Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic

On Saturday, LA yoga teacher and Bollywood dance instructor Hemalayaa Behl posted a blog about how people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off all those inauthentic anti-depressant medications.

She confessed that hearing about fellow yoga teachers who use “happy pills” triggered disappointed memories of her own mother, who didn’t have the strength to pull herself up out of her mental health challenges by her yoga bootstraps.

The post was an ugly, patronizing, reductionary, ignorant erasure of the experience of vast numbers of people who already battle widespread stigmatization of medications they need, in the worst cases, to keep them alive. To her great good credit, Behl has admitted as much through a heartfelt apology.

Unfortunately, the tsunami of negative response — and Behl’s contrition — has now prompted her to remove her original post. This means that the thousands of fruitful and polarizing comments it has generated through links so far, not to mention the hours of intense work that writers like Charlotte Bell, Alyssa Royse, and Camicia Bennet put in to passionately and thoughtfully responding to Behl are now pointing at an empty space. Taking the post down steals time, energy, and insight from all of those people, and insight from those who would learn from the full exchange. Fortunately, the web cache gives it all back.

In addition to her apology, it’s too bad that her PR sense (or people) didn’t encourage her to make even better lemonade: keep the post up, headed by an apology, disclaimer, links to the responses, and the resources she’s asking better-informed people to provide. It all could have gotten a lot better.

Though it can be dangerous (in the original post, Behl offers to help people get off medication with her workshops), I’m positive that the majority of people in modern yoga culture can forgive the exuberance and naïveté that can mask insecurity and empathy failure. Many of us have been there, because projecting one’s personal revelations into universal prescriptions seems to be a yogic reflex.

(I’m wondering if a medication should be developed for just this. Yogic self-projection inhibitors: YSPIs.)

Realizing that you’ve overreached and being able to talk about it with transparency and gravitas — and allowing others to talk about it by not hiding — has got to be found somewhere there in the eight limbs: probably between satya, aparigraha, and good old Isvara-P.

And honestly, none of this Behl’s fault. Nobody’s alone in this. Her view isn’t some monstrous anomaly. Stigmatization is the bitcoin of self-help. Yoga culture as a whole overreaches and self-aggrandizes, and anyone who excels in it is probably at risk for getting really good at these two skills. Yoga culture as a whole has a hard time distinguishing existential inquiry from neoliberal “I am my own master”- ness. Yoga culture holds itself accountable to precious little except its own psychological hazing. Combine this with a large practitioner population traumatized into belligerence by a lack of universal health care, scientific illiteracy, and the ministrations of opportunists, and Behl’s blog is really nothing out of the ordinary.

I think we also have to understand that the blogging and social media worlds are both real and ephemeral. We should now expect online responses to come with as much speed and fury as nervous responses. And like nervous responses, they can trigger people for years, and are best framed accordingly if we leave them lying around. Blogs don’t live in your attic or garage, after all. Unlike nervous responses, they leave highly visible traces which can continue to be discussed when calmer moods prevail. Those traces can link us together in undiscovered ways — all the more so if we can manage to not dissociate from them and shut them down.

What will we find in the links? Knee-jerk reactions to our discomfort with biomedicine? An inability to hold space for experiences we can’t understand? Or a woman who was just trying to say “I really hope that what happened to my mom doesn’t happen to me”?

 

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One thing I’m sure we will find if we keep looking is the intense confusion of epistemologies that plagues modern yoga culture. Epistemology is brainiac for how do we know what we know, how does knowledge change, who do we trust, how do we trust ourselves, and how far. MPY never seems to know whether it wants intuition or evidence, fails to investigate where either of these come from, how they’re different or what each might be good for.

This is the issue I focused on when I posted Charlotte Bell’s response to Behl to my Facepalm page. Bell spoke eloquently about the humbling surprise at having to surrender to blood pressure medication after decades of yoga and healthy living. I’ve had a similar confrontation with the limits of my intuition in a dangerous spell of airplane-induced (probably) deep vein thrombosis. Both Bell and I came up against the same stark realization: no amount of self-inquiry and no single remedy will ever be sufficient to the mystery of life.

