Addressing the question of whether Matthew Remski should be burned at the stake for Yogic Heresy.

Via on Nov 27, 2012

Remixing Sutras: Untangling Threads and Burning Heretics.

So…to oversimplify, a bit, there are the yoga traditionalists, who view sacred texts and practices of yogic traditions as, y’know, sacred. And there are the yoga not-so-traditionalists, far more numerous and generally too busy setting intentions to attain the ever-elusive yoga butt to note that there’s a tradition to be traditional about.

Then there’s Matthew Remski, Professional Yoga Heretic, who’s just come out with his latest highly articulate and boundlessly inquisitive challenge to yogic correctness, threads of yoga: a remix of patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverie. In his previous book, with Scott Petrie, yoga 2.0, the yoga tradition was described as shamanic and largely oral, never to be fixed in any text, ever to be reinvented. Here, we find an audacious attempt at doing just that, through, essentially, rewriting, or remixing, Patanjali to fit with a more postmodern sensibility.

As far as I can tell, the only reason traditionalists haven’t subjected this guy to some relentlessly up-beat and supremely passive-aggressive equivalent of burning at the stake is that they  haven’t heard of him, yet. So, despite persistent fears that even reading such a book will lead to countless incarnations as a dung beetle, what’s a troublemaking yoga cynic to do but publicize it?

threads begins with deconstructing the tradition within which Patanjali—himself deconstructed as possibly one or many—and his sutras have existed, as well as its reception in a modern, western yoga community that, while revering it, or, at least, giving lip-service to reverence, is animated by body-oriented and ecological concerns that seem diametrically opposed to it. Having pointed out this contradiction, it takes the opposite tack of the traditionalist jeremiad. Remski calls the sutras a marvelous document with serious flaws, rejecting its dualism, its denial of the flesh, its theism, its asceticism, its valorization of isolation over relationship, its hierarchies and gurus, and, essentially, all of its metaphysics, intending to re-locate the mystical in the material, concerned not with the separation of consciousness from awareness but rather a necessary love affair between the two.

Got those coals glowing yet?

Ultimately, what we find here is a dazzling, incredibly ambitious mix of reverence and irreverence—combining a powerful desire not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater with the acknowledgment that there is considerable bathwater to be thrown out. It’s kind of like what Thomas Jefferson attempted to do—creating his Jefferson Bible by combing through the Gospels and excising anything smacking of the supernatural, leaving Jesus as a teacher of ethics in-line with enlightenment—in the western sense—thinking. For his part, Remski wants to bring the Yoga Sutras in line with Darwin, contemporary neuroscience, particle physics, and postmodern philosophy. And, unlike fans of that What the Bleep movie or the law of attraction, or my Facebook friends who keep posting bogus crap about Einstein’s faith in God, he wants to do so honestly.

As such, he takes a far more radical and ambitious tack than Jefferson: not merely excising, but overtly altering—though, it should be mentioned, never doing so surreptitiously; each change is described and justified at length, revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of translations and commentaries. And, for the most part, he shows respect, even if, occasionally, using words like deranged for a particularly irksome passage, or describing Patanjali’s essential viewpoints as traumatized and suicidal. Most audaciously, in forging this aggressively subjective revision, he suggests that he is, actually, following the tradition of Patanjali him(or them)self: Patanjali is collating the loops and hooks of several generations into a non-denominational heartbeat, nodding with equal appreciation toward the Jains, the Samkhyans, and the bhakti’s of his day. He’s spinning the discs, splicing and cutting, and we dance.

He does not, like so many who try to make ancient scriptures relevant, say “this is what Patanjali really meant”—through rhetorical sleight of hand turning unpalatable ancient viewpoints on their heads to agree with contemporary views (since, y’know, when those ancient sages talked about chastity they couldn’t have actually meant not having sex). Nor does he embrace the contradictions of liberal-minded western yogis who freely mock Christian fundamentalists’ rejection of evolution while embracing eastern conceptions of consciousness, that, as he points out at length, don’t really jibe with Darwin, either.

