The Problem of Pain in Yoga
This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help.
You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.
“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.
According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.
But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?
Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.
Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.
But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”
King and Queen No More? Headstand, Shoulderstand, and the Yoga of Experience and Evidence
This was originally published at Yoga International. Thank you to Kathryn Ashworth and the editorial team there.
Framing the Problem
Leena Miller Cressman, my colleague at Queen Street Yoga in Kitchener, Ontario, recently posted an explanation for why the studio doesn’t teach headstand or shoulderstand, and why she has taken the further—some would say radical—step of strongly requesting that students not practice these postures in the studio space, even outside of class time.
Her reasoning goes like this:
- The oft-touted health benefits of the “king and queen” of asanas are not sufficiently supported by medical literature.
- Most North Americans present with device-induced forward head carriage, which heightens the risk of bearing weight on the cervical spine.
- Cressman’s personal experience of pain associated with these postures has convinced her that even high levels of yoga training (compared to industry standards) have not equipped her or her staff to adequately assess the spinal health of her students, or how to gauge the effects of these poses as practice proceeds.
- If the postures aren’t instructed in classes, her faculty can’t be assured that students who improvise them before, during, or after class time have any training at all.
- Inversion show-offism can either intimidate or encourage others to crave or try the poses, also without supervision. (This fifth point is not fully fleshed out in the post itself, but Cressman has confirmed her thoughts on it with me via email.)
Continue reading “King and Queen No More? Headstand, Shoulderstand, and the Yoga of Experience and Evidence”
WAWADIA: Six Lenses for Studying MPY (draft excerpt)
The following essay is featured in the full prospectus, released Nov 1 in support of this IGG campaign to help fund publication.
Six Lenses for Studying MPY: Phenomenology, Biology, Intersubjectivity, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Cross-Cultural Studies
This project began as a record of injuries and injury contexts in the culture of modern postural yoga (MPY). Along the way, it has evolved into a broader meditation upon the body in our disembodied age: its timeless struggles and pains, the meanings of effort, pleasure, sacrifice, aloneness, merging, attachment, and non-attachment. It’s a meditation on how we push and pull against our flesh, knowing somehow that this inner split we feel is not quite right. How we reach out beyond our skins, as if from a chrysalis. How we reach in to find sensation, or memories of sensations, revealing themselves along an infinite scale from the blissful to the abject.
In the process of this study, I’ve reached out for as much theoretical help as I can find, and tried to view the scene through as many lenses as possible. I’ll describe some of these lenses here, briefly, to give a sense of what’s going on behind the curtain, and the concerns that have driven my questioning technique in the interviewing process. All of these lenses have limitations, which means that I don’t apply any of them exclusively or rigidly. I’m actually interested in their flaws as much as their strengths, because the flaws show me where more study and more humility are required. Each lens can only hold a part of the story about how we hurt and heal through yoga. The fuller stories, of course, are told by people, and I’ll try to let those take centre stage.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y natural point of departure will be the phenomenological view. This is a commitment to examining, as far as is possible, the immediate sensory data available in any given experience, before applying any theory at all. My own fascination with asana began with feeling it in my flesh: the sweetness of movement and strength, the frustration and pain at the limit of movement and strength, the endless dialogue between voluntary and involuntary actions, and the swell of my breath. I wouldn’t be writing this book were it not for these quickening sensations. Asana was the field of mindfulness through which I rediscovered and then remapped myself after the disembodiment of an awkward adolescence and the numbness of depression.
When I ask myself “What am I actually doing in asana?”, my attention seems to focus on the sound of that last word—āsana—which holds a cascade of internal and external textures that have poured through me, overtaken me, and proven my very existence to myself. When I say the word, I don’t think of posture or forms or teaching or teachers or ideals or goals. I think of actions that invite feelings and feelings that invite actions. The context seems irrelevant: these actions/feelings can flow equally freely when I’m alone in my study, or in a packed class in which the very walls seem to vibrate and sweat. The phenomenological approach allows me to pay attention to what something seems to be for me, before I get distracted by the question of what it means to me or others—or worse, what it should mean.
It’s an approach that’s coherent with a theme that hums like a drone throughout the literature of Ha·tha Yoga: concepts are a weak starting point for knowledge. The Hathapradīpikā, for example, sidelines all discussions of cosmology and ethics in favour of concentrating upon bodily realities: how to cook for your belly, how to clean your digestive organs, how to position your limbs and manipulate your breath to stimulate the most revelatory bodily responses. Some commentators go so far as to say that considerations of morality, for example, can further confuse the ambivalence of the alienated, non-present mind, and that there’s no use in thinking about what the body should do before one clearly feels it as a site of mystic discovery, and is fully awake to its possibilities. The idea is that appropriate philosophy will naturally flow from a mind first tamed and then vitalized by the celebrating flesh. More on this in a bit.
But any study that stops at the phenomenological level wallows in the wish that experience can somehow be separated from meaning. As many recent commentators in yoga culture have pointed out, the meaning of every experience—especially those that seem to convince us of their universality—are always filtered through the pre-existing psycho-social constructs of the practitioners. Yogis the world over might be feeling similar bodily sensations in practice, but this commonality will in no way predict a shared story. The strength of the phenomenological method—to value feeling over meaning—is also its outer weakness. It forgets, purposefully, that the feelings generated depend on the environmental and social contexts that produce them. Its inner weakness is its focus on the irreducibly subjective. Phenomenology tells me what I think I feel myself to be alone, when what I really am is the complex product of being with other people. Further, phenomenology will only ever reflect my experience back to myself within the confines of my own private language. I may learn to share this language artfully, but those who hear and read me will have far more access to my literary affect than to “me.”
Another profound problem with this starting point—and one which I’ll examine closely in this book, because it relates directly to our assumptions about pain and injury—is that there are often strong differences between what we feel is happening within us and what is actually happening. People who have come close to dying of hypothermia report warm blissful sensations as they relaxed into the icy water. Soldiers feel surges of confidence and vigour immediately after sustaining life-threatening wounds. If they make it to the field hospital, they will often decline pain medication for the first several days. The pain of an anorectic’s hunger can flicker into mystical pleasure. Most cancer sufferers are completely unaware of even substantial malignancies, because cancer cells do not provoke inflammatory responses, and cause no pain at all until they accumulate to such a degree that they create internal mechanical pressures that tissue and organ structures can no longer tolerate. All too often, our senses deceive us, even when our bodies are our focal points of mindful reflection. The best phenomenology can feel the body intimately, while utterly failing to know it.
This poses a sticky problem for the yoga practitioner, who is repeatedly told to “listen to the body” or “attune to the breath” in the hope of avoiding the stresses that lead to injury. But when we ask people to “listen to the body”, we just can’t know what they are hearing. We cannot say, “Here is the precise point at which a person’s effort and discomfort is turning into the pain of tissue damage.” And often, surprisingly, they can’t either. This means that all of the desired sensations evoked by asana can be pursued to the point of injury, while yielding many gifts along the way. Feeling open or extended or aligned is no guarantee of the health that most practitioners expect to come from practice.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is where the nuts and bolts of the biomechanical and neuroscientific views come into play, to supplement the poetry of internal sensation with evidenced fact.
Let’s take the condition of “hypermobility” as an example. Subjective sensation alone will not tell a person that she’s hypermobile. She may discover it by comparing herself to other movers, or by visiting a kinesiologist who uses a clinical tool like the Beighton Scale, which measures the range of extension in key joints. If her hypermobility is the result of a genetic condition such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, neither her subjectivity nor physical examination alone will reveal this, unless she’s a microbiologist who can evaluate how she produces collagen for her joints.
