and feeling flesh becomes the centre of value and the best thought positions that flesh as shared amongst all the living. We are no longer created objects, owned things, children. It becomes clear that our dearest possession is this time, this flesh, this process — a realization that Krishna attempts to suppress with with advocacy of “kill and be killed with joy — it’s illusory anyway”. (What makes the Gita at least in part an anti-buddhist polemic is another fascinating subject…)

    It seems to me that the possibility of activism begins to the extent that metaphysical speculation evaporates, because it drives us to consider the lives we actually have over fetishizing the lives we wish we could have. I think many of us have inherited yoga as the vapours of metaphysics have been rising and dispersing, which makes it a very exciting time.

  • Beautifully said, Matthew. Action sans metaphysics, what a recipe. And thanks for provoking the discussion.

    Here’s my response to Carol’s post above.

    Carol you’re making a great point, and I totally agree. If you ask me, the best way to produce a concrete outcome is to do something, not just to think about it.

    But I’m struck by the assertion in The History of Yoga and Tantra (Samuels) that these early Indian people believed that rituals enabled certain individuals to manage or even control external events, not just to influence them. If I’m reading him right, the author is saying the rituals did more than just “raise the vibration.” They were thought to directly brought about change, in a cause-and-effect relationship as clear as your calling the ambulance to get help for the guy on the street.

    I can barely imagine holding this cause-and-effect belief about ritual, and my discomfort underscores a point that’s been made above. The original meanings of these texts and practices may be all but impossible for us moderns to comprehend – we’d have to empty our skulls of our modern point of view and substitute an ancient Indian one, which we really know very little about.

    So as you’ve said, the important question is this: what do these texts and practices mean now, when torn out of their ancient soil and transplanted here? Our incomplete understanding of the original meaning is an indirect (and provocative way) to get at this more immediate practical question.

  • Forgive me, Matthew, but I seriously question your last paragraph ” the possibility of activism begins to the extent that metaphysical speculation evaporates…”

    In my experience the most committed socially active people are those who believe deeply in God, and that God tells them to love their neighbor as themselves. They take this literally and devote themselves to the good of others in a way I think is rarer in a true atheist.

    Also, I’m not at all sure there is a decline in metaphysics (= belief in God and an afterlife, etc.) in the general human population, just perhaps on our little Western Yoga world here, and maybe even just the Canadian and European Yoga worlds, to be frank!

    Bob W.

  • PS I think the study of language is an immense and forgotten key to understanding the ancients’ understanding of causality. It is not only a matter of deconstructing language in terms of meaning; it is the very power of vibration behind word (and thought) — the essence of mantra, which is the very basis of the order and function of the universe. The ritual of yagna accompanied by mantra was literally ‘seeding’ the clouds with the substances of the fire offering as well as the vibration that brought rain. The original meaning of ‘Brahman’ was enigmatic, and boiled down to the mysterious power behind vibration/mantra that brings about order, form and thus being. So there is something to “raising the vibration” indeed through one’s inner speech. Calling an ambulance is also a form of vibration that brings about practical and necessary results, and in the situation is the more appropriate ‘mantra’ to practice. Both actions are the manifestation of vibration and its causality.

    The Hatha yogis were looking for direct results, and thus were less patient with the theory behind it. But the contemplation that Matthew describes has always been a necessary part of the history and evolution of yoga. The kind of metaphysics that ultimately has no relation to pragmatic results is the kind that decays and evaporates; but the contemplation of causality, connection (and even the radical challenge to these concepts by the Buddhists as well as in the Yoga Vasishtha) is nevertheless metaphysics — literally ‘about’ the physics of “this flesh, this process” — especially as it is a consideration of the lives we have instead of fetshizing the lives we wish we could have. It is still part and parcel of yoga, of putting our minds to what we’re doing in this thing called life.

    (Actually there is no action without metaphysics, because action presumes at least assumptions if not contemplation about the effectiveness or causality of the actions we take, whether inwardly or outwardly. Ultimately the life of action and the life of yoga are the same — the original mistake lay in the attempt to separate them. The Gita was trying to put them back together again, and faced the arguments of the ascetics/Samkhyans on the one side, and the attack on the ‘Self’ and very notion of causality from the Buddhists on the other. A very rich topic indeed.

  • And another thing…

    I think any statement that begins with “ancient people this” or “ancient people that” (and there seem to be an awful lot of them in the comments above) is bound to be wrong, just as much as if we wrote that about the world today.

    I’ll yield to the scholars on this, but do you really think ancient man was that one dimensional? The only scholar I’ve read a lot of, Georg Feuerstein, always seems to me to be saying the opposite in his books–that the ancient world, and the ancient yoga world in particular, was a sprawling mish-mash of widely divergent points of view and beliefs, all competing for the attention of the thinking world as a whole, kind of like today, in fact.

    I do so wish Georg was here to comment on this. But the best I can do is probably just quote the opening page of Matthew’s “Threads of Yoga”:

    “Yoga is like an ancient river with countless rapids, eddies, loops, tributaries, and backwaters, extending over a vast colourful terrain of many different habitats. So, when we speak of Yoga, we speak of a multitude of paths and orientations with contrasting theoretical frameworks and occasionally incompatible goals” –Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012)

    Bob W.

  • I must admit being more than a bit skeptical than anyone I’ve met so far who’s told me that they are “raising the vibration” through their asana practice to address the concrete social, political, and environmental challenges of our time is doing anything more than engaging in some comforting wishful thinking.

    As far as what went on in radically different times and places, I remain agnostic.

    For those interested in the relationship between traditional Indian spiritual philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, which I believe was alluded to in previous comments – the husband of one of my best friends works on precisely that topic at U of C. (although focused on Buddhism). Frankly, I find his work over my head, but those of you with more of the relevant background may find it more useful. In case you’re curious, his name is Dan Arnold; here’s the link to his faculty home page: If you click on the “personal web page” link on the right, you will get his cv with a list of publications, many with links.

  • Right on to the magic of language Doug, and thanks for throwing a spotlight on it.

    What an insight it produced for me a few years ago when the Indologist Edwin Bryant told me the word “om” was thought to do much more than symbolize the thing it refers to – in the way that the sound “ambulance”, for example, is a mental stand-in for the thing actually screaming down the street. In Sanskrit the word “om” IS the force, the scream of the siren, the energy of emergency. By pronouncing it, we don’t just invoke the force, we momentarily BECOME it.

    Many Sanskrit sounds seem to carry this mystical buzz, in a way that modern languages don’t. I wonder why that is. Better choice of phonemes? The beauty to the modern ear of something unfamiliar and supposedly old? Or is there more to it than that?

    (PS Bob, I totally agree with what you’ve said above. This historical stuff is most likely wrong, an oversimplified backward projection onto a complex human mish-mash. But for some reason I find it very provocative to poke around in the uncertain shadows of this history. Perhaps because I may see myself more clearly when I return to the “reality” of my own life.)

  • Hi, Mid. Regarding your comment about language, “The beauty to the modern ear of something unfamiliar and supposedly old?”. I’m studying Italian intensely right now, and it has that same aural magic, completely.


  • Beautifully said, Matthew. Action sans metaphysics, what a recipe. And thanks for provoking the discussion.

    Here’s my response to Carol’s post above.

    Carol you’re making a great point, and I totally agree. If you ask me, the best way to produce a concrete outcome is to do something, not just to think about it.

    But I’m struck by the assertion in The History of Yoga and Tantra (Samuels) that these early Indian people believed that rituals enabled certain individuals to manage or even control external events, not just to influence them. If I’m reading him right, the author is saying the rituals did more than just “raise the vibration.” They were thought to directly brought about change, in a cause-and-effect relationship as clear as your calling the ambulance to get help for the guy on the street.

    I can barely imagine holding this cause-and-effect belief about ritual, and my discomfort underscores a point that’s been made above. The original meanings of these texts and practices may be all but impossible for us moderns to comprehend – we’d have to empty our skulls of our modern point of view and substitute an ancient Indian one, which we really know very little about.

    So as you’ve said, the important question is this: what do these texts and practices mean now, when torn out of their ancient soil and transplanted here? Our incomplete understanding of the original meaning is an indirect (and provocative way) to get at this more immediate practical question.

  • I am equally skeptical of claims about ‘raising the vibration’, particularly through things such as dedicating an asana practice to some worthy ‘intention.’ We devolve into a yoga of nice sentiments.

    I will try to be more specific in my own use of the term ‘ancients.’ In this case I was referring to the pretty clear — and evolving — logic of causality behind the ritualism of the Vedas which centered around mantra (with and admixture of notions about sacrifice). The question can be raised about just how effective these rituals are/were, but the principle of the creative power of word or vibration is clear, and the principle stands even if the effectiveness of its its application in Vedic ritual is questionable. It shows up in Celtic spirituality in early Europe, which provides the foundation of the development of the theology (where theo-logy meant speaking properly about the divine, not dogma) of the ‘Word’ in early European (as opposed to Roman) Christianity — and a foundation for a rather deep mysticism in Christianity. In this case, I’m talking about THOSE ‘ancients.’

