by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie
Acknowledging What We Bring to Yoga
It was a sultry summer night in Toronto, way way back in ‘09. Queen of Sheba Ethiopian restaurant, down on Queen West. Scott and I were sitting with Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer (of Guru Papers fame), plotting out the next three days of Yoga Festival Toronto, to which we’d invited them.
After dinner and beer, Diana leveled her laser-gaze at Scott and I and turned suddenly fierce.
“Why should I read Patanjali?” she demanded. “He wasn’t writing for me. He didn’t read Betty Friedan, or Simone de Beauvoir. He never saw modern warfare, or computers, or porn. Why do I care what he thought about anything? I’m not a historian. I’m a yogi.”
Our jaws hit the table. The pint glasses rattled. And another piece of the 2.0 puzzle came into focus.
In one withering gush, Diana had shown us the difference between the ideal and the real, between history and creativity, between history and the transhistorical. In all of our years, we had yet to run across a practitioner ballsy enough to assert that the meaning of yoga is owned by each practitioner, and created within each age and its zeitgeist. She liberated us from our unexamined reverence for the unknowable past.
Diana had also shown us the agenda behind our own reading strategies – how through 20 years of combined study and teaching we had not been able to look carefully at what we were really doing and why. We were reading and learning about and receiving oral instructions in ancient texts under the assumption that, if we squinted hard enough, if we sharpened our Sanskrit just a little more, or if we attended one more lecture, we would get it.
Get what? Some ancient and virginal gem that postmodernity could not help but to cover over with its shit. We would “get” whatever Kaliyuga was trashing. We would “get” the secrets of long-dead saints, and be liberated from our pomo-alienation. This had never happened, but we were hopeful, and well-trained: a failsafe recipe for despair.
We were holding an attitude that wants desperately to recover something of eternal value from an archeological dig that can never end. But in order to do so, we were unconsciously forfeiting our unacknowledged love for and dependency upon the wonders of present culture.
I realized that to wish that Patanjali holds some ultimate truth for me (rather than insight into yogic technology and worldview that worked for a select few humans in circumstances quite different from my own) is to tacitly decide that what is most useful to my life and practice is not intimate or close at hand, and that my empty culture has failed me. But culture cannot fail anyone, anymore than a plot of earth can fail what naturally grows upon it. I am my culture, alienated or not.
The wish comes from disenchantment and the exhaustion of angst. It reminds me of John Lennon dreaming up “Nowhere Man” after a night out drinking in depressed Liverpool – “He’s a real nowhere man / sitting in his nowhere land / making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” Is it any wonder that he jumped into Mahesh Yogi’s well-swaddled lap?
But we’re not nowhere-people. We’re not starting from scratch. We are not blank slates for the sages to write upon. Like it or not, aware of it or not, we are approaching yoga through wonderful worldviews, hard-won by generations of empaths: the Enlightenment, rationalism, liberal democracy, humanism, scientific materialism, dialectical materialism, phenomenalism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonialism, anti-racism, intersubjectivity, and now, 2.0 wiki-ness. These are the sweat-equity truths that we hold to be self-evident, volatile and shifting though they may be.
We will read Patanjali through these wonderful, kaleidoscopic lenses. We have no choice. To pretend we don’t is intellectually dishonest. Intellectual dishonesy binds the emotions up tight.
Three Postures for Reading Old Things
Diana alerted us to the several postures we can adopt when reading archaic texts such as the Yoga Sutras, compiled by the authorial convention we call Patanjali. These range from the exegetical, which takes the attitude that the text is self-sufficient and self-explanatory, to the hermeneutical, which asserts that the text is a co-creation of its terms and the shifting ways in which it is read by its various stakeholders.
Posture #1 is that we presume that the text was written by an enlightening being (much as the Bible might be thought by Evangelicals to be written by God and typeset by Jesus), and that it is perfect in every way for all times and for all people. It is a read-only document. You are beholden to read it perfectly, while knowing you never will, because you cannot understand God, after all. It is a pristine book in your grubby hands, and you better not smudge the pages. Oops — too late!