To take a more generally applicable example, we cannot tell by sensation alone how our cartilage is managing the stress of daily life, let alone the pressures and twistings of asana. Articular cartilage is specifically evolved to evade nociception, or the perception of pain. A practitioner can fly through the strenuous sequences of Ashtanga Yoga for years, sustaining soft-tissue injuries from time to time that heal up well enough, while remaining completely unaware of the deterioration of their cartilage, until sudden and catastrophic pain erupts when it finally gives way, and bone meets bone with a sickening grind.
To date, most yoga education, because it has proceeded on phenomenological grounds, often bolstered by myopic spiritualism, has been woefully ignorant of the most basic facts surrounding the core actions of movement that many forms of practice demand. What is a safe range of motion, and how do we detect it in the individual? (Kinesiologists know. Most personal trainers know.) Do muscles actually lengthen via stretching? (Strangely, no.) Is steady breath really a foolproof method for maintaining safety in a pose? (Nope.) Is it actually healthful to do the exact same set of movements at the same time period every day? (Most sports medicine people agree that cross-training is essential for structural integrity.) What’s the actual mechanism by which our tolerance for pain increases? (The philosophy of mindfulness can help, but we really have to understand neurology before approaching this question with integrity.)
You’ll search yogic and Ayurvedic literature in vain for anything but poetic allusions to these questions, not to mention answers. Compared to what contemporary biomechanics and neuroscience has to offer, yoga seems ill-equipped to study itself. It must reach beyond the thrall of subjective reverie and its pre-biomedical heritage if it wants answers that can improve the safety and sustainability of practice.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s soon as the phenomenon of yoga practice becomes a conversation between teacher and student, one practitioner and others, or between yoga theory and other disciplines, we’re using an intersubjective view. This is the commitment to understanding all thoughts and feelings as arising through relationship between self and other. The learning of subjective mindfulness widens immeasurably when we consider how even our capacity to be mindful has been modeled for us by others, how our sense of hidden internal reality is something that forms with the realization that the other person has an interiority that we can’t access. The intersubjective lens widens away from the real estate of the body-alone-on-the-mat to take in the classroom of the studio and social life. In Threads of Yoga (2012), I summarized it this way:
“Intersubjectivity” is the philosophical and psychological acknowledgement that experience and meaning are co-created through human relationship. It is an advancement from the “isolated mind” moods of earlier philosophies (Descartes), early psychologies (Freud), and most of Western science prior to quantum theory— all of which presume clear boundaries between the observer and the observed, the “I” and the “you”. Intersubjectivity posits that although we often feel separated from each other in private bubbles of meaning, our fundamental condition is one of togetherness and unconscious empathy, in which we intuit that the interior lives of those we are with are similar to our own, that the “you” I encounter is another “I” looking back at a “you”, who is myself.
The intersubjective sphere begins to account for how we learn from each other, from how we think of ourselves to how we move. It is the realm of parents and children, teachers and students, friends, enemies, and neutral players. It describes every mode of being as a being-with. In asana, it would focus on the fact that other than the few hardwired movement reflexes (startling, rooting, suckling) that we are born with, the vast majority of our movement knowledge comes from our capacity to mirror others, most likely through the primal functions of our mirror neurology. This means that no one learns the often unnatural and counter-intuitive shapes of asana without mimicking what one sees others do. This in turn means that the asanas we learn are not even our own until our interest in mirroring has been exhausted and we begin to create new forms, driven by more original stimuli. Before this happens, we have to acknowledge that asana practice is not private, personal, or purely subjective. Asana occurs between bodies that generate their subjectivity by sharing it.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough I have a lot of reservations about it, I find that the psychoanalytic view can form a useful bridge between the internal sensations of asana and their intersubjective context. The psychoanalytic mode weaves a rich story of internal and internalized pressures that resonate loudly with the struggles my interview subjects present in their stories from the mat. The scope of its literature and practice is vast, and by turns pompous, myopic, and searingly insightful. Any study of yoga or mindfulness practice would be impoverished by ignoring it.
Of primary importance in the psychoanalytic consideration of asana is the idea that for as much as we long for “union” (with ourselves, with God, with a beloved), we are also terrified of the imagined effects of union upon the coherence of the selves we know. Every desire both conceals and reveals a fear. We want love, be we are not sure what it means or what we must sacrifice to have it.
Sigmund Freud may not have set a strong personal example for the modern yogic ideals of attunement, contentment, bodily awareness, geniality, and conceptual flexibility, but he did offer a crucial insight for all practitioners to consider. He critiqued the goal of mystical, “peak-experience” communion that is shared by most religious and yogic traditions as a longing to regress to an infantile state—for a “yoga” with the mother, prior to the stress of individuation. Today, he would likely say that yoga is fantasized—even hallucinated by the most neurotic adepts—as a state of oceanic interdependency in all aspects of our being, something that we unconsciously remember from the womb, and something to which we can never return, unless we concoct a metaphysical womb beyond the world that will someday receive us in unconditional warmth and love. This thought alone casts a poignant shadow over the yogic effort, while shedding light on how a kind of existential frustration might be a constant if hidden companion on our mats.
Strangely, the ascetic view of Patanjali’s time intersects with Freud’s cynicism about our happiest goals. In the Yoga Sutras, for example, there is no return to the oneness of the womb, or anything fulfilling in material life at all. Our best bet, it is said, is to seek for something beyond birth, contact, intimacy, change, and death. The entire thrust of this “classical” era of practice encourages the practitioner away from sensually immersive and unitary states, and to withdraw from action and social contact into a realm of perfectly isolated (kaivalya) observation. The text invokes a kind of “death drive”, to use Freud’s idea. Patanjali would suggest that the pleasure of psychosomatic integration—arguable the primary goal for most MPY practitioners—is an unstable answer to the sufferings of life, which can only be overcome by complete dissociation from everything we would know as being human. While we seem to feel in our bodies that some kind of somatic integration is possible, the psychoanalytic view suggests another way of looking at the ‘enlightenment’ goal we seek. If it really is a fantasized mirage beyond the horizon, we might wonder if we’ve been chasing it off the cliff of personal injury.
At its best, psychoanalytic literature provides rich insight into the process of self-formation, both through and against the development of an independent body. It tracks the early childhood attachments, and strategies for self-soothing and the acceptable expression of desire. It is very concerned with how a sense of selfhood displaces, satisfies, or neutralizes bodily needs, and whether resentment or even enmity towards the body can evolve through this process. It offers multiple narratives for the origin of self and body images: the internal ideals and disappointments that mediate both solitary and social actions. What is yoga, if not the active adjustment or even manipulation of our self- and body-images?
Psychoanalytic insights into how early family structures influence the formation of the self now have widespread cultural currency. We know that how a child is cared for or neglected, how her space is invaded or respected, how she is made to feel guilty for existing, or like she’s the very centre of the universe—this is crucial history for understanding the kind of body and world she feels herself to occupy as an adult. If yoga is pursued by many today in an attempt to feel comfortable in their skins, well-regulated in relationship, mindful of their needs without feeling needy, interdependent as opposed to co-dependent—the broad findings of psychoanalysis can be very useful. But I’ll focus on just one of its threads here.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott described how a child who realizes that the parental object (usually framed as the mother, although today the gender-role essentialism of this position is receiving justified critique) cannot fulfill her every need may choose to interpret those needs as unworthy or even shameful. To manage this shame, the child learns to repress her needs by creating a “false self”, who masters the performance of a cheerful, apparently self-sufficient persona, refusing to display any need that would inconvenience the neglectful parent.
We know this person: nothing is ever wrong in her life. Even the wrong things are welcomed, divine challenges. Not only is it illegal for her to be publically miserable, but she dedicates herself to evangelizing happiness to every dark corner that dares to remind her of what she’s repressed.
