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?
II. IN THE SHADOW OF THE GURU
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.”
III. EVOLUTIONS IN CONSCIOUSNESS
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.
IV. FLESH, SELF, OTHER
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.
V. LANGUAGE, IMAGE, PERFORMANCE
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?
VI. THE ROSARY: A CODA
(108 bead-like reflections on the meaning and usage of rosaries and mālā-s.)