    While we cannot put ourselves entirely into the minds of the people of those times, neither can we regard them as entirely inscrutable. To deny that connection through the bond or shared experience is equally misguided as it is to assume we fully understand them. Our understanding lies somewhere in between.

  • Thanks, Mid. Perhaps it is not just the power of the phonemes, but the very ‘foreignness’ of the language that allows us to feel the power of the word without the conceptual overlay. In any case, the alphabet was to them what the table of the elements is to us; both are representatives of waves or vibrations anyway.

    Right on about ‘Om’ — it is the ultimate non conceptual experience of the power of vibration at the root of all language and being — not necessarily the specific sound, which is just an aural representation through the human mouth, but the power behind the vibration itself. Aural magic indeed.

    I’m not sure contemporary philosophy has caught on to that dimension. Perhaps through their analysis of intentionality — I don’t know.

  • Bob, I have to stop using “metaphysics” like a cuss word! It’s subtler than that of course, and Doug’s right, we’re always speculating on results as we act, the Gita notwithstanding.

    What I’m really getting at is that people who believe in God today believe in a fundamentally different way than most Iron-Age people did. Even disregarding the evidence both neurological and literary presented by Jaynes and other evo-psych folks, its easy to surmise that most post-scientific revolution human beings are believing in a much less involved, manipulating, controlling, and manipulable God than the original hearers of the Gita did, simply because so many of the functions and responsibilities formerly assigned to the divinity are now clearly in our court. I wonder whether today’s faithful are in fact more socially active than atheists, for example, who are commonly libelled as lacking compassion, or whether social activism amongst the religious is a byproduct of the community formed by ritual. Growing up as a liberal Catholic, I wasn’t encouraged in progressive politics because it was God’s will, but because it was the rational and right and familial thing to do. If anything, God simply nodded in approval. When we prayed to God for help in our efforts, no one expected loaves and fishes to appear. What we hoped for was the feeling of communal-and-beyond harmony with doing the right thing. That’s a huge difference from expecting miracles, or believing, as the Mimamsikas did, that botching a mantra might devastate the corn that year.

    Maybe a clearer way of saying this is that many religious people today seem to be adjusting Iron-Age beliefs to their basically humanistic educations and values, and their church/temple participation functions as a organizing resource for their aspirations. Which is why when people commit acts of terrorism in the name of religion, we feel that they are terribly mistaken about what their religion advocates. But what’s really going on is that they’re not filtering the Iron-Age literalism and magical thinking through the more modern paradigms they find themselves in. People learning to fly planes into buildings in the name of God are like schizophrenics, trying to live in two paradigms at the same time, and incapable of seeing the irony of it.

    We make all kinds of blunders in anthropology and evolutionary psychology, to be sure. And even the briefest study of Indian philosophy shows an incredible diversity of views. But I think we’re in the right ballpark on this: there has been a slow but inexorable march towards secular humanism in many cultures, and this has changed the functional usage of metaphysics.

    But you should know that I adore the ancient person, whoever exactly he was, because I can feel him inside me, hungry for the pre-and-post-rational. I’ve said for years in my presentations on ayurveda that it is a medicine that heals the ancient person within: the one who has not forgotten his coherence with the world.

    Doug, with regard to language, I agree that there’s no more fascinating subject than the oral/aural universe of the elders, and no aspect of yogic inquiry today that is given less attention, because we have been so immersed in the textual/symbolic, from birth.

    Mid — call me a heretic (I’m used to it), but I don’t think it’s Sanskrit that holds irreducible power, but rather the immersive quality of oral consciousness. (I say this after years of mantra sadhana.) We can speak English with mantric power, and some of us do: check out Christian Bok’s Eunoia if you get a chance, or any work by folks in the “language” movement. Sanskrit as a great pallet of sounds, of course, but I wonder if it’s greater than a good blues singer has. What’s really tight about Sanskrit (and I’m no expert) is its grammatical complexity and ability to infinitely compound: both of which make it a natural for studying and representing thought and the syntax of time.

    Doug: I think the neologistic play of continental philosophy over the last century comes close to commenting on mantric power. They play with roots, repetition, inversion…

  • Hi, Matthew. Enjoyed all your rich observations above.

    Still have to disagree with you on you 2nd paragraph, which still seems to me to be a gross stereotype about the ancient mind. Consider the range of concepts of God in Hartranft’s analysis of the the Yoga Sutra (he posits essentially an atheistic Buddhist tract paying just barest lip service to metaphysics, execept in Pada 3, which he speculates is pandering to that paranormal powers crowd.)

    And, if my memory serves me correctly, Feuerstein in “The Yoga Tradition” relates a full spectrum of believes about God even back then, from a belief in the personal reality of the full panoply of Vedic Gods and Goddesses (not dead today certainly) to the panoply as metaphor for our psyches to the Buddhist atheistic constructs.

    Again, I’m not a scholar. But what I hear you and others saying here conflicts with my understanding of other prominent scholars I have read. That’s why I’m bringing it up. Not because I think I personally know any better.

    Also, regarding Vedic sound, you might be encouraged (or you might be cynical enough that you’re not!) to know that the Vedic sound tradition is being carried on in some form in highly popular places you might not expect:

    Loving everything here. Thanks to all for diving in with such gusto. Invite your friends. I just popped off an e-mail to Graham Schweig to let him know we are here, in case he’s interested. (I know Graham from his famous guest appearance on elephant’s Gita Talk in 2010, famous because it resulted in the largest discussion, 172 entries, ever on elephant:

    Bob W.

  • Highly relevant to our discussion here about the ancients’ concept of “God”, here is my opening interchange with Graham Schweig at :

    Bob Weisenberg
    Hi, Graham. … a question I’d like to ask is how do you personally define the word “God” and how does your definition differ from Mitchell’s?

    Graham M Schweig
    …Your question about “God.” Do you know that there is no word in Sanskrit that is equivalent to “God”? And thus, you will not find in any of my verses the employment of the word. About 82 per cent of Americans think of God as the creator of the world. And coming from the Semitic or Abrahamic traditions, this is understandable. However, creation in Indian traditions is not nearly as big a deal; it is subcontracted out by the higher notion of Ishvara, or the Supreme Being. The word Brahman means “absolute spirit” or “ultimate reality”, and Bhagavan, as I’ve translated it means, “Beloved Lord,” or more specifically, “the One who possesses all Excellences in Full”. So, without knowing Mitchell’s use of the word God, I can tell you that the Bhagavad Gita really doesn’t employ the word! How’s that for a provocative response? Happy to respond further if you like . . . just keep pushing me until you get what you need. 🙂

    Bob W.

  • You won’t hear the word heretic from me on that score, Matthew. Although mantra hasn’t gotten into my bones yet, spoken and sung poetry certainly has, in many languages.

    Still, I’m particularly strongly affected by Sanskrit. Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar guttural, palatals, and aspirations. I’m affected in the same way by German, a language I also dabbled in whose phonemes never fail to tickle my tongue and ear.

    As you’ve suggested, what’s at play in my experience Sanskrit and German may be that with both of them, my consciousness becomes momentarily immerse in words. This immersive experience may come more naturally or may be closer to the surface, as I learn how to use a new sound in speech.

    Besides blues singers, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (sic) comes to my mind as someone who made magic with an ordinary phoneme. And Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Dylan Thomas, John F. Kennedy…The list is endless, and includes almost every mother who has cooed to her baby, in Sanskrit or any other language.

  • It’s true, Bob: beliefs about God/divinity have certainly been varied, all the way to the Epicurean-materialism of the Carvakans, who ridiculed all theists mercilessly. That they are included amongst the darsanas (though “nastika”) is a tribute to the big tent of the motherland. But what Iron Age folks were not allowed to do, and probably couldn’t do, because they had no method for it (despite their sophistication in logic and reasoning), was to directly reassign authority from metaphysical postulates to testable, sharable, repeatable facts about how things work. That means that the emotions of faith that exist today are relieved of having to validate physics. This is what makes fundamentalists the world over impossible to reason with: they haven’t made that step, or they have, didn’t like the demystified universe they found, and turned tail. As for non-fundamentalist religious people, as I once was, I think faith is much more of a psychic disposition than an explanatory technique. I don’t remember any humanistically-educated religious person in my circle dwelling too long on the question “Why did God let X happen?” They knew that that God was gone, that God can’t answer anymore, that it’s a useless question. But I think they derived comfort from the sympathy of a universe that seems to listen, even if the silent dialogue (monologue?) didn’t alter the course of things.

  • A few thoughts after trying to catch up on this fascinating conversation after a day of airports and airplanes:

    1. Even Vedic scholars/practitioners such as David Frawley point to the fundamentality of sacrifice and ritual in Vedic culture. They did indeed believe in the efficacy of ritual to control the forces of nature by propitiating the nature deities. If the desired outcome didn’t come to fruition, it wasn’t because rituals don’t work; it was because the ritual was done incorrectly. There are texts on how to perform ritual and further texts on ritualistic action to correct for errors (and such errors could be for just about anything from skipping a word or fumbling a specific action etc. All of this ritualism of course propped up the brahmanical monopoly on ‘spiritual practice.’ You had to go to a priest and ‘pay’ him for doing rituals for just about everything from guaranteeing a son to finding a good husband for your daughter to having a good harvest….