Decades later, in her amazing work on the psychology of anorexia nervosa, Susie Orbach extended Winnicott’s idea of the “false self” into the idea of a “false body”. She suggests that as soon as the body reveals itself as needy, vulnerable, farting, menstruating, asymmetrical, or in pain, a sense of shame might overcome the person that can only be managed by fantasizing a body that must be incapable of producing these dark things. The false body is toxically vitalized by the anxious hope to please others through the performance of beauty and strength. The “truer” body—that vessel of aches and pains, fear and trembling, insomnia, frustrated urges and uncertain purpose—doesn’t go away, of course. It is still the lived-in body, wearing the fantasy as a disguise.
[W]here the developing child has not had a chance to experience its physicality as good, wholesome and essentially all right, it has little chance to live in an authentically experienced body. A false body is then fashioned which conceals the feelings of discomfort and insecurity with regard to the hidden or undeveloped ‘inner body’. The ‘false body’ is, like [Winnicott’s] ‘false self’, precarious. It works as a defense against the unaccepted embryonic real body. Again, like the false self, it is malleable. In attempting to gain external acceptance, the “false body’ is fluid and manipulable. The woman in the ‘false body’ becomes used to trying to reform it along approved-of lines. It does not provide the individual with a stable core but a physical plasticity expressing a complex of inner feelings.
It’s all so yoga. Orbach uses the language of “inner body” and “embryonic real body” (and later, “real self”) in opposition to the “false body”. This would seem to mirror many metaphysical streams in yoga that locate the source of bodily suffering in the repression or distortion of that subtler internal body that is closer to a real self. In many forms, yoga seems to be saying that the illusory physical form you identify with distracts you from the wounded energetic pattern that made it. Turn your attention to that wounded inner being, therefore. When you see what it actually is, it might dance freely.
Orbach suggests that in the person with anorexia this tangle of real and false bodies leads to tragically divisive behaviour:
She is caught in a tension. The separation from her embryonic self is at the same time an attempt at protecting it and an expression of her destructive impulse towards it. The push towards the latter comes out of conviction that the real self is bad, dangerous and poisonous. The real self has needs, and the mother’s early failure to meet these needs are the proof of their ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘the badness inside’. The needs are what send people away and the needs are the reason that the person is not adequately related to. But since she does indeed live in her body, the bad object encroaches insistently, she cannot be released from it. (Orbach, loc. 1732-1747)
Here’s what I think: some people might be getting hurt in yoga because they are practicing in the bodies they fantasize about, instead of the bodies they actually have. Bodies they fantasize expressing a happiness that is not truly there. Bodies they fantasize as expansive when they actually feel like retreating, or expressive when they feel choked. What happens to the tissues when the mind presses them into the performance of a fictional suppleness and strength? Can the fantasized body push the real body, the inner body, too far, too fast?
A brief personal example: I had a chronic hamstring injury for over a year that came in part by working towards Hanumanasana. As I worked, I would often visualize Hanuman’s heroic leap from the Himalayas to Lanka and fantasize about that flight, that buoyant freedom. The wonder and devotion I felt in my heart could at times overwhelm the pain in the back of my thigh. But at other times, the pain seemed to amplify my devotion. Whose body was I practicing with, and towards? Is Hanuman’s body any different as a fantasy object than the body of objectified beauty?
What a tangle of matter and ghost, as Leonard Cohen sings.
The advice of Patanjali seems to warn exactly against working with bodily fantasies. The path of the Sutras proposes that the inner body of memory and habit emerging from socialization must be straightened out first through good ethics and interpersonal hygiene. The yamas and niyamas are directed at the subconscious patterns that generate a tense, distracted, and delusional gross self. Once these are pacified, the argument goes, the gross self of the body (a formerly “false body”, perhaps) can be repurposed through asana and breathwork towards a new type of interiority that goes beyond the psychosocial target of psychoanalysis, penetrating into the very heart of what it means to be a conscious subject.
But modern postural yoga really doesn’t pay that much attention to Patanjali’s developmental arc, in part because it is far more influenced by the argument put forward by the more impatient Hatha literature. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, presents the gross body as the first site of work and revelation. Without exploring the body first through asana we risk amplifying our internal splits by simply paying attention to them. In Saraswati’s preface to Muktibhodananda’s commentary on the HYP the Swami states:
Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana is discipline; pranayama is discipline; kumbhaka (retention of breath) is self-control . . . . Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity towards yourself. There are not two minds, there is one mind trying to split itself into two. One mind wants to break the discipline and the other mind wants to maintain the discipline. You can find this split in everybody. When this split becomes greater, then we call it schizophrenia. (1985, 6)
I agree with Saraswati in a general sense. But I don’t think his position is adequate if we want to explore the question of what kind of internal or external authority is disciplining the body, and according to what ideals, and whether the body we’re practicing with is the one we actually have, or the one we want to have.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n many ways, psychoanalysis might be a fractured and greasy lens through which to view MPY. Firstly, its overt atheism—while perhaps a refreshing antidote to the metaphysical jargon that can predominate yoga discourse—will be discordant with the sentiments of many practitioners. Secondly, the claustrophobic thicket of psychoanalytic language does not seem harmonic with the expansive and celebratory sentiments of yogic aspirations. Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and even Julia Kristeva, I imagine, would feel pretty uncomfortable at a kirtan.
Most importantly, using psychoanalytic principles to view the drives, desires, and frustrations of yoga presents a bitter political problem that isn’t going away any time soon. The primarily western scholars who, with varying degrees of transparency, use it to investigate yoga and the Indian religious cultures that employ it have been viciously accused of perpetuating the legacy of colonialism in academic and clinical form by infantilizing, sexualizing, and pathologizing key teachers and the core tenets of practice. It’s a cold war, with one side calling for academic freedom, and the other calling for an end to cultural appropriation and distortion. From a (self-serving) psychoanalytic perspective, the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History over her secular analyses of class and gender realities in Indian spirituality, or the vitriol directed at Jeffrey Kripal over his suggestion that Ramakrishna might have been homosexual or pedophilic, are signs of a nationalistic ego-structure defending itself against the scandalous revelation of unconscious drives. From the perspective of both Hindutva defenders, and secular scholars who attack Doniger and Kripal’s philology and sourcing, their work is just another way in which an empire dehumanizes its cultural and economic colony, stealing its stories to validate its own perverted and cynical view of humanity.
As much as I’m able, I would like to avoid this open wound by being clear that I’m conservatively using psychoanalytic concepts to investigate the motivations of global MPY practitioners of many cultures and denominations, including those who profess no denomination at all. I’m not applying it to a heritage generally, but to the experience of individuals in a transnational movement. I also acknowledge that the concepts and biases of psychoanalysis may be anathema to Indian wisdom traditions in many ways. But there is one harmony: neither paradigm is scientific. Despite the pretensions of Freud to psychoanalytic “science”, and the scientific dreams of Swamis Vivekananda and Kuvalyananda, neither psychoanalysis nor yoga offer us the kinds of evidence that builds airplanes or proves the effectiveness of vaccines. The language of ego, id, libido, thanatos and cathexis is as elliptical as the language of prana, nadi, chakra, ahamkara and atman. Psychoanalysis offers a poetry of tensions and alienations to shadow yoga’s poetry of intermingling essences and potentials. I think each poetics can learn from the other.
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]erhaps the most withering criticism leveled at psychoanalysis is that it both dramatizes and normalizes the privileged lives of those who can afford it. In the words of one commentator, it serves the dubious purpose of “making bourgeois lives seem fascinating”, largely by ignoring the material realities of social power. Here, (the) feminist view(s)can provide(s) a foundational critical analysis of power, inequality, objectification and overdetermination through which many other forms of critique flow.
The story of MPY is a story of re-embodiment as a response to industrialization and technologization. It’s a story of the development of a non-denominational global spirituality. It’s a story of the evolution of self-help movements predicated upon “holism”. It’s the story of resistance to biomedical hegemony and the clinical gaze.
