April 14, 2011

Why Does Patanjali Matter?! I Think We Can Do Better.

Hello yoga colleagues! I am interested in starting a dialog here about what I think is a bit of a disconnect between what is really going on in 21st century American Yoga and the way philosophy is being taught in teacher training programs. I am myself not an expert, learned scholar, translator or historian, but have a personal intellectual context that the practice of yoga and meditation fits into for me – and I love to share it. What follows are some ideas and perspectives you may already be familiar with, but I just want to carve out my niche a little – I hope it is at the very least somewhat entertaining!

Let me put my perspective/biases on the table right from the start: I am an immigrant, a sort of refugee from what was both a racist regime under South African Apartheid, but also a kind of theocracy. Biblical chapter and verse were quoted in support of the racial oppression of Apartheid, all businesses were closed on Sunday, no sports played, no movie theaters open etc, and all schools taught Bible study, recited the Lord’s prayer and sang the standard war-faring/religious national anthem in classrooms.

I came to the USA a very idealistic young man: a musician who had played under an assumed name in illegal protest rock circles, a member of a small group of conscientious objectors who were threatened with 6 year jail sentences for refusing to conform with the Apartheid draft to which all white boys were subjected. This protest rock, draft-dodging, and generally counter-culture movement I was part of in South Africa in the 80’s had a lot in common with America in the 60’s. I must have watched the movie made about Woodstock 20 to 30 times, and believed I was coming to the land of freedom, open-mindedness, and liberal intelligence. For me, my overly-idealized notions of the 60’s were America. Of course, arriving in the year of Bush Snr’s first foray into the Gulf – I was to find out otherwise!

Draft card being burned.

Nonetheless, this image of America included the historically rare phenomenon of a generation of young people turning away from their dominant culture, way of life, and religion, to explore and embrace philosophies and practices from other traditions. The counter-culture revolution that really brought yoga and meditation into American life was based in a radical desire to question everything, to seek truth beyond authoritarian dogma and control, to attain to a kind of transcendence and liberated new identity that was pursued at the time  through music, dance, psychoactive drugs, sexual awakening, and a fascination with the East.

It was this specific cocktail of hippie rebellion that took people like Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) to India, and would later pave the way for the many meditation and yoga teachers to journey to the East and bring back the treasures of the inner life they discovered. Of course, with hindsight,  the hippie movement is something that we can critique; for its selfishness, over-indulgence, adolescent attitudes etc, but it really did forever change the world in ways we often take for granted now.

One of the things that drew me personally to yoga and meditation was this explicit association with going beyond the limitations of conventional society and traditional religion, and discovering – via direct experience, dedicated practice, and a rigorous thought – the truth beyond social conditioning, psychological repression, and self-delusion. In my continuing study of spiritual traditions, I found that there was a group in each of the major traditions that was always pushing the envelope, always seeking to stay in an alive relationship to their inquiry and a celebration of personal awakening. These brave spiritual adventurers were often oppressed for going against the calcified structures of the hybrid of political and religious authoritarian power.

These mystics were Sufis in Islam, Tantrics and Non-Dualists in Hinduism/Buddhism, various brands of heretic in Christianity, and we could perhaps include Kabbalists in Judaism. For many years these types of thinkers were my heroes, and it is for this reason I have always read Rumi, Kabir, Hafez, Lala, Mirabai, Hildegard, and other fiery, potent and passionate poets of radical self-awakening in my classes.

In the tubs at Esalen

For me there is a kind of lineage that runs from the spiritual rebels of several hundred years ago, people like the currently popular Rumi, whose students had to meet in secret – to people like Britian’s William Blake, who wrote in the 1700’s about a powerful direct experience of spirituality beyond the restrictions of the religion that surrounded him – to  the late 1800’s and the New England group that included Thoreau, Emerson and America’s own great mystic poet Walt Whitman, whose passionate expression of the sacredness of nature, the human body and sexuality were considered scandalous in his time. This lineage continues through the “beat poets” of the 1950’s and 60’s who were heavily influenced by Alan Watt’s and the Zen master D.T. Suzuki he was instrumental in bringing to San Francisco – and my sense is that all of this gives birth to what was at the time called the “human potential movement,” which combined humanistic psychology, encounter groups, Yoga, meditation, and teaching on Zen and world mythology from luminaries like Watts, Ram Dass,  Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls and others at places like Esalen in Big Sur, California.

Image inspired by the ecstatic poetry of Rumi.

The human potential movement was the love-child of 60’s rebellion and a kind of intellectual and spiritual curiosity about the possibilities of a disciplined intention to wake up and make a positive contribution to the world once the smoke of of the hippies had cleared. Yet all of this only seems possible in the light of an attitude of inquiry that valued essence over dogma, experience over belief, awakening over piety, nature and humanism over transcendent otherworldliness.

It seems to me quite ironic to find that as yoga becomes more institutionalized as part of American society, this attitude of personal awakening is often left by the wayside in favor of a kind of pious lip-service that amounts to an almost religious instilling of classical Hindu beliefs, based largely in the sutra of Patanjali – as if these are scriptures to be learned by rote and believed-in as gospel. This learning of the aphorisms is taught under the title of “philosophy,” but not a lot of philosophy gets done; ie not much critical thinking, comparing of ideas, encouragement to think through these teachings and see if they hold water is offered.

Let's emphasize the awe-inspiring "Great Sage" label a little less and actually evaluate his ideas.

I wonder what it would take to inspire a more robust discussion of the roots of Yoga, and also a more updated, contemporary inclusion of the thinkers, ideas and perspectives that American Yoga has been shaped by over the last 50 odd years?

It seems to me that what is going on experientially in our yoga world is not that accurately contextualized by Patanjali, who is of course just one thinker amongst many in the rich tradition of India, before we even start to add more contemporary voices from the powerful East/West dialog between Classical Yoga, Western Psychology, Tantra, Buddhism, the mystic poets, Transpersonalists and integral Theorists like Stan Grof, Jack Kornfield, and Ken Wilber etc and even the Somatic Psychology thread that I trace from Reich to Lowen to contemporaries like Peter Levine..

So – this is just an opening introduction to what I hope can become a hearty conversation about the future of Yoga, and especially the cultural and philosophical context we find ourselves in now and how we train teachers to cultivate and teach viveka and cross-cultural inquiry rather than a kind of rote parroting of metaphysical beliefs.

In my next post, I will discuss some of my misgivings re: Patanjali, and some of the perspectives I think that should at the very least be included in a well-rounded consideration of the subject of “Yoga Philosophy.”

Please let me know if this is an interesting project to be involved with in the comments below! Also feel free to forward this to anyone else in our global community who you think would be interested in participating…. I envision us taking turns contributing articles and discussing in the comments section – like a big symposium. Wanna play?!

Here is Part One of my deconstruction of the Great Sage!

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