    The buddha mocked such ideas. In one sutta, he says if you are on one side of a river and wish to get to the other side, all the praying and propitiating of the deities won’t get you to the other side; you have to do the work of building a raft and rowing across. He also mocked the idea that bathing in the ganges would hasten one’s liberation by saying if that were the case the fish would all be liberated first.

    2. Bob, the problem with saying god tells you to love your neighbor as your motivation for social activist work is that others can say god tells them to fly planes into buildings. Who is to say which person got the wrong message?

    I just finished reading several studies that show believers are (GENERALLY) more prone to offer aid to other religious believers (most to those in their own ‘in-group’) while non-believers offer aid with no concern as to others’ religious or lack of religious beliefs.

    If I were home, I’d quote some of the research statistics that surprisingly contradict your own perception that belief in god leads to more activism and/or altruism in general…

    I’m also not sure what you mean to say when you write: “I’m not at all sure there is a decline in metaphysics (= belief in God and an afterlife, etc.) in the general human population, just perhaps on our little Western Yoga world here, and maybe even just the Canadian and European Yoga worlds, to be frank!”

    European culture is actually overwhelmingly secular; those countries that are most secular have the greatest social safety net. In the US, across the general public “nones” are the fastest growing segment of the population.

    In my experience, most western yogis hold lots of what you are referring to as metaphysical beliefs (in god, afterlife etc).
    To be clear, I agree with Doug though that metaphysics are unavoidable. I don’t use the word as a negative; I just think such transcendental metaphysics wrong and harmful! Obviously, my metaphysics are naturalist. 😉

  • Hi, Frank. Thanks for your comment. Let me quickly clear up a couple of misunderstandings.

    All of my comments were made in a limited context.

    My comments about religion were just contesting Matthew’s assertion that people who had metaphysical beliefs would unlikely to be socially active because they were focused on the other life beyond this one. It was not meant to approve everything done in the name of religion, as your reply seems to assume.

    My remarks about people believing in metaphysics are in agreement with yours, contrary to how you read them. You write that “most western yogis hold lots of what you are referring to as metaphysical beliefs (in god, afterlife etc).” I was saying this plus adding the rest of the world. This contradicts Matthew’s suggestion that the world in general is turning away from metaphysics. It was in that context that I wrote: “just perhaps on our little Western Yoga world here, and maybe even just the Canadian and European Yoga worlds, to be frank!”

    At this point it would be useful for you and Matthew and other to define the word “metaphysics”. I just did (= belief in God and an afterlife, etc). But is this what you understand it to be? And was “naturalist metaphysics” just a joke? If not, what does that mean.



  • Bob,

    You wrote:

    “I’m not at all sure there is a decline in metaphysics (= belief in God and an afterlife, etc.) in the general human population, just perhaps on our little Western Yoga world here, and maybe even just the Canadian and European Yoga worlds,” which sounds like yes, you are questioning Matthew’s assertion that the world in general is turning away from metaphysics, but saying that only in “our little Western Yoga world” such a turning away can be found.

    Now I see you seem to be saying that there is no turning away from metaphysics in general, and in fact, as I state above, there has been in Europe for decades and now even with the rise in christian fundamentalism in the US, the largest growing segment of the population is the ‘nones’ so I actually agree with Matthew that there is a general turning away from what you two call metaphysics.

    Now, to address your questions to me in your final paragraph above: Fundamentally, I understand metaphysics as it is generally understood by the western philosophical tradition: that branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental nature of being and the world. It has a major relationship with ontology (what is ultimately real) and epistemology (how do we know what is real).

    The word comes from the Greek (meta, meaning “beyond,” “upon” or “after” and “physics.” First used simply as the title of the texts following Aristotle’s works on physics (“after” or “beyond” physics). Ironically, Aristotle didn’t refer to the subject of these texts that come after the physics texts AS metaphysics: he called it “first philosophy.” Latin scholars, misunderstanding the title which only meant “the texts that come after the texts on physics” thought it meant “the science of what is beyond the physical” or “the science of the world beyond nature” which is how the word is generally used today – and is why, I assume, Matthew and many others often see it negatively – or as he says, he uses the word as a cuss! For most contemporary folk, metaphysics has this connotation about being about the “immaterial realm.” It also seems that this is how you see it, that is, metaphysical is about the spiritual, non-physical which is to say, “god.” SO, in this sense both you and Matthew hold the same definition, but you see it in a positive light and Matthew in a negative one. From my historical perspective you both have fallen into the wide-spread mis-understanding of what metaphysics actually is.

    So, traditionally, a core theme of metaphysics is the “nature of Being” (note the capital “B”). Is reality a single, unchanging “Being” (Brahman, for instance which is thought to be the only ‘real’ for monistic Vedanta)? Are there two ‘separate realities’ such as Descartes “body” and “mind” or Patanjali’s “purusha” and “prakriti?” Or is existence “THAT something is” different from “WHAT something is” (essence/being)? Sartre, of course, is famous for arguing that existence precedes being.

    Plato argued that properties of objects are abstract ideals existing outside time and space (this is idealism) whereas the buddha would argue that particular objects are a bundle or collection of objects lacking any such ‘essence.’ This is what he meant by dependent origination (or negatively, “emptiness”)

    To answer your direct question to me: what I mean by “metaphysics” is precisely those ‘first assumptions’ that underlie our values, our views of the world etc. If you ask yourself why you believe in something (say god) and then ask why again and again, at some point you arrive at a place where there is no “reason.” It all comes down to what we think of as our “best guess!” I had a wonderful teacher in college who would remind us that each of us have such unquestioned/unconscious assumptions. He would say to us that philosophical thinking should get us to bring our unquestioned assumptions into consciousness in order to determine whether they are coherent with what we profess to believe. “Unconscious metaphysics are dangerous metaphysics,” he would often say.

    I would hazard a suggestion that much of the confused, often incoherent thinking found in contemporary yoga is because of the contradictions between professed values and unconscious metaphysics or incongruent metaphysics held by many practitioners. This is what lies behind Matthew’s motivation for “Threads.” Contemporary yoga tends to valorize Patanjali, but his metaphysics is completely at odds with those of most yogis — to a point. I think most contemporary yogis (and here I include contemporary, mainstream, ‘consensus’ buddhism) fall into various degrees of subtle and sometimes not so subtle dualism.

    So, I am NOT joking when I say that I hold naturalistic metaphysics. I have spent decades investigating the metaphysics I inherited, rejected them, and worked to reach a place where I provisionally rest upon naturalism as my fundamental worldview. I have no way of “proving” that super-natural realities do not exist (just as those who believe them cannot prove they do) but I rest my choices upon the weight of evidence and the values I see flowing from such a worldview – and perhaps, more importantly the coherence of said values and worldview!

    For more on that you’d have to read up on my series “All Beings Are Without Blame” at my zen naturalism blog.

  • Great reply, Frank.

    I had your broader definition of metaphysics, but narrowed it to conform to Matthew’s more narrow definition, both here and in “Threads of Yoga”. I see it as a neutral, whereas Matthew, in his more narrow definition, seems to be arguing that it will always take one off track, and maybe worthy of some cussing, in fact.

    I’m also, contrary to the impression I’ve inadvertently given you, neutral about God and religion. I’m much more interested in how people behave, in the end, and I see people arriving at being wonderful people from many different directions.

    I see very little practical distinction between an atheist who says he believes in goodness and love but doesn’t call it God and a religious person who says he believes in goodness and love and does call it God.

    (A great many non-fundamentalist religious people, when pressed, don’t define God any more that “that which compels us to be good and loving”. Obviously something is compelling most atheists to be good and loving, too. They just don’t call it God. I can, in fact, comfortably call myself either.)


  • Oh, and Frank. Forgot to thank your for your interesting education in your last comment. I read it all carefully and thoughtfully. It both refreshed my memory on some things while telling me some other things I did not know. Really appreciate you taking the time. I’m sure other will get a lot out of it, too.


  • Well now I’m happy I’ve been called out on “metaphysics”, by both of you!I am aware that I’ve been abusing the term, but I blame it all on my immersion in phenomenology and, to a lesser extent the modern analytics. The former says that metaphysical discourse ignores the senses and degrades the immediacy of human concern generally, and the latter says that those problems typically deemed to be “metaphysical” (Being vs. being), are really embedded in linguistic anomalies and misunderstandings. So while I acknowledge that the discipline ranges far beyond belief in God/afterlife, turning away from its mode feels almost like a political act for me. Though it is true, as Frank says, that all of Threads is the attempt to replace an Iron Age metaphysics, and its unconscious contemporary vestiges, with an intersubsjective metaphysics. When you play Frank’s “endless why” game with intersubjectivity/interdependence, the game lasts a lot longer. With hard dualism, you’re left saying “just because”, like a four year old, after a few moves.