But it is also a story of how women have largely taken the reigns of a globalized psycho-somatic and spiritual culture for themselves, to find new expressions of strength and bodily purpose. For this reason alone, MPY tells a feminist story. And of course, any subculture that consists of 80% women must be interpreted through a feminist lens.
Feminist theory provides sharp tools for investigating how yoga has been and still can provide resistance to caste structure, religious dogmatism, gender essentialism (and essentialism of all types), as well as oppressive interpretations of the body. Its modern usefulness is all the more poignant given that yoga emerges from the strongly patriarchal culture of India, which was declared in 2012 by a panel of human rights experts to be one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Feminism, like yoga, shows up whenever the dominant paradigm reveals its cruelty. Both can mount fierce challenges to hierarchies of oppression and how they are internalized by the individual psyche as habits of self-and-other violence. Feminism isn’t just about women. It’s about finding new sources of power in the body, in self-image, and in community, by challenging vertical power structures that for too long have tried to tell people who they are. “Visionary feminism,” as bell hooks writes, “is a wise and loving politics . . . [a] commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys.”
One of the many important contributions feminism has to offer the study of MPY is in tracking and encouraging the pedagogical shift from the patriarchal/authoritarian to the collective/communitarian. Through scandals and the righteous cynicism that follow, then older guru-based teaching paradigms are crumbling, giving way in fits and starts to community-based systems of horizontal learning. The obstruction of this trend by the vertical forces of consumerism and commodification is a further target of feminist analysis. Feminist critics are also very well-equipped to address the overlap between yoga optics and the commercial sexualization of women’s bodies. Without the lens of feminism, an examination of yoga culture and its impact on the psyches and tissues of not only women but all people rings hollow. Even the rich disagreements between various strands of feminism—such as the friction between second and third-wave activists over how and in what circumstances women’s sexuality can be a source of empowerment—are instructive, insofar as they show a level of passionate intergenerational debate that is largely absent in current yoga culture.
It’s also from feminist analysis that questions about normative modes of gender identity emerge. Every day, tens of millions of women throughout the world go to the mat to explore, reconcile with, revision and redefine the meanings and purposes of their bodies. As stereotypes of appearance, beauty and reproductive purpose are interrogated, the door opens for other embodiments of gendered or even genderless meaning. It has been the implicit and explicit feminist spaces of MPY, from Vanda Scaravelli’s home studio in Florence to Christi-an Slomka’s Kula Annex in Toronto to Sri Louise’s Underground Yoga Parlour for Self-Knowledge & Social Justice in Oakland to online forums like Be Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga that have opened yoga’s doors to the populations it is perhaps best suited to serve—those who live and express through non-normative bodies, sexualities, identities, and politics.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he final lens is the broadest of all: the cross-cultural studies view. I won’t attempt a synopsis here, but rather list some of the questions, in no particular order, that this lens can begin to address:
Is yoga a cultural heritage, or a global technology? Am I, as a white, western, privileged male, equipped to answer this question for anyone but myself? Do I need to be a Sanskrit scholar to properly engage with the history and philosophy of yoga?
Am I qualified to use a feminist lens to investigate yoga culture?
Does asana (still) have religious or esoteric meaning? Should it? Who has it been meant for, and who is using it now?
How does the guru principle translate across cultures without hideous distortions?
Should yoga instruction be professionalized and regulated, or does this destroy the intimacy at the heart of the learning process?
Is yoga scientific? Can it be medicalized? Can it be tested in a double-blind controlled study, with placebo? If we start calling it a placebo itself, do we degrade the beliefs of those who practice it with religious conviction?
How does the romance of Orientalism influence the drives of non-Indian practitioners?
What kind of devotion can a non-Indian practitioner develop towards Indian deities? What does that devotion feel like?
Are the ideals of medieval Hatha Yoga coherent with now-global ideals of therapeutic self-care?
Was the gymnasium environment at the Mysore Palace where Krishnamacharya began his public asana instruction anything like the modern yoga studio? Did it sanction corporal punishment, and has this influenced the adjustment techniques of MPY? Why did apparently none of the many people who were personally injured by Pattabhi Jois or B.K.S. Iyengar lodge formal complaints with the police of Mysore or Pune?
How does the fictionalization of MPY’s “ancient” roots in the soil of a fetishized India fill an aching void at the heart of an ahistorical and homeless postmodernity?
“The paths are many. The truth is one.” What yoga luminary hasn’t said this, or something like it? Vivekananda, Gandhi, Krishnamacharya, and every yoga teacher influenced by Vedanta—they’ve all said it. They’re referencing the primordial Shiva, who is said to have taught 84,000 paths of yoga, all of which lead to liberation. I’d say that there are just as many interpretive strategies for looking at the impacts of yoga—whichever path is taken—on people’s bodies and minds. But unlike Shiva’s paths, these yogas of interpretation do not all lead to the same place, unless we understand “liberation” to mean the friction and pleasure of continuing conversation within a community struggling to articulate its goals, and to mature.
(page references are for volumes listed in the prospectus bibliography):
This project began . . . “Modern Postural Yoga” is one of the divisions of contemporary practice delineated by Elizabeth de Michelis (2004). Dominated by the techniques of B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhis Jois, it is evolute of the “Modern Psychosomatic Yoga”, taught by Swamis Kuvalyananda and Sivananda, among others, and distinct from the “Modern Meditational Yoga” that is the legacy of Sri Chimnoy and the TM subculture. De Michelis contends that MPY has become a globalized “healing ritual of secular religion.” (252-260)
My natural point of departure . . . “Phenomenology” (the “study of that which appears”) is a philosophical movement dating back to the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and carried forward by Martin Heidegger and the existentialists. Broadly speaking, it attempts to limit metaphysical speculation to accurately record the facts of consciousness. Sokolowski (2000) provides a good primer, but my favourite writer in the field is the charmed Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961).
It’s an approach that’s coherent . . . The main commentary I have in mind regarding the usefulness of morality at the outset of practice is in Saraswati’s preface to Muktibhodananda’s commentary on the HYP (1985): “Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana is discipline; pranayama is discipline; kumbhaka (retention of breath) is self-control . . . . Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity towards yourself. There are not two minds, there is one mind trying to split itself into two. One mind wants to break the discipline and the other mind wants to maintain the discipline. You can find this split in everybody. When this split becomes greater, then we call it schizophrenia.” (6)
But any study that stops at the phenomenological level . . . Be Scofield has led the popular charge here in asserting no necessary connection between yoga practices and social meanings and outcomes. Her response to me over my naïve attempts to connect mindfulness practices to some kind of natural progressive politics is really good: http://www. tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/11/22/the-limitations-of-empathy-a-response-to-matthew-remski/.
Another profound problem with this starting point . . . Reports of the strangely pain-free wounded soldiers—which permanently complicated Descartes’ vision of the nervous system as a simple mechanical relay—come from the field notes of Harry K. Beecher who treated Allied troops returning from the Anzio Beachhead during the winter of 1943-44. The data and its implications are soundly analyzed by Wall (2002, 3), who also presents a wrenching account of the pain of cancer: “Cancer pain is worse than useless. It provides absolutely no protective signal because the disease is far advanced before it starts. Once started, it announces the obvious and, if it goes untreated, it simply adds to the miseries of impending death. Worse, untreated pain accelerates death.” (87) Orbach (1986) is very good on the ambivalence of the anorectic’s pain.
This poses a sticky problem . . . My personal essay on the experience of deep vein thrombosis might be helpful here: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update-8-notes-on-my-hospitalization/.
This is where the nuts and bolts . . . Jess Glenny has been indispensable in helping me understand the subtleties of the label “hypermobility”. http:// movingprayer.wordpress.com/.