Nor, finally, does he play the common trick of describing the words of the ancients as inherently timeless and universal truths spoken by the Divinity before the beginning of time one minute, only to turn around and place objectionable passages in cultural and historical context the next. To the contrary, his attitude seems to be: “Patanjali really meant exactly what it looks like he’s saying, and that’s precisely why I’m changing it.”

To many, this might seem like destroying the sutras in order to save them. To others, it might seem a case of saving, out of misplaced sentimentality, what could be discarded completely. This middle path will likely satisfy neither. However, it’s one that can provide quite a trip for anyone with the gumption to follow it for a while.

At the very least, that’s what it is to this reader, even as I question a lot of its conclusions, and have doubts about the project as a whole—seeing groundwork for an intriguing practical modern philosophy of yoga laid out, but wondering at times if trying to insert that philosophy into Patanjali’s text is an unnecessary muddying of the waters of both. And yet, I find myself continually challenged, informed, and bedazzled within its pages, suspecting that, even if I rejected its main points entirely, it would remain the most interesting yoga book I’ve read in quite some time.

The prose, admittedly, is elliptical and sometimes mystifying—which may be unavoidable in a making an argument that’s both non-dualist and non-non-dualist: Yoga implies joining, which presupposes the not-joined. The word contains its opposite, as does its practice. And it frequently veers into what smells like the critical theory so popular in English departments when I was in grad. school—though, thankfully, less the pompous, heavy-handed tedium of the British and Germans, and more the poetic, playful verve of the French, who at least knew how to find fun and poetry in impenetrability: The ossified text is the Baudrillardian object: always already laughing at your incomprehension. Do you understand that? No? Well, that’s kind of the point.

This is heady, enigmatic stuff, never failing to provoke thought while sometimes upholding, sometimes contradicting, arguing with, embracing, or dancing a subtle counter-step or do-si-do with Patanjali—or, in the case of sutra 2.26, quoting the Clash. The first sutra is given as we all inquire into yoga—not too dissimilar from what I learned in teacher training at Kripalu—indicating that yoga, in its essence, is an exploratory journey interested more in questions than solid answers. And this, as much as progressive politics, ecology, and a more communitarian consciousness so important to the author, seems the goal: a yoga defined by continuous and vibrant inquiry, discussion, and revision rather than adherence to cold words labeled as sacred: a democracy of evolutionary seeking, a do-it-yourself spirit, and the radiance of brevity, offering a rational and customizable road map for a very personal journey.

And, instead of a journey from something pure and perfect in a mythical past toward the corruption of the modern, threads posits yoga as something that is naturally evolving. The purpose here, then, is not merely to be iconoclastic or to contradict, but to allow yoga to grow with humanity—to put it more in line with science than religion, taking it out of the strange limbo where the latest anatomical research is cited one moment with the Bhagavad Gita described as literal history the next.

Or, perhaps, it would be more in line with art than either, as these remixed sutras are given in multiple forms—prose, numbered aphorisms with and without explication, and postmodern verse—nudging us to read even this remix as a multiple, polyphonous rather than singular, solitary text, emphasizing that no sutra can define, quantify, or prescribe the quiet openings of the heart. At times, commentary veers into autobiography. At other times, Remski is tricksterish, with conclusions that seem, in Blake’s words, somewhere ‘twixt earnest and joke. Many strong opinions are expressed—and, certainly, there are blatant agendas driving the cart—though, it should be noted, these agendas are never hidden.

Certainly, there are blind spots and presuppositions. The reader is asked: What should a root yoga text say, given what we now understand from evolution, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis? From neuroscience, humanism, feminism, and deconstruction? Later, we’re told that what we as postmodern practitioners can reasonably expect and enjoy from meditative discipline lies in between these anachronistic goals of super-power attainment and blissful withdrawal. Let me be straight: as a committed agnostic-on-a-good-day, new-age-and-old-time-religion-averse, comfortably-left-of-center yoga cynic with a PhD, I’m probably more postmodern than the vast majority of practitioners. I welcome this non-theistic, simultaneously non-dualistic and non-non-dualistic conception of yoga like a cool beer I thought would never arrive.