We would love to be able to understand ourselves completely, but sometimes specialists who do not share our aspirations or  jargon will know things that are crucial to our survival. They will appear to us wearing white coats: as if in dreams from which we would otherwise not awaken. There is no Ayurveda that could clear the blood clots from my lungs in a quick enough manner to protect my aortae. And when Charlotte goes to have her hip replaced later this month, it will be because there is no asana, acupuncture, herbs or reiki that can shave away her bone spurs and replace her cartilage with the titanium she needs.

In the light of their extraordinary, almost-immediate effects, Bell’s BP meds and the warfarin I took seem to be as magical in their properties as Behl would like dancing and naps to be. Bell quotes Judith Lasater, in fact, who calls the meds “magic”.

But we mustn’t confuse the layperson’s lack of education with older forms of mystification. What we have to be clear on is that the mechanisms of this magic come from an altogether different process than those that brought us asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation and the nationalistic, colonialist, romantic, capitalistic forces that have prematurely presented them to the world health care market as universal therapies.

Scientism can indeed have its own magical air about it. How different is that scrawled latinate scrip from the mantra in a language you can’t read? But in direct opposition to the yogic arts scientific method is self-consciously directed away from the indeterminates of mythopeoic subjectivity. It has emerged in forthright resistance to the less constant or repeatable magic that preceded it.

There is nothing in the supremely useful collection of yogic arts that can be tested in the same way as the most basic pharmacological compound must be tested, with the same placebo controls and double-blinding techniques that verified the success of the polio vaccine. You can’t have a control group that thinks they’re doing yoga, when they’re really not doing yoga. Yogic experience cannot be peer-reviewed. I’m cool with anyone who calls yoga a “science”, as long as we’ve just gotten out of my Delorian in 1920s Calcutta.

Am I saying that the intuitions of yogic inquiry are meaningless? Of course not. We practice and sometimes become less reactive. We practice and sometimes become more connective, more intersubjective. We practice and sometimes worlds shimmer, open and close. We practice and sometimes we can slow down and remember things. (Sometimes this isn’t good.) And when we vaccinate a child, they don’t get diphtheria.

We who practice today are an inextricable braiding of breath and penicillin, yoga straps and seatbelts, coconut oil and fluoride, prenatal yoga classes and pitocin, meditation and ritalin, pennyroyal and advil, breastmilk and formula, organic and processed, essential oils and anticoagulants. We are privileged enough to live in several different worlds at a time and most of us use every influence — and like the memory and family we contain, not without conflict.

But there are those in yoga culture who cannot accept that they live in multiple worlds with many streams of mutually repellant knowledge. (For a sampling, check out my Facebook post of Bell’s article.) Some people can say, probably while sipping FDA-regulated tea: “Sanatana Dharma is a complete and perfect collection of lessons and prescriptions for complete health, evolution and enlightenment.” So we can all just pack it up, I guess. Climate change, Ebola — thank goodness everything’s taken care of.

It doesn’t feel safe when you want to know for sure what will work for you and someone else, and you suspect that you can’t. Will you double down on the certainty that polarizes your gut and your community? Will you turn the lab coat into a torture bib, and the dhoti into an angel’s garment? Or vice-versa?

In the end, the doctor and the sage worth their titles tell you the same maddening but ultimately liberating thing: you need help to see yourself clearly, and no method is complete. But which of them will be transparent, look you in the eye, make you feel heard, and make the methods you will explore together open-source? Which one will empower you with the tools to build evidence you can really share? In your moment of need, will they shake hands with each other at your bedside?

30 Comments

  • Psychiatric medications in general are overprescribed in the West and not only does it not work but in many cases the risks of side-effects far outweigh the benefits. I have suffered from anxiety since as a teenager and I have used both anti-anxiety meds and alcohol to cope with it. And yes, they address the symptoms but the moment you are off them the symptoms come back(sometimes much worse than before). Also over time you develop tolerance and your doses need to be adjusted. But the bigger problem that I had with these meds is that they numbed me out and disconnected me from a part of myself. In hindsight that dissociation caused me more pain and suffering than the symptoms themselves.

    What really seems to work for me is cognitive therapy along with yoga and meditation. Yoga and meditation are actually cognitive therapy modalities in themselves. Where asana practice and sitting meditation is perhaps lacking is the inter-personal aspect of therapy. Traditionally that gap was bridged by the yamas and niyamas(in the case of Yoga) and bodhisattva training(in the case of Buddhism). For us modern people CBT and DBT can play that role. I would recommend CBT/DBT+ yoga + meditation over psychiatric medications(even to those who feel that they really need them) any day.