    Part of me just gets physically prickly when I even hear the word. It makes my eyes glass over. It’s a real mood killer. It makes my glasses feel uncomfortable on my nose. It reminds me of being a pre-teen Catholic schoolboy with too-tight underpants. If I wore a beret I would self-consciously adjust it every time I heard it. Makes me feel all pinchy and parsimonious inside. I often hear the word in my head as though Droopy Dog is saying it, equally whiny and passive-aggressive. I don’t know what that’s all about, but it’s not very academic of me. I’ll take it to therapy. I suppose the word signifies for me any discourse that is on continually on the verge of disembodiment/dissociation.

    That said, there are few things more important to me, especially as I chew away at the psychology of the guru/authority problem, than that branch of metaphysics we call epistemology: not only how we know what we know, but what unconscious pressures convince us to accept claims and sentiments that are not our own.

  • Love this response, Matthew. (To be clear, it’s only a minor problem in Threads of Yoga, if a problem at all, because you make your more narrow definition pretty clear by context anyway.)


  • I. LOVE. THIS:

    “Part of me just gets physically prickly when I even hear the word. It makes my eyes glass over. It’s a real mood killer. It makes my glasses feel uncomfortable on my nose. It reminds me of being a pre-teen Catholic schoolboy with too-tight underpants.”

    And to be clear, Matthew, I am right there with you because just about everyone outside academia MEANS metaphysics in the way it has been misunderstood: the ‘science’ of the immaterial. I mean, google “metaphysician” and… well maybe you shouldn’t! Wouldn’t want to make you infertile! 🙂

    By the way, for me, your “intersubjective metaphysics” jibes perfectly with dependent origination (the ‘first philosophy’ or metaphysics of the buddha) and emptiness because I see you also saying that the ‘subject’ is empty of inherent essential existence. Or as “Trust In Mind” puts it: “subject is subject because of the object; object is object because of the subject.” Are you familiar with the neuro-scientist Bruce Hood’s book, “The Illusion of Self” which shows how subjectivity/selfness is a socially constructed phenomena?

  • Hi all,
    I’m waiting for the next iteration of this blog, to see all the reply and hear more.
    I’m loving the ‘intimacy’ of a real conversation here. Who says it can’t happen on the internet? It’s happening. Just like in ‘reality’.

    The last comment here, by mremski. YES. I was taking a class on metaphysics at college, and had to drop out… Haha. My hind end felt pinchy.

    But the last comment, I’d like to say something. The platonic idealism. Here I find myself asking the why question into infinity. On the other hand, the statement that an object is a multitude of objects seems to beg the question WHY to stop after 4 or less iterations.

    Am I confused? Hard dualism is the expansive tack, and the polymorphous ends with ‘just because’??

    Thanks for any comments.


  • Yes, I heard you to say that. I’m questioning that!

    Perhaps even something that ‘philosophers have decided upon’ isn’t clear to the hoy poloi!

    Point of view, and all that.

    For me, the ‘naturalistic’ point of view, that a ‘human being’ for example, is not ‘an organism’, but rather, billions of organisms in a skin container. ?? Here the ‘why’ questions end with: ‘just because’. Because this is the reality of the situation.

    But the ‘whys’ of ‘essence’? These ‘whys’ never ends… Here imagination is left to play ad infinitum?

    Not the philosopher am I.
    But I’m curious!

    ‘How’ questions, on the other hand, are a different matter?

  • At this point I’m not sure if my response to the course of this conversation is amusement or exasperation. The original focus was on the link –real or assumed/presumed between yoga (philosophy) and action — and at the end is became a meta-discussion about our feelings about the word ‘metaphysics’ — or at least what has become of the word, based on impressions, over the ages. Also the attempt to distinguish our efforts from mere ‘academics’ has ended up in something that seems to embody the essence of academics.

    The neo logicians may well be inquiring into mantra etc. using their particular set of scalpels. Bully for them. Need I point out the difference between their efforts and those of the yogis who actually practice it? Our original point of discussion seemed to be about the link between thought and practice — and the kinds of prescriptions for living that we derive from that.

    I also hesitate to judge the value of a philosophy, metaphysical or otherwise, by the relative proportion of nice people it produces. Bandwagons collect all types. Ask Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Mohammed. Or etc.

    • Well I think we’re all still too opinionated for tenure, Doug! As far as mantra sadhana goes, my main practice was within the rubric of Jyotish, and I found that the more I practiced in a pre/post rational space, the sharper I got, it seemed, in analyzing the qualities of language. To distort a phrase from Jesus: Don’t let your left brain know what your right brain is doing!

  • I did understand you, –I am not convinced!
    It seems that a never-ending stream of ‘why’ questions could tumble-out regarding ‘essence’.
    And an immediate satisfaction could be had for the polymorphous by simply accepting it -as such.

    Point of view?

  • Yes, Doug. Ain’t it grand?

    I’m actually trying to generate these kinds of rambunctious conversations all over the Yoga philosophy blogosphere. (It may be an “acquired taste”.)

    This used to happen routinely a few years ago when I was Yoga Editor at elephant, but now I want us to be able to develop this kind of interchange at will wherever there is a great article, independent of site.

    Matthew’s article here was just my first test case, and I love the results so far.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • It is catnip for me too — I spent years working in the gardens in the ashram in Ganeshpuri to get out of my ‘Hegel-head’ inflicted by years of graduate study. You understand my concern about not falling off the wagon into the realm of the abstract once again. The practice of Hatha yoga for me — especially as a teacher as well as practitioner — has been to keep my feet on the earth while my head may still be a bit in the clouds. It took some work to get even that far. I am a recovering intellectual, always at risk of relapse, though I retain a healthy respect for the necessary work of the intellect in yoga. I’m with you on this.

  • Doug, I obviously like the intellectual stuff, too. But I consider the term “Yoga philosophy” to encompass how it applied to everyday life. So you’ll find that Best of Yoga Philosophy includes everything from Matthew’s rather heady article here to articles about Yoga for PTSD to a review of a book called “Yoga Wisdom at Work”.

    For me personally, all the reading and study has devolve into simplicity to be useful. To me, that’s exactly what the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita say (not so much the Yoga Sutra), and part of the reason I love them so much. It really does come down to the simplicity of “Sat Chit Ananda” and “I am That” in the end, just like it says in my favorite texts.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

  • Acquiring meaning of words can be twofold — by self experience and by a trustworthy person. ?Same can be said for acquiring meaning for our actions?

    The relation between ‘word’ and it’s meaning is constant and eternal –to some philosophies: On the other hand for some philosophies, it is not.

    Commentary such as what we see here, is like a teacher of teachers.
    –Contextual factors have contributed a lot to the philosophy of language.
    This kind of commentary shared here ‘kindles’ knowledge. And knowledge kindles action in the real world.

    — Our firewood need fire. We need commentary, and we need demystification!
    Thank you Bob Weisenberg and all for sharing.

  • allise, your words remind of:

    With no desire for success,
    no anxiety about failure,
    indifferent to results, he burns up
    his action in the fire of wisdom. (BG 4.20)


  • We are to
    sink eternally
    from letting go
    to letting go into God.

    I pray God
    to rid me of God.
    The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of
    is to let go of God for the sake of God.

    Meister Eckhart, 13th century

    “Die Wahrheit ist das Ganze.” — GWF Hegel

  • We are to
    sink eternally
    from letting go
    to letting go into God.

    I pray God
    to rid me of God.
    The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of
    is to let go of God for the sake of God.

    Meister Eckhart, 13th century

    “Das Wahre ist das Ganze” — GWF Hegel

  • Hi, Doug. I like that quote. It says what I wrote earlier in this conversation, that talking about “God” is pointless without definitions. A statement about “God” can mean wildly different things, depending on what is actually in the mind of the speaker.

    Never read Meister Eckhart. Where would you recommend that I start?



  • We have to fight against oppression and injustice
    — the irrational components of human history.

    “The true is the whole”
    – Hegel

  • Hi Bob — the best place to start is Matthew Fox’s introduction to his book ‘Passion for Creation’ — the rest of which is a collection of his sermons along with Fox’s commentary. It’s available on Kindle as well. There is plenty of room for dialogue with the Buddhists — he had a great influence upon D Suzuki as well as Jung and also the continental philosophers, notably Hegel. Eckhart especially was speaking to the whole problem of the conceptualization of ‘God’ which is at the root of so many criticisms brought up in this thread; plus he, more than any other mystic (he actually would have hated being called a ‘mystic’ or even a ‘contemplative’) drew a direct line between spirituality and the kind of social consciousness that was the original topic of this thread — what Eckhart called ‘justice,’ which was very close to the original concept of ‘dharma’ without the overlay of social duty defined by class structure. He defies pigeon-holing.

    I had to correct my Hegel quote — ‘das Wahr’ is even more than ‘true’ (Wahrheit), in a way that is hard to capture in English — it is closer to ‘Sat.’

    Right now is my 5th time in Stuttgart and I had never realized until now that I was around the corner from Hegel’s birthplace — made a little pilgrimage to the house, which is now a small and modest museum. I was reminded of his words on his deathbed, “Only one of my students ever really understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.”