To date, most yoga education . . . Paul Grilley’s usage of actual human bones in his presentations of anatomy for yoga instruction have been central to opening the pedagogy to medical epistemology, especially with regard to range-of-motion issues: http://www.paulgrilley.com/bone-photo-gallery. Gil Hedley’s dissection labs are currently attracting flocks of yoga teachers and therapists: http://www. gilhedley.com/ghabout.php. Jules Mitchell’s forthcoming book on the science of stretching will be a game changer. Neil Pearson (2007) is a leading pain researcher for the global yoga community.
As soon as the phenomenon of yoga practice . . . Intersubjectivity is a core topic within the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic literatures. Practical resources of benefit to yoga practitioners and teachers who realize that teaching and learning are mutually influential exchanges that should change teachers as much as learners would include Stern (2004) and Buirski and Haglund (2001). The quote from Remski (2012) is from pages 14-15.
The intersubjective sphere begins . . . The work of D.W. Winnicott (1964, 1965, 1971) is very helpful for understanding mirror-type learning within the dyad of baby and mother. Stein (2007) and Iacoboni (2009) are helpful introductory sources to the mysteries of mirror neurology.
Sigmund Freud may not have set a strong personal example . . . Freud’s views on religion are voluminous and well-scattered. Look for his most sustained infantalization of the mystical experience in Civilization and its Discontents (1961) and Moses and Monotheism (1967).
Strangely, the ascetic view . . . Edwin Bryant’s (2009) description of the Yoga Sutras driving towards “isolation” is pretty conclusive: “Yoga can thus mean that which joins, that is, unties one with the Absolute Truth, and while this translation of the term is popularly found . . . it is best avoided in the context of the Yoga Sutras, since . . . the goal of yoga is not to join, but the opposite: to unjoin, that is, to disconnect purusa from prakriti.” (5)
Psychoanalytic insights . . . The literature here is vast, but a great starting point is Kaplan’s Oneness and Separateness (1978). Bollas’ Being a Character (2013) is also very useful.
The British psychoanalyst . . . Winnicott’s clearest presentation of this idea comes in “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self”, a gem-like 1960 article that was later folded into the 1965 collection. Orbach’s Hunger Strike (1986) is a tour de force that should be required reading for yoga teachers who want a solid feminist understanding of the perils of self-help culture and purification fetishes.
Most importantly, using psychoanalytic principles . . . The subject of cultural appropriation and distortion in global yoga is a tinderbox of passion and polemic. Be Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga website is a good resource: http://www.decolonizingyoga. com/. Roopa Singh’s work with SAAPYA is excellent: http://saapya.wordpress.com/. Doniger’s The Hindus (2009) was targeted by Hindutva radicals in 2010, leading to Penguin India agreeing to withdraw all unsold copies and have them destroyed. Her main offense has been to portray Indian spiritual culture as diverse, erotically charged, at times militaristic, and at times transgressive. Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child (1995) was initially lauded by western academia, and then viciously attacked by some Indian scholars and religious leaders who claim Kripal is misinterpreting his Bengali source texts, pathologizing Tantra, and misapplying psychoanalytic principles. Some of the most robust rebuttals to these and other scholars have come from Rajiv Malhotra (2011, 2014). His essay “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” is a fascinating read: http:// rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/risa-lila-1-wendys-child-syndrome/.
Perhaps the most withering criticism leveled at psychoanalysis . . . MacKenzie Wark, in The Beach Beneath the Street, criticizes another institution of self-care that can become myopic with individualism: “If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.” (Verso, 2012, p.93).
Feminist theory provides sharp tools . . . “panel of human rights activists”: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/06/13/g20-women-idINDEE85C00420120613. “Visionary feminism . . . ” is from hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody (2000).
One of the many important contributions feminism has to offer the study of MPY . . . For this, there’s nothing better than hooks in Teaching to Transgress (1994) and Teaching Community (2003). For a feminist understanding of yoga, body image, and sexualization, Klein and Guest-Jelley (2014) provide a breakthrough effort in the field.
It’s also from feminist analysis . . . Vanda Scaravelli’s textual legacy is a lovely book called Waking the Spine, but her unwritten legacy lives on in the bodies of her surviving personal students—mostly women who she worked with one-on-one in an environment that they all describe as being personable, intimate, stress-free, and empowering. Christi-an Slomka can be found at http://www. lakesofdevotion.ca/. Sri Louise works here: http:// undergroundyogaparlour.com/?page_id=14.
The final lens is . . . These questions are hinted at or tackled head on in the work of Singleton (2008, 2010, 2013), Sjoman (1996), White (2009, 2012, 2014), Kramer and Alstad (1993), Stern and Donahaye (2013), Sovatsky (2013), de Michelis (2005), Kadetsky (2014), Horton (2012, 2012), Farhi (2006), Alter (2004), Malhotra (2011, 2014), Roopa Singh (SAAPYA).
WAWADIA /// My Left Hand: I Am That (draft excerpt)
The following essay is featured in the full WAWADIA? prospectus, released Nov 1 in support of this IGG campaign to help fund publication.
Years later, I heard the story of the warrior Arjuna learning archery from his guru Drona. The target was a dead bird, spinning on a wheel overhead. Arjuna drew the bowstring and took aim. Drona asked him: Do you see the arrowhead?” Arjuna replied, “No.” “Do you see the bird?” “No.” “Do you see the space between the arrow and the bird?” “No.”
“What do you see, Arjuna?”
“I see myself.”
“Then release the arrow!”
Arjuna’s arrow threads the eye of the bird. Catching that baseball felt like that.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the age of 30, I went to a yoga class in Manhattan, trying to pull myself out of depression. It was at Alan Finger’s old place. The instructor was a woman my age who seemed charmed in a way that both irritated and attracted me. Like she had some pleasurable secret. Smiling, she said: “Today we’ll try to see if we can join the small self to the larger self.” The words jostled some memory of the Arjuna story, but they didn’t help my mood.
The postures in the class seemed simple, but they were extraordinarily difficult to do. And painful. I didn’t think the pain was physically damaging, because I remember feeling buoyant and relaxed for days afterwards.
The pain seemed to come from an angry recognition. Like when you fight bitterly with a brother or lover about something essential, and then try to reconcile, perhaps prematurely, with an embrace. Or when you survive something with another person— like a car crash—and you grip them tightly, as if to prove that you’re both still there. How many times, in some moment of crisis, did I squeeze my little brother hard around the neck, telling him I loved him through clenched teeth? He hugged me back fiercely, tears squeezing out of his eyes.
The sweat and pain in that yoga class was just like that. I was reconciling with a body that had survived my neglect and even abuse, a body that I also loved and depended upon, a body not quite ready to forgive me for my absence. My body reached back and gripped me in a catharsis of anguish and rage that completely dissipated when I lay myself down, trembling, into corpse pose. I disappeared into the earth.
When I came to, I rolled to my right side and opened my eyes. Sunlight poured onto my drenched mat. I found myself gazing at the palm of my left hand, the same hand that caught that ball. The same hand that plunked out base lines on the piano I used to play, and that now darts over the left side of this keyboard. But in that moment, my hand wasn’t an instrument for me to use. It was me. Somewhere I’d heard the Upanishad refrain I am that, and it came to mind like a bell ringing. I had remembered something about my existence. I am that. I have a hand. I am this hand. Through the warmth in the palm of my hand, I had joined the small self, as the instructor had said, with something much larger. This shivering present body became continuous again with the shivering present world.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s my pattern to get obsessed with anything that makes sense to me, or makes me feel smarter, or gives me a little relief. So it was with yoga. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I leapt into teaching—way too soon—so I could continue to learn, and finance more learning. My diet changed for the better, and along with it, my digestion. My mood regulation got more resilient. Libido and sleep improved. I seemed to be less socially anxious. I remember walking into rooms and realizing with quiet surprise I’m standing up straight and breathing freely. How did this happen?
