The Unbearable Distance of Belief: Notes on Icons, Appropriation, and the Second-Order Religiosity of Modern Yoga

I’m willing to bet that I’ve crossed the thresholds of a hundred or more yoga studios across the Americas and Europe. Most spaces play on the post-industrial vacancy of their former purposes: studios spring up in converted warehouses, old factory lofts, and now, I hear, in several abandoned malls of the Rust Belt. The first yoga studio I opened was in a vacant building on the riverfront of Baraboo, Wisconsin, in a bright open room where B-grade maple floorboards still bore the scars of the tool-and-die cutters that had roared there a generation before.

The repurposing cuts in two ways. The bodies of those who used to make things here with the heavy machinery of yesteryear have been made useless through technology and offshoring. Their children now use these old spaces to re-vision what bodies might be for.

Most of these studios are characterized by the aesthetics of openness and minimalism. Hardwood or cork flooring, sometimes bamboo, walls in various shades of cream. High ceilings are a big plus, as are high windows or skylights. Acoustics are often lively, which usually cues an unconscious hush amongst the entrants. Breathing and the padding of bare feet provide the primary ambient sound. If there’s no spaciousness, people won’t come. The studio is a mostly-blank slate for the redrafting of identity, first through re-embodiment and perhaps later through sitting, or yoga nidra. By and large, it is a nirguṇa site: without qualities, so that unknown qualities can emerge.

But. As if it would be just too ungrounded to leave the space completely unadorned and underdetermined, the majority of studio owners use some type of iconography to tie the empty space to a theme, a heritage, a transcultural memory. The icons might be small, and carry mostly personal energies. I remember my first studio felt naked somehow until I brought in the small sandalwood Ganesh I’d had since my first trip to India and placed it inconspicuously on the ledge of a high window. The magicality of my childhood and youthful wandering was still intact, and I felt that the icon both materially blessed whatever service I had to offer, and psychically enriched it by calling to my memory the strange life-transition that opened the book of yoga for me. I hid the icon carefully: it would have made my small-town, mainly Evangelical Lutheran students feel even more renegade than they already did by simply stretching and breathing in a dogma-free space. Ganesh was my private aesthetic and psychic anchor. One of my most curious students spotted it one day and asked me about it. I told her “It’s a memory.” Years later, when I gave small classes in Ayurveda in my study, I lit a ghee lamp before a different Ganesh, this one carved from soapstone. It had come from my ex-wife. Lighting the lamp in front of it was as much a ritual for the strained relationship as it was a sign of deference to those teachers of mine, more Indophile than I, who had begun every class in Vedic arts by chanting om gananam tva.

But some studio owners go to another extreme, buying the biggest and most elaborate murthis they can find, festooning them with candles and incense and flowers. They stop short, of course, of the true mess of Indian temple ritual detritus, where sour milk pools with blackened ghee on the worn stones: this would be too mimetic, too other. Even in this most ostentatious form, the icon is always a reference and never a reality.

Somewhere in between sits the more common display, which I’ve seen dozens of times: a Śiva Nāṭaraja in simple bronze, 12” to 18” high, unadorned, sitting alone on a window ledge or in a drywall niche. Virtually nobody knows the etiquette of placing Hindu iconography, or would care: that the height of the murthi determines how far from the ground it must be, that it mustn’t face a bathroom directly, that each icon belongs to a particular direction and is governed by a particular devata, that setting the icon in a window isn’t guru, or well-supported, according to vāstu. The icon is usually placed to solve the most obvious decorative challenges, whereas in its country of origin, the room would have been designed around it. Śiva Nāṭaraja would have been there from the beginning, dancing in the blueprints for the renovation. As if the owner could be sure from the beginning of the project where her practice, and her studio, would lead her.

Skeptical students know that the studio is primarily a commercial space, and that either the icon is a sign of exchange. They may feel they are being sold on the one thing that differentiates asana from pilates or dance. Some students will be ambivalent, others irritated, and still others will openly challenge the relevance or politics of a transplanted or appropriated sign.

For many others, the icon will host subtler currents. It hints at a time-that-was, a place-I’ve-visited-before-returning-to-the-confusion-of-my-life, a place that might-have-been. It exudes an Orientalist scent, even as many are savy enough about Orientalism to hold this thought in irony. It floats, decontextualized. It carries the suggestion of its heritage, and the awkward stain of its cultural theft. It intimates the magic of childhood, but you’re too old to play with it, or to take the fantasy very far. For those who know the story, Śiva Nāṭaraja carries the wrathful ecstasy of its myth, the wild yogi’s despair at the death of Satī, his damning and transformative dance of rage. There’s no protocol to attend the icon. We’re shy before it, or we dump our iPhones beside it, we turn our backs to it, we bend over and moon it through our leggings. It sits there, impervious, exerting a nameless influence that means too many things for too many people to actually mean anything stable at all. The icon radiates its emptiness and displacement, the sweet melancholy of absence in a beautiful form that means something much more instrumental to someone, somewhere. The icon in postmodernity can mean anything, which makes believing or feeling something specific through it very remote, and somewhat mournful. It communicates memory and aspiration, longing for and distance from the other, the aura of an imagined life, and the patina of its banal mass production.