  • ‘Das Wahr’ is more ‘the real,’ which includes ‘true’ or ‘truth’ — more than bare existence — hence ‘Sat’ — and also ‘Chid.’ Hegel was German, so there was less of ‘Ananda,’ though it was in there somewhere.

  • Thanks so much, Doug. Definitely goes on my reading list. Since I’m kind of a yoga universalist, I love connecting to other philosophies and spiritualities.

    That’s really sad about Hegel, though.


  • I think that what is getting lost here, as it usually does in most intellectual explorations of yoga, is that yoga is essential experiential. If you are practicing yoga (and your goal is spiritual development, whatever that means to you) and you are not feeling it having some palpable transformational effect on you, then STOP! and try something else. But don’t blame yoga for not delivering it, or yourself for not receiving or getting it.

  • As an ‘outsider’ in this discussion, I can say that I see deep practice here. I was even inspired to practice by this discussion.
    I would say that I see actual lives living here. No lives of quiet desperation here, hehehe.
    — practice practice, all is coming.

  • Well, regardless of anything substantive, I’ve never heard a yoga teacher reference – let alone intelligently discuss – Hegel and Eckhart before. And, this is a novelty that I tremendously enjoy – so, thanks Doug and everyone else for your time 🙂 <3

  • Point taken, James — you are offering a pragmatic definition of the truth and value of a practice, rooted in experiential results, which is what yoga has always been about. But if as you say, neither you nor yoga is at fault if it doesn’t ‘work’ to bring about the spiritual transformation that one seeks or desires,then what is missing? First, which ‘yoga’ or set of practices are we talking about — is it just that you’re taking the wrong medicine for your particular disease? (I.e. Tylenol isn’t curing your headache, so you should be taking X instead?)

    But more importantly, what makes practice “practice”? The field is littered with fallen yogis and cautionary tales, many of whom were particularly accomplished in their own brand or version of ‘yoga’ — and not just physical asana. Is mere repetition enough? Is the ability to give talks about it a sign of sufficient contemplation? Is it enough to measure oneself against one’s own words or concepts, or must we consider and measure ourselves against the words and admonitions of others? Is even that enough (especially if we become so caught up in the words of others that we detach from our own experience or inner compass — obviously not!)

    It may not be the fault of either yourself/your own sincere intentions, or the fault of ‘yoga’ per se, but rather that something is lacking in ‘practice’ itself. If so, then will moving on to something ‘else’ really help? (Would that something ‘else’ — if it did produce spiritual transformation [whatever that is — moral reformation? Compassion based on insight into unity?] — not be simply ‘yoga’ in another form?)

    It is not enough just to ‘do’ yoga to make it a practice. There is a real contemplation involved, which includes the intellectual, and you are right that the measure should be pragmatic. But until we touch and imbibe the real heart of ‘practice,’ it doesn’t matter WHAT we ‘try.’ Nothing is automatic in its results such that we only need to DO it. And there is a real problem, as Matthew is pointing out, that some ‘Guru’ provides the secret ingredient that gets you ‘there.’

    Patanjali described the elements that make one ‘firm’ in ‘practice,’ but did he ever really touch the heart of practice? Can that even be put in writing? By the same token, will we ever touch the heart of practice without really thinking about it? And the truth of thinking about anything is that we really can’t do it just on our own.

    We all love quoting Pattabhi Jois, ‘Practice, practice, all is coming.’ But without more thought, that statement is as empty as saying “Eat,eat, health is coming.” It may be 99% practice and 1% ‘theory’, but if that 1% is genuine contemplation, then it is that 1% that makes all the difference.

    The question, what makes practice “practice”? Is the same question as what makes yoga “yoga”? Hence it’s good to talk,and to contemplate that, especially in the context of teaching and practicing yoga. Or anything.

  • PS Allison — your mention of Hegel’s very good teachings on freedom and related topics (‘right’ and justice) made me realize anew that we don’t fully understand what he meant without taking the influence of Eckhart into account. Eckhart was perhaps his best kept secret. Using the Christian vernacular, Eckhart said

    “In the kingdom of heaven
    is in everything else.
    All is one
    and all is ours.

    There is no such thing as “my” bread.
    All bread is ours
    and is given to me,
    to others through me
    and to me through others.

    All things necessary for sustenance in this life
    are given on loan to us
    with others
    and because of others,
    and for others
    and to others through us.

    will never be anywhere
    except where equality and unity are.
    There can be no love
    where love this not find equality
    or is not busy creating equality.”

    The key to his message was in his very last statement about the action of love as existing not just in ‘finding’ (‘seeing’) equality, but in being ‘busy CREATING equality.’ That was news for the christian monks and clergy of the time, and I would submit is the real starting point for the connection we look for between yoga and activism in ‘creating equality’ — which had its source not so much in the yoga tradition or texts themselves (though I would never argue that there was never charity, compassion or moral conscience in the yoga tradition!) as in the roots of our own tradition.

    (and by the way, Eckhart actually acted upon his words, and honored others, such as the Beguines, who exemplified them, even though it got him in trouble)

    With regard to Hegel’s deathbed pronouncement, my fave teacher Fr. Quentin Lauer usually played that line for a bit of a laugh, and I think for Hegel himself that it was a mixture of (rueful) humor, sadness at the shortness of life, and that also he was being a bit of a Heidelberg faculty prig trying to prevent anyone from assuming the mantle of being his most authoritative interpreter. Hegel never said who that student was, which I’m sure caused a lot of discussion in the faculty lounge.

  • Doug Keller. When I say that if yoga is not providing spiritually transformational experiences for you in your life than Stop and try something else, I mean it in the sense that the first person who ever did yoga probably did it because other things he or she were doing weren’t working. Maybe, in the same way, yoga is a precursor to something else we don’t even know about yet? Let’s not get stuck here. My approach to yoga has also been to get practical benefits. I started yoga in my 20s because I knew I had to develop my powers of concentration in order to be able to do what I wanted to do with my life — write books and novels. It worked. I did not have any significant deeply spiritual experiences from doing yoga — and by this I mean prana awakening — until I started working as Yogi Amrit Desai’s book editor in the 80s. This happened by osmosis — it was nothing he said or did. There are gurus and then thee are shakti gurus. It’s a world of difference between the two. I wrote a book called An American Yoga: The Kripalu Story in order to introduce people to the phenomena of shaktipat diksha. I don’t think you can have a serious conversation about transformational yoga without knowing this concept (preferably by experiencing it). Otherwise, it is like having a discussion about coffee without ever mentioning caffeine.

  • Thanks James. I’ve had my experience of shaktipat diksha too, and of its transformational role in my life. And my own experience has been that it does not obviate the need for practice (regardless of those who say ‘devotion’ or bhakti is enough), but rather deepens the need for it, particularly when the shaktipat guru himself turns out to be a compromised being, and you’re left figuring things out for yourself.

    My question was simply this: what do you mean by ‘doing yoga’? I’m not challenging you, just asking for clarity.

    And my point was about practice. What makes practice ‘practice’ — such that it is practically effective?

    If you separate the experience of ‘transformation’ — which you experienced spontaneously and by ‘osmosis’ from Amrit Desai — from what ‘yoga’ did for you in terms of concentration, then what are you suggesting? Is shaktipat ‘something else’ besides yoga? Is it entirely dependent upon transmission from a Guru, or is practice involved?

    If it does involve practice, then doesn’t that take us back to my question about ‘practice’ and its relationship to yoga, and to the role of yoga in altering one’s perception, self-perception and intention in positive, productive and self-empowered ways (i.e. ‘transform’)? These questions are especially important for those who have not yet stumbled across a shaktipat guru, and are even more important for those who have — especially when left wondering WTF just happened.

  • Doug and James.

    While we’re talking about what “practice” means, let’s remind ourselves that the Bhagavad Gita itself identifies four major types of Yoga practice, one for each modern “personality type”. See Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks. To quote:

    People who are primarily analytical in nature might feel most comfortable with Jnana Yoga, or the Yoga of Understanding. They like to think and philosophize about Yoga.

    People who are primarily people oriented might be most attracted to Karma Yoga, or the Yoga of Action, which emphasizes selfless giving and compassion.

    People who are highly emotional in nature might prefer Bhakti Yoga, or the Yoga of Love and Devotion, which emphasizes love, sacred chanting, mantras, and devotional kirtan music.

    Finally, people who are what psychologists call “drivers” might tend towards Raja Yoga, or the Yoga of Meditation, as exemplified by the progressive spiritual attainment of the Yoga Sutra.

    In the article I cite the specific Gita passages that describe each of these yogas.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

  • Now I am curious to know WTF you think *did* happen with that “transmission,” Doug. Is this something that you can now explain – and if so, care to share?

    It’s fascinating to me how many people who get seriously into yoga, meditation etc. at one point or another have an experience of projecting much more holistically good, powerful, enlightened (etc.) attributes onto their teacher than this person in fact merits. There are dramatic examples of this, such as followers of abusive gurus. Then there are less dramatic examples (such as I have experienced) – e.g., realizing that the yoga teacher you believed was way “ahead” of you on “the path” is in fact even more fundamentally messed up by insecurity and narcissism than you are.