But it wasn’t enough. What I really wanted was to revisit that initial revelation, in which I’d felt like I’d seen myself clearly and simply. It never repeated itself. I’m not sure that you can practice to see yourself clearly. Maybe it happens when you relax the searching that amplifies all of your self-distortions.
After about five years, my efforts in practice began to injure me, although I didn’t want to admit it. Neck pain, shoulder pain, lower back pain, a partial hamstring tear that nagged my every waking hour for over a year. I was humiliated, because I’d expected asana to provide a continual upwards curve of self-knowledge, and through self-knowledge, bodily release and mental freedom. I wondered what my lack of suppleness was telling me about my psyche. I blamed my technique, and tried to learn more, which of course led to overthinking and micromanaging every movement. I blamed my supposed new sensitivity to the technologized world. I made my schedule more austere, sought out more retreat time. I blamed caffeine, and cut it out entirely. I got very attached to the idea of being non-attached to the idea of being pain-free. I blamed myself for pushing, being greedy, and tried to back off in intensity. But slowly and deliberately doing the same movements that had hurt me, still hurt me. The weird part was that these movements that I was realizing were hurtful often brought pain relief first.
I told myself that now, finally, the real spiritual work was beginning, and it was dirty. I told myself that the asanas and the meditation had finally burrowed down to find the tangled mess of my soul. Exposed, this soul could now show its wound, its unworthiness, by speaking through physical pain. The ache in my hamstring was a message in a bottle, bobbing in the ocean of memory and identity. It gave me a mythic journey to consider. It made me real. This was a very powerful story.
It felt like the surface benefits of yoga had become normalized, and lost their shine. An older teacher I respected told me: “Yoga is a deconstruction of your whole personhood: who you think you are, and why you think you’re here. It hurts. The hook is that it makes you feel good at first.”
I looked around my community and saw that everybody was still suffering: injured, anxious, depressed, insomniac, amenorrheic, disordered in their eating, struggling in work or miserable in relationship. I turned the story I was telling myself onto them: yoga had brought us all to some existential edge at which we could feel not only how deeply wrecked we were, but we could understand and even consciously embody the suffering of the larger world. We had tuned in to reality in some fateful way. There was no cure for reality but to keep practicing.
I’ll say more about this personal dynamic in the pages that follow. For today, I wonder how many of us become injured in yoga while trying to recapture the exact thing we cannot: a first revelation we had on the mat that reminded us of something else, so far gone. Can we confuse the discomfort of that revelation with the pain of trying to recreate it? Does it make sense to use a highly formalized structure of asanas to rebuild the spontaneous pleasure of childhood movements? In how many ways can it hurt to swim against the tide of time and fatigue?
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here’s another yoga moment featuring my left hand. As the pain of asana and the physical discomfort of meditation increased, I turned to philosophy and the Vedic arts. These were paths of self-inquiry that I could pursue in a posture that had comforted me from childhood: at my desk, surrounded by books. I dove into Ayurveda, Jyotish (East Indian Astrology), Vastu (Vedic spatial arrangement), and Hasta Samudrika (Vedic palmistry). This last subject felt particularly magical to me. It’s a collection of very old ideas about how experience might write itself upon the body. My teacher was Hart deFouw, and under his grumpy kindness I learned a vast catalogue of bodily markings and their supposed meanings. But most of all I absorbed the idea that the body holds a story as old as myth and as tangled as a novel, and that yoga is often a process of reading.
In one of my first seminar days with him, Hart said: “The best light to view the hand in is direct sunlight. So on your lunchbreak, go outside and look at the palm of your hand in the sun. You can do this anytime you want. You might be amazed at what you see, and how it changes.”
An hour later, I stood at the corner of Toronto’s busiest intersection and looked at the palm of my left hand in the midday summer sun. I saw a blazing, fractal map of lines and webs nested within lines and webs. Am I that? I wondered. Yes.
As a child I had become self-aware through my left hand in a moment of pure action. At 30, I remembered that my hand was there, still holding that childhood night, and that my body, which was my hand, was still me, and that I could still move and be happy in movement. At 38, I saw a story in the lines and glyphs of my skin. Perhaps all of the attention I’d paid to the asana instructions about the “movement of my skin” had left their mark, beside down-sloping lines of periodic depression, spikes of acute pain and elated discovery. The palm of my hand holds an unfinished story, which may or may not tell me who I am, but which drives me to look closely at the embodied experience of others, to see what is strange and what is familiar in our arcs of suffering and relief.
WAWADIA: Meeting Nancy Cochren (draft excerpt)
The following essay is featured in the full prospectus, released Nov 1 in support of this IGG campaign to help fund publication.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the morning of June 19th, 2013, Nancy Cochren, aged 32, was 38 weeks pregnant, and teaching yoga at the studio in Hamilton Ontario where she’d worked for seven years. She felt strong and supple, and almost ready for the enormous change ahead. She remembers the sweet feeling of squatting in malasana that morning, and the elation of side-lunges.
In the afternoon, her obstetrician at St. Joseph’s Hospital performed a stretch-and-sweep during her checkup, and accidentally broke her membrane. A gush of clear, sweet amnion splashed off the examination table and hit the floor. The doctor took her hand and said “Well. You’ll be having that baby now.” Continue reading “WAWADIA: Meeting Nancy Cochren (draft excerpt)”
WAWADIA: A Working Thesis
The following page is featured in the full prospectus, released in support of this IGG campaign to fund publication.
Over the past fifty years, modern postural yoga (MPY) has improved the lives of countless people worldwide. It has awakened millions to the intimacy of embodiment and deep breathing, and the realization that mindful movement can both heal and evolve the spirit.
But people are also injuring themselves—and getting injured by their teachers—in asana studios around the world. Hard data on rates of injury is non-existent. Anecdotally, it would appear that people are being injured at a higher rate than either yoga marketing or its spiritual pedigree would suggest.
These injuries occur for many interweaving reasons. Obvious factors include prior conditioning, poor education in biomechanics, overbearing instruction, sacrificial attitudes towards pain, and group pressures to fulfill presumably shared spiritual ideals.
More subtly, many people are first driven to asana by feelings of inadequacy or the memory of trauma. These experiences can motivate the desire for bodily reclamation and redemption, but they can also acidify practice with anxiety and impulsiveness. Asana is a crucible in which some attempt to forge new selves, and in the process, burn their bodies and minds.
The body of modern yoga is a body of longing, possibility, and revelation. But it’s also a body of shame, confusion, and suffering. Injury can mark the place where these two bodies wrestle on the mat.
This dynamic is likely at play in any physical discipline through which a new self is sought—from ballet to Crossfit. But in asana culture the struggle is complicated by a diverse array of philosophical ideas and commitments. Whether ancient or modern, body-negative or body-positive, some ideas are communicated directly, while others are transferred through cultural osmosis.
The ideas that support asana form a double-edged sword. They can glorify injury as a necessary sacrifice to spiritual development—proof that the body is illusory, or subservient to the divine. Alternatively, they can help students recognize injury as an opportunity to change paths and self-perception.
Asana can injure. But it can also introduce us to the yoga of discovering what injury tells us about the world, and ourselves.
WAWADIA: The Cremation of B.K.S. Iyengar (draft excerpt)
The following reflection is featured in the full prospectus for WAWADIA, released Nov 1 in support of the IGG campaign to help fund publication. In the eventual book, this piece will help to set the historical stage for the current flood of change and innovation sweeping through the world of modern postural yoga. Notes and citations are are the end. I welcome all feedback.