Most contemporary yogis can junk this posture, for while some might maintain that a given text was written by an enlightened being, virtually nobody would claim it to be universally and eternally perfect and relevant. Those who do so marginalize themselves in the yoga world, and frankly stain the rest of us with dogmatism. They will eternally and fruitlessly attempt to reform the present to suit their idealization of the past.
Posture #2 is quite common these days: strip down the archaic texts for parts that resonate with present personal or cultural needs. Quietly junk the crazy stuff, like Patanjali’s pada #3, where he teaches mind reading, bodily invisibility, levitaton, and the possession of the bodies of others. Next — create the illusion that your extractions prove some sort of archaic genius that resonates unchanging truth through the ages – truth that we have somehow forgotten. Create a spirituality of “basic messages”, as in: “the basic message of Buddhism is [fill in the blank]”, where the blank equals whatever it is you’re really keen on right now. This is intellectually dishonest. Doing a comb-over on the bizarre and contradictory history of yoga is no different from tacitly suppressing the fact that the Old Testament produced beautiful psalms and the Book of Job, but also featured a genocidal god who advocated slavery, as well as killing family members who adopt other religions. (See the ever-cheerful Sam Harris for more.) When we don’t read the whole, we lose sight of the most fertile paradoxes of history.
The intellectual dishonesty of #2 casts long shadows over both our confusions and our virtues.
Anyone who ignores the fact that “tapas”, for instance, has always implied a plethora of body-hating mortification techniques that we would currently view as pathological may well fail to interrogate whether any of these dark urges lurk in the shadows of present usage. We may have softened our definition of tapas to say: “vigorous effort”, but that won’t necessarily protect us from the echoes of self-hatred the old word retains.
The shadow cast over our modern virtues occurs through omission – today we generally value the fact that our saints no longer starve or flog themselves, as the old schools of tapas might command. When anybody today starves or cuts themselves deliberately, we encourage them to seek help for their mental health. Clearly we have made progress in the realm of healthy self-perception and self-care. (As well as in human rights, equality, and the germ theory of disease.) Can we throw ourselves a bone, here?
Another problem with #2 is that it assumes a findable difference between culture, intention, and meaning, and that intention and meaning can be extracted from culture. The #2 reader can even openly acknowledge what she doesn’t like in the archaic text from her present cultural perspective, openly identify with meanings she does like, and then discard the disagreeables as “cultural”. But often she’s ignoring the fact that she’s reading through her own culture and intention, to find and evolve her own desired meaning. You can’t junk the influence of caste or the glamorization of war within the entire meaning of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, without also throwing out the influence of liberal humanism and Gandhian ethics upon your own reading of the text. Nobody is free from culture – not even sages. To imply that meanings in a text are indeed free from culture is but a thinly veiled embroidering of reading posture #1, because such freedom would imply eternality of meaning, and we all know that eternal meanings must come from the pen of God. (As opposed to meanings we create together.)
And what’s the result of #2? We get modern readers who must overlook or apologize for the dreadful barbarism of our predecessors to bestow ultimate meaning upon their rare moments of lucidity. Is it tragic? Is loving the decontextualized poetic excerpts of archaic texts like continually eulogizing a violently alcoholic father for the few words of comfort he offered you one night, so long ago?
The subtext of #2 always seems to be: “Look at how brilliant the sages were. They really had it nailed. How have we forgotten such wisdom?” But Diane Alstad’s point throws it down: we’re actually the smartest ones standing, the smartest folk available to us. It is our modern intelligence, after all, that allows us to extract the rose from the shit of history. And perhaps our own poetry is even more valuable, because it comes from a world of effort towards human rights, democracy, and intersubjectivity. We would do well to shake off this transhistorical inferiority complex, this paralyzing anxiety of influence.
What reading strategy can work for us now?