    In either case, the amount of beneficial learning that nonetheless occurs often seems to be very high.

    And, that can be broken down into two stages – the methods learned and experiences facilitated when you were a “believer,” and the lessons learned from later disillusionment and normalization of a formerly idealized figure. It is the former that is most intriguing to me in some ways, in that it is more confusing and harder to explain.

    Clearly, the evidence shows that teachers with serious, in some cases criminal ethical problems can nonetheless effectively teach transformative methods. And, the Shaktpat reference indicates that some can simply by the power of their presence also generate transformation (or at least what’s experienced as such).

    Yet, some of these same leaders have been abusive beyond the pale of what we’d normally accept under any other circumstances.

    And, I see that even people who have moved on from such teachers generally do not publicly criticize them. (Matthew being a major exception in this little discussion.) This silence enables the dynamics to continue to replicate themselves. Is this good?

    I know that I personally am interested in very down-to-earth outcomes when it comes to assessing the “success” of any method, practice, etc. Are we concretely manifesting more wisdom and compassion in our everyday lives? If so, I’m for it. If not . . . it’s interesting intellectually, perhaps, but on a deeper level, I don’t buy into the claim that there’s profound value or meaning there nonetheless.

  • Indeed Bob, there is not one ‘Yoga,’ especially given the variety in the nature of the practitioners that the Gita rightly points out, as well as the variety in purpose. It is neither the nature of the practitioner, nor the intention nor even the specific practices that ‘define’ yoga, which is why it is so hard to pin down — and nothing in the history of yoga says that it HAS to be ‘pinned down’ to one thing or one univocal definition, Patanjali notwithstanding.

    I think that’s why ‘yoga’ is so deep and rich, and so closely tied to ‘practice’ in its fullest sense as to be synonymous with it, providing an experiential window into the very nature of our own essence or soul (anime’, that which animates us) as intentional, creative and even loving awareness. Yoga is a knowing and a self-knowing that is beyond what is available to intellection or conceptualization. It is knowing-in-action–and-in-being, beyond simply ‘knowing,’ thanks to its essence as practice.

  • Doug & Bob. Good conversation. (By the way Bob I am having the same difficulty here as with Rebelle — I’m not getting email notifications even though I clicked that box.)
    Here it is for me: Other than spontaneous shakti meditation I do not have a ‘yoga practice’ per se. Essentially, I am no more interested in ‘practicing’ yoga than I am in ‘practicing’ life.

  • In discussing yoga, we’re trying to discuss something that by its very nature we cannot ‘define.’ To put it that way may seem frustrating and even silly, but this was Socrates’ very point about ‘virtue’ and all forms of lived intelligence that are of the highest value to us. Discussing it is part of coming to live it, even if we never arrive at a ‘definition.’

    That was how every Socratic dialogue went, before Plato arrived at his interim notion of the ‘Forms’ (and to which he subtly returned as he moved beyond his notion of the ‘Forms’ in the ‘Parmenides’ and especially in the ‘Sophist,’ where he tried to put his finger on the nature of a fake or hypocrite, who so convincingly presents an imitation of the ‘real’ thing): at the end of the dialogue, it is Socrates who embodies the very virtue that they all had failed to ‘define’ intellectually — and all had been changed in the process (apart from those who just left pissed off)

    The ‘yoga’ lies in the process one must undertake for oneself — and in community with others (who are really not so ‘other’). Socrates was the true place of the ‘Forms’ in Plato’s philosophy — not elsewhere in some ideal world. And the place Socrates occupied was yoga.

  • Interesting perspective. I’m not familiar enough with all that to leave an informed comment about it. But it sounds right/rings true. But in regards to yoga, and particularly yoga in America, one can’t look at yoga here without a cultural context. Very simply put, if you introduce anything into this culture, especially if it has to do with ‘self-improvement’, Americans will do 2 things with it. 1– make it into a self-loathing, guilt-based religion and, 2, make it into a business. That sort of defines the modern American yoga studio for me, none of which I will even consider entering without first generously smudging them and me with some sage…

    Bob — comments thing still not working for me…

  • Hi Carol,

    I can’t devote any more time to it today — I’m not dissembling, just under the burden of necessity with my responsibilities teaching. The ‘WTF’ lies in dealing with the fact that something genuinely happened which changed me for the better through my time with and encounter with Muktananda, and in very concrete ways that have played out through decades; and at the same time I make no pretense to deny or defend what has come to light about his own behavior. The practice of going deeper into my own experience and contemplation has been a process of enquiring into that. I have not been silent about it, but by the same token I don’t jump onto the bandwagon of joining in with the chorus of criticism from people who honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll try to offer more later.

    The bottom line is that people do indeed project on to the ‘Guru,’ and the truth of our situation as spiritual beings having a human experience does not fit into the neat categories we would like them to.

  • Matthew.

    Now that we have these assembled multitudes, are there any specific questions you’d like to ask about your original request for feedback on your abstracts?

    Bob W.

    • Not really, Bob — I really appreciate the course it’s taken. There’s direct and indirect feedback in my experience. The tangents become indirect feedback and give a good sense of where provocations can lead. I also get so much out of just seeing folks describe their experience.

  • One last comment to Carol for tonight; on the one hand it wasn’t a matter of the teacher — in this case Muktananda — teaching ‘methods’ and having a certain knack for that as a teacher of a technology of yoga despite his other shortcomings — and on the other hand it wasn’t simply a case of spontaneous transmission in the absence of any context of practice, teaching or contemplation. And none of my most profound experiences happened in his personal presence. One in fact happened at the time of his death in India, when I was in my hovel in the Bronx while doing my graduate studies at Fordham University. I did not actually find out about his death until days after, since I was studying for exams and cut off from all media.

    And I do not measure the value of those experiences by the drama of their details, but rather by the progressive change in my own temperament and character over time, with the support of all of the practices I learned under the penumbra of ‘yoga’ even while disconnected from the person of the ‘Guru’ for long periods of time. I don’t center ‘yoga’ around the person of the ‘Guru,’ do not venerate the person as ‘perfect’ and yet acknowledge that something very real happened, with very real consequences, and not simply because of what happened ‘before’ when I was a ‘devotee’ nor ‘after’ in the throes of disillusionment, but throughout.

    And this has been a process, not an immediate and thoroughgoing transformation. My association with yoga has brought me in contact with a long line of assholes, one of whom has on occasion been me. This has not led me to discredit yoga but has rather demanded that I think about it — what it is and what makes it work despite my/our deficiencies — all the more deeply, and also less narrowly. Maybe I’m just stubborn.

    In any case, I appreciate Bob’s throwing it back to Matthew and reminding us that it is his thread. I’ve tried to stay on track by making this a contemplation on the connection, real or assumed, between ‘yoga’ and action or social conscience — one of the many points raised by the topics of his abstract, and perhaps the one that has generated the most comment.

    I appreciate Matthew’s contemplations on his experience of the issue of charisma with the ‘Guru’ and certainly recognize that in my experiences of Anusara as well as of Muktananda’s successor, Gurumayi. Muktananda, or the experience that took place for me in the context of my encounter with him — and my practice of yoga as it began then (not talking specifically about asana here, but not to the exclusion of it either) — just doesn’t quite fit into the same box. In the end I can only say that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies, and none of them can be neatly shoehorned into our expectations or standards.

  • Here is what my ‘root’ teacher has said…

    ‘Practice’ does not make perfect..
    ‘Perfect practice’ makes perfect.

    (lose the notions of perfect, hehe)

    And yes, this begs the question. Even though we may have a ‘personality’ ‘drawn’ to certain kinds of exploration/experimentation/seeking behaviors (knowledge), etc…
    what will benefit/transform is the opposite of what pulls us.

    I wonder. If the experience/s we have of shaktipat (or this kind of profound ‘event’) — tells us something. Tells us something about our unique ‘way in’. The feeling sense of the singular event (or the over-time event/s).
    Does this inform?

    For myself, the ‘shaktipat’ was one of profound clarity. The ability to both know and to act from that place. To be profoundly useful, and aware of it. And to know where that clarity came from. Without ‘knowing’. If that makes any sense.

  • Oops. Sorry. I’m distracted too.

    Ma Ah Hum. Chant Maaa Ahhhh Hummmmm

    ! Mother, I am coming out of food !

  • Thanks, Doug, for taking the time for such a lengthy and thoughtful response. I think that I get what you’re saying, although I have to admit that it doesn’t address the ethical questions that I have about these sorts of situations. However, as many have pointed out now, it is perhaps time to wrap up these more tangential discussions.

  • Well, I’ll leave my query about shaktipat on the table.
    Nothing like telling your shaktipat story, and then having the egg-heads leave the room! HaHa.

    Best to all!

  • Yes, I’m done. Seeing that James dropped in the term ‘shaktipat,’ I would have thought he would have had more to say about it, particularly in light of his mention of his own book centered around Amrit Desai and his own experiences. I put myself out there in response and was rather left hanging, puzzling over increasingly laconic and impenetrable responses added to the thread in return.

