Yoga, Truth, and Dogma: 5 Ways of Knowing What’s Real.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Apr 22, 2011
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Traditional yoga makes certain truth claims that rubs Matthew Remski the wrong way. He plants his feet firmly on the intellectual mat and reserves the right to be both philosophically and scientifically cynical. Very cynical. For cynicism, he claims, is the new yoga, the yoga that looks at reality with openness, freshness, accuracy, a yoga that embraces the open-ended road beyond dogma.

For Mathew Remski and his yoga 2.0 project truly dislikes dogma of any kind so strongly that his aversion for it sometimes sounds pretty dogmatic. Patanjali makes truth claims that cannot be verified, the yoga 2.0 folks lecture us with the fervor of Southern Baptist preachers. Remski is indeed so inflexible about this “truth” that he thinks he is absolutely right about it. Because he’s got reductionist science on his side, and science is always truthful, is it not? Not really.

The truth claims of science also changes. What is true science today may be wrong science tomorrow.

What does yoga in its own sacred language, Sanskrit, actually say about truth. Is there only one absolute overriding truth in yoga? No, actually there are several ways to express and know truth according to the yogic language of Sanskrit. At least 5 ways.

1.Tathya=fact. It is a fact that I am typing this sentence to you right now. And now. This fact can be verified by my dog Shakti. I swear she knows what I am doing. In other words, a fact is that which even a dog can observe with her sensitive nose. A fact is an observation of something that actually happened.“Yes, she is really doing mayurasana (peacock) right now, I can see how she struggles to keep her body parallel to the floor.” That’s a fact. It’s not an absolute fact, however, that Patanjali lived 200 years before Christ. It might have been 50 years before Christ, or even 90. Maybe he never even existed.  But it is a fact that a Sanskrit text called the Yoga Sutras, supposedly written by Patanjali, does exist. That is tathya. It is also a fact that my teacher Anandamurti has written a new series of yoga sutras called Ananda Sutram which adds scientific ideas, such as evolution, to the yogi cosmology. That is a fact. I have a copy of this slim book. It is also a fact that Matthew Remski lives in Toronto. Unless he and his friends are lying about it, of course. But since I am not a full- blown cynic, I believe him.

2. Samyak=correct, accurate. It is more accurate to say that yoga is a spiritual practice than a religion. A religion is a set of belief systems you must adhere to whether you can verify the truth claims the religion makes or not. As Bill Maher said in an interview:

“If Billy Graham thinks that heaven is such a great place, that once you get there, you will never want to return to earth, why doesn’t he commit suicide right now?” I think that was, in fact, the correct question to ask. Because, you know, if you really believe that heaven is a much better place than this world, why be here, right?

But since hipster yogis don’t believe that kind of religious dogma, we keep on staying right here on the mats and the cushions with which we cover our beloved (and heavenly) earth.

3. Rita=truth. This is the word that keeps yogis tangled up in an intellectual twist not so easy to bend yourself out of. Yogis often confuse the meaning of rita with satya. Rita means simply this: my father died of lung cancer five years ago. That is the truth. And if you tell that truth to someone, it is nothing but the factual truth. And if you practice rita, you always tell the truth. Always. Just like the cynics, just like Matthew Remski. He wants nothing but the real truth. Always. That’s why he is a 2.0 yogi. A no nonsense, beyond dogma yogi. A correct, factual, truthful yogi. Nothing but.

4. Satya=benevolent truth. As I said above, people got these two words rita and satya tangled up in a mess. The inner meaning of satya (at least one of them) is that we speak the truth if it is of benevolence, of service, of benefit, but not if it’s not. Let’s say you have a female friend staying at your place hiding out from a violent husband, who is also a friend of yours. Will you tell your friend she is staying at your place if he asks you? If you follow the principle of rita (factual, correct truth) you would. But no. You are a yogi. You follow the practice of satya, you are a benevolent kind of person. You will stand up for your female friend, not the dogmatic, factual truth, so you say No. You practice satya. I think even that kind of benevolent falsehood would even be acceptable to yoga cynics. Sounds pretty post-modern to me.

5. Satya=unchanging truth. There is another spiritual meaning of satya that also has many yogis, especially the cynics among us, going into pretzel like spasms of conflicting emotions and meaning making. Especially the cynics among us. This implication of the word refers to that part which is unchanging, that never undergoes shifts of consciousness, that never can be right today and wrong tomorrow, such as rita, or samkya.

For some truths are true today and wrong tomorrow. That is what science has taught us. Truth is not always the same. But satya is always the same. Always true no matter what. Why? Because in this regard satya refers to that state of mind or spirit that is unchangingly peaceful, not fluctuating. It is the great void of the Buddhist, the nirvikalpa samadhi of the yogis; that state of mind which, at least for the duration it lasts, never changes, never fluctuates. Satya refers to spirit, not to mind, not to the body, because both the body and the mind refers to relative truths. That is why Patanjali said this state is conditioned upon not having any vittis (mental fluctuations) on your mind, no conflicting thoughts or cynical emotions. Only peace and bliss.

Now, here comes the complicated part, especially for the cynics, because they won’t even accept that such a state exists. They will of course insist that Matthew Remski lives in Toronto, even though I have never been to Toronto myself, and never ever of course even seen Matthew Remski in person. That picture of him up on Elephant Journal could be a fake for all that I know. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll believe he exists. Why? Because all the circumstantial evidence points in the direction of it being the truth. The authority of his friends, the phone book, etc points toward him speaking the truth, of him being correct. But this fact is not satya, not unchanging truth. Next year he might live here in Asheville, NC.