Reading posture #3 involves understanding the context, authorship, original audience, the history of readership and publication, the agendas of translation and distribution, and the variety of possible reading strategies – as well as one’s own subjective response to a text. It consists of critiquing a text according to its broadest possible valence, and then suggesting a continuance of exploration – through questions rather than claims – that best meets the moment. Posture #3 says: “We don’t know what this text ultimately means, and we never will, because ultimate meanings are unfindable. But we do know what happens when people read it through their time and place. We can track its impacts and associations. And we can say how it makes us feel, knowing that this is subjective. So now: how do we read it? More importantly — how do we use it?”
The irony is: posture #3 transforms the text into what those in Posture #1 want it to be – something alive, and if not eternally true, then surely eternally provocative of evolution.
We arrive at the question: what do we value in our 2.0 relationship with Patanjali? How do we read, and think, and practice? This post is the first of a series of 33 articles on the eight limbs: two for each of the yamas and niyamas, and two for each of the other seven limbs. Plus this intro. We may not publish them consecutively, because we’ll surely need to mix things up as we go – commentaries on Gagayoga are time-sensitive, after all! We’ll treat each of the limbs twice in order to demonstrate a central tenet of the 2.0 project: the most effective research is a dialogue between theory and experience. We’ll use the first post to lay out theoretical language, and the second post to ground that language in our personal (and other-attenuated) experience.
The 8 limbs have been canonized in modern yoga culture as inviolate and perennially useful. This can lead to rather shallow readings, in which the abstract ideals are used to window-dress a dreamy and dissociative world. Inhale — of course we’re all non-violent… Exhale — of course we cherish the truth… Inhale — of course we don’t steal things… Exhale of course we treat our sexuality sacredly… How we wish things were so clear!
yoga 2.0 says that the 8 limbs are indeed useful, but only after close and careful reading that brings the worlds of Patanjali and postmodernism into sharp relief. This is already occurring as we go about our lives and practices. Now it simply has to become conscious.
We’ll round up this blog with an outline of what is to come: how we propose to study the Astanga system in the light of today. We’ll pose the seed questions and observations here, and unravel them over the next several months.
We’re not historians, as Diana said. We’re not curating museum exhibits behind glass. We’re not caretaking the rotting relics of saints. We’re not interested in books that resist the compost-pile of new thought. We’re yogis, and we’re growing in our garden. Our eight limbs are sprouting new runners of radiant complexity. May this stream of articles force some spring flowers.
Overview of the Eight Limbs according to 2.0
— Patanjali borrows this and the other four yamas from the Jains. But it meant something very different to them than it does to us. The Jain meaning implies “non-contact”: a withdrawal-attitude towards relationship that limits one’s karmic contamination. How do we continue to use ideals of non-violence to avoid necessary and often confrontational contact within present culture?
— Have yogis failed to understand the visceral distinction between pacificism, which eschews the very energy of violence, and the non-violence of activism, which throws itself, often aggressively, against oppression?
— Is ahimsa a yama (constraint)? Is it an avoidance? Or is it really a niyama (vow)? Can it become a promise to defeat oppression?
— What can this mean in a panoptic age of performance? What can this mean when you can comment on this very blog anonymously, or through an avatar? Who are you exactly in this world of many functions and appearances? How do we understand truthfulness in an age in which irony is a premium social currency?
— What does truthfulness mean in the age of science? Is truth constructed from evidence, or from experience? What truth claims made by yogis can be subjected to scientific inquiry? If they can’t withstand science, do we believe them? Or will we be forever tortured by the certainty that the polio vaccine now works flawlessly, but meditation has mixed and unverifiable results?
— This is meaningless to us without folding in meanings of ecological balance. How is our extractive culture giving back to the earth?
— What do you actually own and what do you actually steal? What justifies theft for you? Will you fuel your car with gas that was won in a war?
— What about intellectual property? Is there such a thing?
— Give us a break! What could this possibly mean now, amongst householder practitioners, in the era of birth control, after the sexual revolution, after feminism, after pro-porn feminism (whatever your stance on it), in which sex is an activity of personal pleasure, a political statement, and the sexual body is both a playground and battlefield of identity?
— How does brahmacharya support monogamy? Does monogamy work?