I’m slowly realizing that I don’t find this at all cynical. There’s something perfectly imperfect about it. The sensations blend into a new kind of devotional sentiment. As Mark Singleton describes, a second-order religiosity. And in yoga – like yoga itself – it has its roots in India.

Singleton’s fantastic article “The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga” (in Yoga in the Modern World, Singleton and Byrne, eds., Routledge, 2008) sheds bright light on the highly-charged issues involved in the cultural and spiritual exchanges of modern global yoga, and the ways in which we can say yoga remains a religious practice despite its attempts at self-secularization. “Second-order religiosity” is a phrase that’s not central to his thesis, which he doesn’t have the space to develop, and which, according to Google, he seems to have coined. I’d like to develop it, but a quick scan of his argument should come first.

Singleton’s central task in the article is to deploy a concise publication history of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, showing how a text of only marginal renown amongst the yogis of pre-colonial India was recast as practical “philosophy” and positioned as the central “textbook” of a constructed “classicism”. The construction was meant to satisfy both the British Orientialist fetish for Victorianizing Indian thought, and the universalist aspirations of 19th-century Indian Pandits like Rajendralala Mitra, whose 1883 translation sought to align the text with Greek and Continental thought so it could take its rightful place amongst other world “classics”. This alliance worked hard to expunge the archaic magico-religious elements of the YS, wrest interpretational power from the scattered hereditary practitioners of the day – the Haṭhas and Tantrics – and pre-empt “an impending sense of national shame regarding the intellectual validity (and ‘freshness’) of Indian forms of knowledge.” (82)

Singleton intimates that “second-order religiosity” emerges as a reconstructed and secularized “tradition” tries to substantiate its roots. This can happen through re-inventing the very sources that the process of reconstruction actively eroded. In the case of the YS, we see the neo-classicism project divert attention from its irrationality as an Iron-Age text to recast it as a model of modern intellectualism. Then, it is re-invested with religious power through a reinvigoration of ritual signs and behaviors. The most conspicuous site of reconstructed religiosity in modern yoga might India’s first and only temple to Patañjali, founded by BKS Iyengar in his hometown of Bellur, Karnataka. The temple is the crowning touch to Iyengar’s gradual elevation of Patañjali over the decades through the invocation chanted before every asana class. Thus, an Iron-Age redactor of ascetic philosophies and astral-body-travel practices about whom we know next to nothing, and who has never before been the object of Hindu devotion, is reinvented as the contemporary deity for what has become self-help movement, fashioned in bronze, installed in a modern temple, waiting to bless the Western devotees who have largely paid for it with their pilgrimage dollars. The temple inscriptions of the Patañjali invocations are in romanized transliteration: they’re not for the local folks attending the pujas that have been invented for this new bhakti. They’ll be legible to the international students standing in awkward circles around the aarti, stumbling through the new chants that somehow feel very old.

Singleton’s even more salient example of second-order religiosity comes from the world of Indian neo-classical dance. Drawing on the work of ethnomusicologist Matthew Harp Allen and dance historian Priya Srinivasan, he relates the legacy of Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986), the driving force behind the reconstruction of the art as an Indian national treasure. From time out of mind, Indian dance had been a highly localized and diverse folk art devoted to liturgical function, complete with Tantric eroticism, its vocabularies held in lineage by devadasi (women who had been dedicated by their families to temple life, or often sold into it) – many of whom were associated with prostitution.

Like the poverty-stricken street-performer Haṭha yogis from whom Swamis Vivekananda through to Yogendra and Kuvalyananda were keen to dissociate from their more genteel vision of physical yoga, Rukmini Devi saw the hereditary, lower-caste paramparā of Indian temple dance unworthy of the international stage upon which she wished to display her “classical” and Theosophist ideals. From the time of her discovery of ballet through her globetrotting friendship with Anna Pavlova to her discovery of Indian dance at the age of 29 and subsequent determination to be the first Indian woman of “high birth” to publicly perform, Devi did to Indian dance what the Indian fathers of modern yoga did to asana. They appropriated art forms from outcaste populations, extracted them from temple or charnel-ground settings, scraped away thick esoteric and erotic elements, codified their vocabularies into graduated syllabi of complexity, and began to matriculate students in certification processes intended to establish transnational standards, and to broadcast Indian neo-classicism to the world.