    The answer to the ethical questions are simple. The things that happened were wrong. I personally was so distant from the center of things that I was not aware of these things until much later, and so I have nothing to offer with regard to what I did or did not do about it at the time of my involvement. I thought the topic raised was the question of ‘shaktipat’ in relation to yoga. My bad.

    And so I’m having a hard time keeping up, and I remain puzzled as to your point as well on the ‘ethical matter.’ Does it lie in the following — “And, I see that even people who have moved on from such teachers generally do not publicly criticize them. (Matthew being a major exception in this little discussion.) This silence enables the dynamics to continue to replicate themselves. Is this good?”

    Muktananda died in 1982.

    Siddha Yoga took on its own dynamic after that, and I left. When I saw the dynamics of Siddha Yoga being replicated in Anusara Yoga, I spoke out, and have been in a situation of ostracism for over a decade as a result, and am still viewed with suspicion by the people involved, despite their now voicing the same criticisms (and more) that I was putting out there years ago. If you are questioning the ethics of the ‘silence’ of the participants in — or enablers of — such deeds, maybe you should talk to them.

    The answer to your question “Is this good?” is simple: no.

    If you think the cult mentality and the issue of charisma, the insecurity of charismatic leaders and etc. in these matters is the same topic as ‘shaktipat,’ I am afraid you are mistaken.

    In any case, I’m done.

  • Doug, I’d like to thank you for exposing your experience of and thoughts on shaktipat, which has got to be the hardest emic/etic issue of all, and something I avoided for good or ill in my other article “Writing About Gurus”, because I continue to be unresolved about the meaning of my own experience of it with two teachers in my early 30s. (I don’t need or expect it to be resolved…) I resonate with your description — that something profoundly transformative for me personally occurred in the context of social dynamic that I now understand to be toxic, and spend a lot of time deconstructing. The difference perhaps — I don’t know — is that I have not settled on the notion that the two phenomena are or could be independent, except when I consider one metaphor, which I’ll get to at the end.

    To go forward meaningfully with the conversation we’d have to agree that we were speaking about the same experience, and I don’t know how we could verify that, although I’ve found as I therapist that when I encounter a client who has had a similar experience there seems to be easy mutual recognition. So I hope we meet someday, not for therapy, but for dinner!

    But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that we accepted each other’s experience as similar. About the event itself, I’d describe the prologue of rising psychic tension, the physical sensations, the reverie afterward, the struggle to reintegrate, the settling into a different paradigm, the solitude. But there’s something about me that couldn’t leave it there, or consider it apart from the very specific and personal cues that I can see set it into motion. (I’m not saying you would leave it there either — I know the story isn’t really told yet.)

    I can’t separate it from the ages and genders of the teachers, nor from being desperately in love with both, nor from fearing both of them, nor from being in deep crisis about the direction of my life, nor from deep ruptures in my familial and friend matrices, nor from a lifelong habit of transcendental dreaming while writing or playing music, nor from being surrounded by a hundred or more other people who had very similar profiles, and whom I had witnessed erupt into various experiences of samadhi, or dissociation, and amongst whom I often felt the shivering of the contact high.

    For me the fact that both of these teachers nurtured the charismatic spectacle and were both I think only steps ahead of constant depressive psychosis has led me to feel that the events involved a lot of complex mirroring. The love and resonance at the heart of the event seemed to be one of mutual recognition, a kind of intersubjective “I am That” that sends a rupture into the neurology of isolation. I feel that both teachers were very good at conveying their own despair in highly concentrated and inverse form. In one experience, one of them sent me over some kind of cliff by yelling at me “You’re dying, and you’re doing nothing about it.” The syntax was accusatory, but the feeling was plural, shared. I think the nervous system can go into profound shock when it feels its self-protective isolation crack: when it feels the yoga of being seen and felt and held, perhaps for the first time since infancy. I certainly felt like a baby afterwards.

    The metaphor that makes sense to me, which circumvents the whole problem of flawed people doing mystical things, as well as the issue of whether the transference is one of a literal or imagined external energy, is of the virus. My kundalini awakening seemed to have a viral pathway through particular defences, in proximity to an adapted carrier. The nature of the virus is of rapturous existential awareness. It makes one see in an instant how fantastically absurd and unlikely being conscious is, how important, how miraculous it is to be compelled to breath and breath again, how insane our uncertainty makes us, how sad everything is, how final yet unresolved it all is, how one was one thing in the womb and then two things, how inexorable time is, and most importantly how absolutely obstructive our language is.

    Relating this back to social activism and hoping that our individual experience generates the will to social change: perhaps this existential intimacy is a doorway into the common good, and all types walk though it, though the journey is unbearably long. I’m not under the illusion that either of my diksha teachers were interested in the betterment of the world, but something about their exuberance in the face of (or perhaps because of) despair has made me very hungry for things to get better. They weren’t revolutionaries, but there was something revolutionary in the intensity with which they suffered, conscious of it or not. People think of energetic teachers as having answers, and I see the opposite: I see people whose uninhibited rage at being clueless creates a miasma of inspiration, and its flip side, which is terror.

    Anyway, thanks for pushing me to reflect further on this.

  • Thank you Matthew — I recognize what you’re saying, and “unresolved” is a good word. There is always a fine line between explaining and explaining-away, between baby and bath water. Metaphors (such as ‘viral’) are illuminating and risky at the same time. For myself it is why I look to accounts of this aspect of the human experience as articulated in different contexts and throughout the ages.

    Contemporary tools of psychology illuminate elements of the experience, possible relationships and even possible causality. But like every theory or explanation, scientific or otherwise, it remains a “likely story,” helpful and a hindrance to an open mind at one and the same time.

    I personally have become quite allergic to the exuberance of teachers touting one form of diksha or another, for the reasons you cite. They do generate (and sometimes appeal to) a sense of ‘global mission’ or enthusiasm for change, but it turns out to be empty, ultimately infertile and leaves us hungry for the real thing. Which throws us back on reexamining our own expectations regarding the “real thing.” The will to social change may be a symptom of what is even deeper at heart. Anyway, thanks.

    Dinner would be nice some day.

  • Doug, just for the record, I have personally loved reading every word you so generously and openly wrote here. I’m sure that’s true for everyone else, too.

    Our deepest thanks, and please don’t go away!


  • Thanks Bob — not going away, though I will likely be kicking myself over the next week for the time spent when my attention should have been elsewhere, regarding the topics I have to teach this week.

    Not so much offended, Carol; perhaps some exasperation at finding myself chasing the ‘point’ when answering queries.

    I took another look at Matthew’s response, which is quite deep, and I get his point about the description of the ‘viral’ nature of Kundalini; I guess the only hesitancy I have about the metaphor is that it suggest something foreign to the host, when the intent of all of the descriptions in the texts is the opposite — that it is actually original and native, though ‘dormant.’ It is our individual (and socially inculcated) traits which are viral and infectious, and the Kundalini is more like the natural immune system. Even that metaphor, of course, is not all that.

    Perhaps it is a natural opportunity to turn to the question of yoga ‘therapy,’ since, with a good education in understanding the body, yoga teachers can actually have a positive, measurable and verifiable effect in increasing the health and well-being of students — acting as ‘barefoot doctors’ in a world of increasing (and often unnecessary) medical expense. That would contribute to the uplifting of society indeed. That’s where I’ve been focusing my efforts as a teacher anyway.

    An invitation to progress to point #4.

  • Yes, Doug. That was my one hesitation about starting this new Best of Yoga Philosophy project. I knew it would be addicting. (I was kind of impressed that we got 137 comments here, until I realized that about 132 of them are mine.)

    We should post a warning to all new commenters: “Make sure all critical tasks are completed before joining this discussion.”


  • Oh wonderful. An Invitation! On to point 4! Bob? Matthew?

    I think the discussion could go on, –to look at the various topics Matthew is carefully considering writing more about.

    Perhaps Bob-the-gentleman, ? you could organize a bit.
    — Have each section (or two related sections) as the ‘topic’ for a length of time.
    Help remove the ‘time pressure’, and hone in on the topic/s.

    Some are off teaching. I’d love to hear more from Frank too.

    — This is a held space! Safe, and honest. And for putting it out there, somehow, the voices few.

    I see Carol, that you’ve been busy refereeing your blog the last few days. Lot’s of interesting voices there, -but these voices!
    Gotta love it!