And yet, even I can’t help asking: who exactly is this we you keep talking about? Are the understandings gleaned from this list of ologies and isms, including the big one underlying the project, postmodernism, not to mention the Marxist dialectic implied in terms like late capitalism, really so  universally accepted and agreed upon, even among the small subset of more bookish, secular- and progressive-minded yogis?

And then there’s ayurveda, brought up in numerous places. It’s a subject I don’t know much about. However, the impression I’ve gotten is that it’s at least as closely related to the ancient eastern metaphysics interrogated, deconstructed, and largely disregarded in threads as more modern schools of thought. And yet, it seems to be presented as something that we as postmodern practitioners should take at face value, even as all of the other old verities are torn down.

Then, again, inspiring such complaints is part of the point—to provoke discussion in the interests of continual revision, to open up new possibilities through deconstructing the old—including what might be termed a scorched-earth approach to spirituality—not to provide a new last word to replace the old one but to offer an invitation for many more words, countless more inquiries, in edgeless and endless learning, to come. As Remski paraphrases the final sutra of his own remix: We are not content to end with a static state. Research will continue.

threads‘ message is expressed most clearly and in its loveliest, most poetically allusive language in its coda—making me wonder, actually, why it’s not at the beginning. Here, Remski comes closest to really laying a foundation—if  one that’s intentionally less than solid: The yoga 2.0 mind bathes in uncertainty. If stymied, confused, or frustrated with threads, I recommend skipping ahead to this part before giving up completely (perhaps avoiding the discussion of neuroscience in section 8.4, which, while fascinating, might be the most technical and difficult reading in the book—though it’s also where Remski directly addresses potential criticism), then going back and trying again.

Having made it through this journey, I find myself looking forward to going back and reading more conventional translations and commentaries, and suspect that other readers will, as well. Then, eventually, I may return to this remix, or, perhaps, others that might be inspired by it. I hope also to read extensive rebuttals from traditionalists, even if they involve calls to burn Matthew Remski for heresy.

And that—metaphorically speaking, of course—is certainly an option, and valid as any other. I would recommend, however, reading threads of yoga, slowly and mindfully, first.

 

Top image: Diebold Schilling the Older, Spiezer Chronik 1485 Burning of Jan Hus at the stake; public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons

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About Jay Winston

Jay S. Winston, founder and proprietor of Yoga for Cynics (http://yogaforcynics.blogspot.com), has a PhD in English, making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die, is currently (semi-)(un-)employed as a freelance writer and editor, teaches creative writing to homeless men, tutors recovering addicts in reading, was recently certified as a Kripalu yoga teacher, gets around mostly by bicycle, is trying to find an agent for his novel, resides in the bucolic Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, State of Mildly Inebriated Samadhi, U.S.A. and, like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.

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33 Responses to “Addressing the question of whether Matthew Remski should be burned at the stake for Yogic Heresy.”

  1. Carol Horton carolhortonbooks says:

    Wow, what an excellent review! Beautifully written, funny, smart and incisive – in a word, fantastic. Does justice to Matthew's excellent book, which is no easy feat to accomplish. Thanks.

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Just a thought…why do we suppose that anything today, spiritual- for no better word, is "growing" or "evolving"? How do we assume we understand a method's motivation well enough to think we are in a position to bend it to our versions of "evolution"? Why do we flatter ourselves with the idea that we are instruments of "spiritual evolution"? Why do we want to change "systems" we do not completely understand? Do you think that if we came to a full understanding of a spiritual system we would feel a need to "tweak" it? I don't think so.

