Sweating toward Enlightenment?

Via on Apr 21, 2010

Here’s what I think about yoga in the West: when you take the tools of a system out of its thinking structure and plop them into your own, the results are going to be distorted, at best.

The West views reality from a materialistic, reductionist perspective. And I don’t mean that we spend too much time shopping and making sauces – although that might be true. I’m saying that the way we think about health and science limits the way we think about yoga.

Think about our medical system. Just about everything is a specialty – if you have a heart problem you go to a cardiologist – break a bone, an orthopedist. Our thinking is from the ground up. The body is built out of various components, like a car. So if you want to fix it, you just fix the broken part. The body is material and that’s what matters. The mind is an epiphenomenon of the body. And consciousness is something that (scientists admit, reluctantly) arises from the brain.

There are some benefits to those thinking structures. Problem is, I’m not a car. Once I tried talking to a dermatologist about how I thought a skin rash I had might be related to my digestive problems, perhaps an overgrowth of bacteria in my small intestine…and he looked at me like I was from Venus and said, “Try not to over-think this.”

As Westerners we are mostly unconscious adherents to a scientific, reductionist paradigm. It’s not that we’ve bought into it, it’s just part of how we’re taught to think. It’s the Western way. And so as yoga teachers, it’s natural for us to think this way too. Yoga is good for your health – so if you need stretch-ier hamstrings, it can do that for you. Need to lose weight? We got your hot yoga class over here. Need to balance your thyroid – no problem, shoulderstand is the ticket.

Look at how we level yoga classes in this country. Typically it’s Beginners, and then Level 1, 2, 3, and 4. As you get closer to level 4, your foot gets further behind your head, most likely while you’re inverted and twisted. This structuring is completely Western. The harder your asanas get, the more advanced you are at yoga.

The logical conclusion to this thinking is that the contortionists in Cirque du Soleil are all basking in the bliss of their enlightenment. (And they very well may be, but I would suggest their extreme yoga poses have little to do with it).

Yoga teachers love to say things like, “Go at your own pace.” And “This isn’t about anyone else in the room, it’s only about you in this moment.” But then there are 40 other hot sweaty western-minded bodies in the room trying to achieve enlightenment through their bodies – ’cause that’s how we know how to think.

This yoga stuff is great, it makes me feel great, I love the non-competitiveness of it  – well, at least how the teachers talk about non-competitiveness. It’s a bit of a mixed message really, to talk about non-competitiveness and then ask everyone to do scorpion. The thing is, unless we are willing to shift our thinking structures, we’re going to do yoga pretty much the same way we did aerobics with in the eighties – maybe with a little mindfulness sprinkled on top.

But we haven’t changed the way we think.

The great sage Ashtavakra had severe scoliosis. (His name means, “Bent in eight places”). He probably couldn’t have done ashtavakrasana (that’s the one where you wrap your legs around your upper arms and balance on your hands while you look up and smile for the camera). Ashtabakra wrote a sublime expose on spirituality. But regardless of his yogic accomplishments, in the west, we’d have to send him to the Beginner’s class.

According to yogic thinking structures, the less you have to do to calm your mind, the more advanced you are. More advanced practitioners need to do a less intense physical practice because they don’t need much to settle their minds for meditation.

The body is the basis of our health and our thinking in the west, but yoga comes out of a thinking structure that stands ours on its head.

According to the Upanishads, sacred Vedantic texts, we are ultimately pure soul or consciousness. The first part of our self that emanates from the soul is the Bliss layer (anandamaya kosha). In other words, bliss is the largest part of the structure of who we are.

That means bliss isn’t something that you get by doing a backbend on your knees and elbows, rather it’s something to understand and experience as the foundational structure of your being.

And you get there by meditating, whether or not you can do side crow in full lotus is rather irrelevant. From the Bliss layer emanates the witness layer, from the witness comes the mind, from the mind comes the energy body and finally, from all of that comes your physical body.

So if you have a digestive complaint, you might use asanas, herbs, diet, massage etc. – which will help you from the layer of the physical body, but if you really want to heal, you look up into who you are in a more expanded sense. Where is your breathing disturbed? Where is the mind disturbed? You come from bliss and ultimately you are pure Soul, so whatever ails you can be remedied from a return to the Source of who you are – from meditating on the infinite within. From a yogic perspective, if you want to heal, it is useful to look up.

One of my husband’s favorite sayings is, “All thinking models are wrong, but at least some are useful.” Trying to get Oneness out of yoga while living with a western mindset is kind of like trying to breathe on Pandora.