    Also you say that there is a stigma against psychiatric medications. That may be true but there is a bigger stigma against “psychiatric disorders” and that’s far more harmful. This stigma causes more suffering than the actual symptoms. And the medical industry uses that stigmatization to reap multi-billion dollar profits. No, we are not meant to be happy at all times but yes, we should accept ourselves, as we are, at all times.

    But this is not to say I am against all western medicine. In some cases western medicine works very well and there are no alternatives.

    The tragedy is not that we are trying to use these ancient tools as a substitute for pharmaceuticals. The tragedy is that we are trying to use these tools to perpetuate our self-concepts(of who we think we should be), just as we are doing with the meds. And that’s the main problem I have with the original article – she has a narrow idea of what kind of person a yoga teacher should be. To quote one of my teachers – “We don’t want to get beyond samsara. We just want to get better at it”.

    • The whole reason yoga exists is to overcome samsara and achieve moksha. To use yoga in any other way is to not fully embrace it as a technology. If I can shine a light in a room to see what is in it and it’s contours, aiding you in navigating the room, should you then settle on using the dimmer switch and not using the totality of the light? That is very disappointing. The teacher should emphasize that she is using a mutated form of yoga.

    • I think you make some very good points. But why are you recommending anything to anyone on the basis of personal experience and uncited claims, i.e.: “This stigma causes more suffering that the actual symptoms”? Isn’t that what Behl is doing?

      • Here are some citations to back up my points-

        1. http://harvardmagazine.com/2006/07/psychiatry-by-prescripti.html
        2. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/prescribing.aspx
        3. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/30/opinion/psychotherapys-image-problem.html
        4. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/health/policy/06doctors.html?pagewanted=all

        I took the route of therapy based on a friend’s personal experience. So I have no problem sharing mine and making recommendations based on that. Big Pharma has deep pockets and funds a lot of research(see #3 above). Since there is no equivalent Big Therapy or Big Yoga or Big Dharma, if my personal experience can counter that influence, even in a minuscule way, that would be a good thing. Also I know that your readers won’t take my words as gospel. They will use it as one of the many inputs(if at all) in their decision making process; as they should.

        • Thanks for the sources. So making recommendations (“I would recommend CBT/DBT+ yoga + meditation over psychiatric medications (even to those who feel that they really need them) any day” is a rhetorical strategy on your part. It’s the “even to those who feel that they really need them” that gets me. This makes the experience of clinical depression, for example, into a purely subjective phenomenon.

          • While the pain a depressed person experiences is very real, the diagnosis of “clinical depression”, as it is diagnosed today, *is* largely subjective. To quote the Harvard Magazine article –

            “There is no such thing as real depression, Kessler says. The question is: are the symptoms clinically significant enough to treat? The answer depends on whether we have a clinically effective way of treating it.

            Chemical remedies thus play a role in measuring and defining mental disorders. But skeptics warn that if clinicians’ mere ability to treat symptoms identifies something as illness, disease categories will continue to expand while doctors’ understanding of what they are treating will remain imprecise.”

          • Nomenclature and categorization is always problematic, I agree. But we have to distinguish between “subjective” i.e., “my personal experience is valid enough to put forward recommendations” and “intersubjective”, i.e., “my personal experience compared and contrasted against others and contextualized within available research engages me in an open question.”