  3. I just read Matthew's essay in 21st Century Yoga and had the same feeling of his prose being elliptical. In fact, thank you for phrasing it that way. Although, I sometimes had to go back and reread what he wrote to understand it, I enjoyed his essay and will at some point pick this up. Perhaps I should use it as reference for Scarlet's Sutras…

  4. Scott Smith Miller says:

    The biggest "blind spot" is in respect to the idea that there was a "Patanjali" at all. There wasn't. Please read my EJ post entitled "A Woman Authored the Yoga Sutra" for complete clarification. I told Matthew about it, but because he had just published an entire book supporting the clearly mistaken idea that an actual man named Patanjali authored the YS, he gave a half-hearted excuse for why he would not recognize (a better on all levels) alternative idea. And that's the way it goes. Yoga teachers of both genders have vested interests in perpetuating a prejudicing idea. Someone like Matthew should jump on the alternative idea, but he doesn't because of what he's already done. So a silly idea goes merrily on despite how easy it is to refute. The Patanjali idea only comes from one story and when the story is interpreted at all well and reasonably it becomes a great and completely useful description of how a woman named Gonika authored the original YS. The reason that the YS is so horribly "flawed," then, has to do with it being a counterfeit text. A "tapasvini" like Gonika would never have authored a dualistically fundamentalist text. A thousand years after the original text was authored, men changed it in accordance with a later, more misogynistic time period in India, and that's the best reason for why we need to spend the effort to change our thinking. A woman did author the most important yogic text in yoga history and if we don't recognize Gonika's existence, yoga history is told without mention of a single female figure. Given how many women are now teaching yoga teacher training, you'd think the cause of Gonika would be a slam dunk. Nope. Famous female yoga teachers are now every bit as invested in the status quo as Matthew.

  5. Thaddeus Haas Thaddeus1 says:

    Somehow I doubt anyone will be reading, let alone remember, Remski or his autographed version of the Yoga Sutra in 100 years, what to speak of 2000. Time, experience and results will be the real test here.

  6. Scott Smith Miller says:

    AMENDMENT TO MY EARLIER COMMENT:
    To be fair, I need to explain why I thought Matthew's response to the Gonika idea was "half-hearted." After explaining to Matthew why I felt it was important from a philosophical perspective (not just a political perspective) to rethink our understanding of who authored the YS, Matthew's last reply to me was that he had "definitely fallen into a materialistic perspective on reality, after decades of metaphysics — Catholic, Buddhist, Sanatana Dharma, etc. (and therefore had) no interest in getting up!"
    Since what we were discussing at that point (Revealed Knowledge) actually doesn't go beyond modern, progressive physics, I could tell Matthew was just excusing himself from the discussion. I was sure that I could explain to him why "Revealed Knowledge" is scientific, so even if he didn't want to believe in it, without the investment problem, he still could have seen why the Gonika idea is important beyond the politics involved. Matthew has sense referred to my attempt to get people interested in the Gonika idea as a "singular interest" even though I have pointed out to him it's philosophical importance. That's okay. I'm used to it. People with vested interests in bad ideas defend those ideas with more mistaken ideas. It's an endless regress.
    But since Matthew had engaged in the overall discourse with some effort I can see how it might seem unfair to refer to it as "half-hearted." I just didn't buy what he was claiming and since his claim not to be "metaphysical" successfully ended the possibility that he would investigate the idea further, I thought he was making a kind of lame excuse. Granted, that's different than "half-hearted."
    But I also need to be clear that I have not read Matthew's book and am in no way judging the validity of his actual work. I'm glad that someone is pointing out that the YS is overly dualistic. It is. I've made the same point in several of my books. And even though I haven't read Matthew's new work, given what he has written on this blog, I'm sure his book is well written and worthy of reading. At the same time, I do hold to the idea that the main reason successful yoga teachers are unwilling to jump ship regarding the Patanjali Proposal is that they just can't see going back on everything they've taught (and, or written about) for so long.

  7. piers ede says:

    Nice. Just ordered 2 copies!

  8. EXCELLENT, obviously thoughtful review! When I had the opportunity to read his MS this past summer, I had many of the same responses.