But you see all this unspoken materialistic thinking around yoga like the harder the poses, the more advanced your practice or the more Lululemons you own and popular classes you attend, the better yogi you are. And for teachers, the  more students you have, the more popular you are, the more enlightened you have become. Yikes.

It’s unspoken because we vaguely and rather ashamedly understand that yoga is really not about that. But how do we change our thinking structure to accomodate the idea that the more you’ve expanded your bliss consciousness the closer you are to Oneness? How do you rewire neuro-patterning laid down in your infancy?

Our materialistic thinking has helped create things like life saving surgery and perhaps even more lifesaving iPhones. But it also directly created the global crisis we’re in – environmental, financial, social and ethical. Part of the problem is that materialism and reductionism necessitate that we narrow our perspective. We specialize. But life isn’t specialized. It is a big interconnected system. If we want to heal ourselves and our planet, we need a broader perspective.

Yoga was developed by people who sat and expanded their minds to the edges of the universe and beyond. And that’s what it can offer us if we’re willing to look at our practice differently – as an opportunity to see things differently, to think about things with a  more expanded perspective. And that is ultimately what will help us change the way we do things – personally and collectively.

About Kaoverii Weber

Kaoverii Weber took her first yoga class from her hippy sixth grade social studies teacher in the 70s, when you actually were a dork if you did yoga. After checking things out in California and Asia for a few years, she went back to New Jersey and started teaching yoga in 1995. Currently she lives with her husband and a small but fearless Jedi Padawan in Asheville, North Carolina where she trains yoga teachers and fights the Dark Side. Check out her blog, workshops, trainings.

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Comments

40 Responses to “Sweating toward Enlightenment?”

  1. Hi, Kaoverii. Lot's to digest here.

    I have a lot to say, mostly about how I don't think one can generalize so much about either Western or Indian society. But I've got to leave for a trip right now. I'll write again tomorrow.

    Thanks.

  2. Kaoverii:

    REALLY well put. A message we all need to hear/read again and again when those old thought patterns start kicking in again.

    More! More!

    Samantha

  3. integralhack says:

    Finally, someone accounts for how I manage to own several yoga mats and yet I'm not all that flexible! Upanishads it is!

    Seriously, though–great message. I thought this statement was intriguing: "Trying to get Oneness out of yoga while living with a western mindset is kind of like trying to breathe on Pandora."

    The "Western mindset" and its effect on practice is something that yogis and Buddhists both struggle with. While reductionism, radical skepticism and materialism seem to be part and parcel of the shadow side of Western practice, one can't help but wonder if there is also a bright side: openness, freedom (a confused notion, but a factor nonetheless) and the willingness to complement practice with the insights of Western science and medicine.

    At the same time, as Westerners it seems a little disingenuous to merely adopt Asian practice–especially if there are elements in a given practice that are geared to that culture. Charges of Orientalism can be leveled on both sides, it seems.

    The question that emerges for me is: can we as Westerners have Western yoga and Western Buddhist practices that are legitimate? What would determine that legitimacy?

  4. Ramesh says:

    Well said! Ramakrishna one of India's greatest saints, hardly ever did more than one asana in his life: the lotus position. And none of the great Western mystics contorted their bodies into pretzels. Still, they were all yogis in the best sense of the word. And still, doing asanas is an important and mighty valuable aspect of yogic life.

  5. Hi, Kaoverii.

    I have so many problems with this article I'm not sure where to start. I'll just try to summarize. But before I do, let me say these are just my opinions. I respect yours and everyone else's, too, however strongly I express my own.

    1) I think it's a huge mistake and simply invalid to generalize about cultures. There is no such thing as "Western culture" vs. "Eastern Culture". If there ever was it's certainly being blurred out of all meaning by current economic events, in which China and India have become the fastest growing materialistic business cultures. Plus, India and the U.S. are both vast and exceptionally diverse countries where any generalization is bound to be dead wrong just because there are so many counter-examples.

    2) Is India really a paragon of enlightened spirituality or non-materialistic values? I don't think it is. How many religiously motivated killings have occured in India vs. in the U.S in the past decade? Neither is the U.S. monolithically materialistic and non-spiritual.

    3) It's even more invalid to fantasize about how wonderful and spiritual things were in the time of the ancient Yoga sages. The Bhagavad Gita is imbedded in the epic poem of India, the Mahabharata, which is eight times the the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and is entirely about just one long war between two clans of a royal family. As Stephen Mitchell write in the introduction to his translation, "At the conclusion of the epic, the capital city lies in ruins and almost the combatants have been killed." Does this sound like the idyllic vision of enlightened spirituality you describe in your article?