  • Because I’m too lazy to write an original comment (partly because I’m clinically depressed and not currently on antidepressants…since, even though they work, they also have side-effects involving…ummmm, I don’t think you really wanna know about that), I’m cutting-and-pasting one I left on Hemalayaa’s Facebook page: “Speaking as one of the people who was upset by your earlier post, I’m grateful and humbled to see such a gracious, heartfelt, honest response. (For the record, I didn’t attack you here or on the blog, though I made some very snarky remarks on a re-posting of it elsewhere). I think it might be useful to look to the larger context to see where all the anger comes from. Personally, it seems I’m always reading otherwise insightful books by revered Buddhist teachers who throw around the word “depression” in a way that makes it clear that they think it’s simply a synonym for being a little bit bummed out (at the moment, I’m reading an otherwise really good book by Chogyam Trungpa, who does that constantly). Worse, I read interviews in major publications with major yoga gurus with millions of followers who flippantly say “stop taking your antidepressants and do yoga instead” (that’s pretty close to an exact quote from none other than Bikram Choudhury). It makes me want to scream at them to stop talking and educate themselves before they kill somebody. And that’s not even mentioning all of the best selling authors in the alternative healing field making big bucks telling people that everything in their lives will be fine if they just give up gluten. Okay, I’m being a bit flippant with that last one, but I think a lot of people in the community who suffer from depression feel the same maddening frustration with seeing our often-debilitating, sometimes deadly, disease reduced to “something we all experience every day.” There’s so much that’s wonderful happening in the yoga world, and yet there are dangerous blind spots, and this is a big one. So, basically, there’s a lot of justifiable rage out here toward all of that. And, a couple of days ago, you had the misfortune of finding yourself with of that rage directed straight at you. Ultimately, you may have performed a real service by providing a forum to get all of these bottled-up thoughts and feelings out there so that we can have an educational dialogue. We all live and (hopefully) learn.”

  • As a practitioner of yoga and ayurveda, I am saddened by this blog post and the lack of faith in the vedic sciences. Vedic sciences should be used alongside western allopathic medicine to treat the whole person. As someone who has struggled with depression (someone else’s determination, not mine) for a quarter of a century and even had surgery post a suicide attempt, I am of the belief that medication is to be used sparingly and only to enable someone to more fully engage with other therapies. Chemical imbalances are the result of thoughts, words and deeds and are best corrected via the same things. Western medicine falls short with their reductionist band-aid and I think we need to call that system out and demand better care.

    • “Chemical imbalances are the result of thoughts, words and deeds and are best corrected via the same things” is an enormous claim I’d be interested in seeing you back up, for the sake of those on which you practice Ayurveda.

  • I am more than happy to provide an array on this topic. Ayurveda posits cause and effect, however, understanding what this means requires a shift in paradigm. Yogic sciences, of which, Ayurveda is based is only fully understood when one has studied Samkhya, and because I assume you have not, I will try to reference materials that allude to the same conclusion via a western perspective. Here is a place to start. Please continue with any questions you may have.

    http://www.clinical-depression.co.uk/depression-faq/is-depression-caused-by-chemical-imbalance/

    http://innerself.com.au/archive/articles/sa/sa007/asa007-depression_ayurveda.html

    • Thanks for the assumption. I’ve studied Samkhya plenty, and it’s brilliant, but it offers nothing beyond poetic correlations between phenomena. How could it, being so old? Nothing in yoga literature establishes causation: there aren’t even any definable terms. Establishing causation is witheringly difficult in any paradigm, but impossible in a system that identifies polysemic quantities like “prana” etc. The post you’re commenting on addresses epistemology. Can we stick to that? Your references “via a western perspective” come from an Ayurveda marketer and two hypnotists. Both make claims, but neither cite evidence external to their field. I don’t have any other questions, really.

  • The Ashtanga Hridaya tells us that any pathology can be solved by understanding how it manifest. Manifestation is governed by the principles of Heena yoga- Too little of something, Atiyoga- Too much of something, or Mithya Toga- Distorted, wrong or abnormal; and, the principles of Kaal (time), Artha (sense) and Karma (action, represented in three forms: intention, speech and physical action). Imbalances in the doshas manifest all disease. Diseases can be attributed to internal factors, such as imbalances governed by diet and lifestyle, or via external causes such as a physical wound caused by another person. The categories for classification of where a disease manifests relate to the Kaya (the body) and Manas (the mind, a particular aspect of the mind; remember the mind is made up of four parts). Diseases of the mind occur due to rajas or tamas. These energies are present in all things, thoughts, words and deeds. Our mind is spoiled by either karma from a previous life, an external affliction as described above, or by wrong actions being done at the wrong time and in the wrong place. This is the whole of it.

    • The whole of what? Ayurveda? Maybe. Is that enough? No. This is what the post is trying to navigate. Ayurveda provides an amazing historical starting point for empirical technique. But if it leaves you with the conviction in 2015 that “karma from a previous life” is a root cause of mental illness, it has become for you simply incompatible with contemporary science, which utilizes testable/falsifiable claims. What you present is elegant and traditional. But “diseases of the mind occur due to rajas or tamas” is not much different from “people become sick because of God’s will.”