    In particular, I was delighted with his unwavering commitment to the text we have 'received.' So many others twist and squirm through the text, as you point out, "turning unpalatable ancient viewpoints on their heads to agree with contemporary views)" as if "this is what Patanjali really meant." Folks do this with the buddha too! Traditionalists decry this because they really DO accept, believe and attempt to live by and practice from those "ancient viewpoints" while I criticize this because it is fundamentally intellectually dishonest. That's why I was so delighted to see that Remski accepts the text at face value and then says "this is precisely why I'm changing it."

    And, not at all surprising, it didn't take a traditionalist long to register complaint along with the snarky assumption that those of us who wish to critically engage with our practice traditions haven't fully understood them! This kind of viewpoint isn't even worth responding to.

    What I do think an interesting and provocative question is the one you, Jay pose when you ask "who exactly is this 'we' you keep talking about?" I had the same question and emailed Remski about it. I think the number of those who would fall within the subset of yoga practitioners sharing Remski's understandings (the "list of ologies, and isms, postmodernism, and Marxist dialectic" in particular) seems pretty small at present. At least, from my experience, most contemporary yoga practitioners seem to give little thought to these questions, and have such a poor understanding of Patanjali (or any philosophical context for practice) that they are unaware of the problematic nature of the Yoga-Sutra. On top of that, many (if not most) are more informed and inspired by New Age pablum like "The Secret," and the pseudo-science of "What The Bleep" or the latest Chopra spiel than any "ancient" text!

    Finally, as someone who has studied Ayurveda as well as Yoga, I too would love to hear Remski speak to his use of Ayurveda in light of contemporary science. I, myself have radically changed my attitude and relationship to Ayurveda over the years, and no longer see it in the favorable glow of my youthful enthusiasm.

  9. Doug says:

    Consider that, as Mark Singleton demonstrated in his essay in his book 'Yoga in the Modern World,' Patanjali was never really that important in the arc of yoga philosophy, except that we made him so, starting around the time of Vivekananda. While provocative and possibly fruitful, we are now heaping confusion upon confusion, while hyperventilating over whether we are toying with something 'sacred' — when the truth is, Patanjali's work was never all that 'sacred,' really. (OMG! OMG! OMG! — did he really just say that?)

  10. Brilliant review, Jay. And I know Matthew himself has said that he finds your article here to be the best thing he has seen on his work.

    I've kind of retreated from the grand yoga debate game recently, and on to other things, like systematically studying the works of Schubert, Hayden, Brahms, and other favorite composers, and reading wonderful but unpublished novels by my favorite writers.

    But your review makes me want to go back and retrieve some of the rip-roaring debates I've had with Matthew myself, mostly in long interchanges in the comment sections of his elephant articles, and mostly about the superiority of the Bhagavad Gita over the Yoga Sutra, precisely because, in my interpretation, the Gita solves many of the problems he tries to solve in his remix of the Yoga Sutra, whereas Matthew insists on relegating the Gita, completely wrongly, in my opinion, to the dustbin of ancient voodoo spirituality, whereas I see the Gita, don't throw-up on me here, as being identical to Einstein's very secular spirituality of ineffable wonder.

    See what I mean? Matthew and I had lots of great discussions about this, and also debates about his first book, yoga 2.0, which confounded and challenged me in the same way you describe your reaction to threads of yoga above.

    Oh well, not in the cards right now, because Brahms and novels and planning for a future living abroad beckon. But maybe I'll do it someday.

    Thanks for this wonderful article and for being, along with Matthew himself, one of my very favorite writers and people.

    Bob
    http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/

  11. […] its self-published pages, I felt as though Matthew Remski had given Patanjali a shave and haircut—the dusty old monk—and then dressed him in eco-chic loungewear and sat him down to talk with me […]

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  13. Karl Haltiner says:

    I'm curious to know whether Mr Remski can read Sanskrit and has the ability to translate the original texts on his own. If not, then what business does he have trying to rewite or remix any of these works? Otherwise, he is just twisting around someone else's translations…and manipulating them into something which suits him and serves his own ego.

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