    4) The vast majority of people engaging in Yoga in the U.S. are not looking to it for spirituality. But this is not necessarily because they are not spiritual. A great many have all their spiritual needs met in other ways. They are devout Christians or Jews or humanists or followers of Chopra or Tolle or any number of other paths. Why should we think them deficient because they show no interest in our particular brand of spirituality?

    6) Your article give no recognition at all to the vast diversity of Yoga in America. Why the "1,2,3" stereotyping? It doesn't match reality. There are plenty of U.S. branches of Yoga that are exceptionally spiritual. They are not deficient simply because they choose, like Kripalu, for example, to adapt Yoga's universal principles to a new culture in the U.S. Look at the history of Yoga in India and you will see the same kind of continual cultural adaption. Yoga was very diverse even at the time of the Yoga Sutra. Just look at how many audiences and preferences Patanjali feels he needs to cater to in his text.

    7) If Yoga is about universal truths, as the ancient sages say it is, then those universal truths will show up in every other spiritual system and in everyone's everyday life, with or without Yoga. Why should any Yoga devotee even think about standing in spiritual judgment about people who choose not to be interested in Yoga?

    Bob Weisenberg
    (My Elephant blog)

  6. Carrie says:

    yoga is what you make it I chose to make it my lifestyle we all are unique looking for our own path

  7. Thanks for your comment, Carrie. I agree.

  8. shakti says:

    grrr… wrote a reply but it didn’t post and disappeared.

    Integral hack, you got it when you asked: “..Can we as Westerners have Western yoga and Western Buddhist practices that are legitimate? What would determine that legitimacy?

    A nicely and diplomatic phrasing of my sentiment:

    Who indeed is the judge of the legitimacy of anyone’s practice? I can bend like crazy and wear Lululemon (actually, Zobha)and despite my apparent superficiality–I believe that I get what yoga is. My exterior appearance, bendy and clothed in pricey yoga outfits (sometimes), does not represent the internal transformation that I underwent thanks to yoga.

    What frustrates me sometimes are the yogier-than-thou within the yoga community who believe they know what the true yoga path is. Check out the kids in India who bend like pretzels in asana competitions. Anyone know if all that extreme asana is yoga, and where their pratice will take their souls? I certainly don’t. I’m not yogier than them, or anyone. The yogier-that-thou are actually anti-yoga if you really think about it.

  9. shakti says:

    oh shoot sorry for the above repeated postings with typos too namaste sorry sorry

  10. Matt. Not "offensive", rather "invalid". BIG difference!

  11. Good points, Matt. I like that.

  12. integralhack says:

    Oh thank Buddha, God, and Shiva! It is too late in the eve for a Matt Helmick/Bob Weisenberg debate. And if Greg Stone jumps in we're screwed. :)

  13. LOL, Matt.

    One of the reasons I'm attracted to Yoga is that it is decidedly NOT an organized religion. So I identify with those followers of Buddha who are not involved in the organized religion part of it. That's just what's right for me. I know lots of other folks are attracted precisely by the "organized" aspect of organized religion.

    But Yoga is special, I think, partly because all of it's tendencies to become an organized religion were siphoned off as part of Hinduism, leaving Yoga itself sort of attached, but still separate and almost secular, relatively speaking. This to me is not only attractive but a very curious spiritual phenomenon.

    What you find is movements within most religions to go "back to the roots" with "Christianity as Jesus would have practiced it" and articles by Tibetan Rinpoches entitled

    Fascinating to me. Reflects a desire to experience spirituality unencumbered by any organized religion's accumulation of dogma, elaborate practice, and the power of priests, which were all the things the original ancient Yoga sages, including the Buddha, were rebelling against in the first place.

    Bob Weisenberg
    (My Elephant blog)

  14. LOL, Matt.

    One of the reasons I'm attracted to Yoga is that it is decidedly NOT an organized religion. So I identify with those followers of Buddha who are not involved in the organized religion part of it. That's just what's right for me. I know lots of other folks are attracted precisely by the "organized" aspect of organized religion.

    But Yoga is special, I think, partly because all of it's tendencies to become an organized religion were siphoned off as part of Hinduism, leaving Yoga itself sort of attached, but still separate and almost secular, relatively speaking. This to me is not only attractive but a very curious spiritual phenomenon.

    What you find is movements within most religions to go "back to the roots" with "Christianity as Jesus would have practiced it" and articles by Tibetan Rinpoches entitled

    Fascinating to me. Reflects a desire to experience spirituality unencumbered by any organized religion's accumulation of dogma, elaborate practice, and the power of priests, which were all the things the original ancient Yoga sages, including the Buddha, were rebelling against in the first place.