— Restraint of sexual energy is far less important than the exploration of sex as a means of contact in a disconnected and disembodied world.
— Is vanilla sex the new brahmacharya amongst modern yogis?
— To the Jains, this was a vow of poverty, which is interesting in a world of excess.
— “We don’t need non-attachment, for this is impossible. We need better attachments” – Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. Discuss!
— The biggest challenge to human grasping right now is the dawn of the wiki process, in which knowledge and resources are collaboratively generated. Is keeping anything proprietary now a form of grasping?
— Are we truly moving beyond the age of authorship? How long can an authored product (i.e.: John Friend’s Anusara system) survive this wave of collaborative creativity?
— Archaic, ascetic, scholastic, and modern Vedanta yogas are obsessed with purity – extracting the essence, the lotus rising from the mud, etc. But we’re all much more into mixing it up now. 2.0 is a blender for the incorporation of wholeness.
— The drive to purification suggests that embodiment itself is a liability. This can be a very nasty worldview.
— The drive to purification may encourage bodily dysmorphia. Sauca may be a root of disordered eating.
— Purity obsession culminates in the antiseptic coldness of modern medical space.
— Extracting the pure from the impure may be a subtle encouragement towards social alienation: rising above others.
— What can contentment be in an ever-changing, hyper-active world?
— Can we be content within our hyperawareness of global inequities?
— Discontentment is underrated: it’s actually the root of evolutionary change.
— Discontentment can be the experience of being awake in a world filled with suffering.
— An old-timey paradigm of heroism that seeks divine forgiveness and celestial reward through self-separation and self-abuse.
— Through austerity, the individual separates herself from not only ego function, but the ego-functions of others. What would collective austerity look like? Isn’t this what we need to deal with our ecology?
Svadhyaya (study of scripture)
— This originally means exigesis of sacred books. But we’re in an age of hermeneutics. See above.
— Our tools for self-inquiry are manifold. Check out our last post about video editing as sadhana. Books are a dying medium.
Isvarapranidhana (giving yourself to the divine)
— Really? As opposed to giving yourself to others? Or to this world?
— We’re moving quickly from the goal of attaining a “comfortable seat for meditation” into a rediscovery of the body in a post-industrial age.
— Asana today is used to gain power and self-confidence. Nowhere is this more evident than within women’s physical culture.
— Asana is now therapy.
— Asana is now hydridized with modern dance and martial arts.
— It’s much bigger than inner spaciousness and mental calm. We must now recognize the breath as being that which returns us to air, space, and environment. Pranayama can balance our technology; it can be our antidote to text. As David Abram writes in Spell of the Sensuous: “Only by training [your] senses to participate with the written word [did you break your] spontaneous participation with the animate terrain. Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air. The air, once the very medium of expressive interchange, would become an increasingly empty and unnoticed phenomenon, displaced by the strange new medium of the written word.” (p.254)
Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
— We’re actually experts at this these days, given how much we must filter. At the same time, electricity expands the sensual sphere. When the power goes out, we are shocked into sensory withdrawal.
— In the old-timey version we’re interested in the concentration of individual focus. Now our primary challenge is to create collective focus: to concentrate the power of public awareness.
— In the wiki-world, attention is focused by the hive. Viral memes draw the communal gaze. Very few of us are choosing objects of concentration without the influence of others. Focus seems to be increasingly governed by group-mind. When a youtube video cracks a million views, for example, the collective conscious has cohered a certain level of concentration, for which we have no name, as of yet.
— How exactly does this differ from dharana, first of all? It’s not at all clear. Looks like Patanjali just really wanted eight instead of seven. We’ll think of some kind of 2.0 take on this one. Suggest something!
— The first step when speaking the unspeakable is to loosen the language – to find synonyms. Coherence. Deep happiness. Communion. Release. pulsepulsepulse.
— The old-timey way promises integration with consciousness. But we’re probably more interested in integration with each other. How can the peak experiences of our lives be shared?
As always – your feedback and comments are food in our yogging begging-bowl! Discuss! Take the ball and run!
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.