  • I’ll second Bob’s opinion about the fine quality of this discourse (excluding my own), and also add that I think (point 4) yoga as a therapeutic practice is probably where it’s at because that works and leaves no controversy in its wake (except perhaps to established medical practitioners, who had their chance and blew it, so…).
    As far as I understand the historical metaphysical dynamics of yoga — kundalini, shaktipat, et al,– advanced yogis in India who understood and RESPECTED the power of these occult practices released them only, and reluctantly, to the world (outside of India) after the US released its occult weaponry — the atom bomb. (All that energy from something we can’t even see? Really?)Of course there is always the possibility that a deranged scientist can learn to make an atom bomb, and his ‘spiritual counterpart’ can find out how to used shaktipat for untoward purposes(mass mind control, if he or she wanted to) — but hey, that’s the world we live in. The cat (including Shrodinger’s) is literally out of its bag (the title of one of the chapters in my book) and there’s no point in trying to put it back in there. I, for one, am glad that ‘both sides’ are equally armed with ‘the force’– though you won’t catch me placing a bet on either side saving us from Armagedon…

    It’s scary, and there’s no way to sugar coat it…

  • I’d like to add something to what I said above. Any of us first generation Westerners who have been fortunate enough to receive shaktipat should, first of all, be extremely gratefully for having received it, and secondly, we should be utilizing it dynamically in our lives — not wasting time brooding over whether the person who delivered it to us was ‘perfect’ or not. Shaktipat was concocted by Universalist Transcendental Masters in order to spike human evolution to rise above the Abyss we seem aimed at (and that I eluded to in my last comment).

    If anyone wants to know what I do with shaktipat(rather) than so-called yoga, I’d be glad to share that. (Though you can pretty much figure it out by visiting my website (32 Beach Productions).

  • Hi James, I do agree with you about Shaktipat. It’s really not helpful — and we even undermine our own current experience and potential — if we spend too much time brooding over whether the transmitter was ‘perfect’ or not. It should definitely serve as a cautionary tale — that ‘Shaktipat’ is not just a brass ring you’ve managed to grab, making it smooth sailing forever after; nor can any ‘yogi’ ever rest on his laurels.

    I do think yoga therapy is a huge part of the future of yoga (particularly the physical practice). The popularized parts of yoga — the heat, the crazy poses etc. — will be faddish and will likely go out of style as the next thing comes along. But the benefits, particularly for the aging population of practitioners, are pretty well established, and the more we understand how it works by understanding the body as well as the dynamics of the poses, the more effective yoga can be in its therapeutic applications. The mental and emotional aspects require more training and thought, and I think we need to be more cautious about that. The model of mental health in books like Patanjali’s is more the reclusive monk/renunciant, which is not necessarily the most useful model of health for the stressed-out 21st century householder with emotional baggage.

  • Good thoughts, Doug.

    Regarding “The model of mental health in books like Patanjali’s is more the reclusive monk/renunciant”, I agree about Patanjali.

    For the benefit of our readers, this is certainly not true of the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the reasons I’ve always preferred it to the Yoga Sutra. (The Bhagavad Gita has even replaced The Art of War as the ancient text du jour in corporate America. Hard to imagine this happening with the Yoga Sutra.)

    And of course, let’s not forget that Matthew has rather decisively solved the “monk/renunciant” problem in the Yoga Sutra in his “Thread of Yoga”.

    Bob W.

    • I don’t know about “solving” it, Bob. Critiquing it within the context of contemporary needs/values, and driving the general discourse towards the intersubjective: yes!

  • Yes, I agree about the therapeutic effects of yoga. One of the things that makes Kripalu outstanding, and continues to do so, is its professional staffs’ emphasis on teaching basic yoga postures with integrity while also adding in the added dimension of spontaneous — or prana directed — yoga.

    Since the first day I started working with Yogi Desai, his passion has been, and continues to be, a way to devise a method for Western yoga practitioners to have a ‘deeper experience’ of yoga that takes them out of their routine physical/mental practice. This came directly from his own experience. Amrit Desai did not come to America as a celebrated yogi, or with any pedigree at all. He was a young man from a small village in India with a talent for art who came here to further his studies at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts. While he was demonstrating hatha yoga postures one day to his wife and another couple in their nondescript house in s suburb of Philadelphia(this is more Beaver Cleaver than Siddhartha) he suddenly ‘went off the grid’ and started to do postures spontaneously. Not sure what happened, he wrote his guru in India, Shrii Kripalvanandji, who assured him that what he had was a prana awakening that was due to mild shaktipat Shrii K transmitted to him as a teenager. That’s how Kripalu Yoga and its Enterprise was birthed, which I feel is an extraordinary testimonial to the powerful positive use of shaktipat. Tens of thousands of people over the last 3 decades have benefited — on many different levels — from practicing Kripalu Yoga.

  • I’ll stick with “solving”, Matthew! Critiquing is often criticism without alternate path. You have most eloquently and assuredly provided us with a new path and outlook regarding the Sutra, without diminishing its essence.

    Speaking of the Yoga Sutra, I wonder if you are familiar with T.K.V. Desikachar’s translation in The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice? His version is almost as radical a remix as yours, placing the Sutra clearly in the realm of action in the world, as opposed to renunciation. My impression is that his translation has kind of flown beneath the radar because he published it unobtrusively as almost an appendix to his book. But the entire book is based on the Yoga Sutra, too.

    Bob W.

  • I’m assuming that everyone involved in this discussion thinks/believes that yoga is a good thing. Therefore, why in the world are we trying to kill it with this over-analysis. Is yoga about the realm of action or renunciation. Really ?! I can’t wait to hear the answer.

  • Hi, James.

    Not to speak for everyone, but here is my response.

    Some of us are Jnana (Yoga of Understanding), some of us are Karma (Yoga of Selfless Action), and some of us are both, in addition to Bhakti (Love/Devotion) and Raja (Discipline/Meditation).

    Yoga is all these things (and all mixes of these things) clearly defined in the Gita itself, which is one of its many precocious wisdoms, predictive of modern day personality theory.

    What do others think?

    Bob W.

  • To quote TKV Desikachar, and in response to a comment of Bob’s above:

    “Yoga is to do something we don’t usually do.”
    His commentary went on in this way: To set aside some time to do/practice –something– that is not a part of our ‘routine’ behavior.

    So, if the yoga becomes the routine, then it’s time to create new yoga.
    Even if your yoga begins with taking a walk everyday at such and such a time. This habit then, isn’t your yoga anymore….

    When the yoga behavior (giving food to the food bank every month) becomes our ‘habit’, then it isn’t yoga anymore…. We gotta move into some new yoga.
    Simple stuff. But nothing the man said every struck me as simple!

    Yes, Desikachar’s is a wonderful translation of the Yoga Sutra. There are a few other delightful translations, like Bernard Bouanchaud’s. Look forward to checking out Matthews!

  • I would gently point out that it seems — perhaps particularly in the case of Patanjali, perhaps — that books that interpret Patanjali for us (and most of them do) often end up saying things wildly at odds with Patanjali himself. At the center of Patanjali’s emphasis on abhyasa/practice is the message that we do it to build habits of action, thought and feeling that are more powerful than the force of our impressions, Kleshas etc. I think this is very much in keeping with Aristotle’s teaching on virtue (which is more than ‘doing’ good things; it is a settled habit of acting with thought and feeling shaped by your previous practice of virtuous action. ‘A single robin does not a spring make, nor a single fine day.’)

    Commentators might certainly disagree with Patanjali or any other author, but the disagreement should be stated outright, with reasons why, rather than sneaking it in in the form of an ‘interpretation’ that claims to represent what he was saying.

    It may be a bit of my own crotchetiness, but I like things right out on the table.

    • YES, Doug! This constitutes my whole project with the Sutras: to be transparent with and to take ownership the modernity of our reading, so that we can stop doing unwieldy exegesis, and start doing philosophy again. Regardless of what readers think of my stated biases, I hope that the book will contribute to the view that makes it become impossible for a yoga commentary to be written (or read) without this type of self-reflexivity.

  • I agree entirely — that’s the best way to do it, acknowledging that yoga philosophy is being written, thought, rewritten and rethought today, as much as it was then, and as you say, start doing philosophy again!

    This also helps us better appreciate what those who preceded us had to offer, without either having to ‘buy’ their whole program and assumptions, or engage in apologetics to make them seem more palatable or ‘relevant.’

    • This is another important point: deconstruction can actually be an act of reverence. The more I disagreed with the separative hard dualism of Patanjali, the more I was inspired by the attention required to formulate it as a representation of ineffable experience. I also came to appreciate more and more how innovative and courageous this sramana-inspired, democratically-oriented, DIY approach actually is.

      What really excites me about “doing philosophy” is that the training context of MPY actually forces people to at least begin to do it, not in an “academic” mode, to return to that notion, but with an eye for practicality, and a renewed bravery in the face of impossible questions. I don’t think there’s any other global cultural movement at present that draws philosophical practice out of the museum and the academy in quite the same way.

  • Thanks you two. I feel happy to read these words.
    I recall TKV being some amused by the word empowered!
    –It made him smile ‘funny’, haha.

  • The Sutras are only words, after all, and the best we can do is to guess what the man who wrote them may have had in his mind, which is so extraordinarily distant now from ours.

    If doing this this nurtures the feeling of reverence or helps me to live more wisely (by pursuing a reflection of the old words in my own life), then the whole enterprise will have been worthwhile. And the more transparency (and less avidya) there is in the process, the better.

    So thanks Doug and Matthew for this light-bearing dialog on transparency. I can’t think of a nicer prelude to my Saturday morning practice!

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