    Bob Weisenberg
    (My Elephant blog)

  15. While all you said was true, I think you generalized a bit too much. And that of course is a very Western thing to do. I have long been dismayed by the commeralism brought to yoga, even by those who provide some of the best education about yoga.
    For myself, yoga began as a way to heal my body. It is now my path in life and influences what I choose on a daily basis. I struggle with staying on my path in a way that other philosophies, religions, or whatever you wish to call them, have not guided me. It has become a part of who I am, not what I do. Asana's have helped me sit in meditation without physical discomfort.
    I will never be an ancient Indian who knew the purest form of yoga. I am a 21st century human struggling with the universal suffering that that ancient Indian also struggled with. Yoga transends and morphs, just like everything else.

  16. Kaoverii Weber Kaoverii says:

    Wow, had no idea I would spark this – but thanks for the feedback. I love reading it all! Love the debate and opinions. I have to go out of town to teach this weekend so not much time here for commenting.

    Argh, and the computer just ate everything I wrote. So I'll try again.

    East Good. West Bad. <grunt and scratch something inappropriate.>

    I certainly hope I didn't come off as that much of a Neanderthal. And I apologize if my take on western yogis was snarky at times. No offense meant. I love my lipstick and lululemons (theoretically, I actually can only dream of owning a pair) as much as the next highstrung yoga chick out there.

  17. Kaoverii Weber Kaoverii says:

    My point is an epistemological one – Western thinking structures tend towards the scientific and materialistic. We construct ourselves from the ground up You can attach any sort of judgment you wish to that statement, but that’s not my intention. My intention is to examine that structure and contrast it to the thinking architectures that yoga came out of.

    Which are the subtler paradigms of “the east.” I think it's important to check a tendency towards Orientalism – I have no delusions that things are or ever were utopic in India – and I certainly wouldn't want to be housed in a female body in that country. But undoubtedly we think differently and have different worldviews. Check out this TED video for more on that:http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik.html

    The thought structures that yoga comes out of are very subtle and we all can access them. Still it’s useful to look at the baggage you are bringing with you to your practice.

  18. Hi, EcoYogini. You make some excellent points.

    Yes, it has been a great discussion, not the least of which is because of Kaoverii's good natured receptivity to our difference of opinion. But then, that's what Elephant Journal is all about.

    Thanks for being here.

    Bob Weisenberg
    (My Elephant blog)

  19. Christine Baker says:

    I think it makes sense to teach yoga from beginner to advanced the way we do in this country in order to prevent injury. For me, it's not about enlightenment, it's about where I need to be right now in the present.

  20. Kaoverii Weber Kaoverii says:

    Thank you for all your insightful comments. Could it be possible that judging someone as "Yogier that thou" is in itself a "Yogier than thou" statement? Unfortunately, some of my snarky comments about kick ass asanas I think threw people off from the point of my post, which is that we in the west think, consciously or unconsciously, approach yoga with a different worldview than the one it emerged from. I apologize if you feel personally attacked, that wasn't my intention.

    What if instead of asking yoga to adjust to us – to see yoga as fitting into any social/political/cultural structure, we looked at possible problems with our own worldview? What I would maintain here is that the reductionistic, materialistic paradigm has really contributed greatly to so many of the problems we have in the world right now.

  21. netclove says:

    Hi Koverii,
    New to the bogging stuff…I can see how it will be a new outlet for me!!!
    I agree with this blog, being a Registered Nurse for over 10 years..I have had Drs..as well as other Nurses tell me not to "over think"..things..hmm I always thought it was my natural intuition kicking in..just the "knowing". I am so grateful to be learning your subtle yoga, I am turning 50..I am aware of where I am physically.
    I believe the meditation is the CRUCIAL factor in stdying yoga, I KNOW it is expanding my conciousness.
    I can not bend like a pretzel, nor do I plan to be a yoga athlete. I DO plan on teaching yoga..and all the healing aspects of it..to patients in my nursing practice.
    I know too many healthcare professionals that do not feel..can not feel..are so totally detached from themselves..the patients suffer tremendously…and as for the HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL…forget it!!!
    Harsh? maybe… Can one person change Healthcare?? I think of that one little monkey…
    I know I feel a shift of conciousness..am I over thinking something..I DO NOT THINK SO…
    I feel I need to be swept along in this glorious stream..I just dove in.
    I will go and wash some fruit now…..

  22. Welcome, netclove. Enjoyed your comments.

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