  • “This is the whole of it” sums it very neatly up where ancient wisdom and modern science collide.
    Science interprets the latest point of knowledge as a signpost to further knowledge. For Ancient wisdom it is the aesthetic endpoint, tertium non datur.
    Matthew, respect for your efforts to expand yogic knowledge to a contemporary level.

  • I follow Sanatana Dharma which may be the case for such differences. Things you relegate to poetics, I see as nature. God has no will in my beliefs. We chose our lives because we believe we have things we desire to still learn. A mental challenge, caused by past karma, should that even be the case, is an opportunity to grow and learn. Please represent yourself accordingly when speaking of yoga and ayurveda. You do not seem to believe in the science behind it.

    • I totally understand that you have a religious perspective: this is where our differences lie. The word “science” means something fairly specific now, involving methods and controls that are unavailable to yoga and ayurveda. Some forms of naturalistic (less-religiously-inflected) yoga/ayurveda may have been scientific by virtue of primal empirical impulse, centuries ago. Today, there is no science in yoga/ayurveda, and scientists struggle to study it.

      I think it’s ethically imperative that Ayurvedic practitioners get clear on this. Otherwise they wind up telling people that chemical imbalances are caused by thoughts, words, and deeds. This is terribly and dangerously incomplete.

  • I welcome understanding your view, but I just don’t know where you are coming from. Understanding brings us together, and I do not wish to be a part of the this side versus that side debate. There must be commonality somewhere.

    • Sure. I think the commonality is that you and I both appreciate yoga/ayurveda. I’m just very particular about what their limitations are, and aware of how dangerous, reductionary, and psychologically hazing metaphysical claims can be.

    • If you think about why you capitalized all four terms I think you’ll get what I mean. They are all transcendental signifiers utilized, usually unconsciously, to resist inquiry.

  • “rajas” “tamas” “causal” “subtle energy” “purusa” “god” “karma”are representational symbols of a specific meaning construction.
    We begin (through modern science) to comprehend the processes a. why beings are capable for such constructions and b. which fundamental restrictions result by means of the underlying material processes.
    To ignore our embedded existence by escaping in blissful ignorance isn’t a solution.
    If there is any transformation of human life into mutual respect/ unconditioned love/enligthenment possible than only through thorough modern science adressing the claims ancient wisdom made.
    Granted that at time disrespect, ignorance, greed and agression held the knife to our throats but that is the situation since a special ape was able to start a fire.

    • It’s not about Hinduism, but an epistemology that admits metaphysical concepts as primary.

      If you believe modern clinical biomedicine (“allopathy” is a term of derision coined by the founder of homeopathy, so it’s hard to use that word with any seriousness now) is as inextricable from Christianity as Yoga/Ayurveda is from Indian religiosity and metaphysics in general, I don’t know what to say. Except that biomedicine arises historically in part as a rejection of spiritualist understandings of the material world. In traditional Ayurveda, spiritualist concepts such as karma are foundational.

  • Yoga is a continued state of being that results in clear seeing. This state is no less available to us as it was to the ancients, if we can keep it simple and follow the instructions carefully and with dedication.

    This state of pure seeing allows us the faculty of exploring the grandure and minutiae of all that’s available to us in the realm of life, much of which is hidden. This sight is intended to last beyond the life of the mundane body and quite possibly be our souls only true occupation.

    For the record, on the record, everything else is thechnique, application and commentary. Science nor the Vedas are the source of looking at a thing long enough to know its properties and act or not act accordingly. Contemplation and application of action based on what is seen is a power limited to the human alone. Science and Agama are accumulated recollections based on observations that can be resubstantiated in form, if the formula were accurately reenacted. This is true for medicine and dharma alike.

    If a physician looks at me, applies the state of yoga to thier being and “knows” what ails me, how to cure me, and I take the medicine, who cares if they are Jonas Saulk or Patanjali. Both have merit, both are siddhas.

    I will point out here that there is not a “science” besides yoga that is doing much to heal the ills of soul before it passes to the realm of death. Nor one that teaches how to directly experience death as yoga does. This is where modern yoga fails miserably because it fails to explain that we are more than bodies destined for happiness in a commercial and material sense. In this case, I’ll take Patanjali over Saulk any day.

    Thanks for the post- cheers, Casey in Portland, Oregon

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