It so happens that Rukmini Devi re-consecrated her reconstructed art form in the very same way that contemporary Western owners of yoga studios do. Singleton relates, citing Allen:

As for modern yoga, modern Indian dance came into being in (sometimes violent) reaction against the purportedly primitive, mystical practices of the original exponents of the “art” and, in certain instances, replaced them with a modern, Enlightenment ethos of personal, secular spirituality. One of the ways in which Rukmini Devi accomplished this transition was by placing an icon of the “dancing Siva” Nataraja on stage while she performed, a device intended to recapture some of the mystery of the very temples she had cut herself off from. She thereby created a kind of second-order religiosity, based on the imitation of an original context that had needed to be rejected. (90, emphasis mine)

The very practice of modern postural yoga can be a rejection of so many things: natal religions, socially constructed meanings of the flesh and gender, the reductionism of biomedicine, a father wanting you to grow up to be a lawyer, and the naïve credulity demanded by religious dogma. The early Hindutva wanted to use yoga to reject the humiliation of colonialism, but they had to “elevate” it from its primal strangeness. And at the same time, yoga is a series of imitations, albeit of contexts and attitudes that we can only dream ourselves into, and ironically couldn’t commit to even if we arrived at them whole through some kind of time travel.

Why does a thing need to be reconstructed? What exactly has been lost? Childhood? Homeland? Faith? Is there a motivating insecurity? Is reconstruction the public response of private lives that are felt to have fallen into disrepair? And when we reconstruct the thing on the dance stage or in the yoga studio, how do we deal with our awareness of the reconstruction? When we purchase a Śiva Nāṭaraja on the open market of memes, it carries as much of the energy of what we have rejected as the energy of what we try to preserve. Such is the exquisite tension of second-order religiosity, which despite is reconstructive tendencies, is actually a veiled worship of deconstruction.

The feelings of post-religiosity are themselves religious with absence and melancholy. Deconstruction offers the elation and sorrow of analysis, taking the idol apart to feel its hidden currents, both private and social, liberating its power only to see how transient it is, belonging to no one, climbing on sunbeams through the studio window, leading you away from the forms, politics, frames and reframings that once kept us safe and contained, towards who knows where.


  • I’ve been to a number of strip mall yoga studios, with low ceilings and cramped ‘square feet’ that would like to spread toe.

    Even these contracted muscular spaces are replete with the release of flower garland and ceremony.
    Blessing/s. A taking-of-the-wafer in the form of dried up marigold flowers.
    Marigold/s. Taken home as prasad, and placed –in the aftermath– at our home alter, our own rose window, –a fluff of memory –in a tight container.
    Marigold dust, tamped into a small lidded soapstone jar, an standby for the longings ‘inside’ of our pumping and beating heart.
    Sometimes I think ‘the longing’ is about trying to squeeze that huge space.
    Manage all that feeling… or lack of it.

    “…religious with absence and melancholy…”
    Beautifully put, mremski.

  • Nice article, but it leaves out an important aspect of the Nataraja symbolism, and a point that is often left out in Western yoga for the simple reason that people in the West have often not been exposed to or understood the complexity of the Vedic/Tantric entanglements. The symbolism that you cite, that of the religious aspects of the symbol are only one aspect of it and is a Vedic/Hindu religious imposition on a Tantric practice, which by its very nature stood outside of the Vedic cultural hegemony. The dance that the symbol represent is an actual yogic dance practiced by tantrics and thus generally only familiar to those who have learned it, or those who knows some of its inner symbolism: the dancer is suspended in the air between life and death, stillness and motion, and thus beyond duality, he is the nondual self. A much less Hindu religious symbolism. That is how I learned it in India. Outside of the tantra tradition I have never seen anyone using it or practicing it. There are some youtube versions but they have little to do with the original. It also has physiological aspects, much like dancing on a trampoline, it effects the endocrine system in positive ways and increases and harmonizes masculine energy. It is not part of the Vedic/Hindu system. In fact, it was attempted to be outlawed in India due to the dancers using a scull (symbolizing death) and a snake (symbolizing life and kundalini) in each hand while dancing. The dance itself is vigorous and requires great coordination.
    Fritjof Capra used it in his book the Tao of Physics and Ilya Prigonine who received the Nobel Prize in physics used it to illustrate the second law of thermodynamics, the law of dissipating structures. So, like a lot of integral Indian teachings, its inner significance is not only ancient and religious, it spans time, and can hopefully even stir the postmodern imagination, perhaps even atheists, or at least agnostics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.