All of these practices make us into a true human being, because we are still not fit for the divine level. —B.K.S. Iyengar
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n August 14th, 2014, the news flashed through the yoga world that Mr. Iyengar had been admitted to a private hospital in Pune following a three-week illness. He was accompanied by daughter Geeta, son Prashant, and their family physician. His blood pressure, regulated by decades of equanimity in standing postures, was dangerously low. His breathing, famous for demonstrations of control and retention, whistled shallow in his barrel chest. The doctors placed him on a ventilator for the first day, but he insisted it be removed. His heart, which had thumped faithfully through countless backbends, was feeble. His feet, which had stepped on the backs of devotees prostrated in child’s pose, which students gazed at for hours as he instructed the subtleties of ball-mound rooting and inner-arch-lifting, and which, in later years, devotees touched to show their respect, were now swollen with deoxygenated blood and pooling lymph.
By August 18th, the man who had introduced the principles of “kidney breathing” to the world of postural yoga was placed on dialysis, as his kidneys began to fail. On the 19th, doctors administered a nasogastral feeding tube. Reports of his earlier refusal to be hospitalized expanded, suggesting that most if not all of these interventions would have been unwelcome. The man who had enthusiastically worked to open dialogue between yoga and biomedicine was now firmly in the clinical grasp of the latter. It would seem that a precious goal of the experiential yogi—to be able to feel the approach of death unmediated and in solitude—was now lost to him. In his last hours, his lifelong passion for self-observation—for carefully monitoring the qualities of every twitch and pulse for the signs of grace or its absence—was occluded by the clinical gaze. If he’d been able to continue to listen to his heart, its faltering thump would have been drowned out by the heart monitor that amplified it.
On August 20th at 3:15 am local time, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar died. On social media, some refused to use the word “death”— insisting on “mahasamadhi”, which describes the ultimate absorption of a meditator.
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]lowing tributes flooded the web, hailing the “Lion of Pune”, the supreme innovator, inspiration of millions. Hundreds described how Light on Yoga appeared in their lives at critical junctures, and changed their paths. They posted photos of their broken-spined copies, scribbled on on every page, held together by rubber bands. Senior students issued somber and tender memorials.
Amongst my several thousand yoga contacts on Facebook, only one dared to share an openly conflicted response. She wrote that she was grateful for his “keen eye and passion for precision,” but mindful of his “patriarchal, old-school guru” persona, known to “humiliate, bully, and shame his students.”
Another friend posted a possibly sardonic homage: a photograph of a female Lego figure stuck to a Lego baseplate in a hands-free headstand. The caption read: “Thanks, Guruji.”
I took it this way: Iyengar’s yoga seems to recall a child’s dream of perfect order and uniformity. As if a body—a woman’s body especially—unfolded its potential by being folded just so. As if a teacher is meant to provide a template in absolute symmetry with his idea of virtue, if not with the curves of the world. But there was also a touch of melancholy in the Lego image, glinting out through its sepia Instagram filter. It seemed to say: Yoga has made children of us, in good ways and painful ways. Maybe we recaptured a sense of play and wonderment. Maybe we regressed into depending upon a new parental energy. Now that he is gone, we must grow up, and put away our toys.
The best mourning is complex, avoiding mystification and hagiography.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Iyengar family brought the patriarch’s body home, dressed it in ivory silks for the cremation rites, and laid it out on a simple bamboo mat. They draped it with garlands of flowers. I imagine they felt the silent questions of every mourner: Where did his movement go? Where is the prana he sculpted and nourished for seventy years? Where is the cellular intelligence he spoke of now? Does it just fall silent? Is it in the air around him? Has it become part of us?
Those more remote are left to wonder what this death, for all of its preparation, felt like. Was it different from any other death? Did his obsession with breathing yield some final flash of insight or consolation as it collapsed? Did he feel the skittish rise of udana vāyu dart through his spine with his last exhales? Was that sensation obstructed by the feeding tube? Did radiance slowly fill the space left by his retreating senses and mind? What did his yoga do for him in the end?
No one can know. Iyengar’s body in death is as enigmatic as it was in life, as silent and strange as the millions of photographs he leaves behind. The most demonstrative yogi in modern history used this body to form shapes purported to be windows to a brighter internal reality. His brash display both allied him with a revisioned Hatha heritage and alienated him from the philosophical bent of other streams of yoga evangelism, like those initiated by Vivekananda and Aurobindo. With every extension, flexion, and rotation, he insisted that the material perfection of a form—or the actions towards a form, however subtle—was sacramental. To a rapidly disembodying world, he offered forms of the body in attitudes of sombre praise. Students the world over learned and mimicked those forms, and many now testify to transformation and healing. But their reports are marked by equal amounts of pleasure and suffering.
We can never grasp the internality of another person—even less, perhaps, one upon whom we project our wishes. We have the artifacts of Iyengar’s flesh: his words on paper, his bombast on scratchy video, his fading echo in the spines, hips and shoulders of the thousands who studied with him in person. But no one can say for sure, without quoting Iyengar’s grand self-reporting, how his yoga felt for him. No one knows the ratio of bliss to pain in his body, how he managed the anxiety of that youthful dream he confided to Victor, and what dissatisfactions drove him to demand so much of his students. We cannot ask him: Was it worth it?
Had his life-long experimentalism not collided with the ancient rites of his family, Iyengar may well have donated this vacated body to science. No one would have been more interested in his autopsy than him. Was his marrow transformed by a lifetime of practice? Did he avoid the brain-tissue calcifications of other men his age? Did his arterial system remain plucky and plaque-free till the end? Were his lungs really as enormous as they seemed from the outside? Did he have the world’s largest diaphragm?
But there can be no autopsy of the guru. We cannot dissect him, for this would reduce his body to the same substance as our own. We cannot find his myth within his corpse, for either it is departed, or we realize it was only ever in ourselves. The Iyengar family is both abiding tradition and protecting his devotees when they scramble to cremate him at the earliest possible time.
Early on in the research for this book, I tried to parse one of Patabhi Jois’ more provocative aphorisms in an article online. One slightly chafed reader suggested that I pick on Mr. Iyengar’s words instead, because he was “still alive to set me straight.” She was pointing out something I’d long felt in my own practice—that if I were ever to make it to Pune, all of the niggling questions about technique that his senior students seemed to disagree on would be resolved. I could ask him exactly what he meant by this instruction or that, as though it would help me understand my body or my life better. Well, he can’t clarify anything now. Soon enough, we will have to stop asking what he meant, forced to turn to our peers for less certain answers. Arguments and insights into the great man’s methods, dictates, gregariousness, warmth and tantrums will dissolve as his living memory dissipates.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he giants of the modernist age of yogic entrepreneurial globalization are now all departed, debilitated, or disgraced. Sivananda is gone, along with most of his disciples. Kripalvananda, who taught asana as the dance-like expression of spontaneous bliss, is gone. Muktananda and Swami Rama are gone, their magic and abuses leaving a trail of the ecstatic wounded. Yogi Bhajan is gone, leaving his aphorisms blurring on millions of wet Yogi Tea teabag tags. Pattabhi Jois is gone. T.K.V. Desikachar, one of the last living links to the grandfather of modern postural yoga, T. Krishnamacharya, is reportedly suffering from dementia, and has been hidden away by his family, ostensibly to save face. In a completely different and ignominious fall, Bikram Choudhury is now facing charges of having raped several students.
With the exception of Jois (through this grandson Sharath), none of these evangelists has left a successor of note, and those who have presumed to succeed them—Amrit Desai, John Friend, and Kausthub Desikachar, among others—have all been quickly cut down to size, on the surface by their own ethical failings, but on a deeper level by a more skeptical culture that is less tolerant of idols, and more seduced by irony than it is by charisma. The death of Iyengar marks another step towards the growing democratization of the yoga world—perhaps not in terms of who has commercial clout, but certainly in terms of who holds authority.
When no one is left to tell us exactly what to do, can we finally say we are adults?
The death of a great man also erodes the Great Man Story, leaving space through which more hidden stories may emerge. I’m thinking of Vanda Scaravelli, ten years Iyengar’s senior, one of his few female students who didn’t seem intimidated by him, who would punch him playfully in the belly and tease him about his weight. She went on to teach a small cache of students, one at a time, who have all gone on to influence yoga for decades without grandiose institutes, certification programmes, or even websites. Scaravelli died in 1999 in Florence, where she lived and taught for over thirty years.
I’m also thinking of Dr. Karandikar. He was Iyengar’s personal physician until he was reportedly worn down by the teacher’s constant stream of verbal abuse. Karandikar left the Ramamami Iyengar Memorial Institute to found Kabir Baug Sanstha just three kilometres away, across Pune’s Mutha river. Kabir Baug is a sprawling yoga therapy clinic and therapeutic college that serves thousands of mostly Indian clients and students every year. While Iyengar globally advanced the hypothesis of “yoga as therapy”, Karandikar seems to have quietly proven it by staying at home and using a seamless blend of ancient and modern techniques. Most injured clients who come to Kabir Baug for asana instruction receive a spinal x-ray before they even begin. This clinic is unknown to the global yoga community, I think, because Karandikar’s skill is not occluded by the projection of intuitive wizardry, but rather demystified through the medical technologies that have almost replaced divine vision. Karandikar has flown below the radar of Western fetish and orientalism, perhaps because his work is to show us that embodied insight is not the domain of a charmed few, but is democratically available to everyone.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ithin twelve hours of his death, Iyengar’s body was brought from his home to the Vaikunth crematorium by ambulance. It was laid in perfect savasana upon a pyre of sandal and rosewood. Prashant touched the flame to the kindling at 3 pm. There were only one hundred people in attendance—most of them Western students. The pujaris chanted Vedic hymns, perhaps including the oldest funeral verses of all: “I am because you have been. You will be because I am.”
A certain vision might emerge through the white smoke. It rises in the hearts of those who he loved, strutted before, taught, harangued, slapped, kicked, injured, hugged, and healed. It might reflect how his soul now sees itself, if one believes in souls:
It is of a white-haired man, walking through clouds towards a simple gate. His leonine bearing is disrupted by his worried mood. Perhaps he wonders if he is standing tall enough, breathing deeply enough, if he is pliant enough in his spine to adequately bow to his forbears, his austere guru, and the earth itself. He puzzles over which asana to assume to ask forgiveness from those he burned with his zeal. He frets over whether he is finally fit to honour the thrilling and awful gift of being a body.
Epigram: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=4t2OLXi2xvY&feature=youtu.be, time cue 5:08.
On August 14th, 2014 . . . Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Yoga-guru-in-hospital-stable/articleshow/40218765.cms. Other details come from the 8/13 edition of Indian Express: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/ yogacharya-b-k-s-iyengar-admitted-to-hospital/.
By August 18th . . . Source: http://timesofindia. indiatimes.com/india/Yoga-guru-BKS-Iyengars-condition-worsens/articleshow/40424031.cms. The irony of Iyengar’s hospitalization wasn’t lost on the global community. On 8/19, Leslie Kaminoff posted the following to his Facebook wall: “Is this the way for “the Lion of Pune” to spend his last days on earth? He has lived an incredibly full and productive life for 96 years, and has nothing left to prove – except apparently to his followers, who make absurd declarations like: ‘…Everything is in control and as we all know Our Dear Guruji is a LION hearted man, he can come out of any storm . . . ’ As if Iyengar were some kind of immortal being not subject to the laws of the physical universe. I wish the people around this man would let him die with the dignity he deserves.”
On August 20th at 3:15 am local time: Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/ Yoga-guru-BKS-Iyengar-passes-away/articleshow/40462779.cms.
Amongst my several thousand yoga contacts on Facebook. . . Denise Benitez, Facebook status update from 8/19/2014, 7 pm PST: BKS Iyengar, the great progenitor of yoga in the West, has died at the age of 96. As one of the minions who trained in and taught Iyengar yoga in the 70’s and 80’s, I am grateful to him for his keen eye and passion for precision and order. I learned so much from Iyengar teachers, and all of it changed my body and my life for the better. Probably none of us would be doing yoga without his influence, or at least not the way we do yoga now. I am immensely grateful for his presence on the planet. And yet, my “relationship” with him was complex. I never met him personally, but I saw him in action at Iyengar conferences, and he humiliated, shamed and bullied his students and teachers, mostly women. He was highly patriarchal and was an old school “guru” who expected his word to be obeyed without question. In the 80’s, one of his senior male teachers was inappropriately touching women in classes. I was one of those women. When this was told to Iyengar, he said that all of the women who had reported this were lying. So on the occasion of his death, I am left with an unsettling mix of emotions — the passing of an era, the jewel of yoga that he brought forward, his narcissism and ferocity, the fact that he had been homeless, sickly and lost as a boy, and that yoga saved him, as it has saved so many of us. All I can do is wish his spirit well, with all my heart. May his soul rest at ease.
Those more remote are left to wonder . . . Udana vāyu is the upward-moving “wind” of yogic physiology, said to be the material mechanism by which the atman is ejected from the flesh at death. The radiance of death is common trope in Tantric literature. Most famously elucidated in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, popularized by Sogyal Rinpoche in the 1990s.
Early on in the research for this book . . . http:// matthewremski.com/wordpress/wawadia-update- 10-lazy-people-cant-practice-thoughts-on-a-yoga-meme/
No one can know . . . Both Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo were antagonistic, to differing degrees, to the physical heritage of Hatha yoga. “Sacramental”: In my early Catholic education, a sacrament was defined as “an outward sign of an inward grace.” This formulation goes back to St. Augustine’s early catechism, later formalized at the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century.
With the exception of Jois . . . Note: many conversations with “older shala” students of Jois from the 70s and 80s, reveal the common opinion that Sharath does not command the same grandeur as his grandfather, who many considered to be a shaktipat guru.
The death of a “great man” . . . About Vanda joshing Iyengar: this anecdote comes from Sandra Sabatini via interview.
I’m also thinking of Dr. Karandikar . . . This report comes from an interview with David McAmmond, one of the few Western students to study extensively at Kabir Baug Sanstha: http://www.kabirbaug.com/.
Within twelve hours of his death . . . http://www.rediff.com/news/slide-show/slide-show-1-bks-iyengar-cremated-amid-vedic-chants/20140820.htm.
(A working bibliography is available at the end of the prospectus.)
WAWADIA Update #17 /// Question: Is Injury-Free Yoga Possible?
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n November 1st, I’ll be releasing a 52-page prospectus for a crowdfunding campaign to support the two years I think it’ll take to produce this book. In preparation for the campaign, I’ve fielded a lot of really good questions online, from my interview subjects, and in various public forums where I’ve presented preliminary findings from my research.
(I was at Yoga Morristown two weeks ago, hosted by Omni Kitts Ferrara. Then I gave a brief presentation to the entire faculty of Octopus Garden in Toronto last Wednesday. And the second WAWADIA night at 80 Gladstone, hosted by Diane Bruni, was on Friday night. Everywhere, the conversation is searching, lively, and runs late. I’ll be at Evolution Yoga in Cleveland this Saturday, hosted by Sandy Gross, and at Portland Union Yoga on Nov. 8th, hosted by Todd Vogt and Annie Adamson.)
The questions I’m getting have a lot of nuance, but here are the nuggets:
WTF is your end-game here?
Do you really think you can stop people from getting injured in asana classes? Continue reading “WAWADIA Update #17 /// Question: Is Injury-Free Yoga Possible?”
WAWADIA update 13 /// Learning With Iyengar, Learning Against Iyengar
The Lion of Pune is dead. So many accolades have flooded the web. I’ll review some of these sentiments and their tensions, and then finish with a tribute of my own, which will be somewhat different. Continue reading “WAWADIA update 13 /// Learning With Iyengar, Learning Against Iyengar”