So, the absolute truth, the perfect bliss, etc. that the yogis refer to is not the kind of truth the cynics should be too worried about. When did you experience a war being waged in the name of that kind of truth claim? Never. When did we experience wars being started in the name of other kinds of religious dogmas. Many many times over.

But the cynics are right in pointing out those yogis who spout these truth claims in dogmatic fashion as if they themselves have experienced nirvikalpa Samadhi. That is worth being cynical about. But it is not worth being cynical about Buddha just because he claimed he had experienced the Great Void of inner, enlightened silence. The satya of Buddhahood. All Buddha really said was; this state is real, so real it’s totally unreal. Furthermore, said Buddha, if you try long and diligently enough, you’ll also experience this unreal state of satya, this super-cosmic state of statelessness.

Had Buddha instead said: “If you don’t believe I am right, then you’ll go to hell.” Then we’d have to worry. He did not say that. He said instead, be practical, try it out and see for yourself, experience it for yourself.

Still, the cynics are right in asking: why should we believe the truth claimers? Why should we believe that they are telling the truth? The fact is, we cannot actually verify the truth claim of absolute satya unless we ourselves have had the experience of unchanging bliss or sat+chit+ananda. But we do have some authoritative voices pointing toward it being true; yogis who claim to have experienced it. That’s all we have. Because science cannot verify the inner state of union of yoga anymore than it can verify the inner state of love.  Science can verify correctly the brain waves emitted by love, but not the actual experience of love. Only the person in love can experience love. Similarly, science can measure the brain waves of someone in samadhi, but not the interior experience of how Samadhi feels like from the inside out. That far inside science cannot go. Only the science, the empirical state, of yoga can go that far.

Matthew Remski made a big deal about scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, whose left brain  stopped functioning and left her right brain spiraling her neurons into blissed-out Samadhi-land. Matthew really believes she was telling the truth, and he also said it must be true because it all came from her brain, not just her mind. Because brain is physical, so it must be true, must be science. But wait a minute! All we have to go by is her telling us what she experienced with here mind. No scientific instrument can actually verify what her brain was experiencing any more than a scientific instrument can verify what a yogi experiences during Samadhi. In other words, by the same logic, we should not just give Bolte Taylor the benefit of the doubt, but also the yogis who claim they experienced Samadhi. People like me.

For this I know for certain, in my deepest meditations, I experience a state of love, bliss, union, Samadhi, peace that is far more intense than I have gained from sex, a book, a painting, an ice cream, a sunset, an essay by the Buddha, a poem by Rumi.

And I don’t think Mathhew Remski should be afraid that I will raise hell and be dogmatic about this truth claim any more than the sages of nirvikalpa samadhi. (there are many types of Samadhi experiences, but nirvikalpa, which I have never experienced, is considered the most serene, the most supreme and nondual of them all) They could care less about what Remski thinks. They won’t tell him, like some dogmatic preacher, that he’ll go to hell for distrusting their claims. They’ll just say this; there are two states of being—duality and non-duality. In the realm of duality, cynicism is a healthy habit, but in regards to non-duality, cynicism is of no use. It will simply be absorbed and vanish like a drop in some cosmic bucket. Cynicism is great for those truths that undergo change, but not so great in understanding the truth that undergoes no change. But I’ll bet, the cynics won’t believe this truth claim one bit. Because they’ll keep on questioning, even when questioning is of no use. They like moving straight ahead, but they also like wandering in circles.

The new yoga, to me, is the yoga that use questions whenever questions are appropriate. Hence, I welcome the questioning cynics of yoga 2.o. But I also live another yoga, a yoga of open arms of bhakti and inner leaps of faith, a yoga where questions are burdens that weighs me down, that tangles the flow of the journey in brambles of confusion. And I’m sure, when Mathew Remski sings to the harmonium and makes love to his beloved, he also leaves most, if not all, his questions behind. No question about it.

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About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Comments

85 Responses to “Yoga, Truth, and Dogma: 5 Ways of Knowing What’s Real.”

  1. integralhack says:

    Would someone be so kind and publish a link to the relevant Remski article(s) or comments?

    I think there is room for both scientific cynics (as Remski seems to have defined this perspective) and the believers in the yogic apprehension of absolute reality, the luminous, divine, etc.

    Personally, I prefer the latter's point of view and would rather have someone of that view teaching me yoga. On the other hand, I generally would rather have someone of the former view repairing my car. 😉

    Ultimately it all boils down to compassion (which seems complementary to Ramesh's breakdown of benevolent truth): a view of the absolute (or divine) should not encourage me to impose my belief on others just as my confidence in scientific method should not encourage me to argue that those who believe in the apprehension of the absolute are deluded. Both standpoints suffer from fundamental confusion.

    The absolute view, after all, is one of interconnection (one which the "big view" of science and physics seems to support) and a real scientific view does not attempt to prove anything absolutely — all scientific ideas are open to revision in the light of new evidence.

    -Matt

  2. luke says:

    The quote Ramesh gave above is from http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/03/yoga-and-the-religious-attitude/sutrasbible/
    The collection of the “yoga 2.0” articles are available at http://www.elephantjournal.com/author/yoga-20-lab/
    Their blog is at http://yoga2point0.com/wordpress/
    I enjoy what they do but also think they run so hard philosophicationing that the critical-edge becomes more important than useful critiques.

  3. Hi, Chelsea. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that when Matthew writes his rebuttal blog, which I'm sure he's hard at work on as we speak, the first thing he's going to say is that Ramesh's critique is completely in the spirit of yoga 2.0 and that he, Matthew, is loving every minute of this discussion. Then he will go on to deliver a reasonably polite but clever and scathing counter attack.

    I personally don't have any problem at all with the tone of Ramesh's critique. I think it's strong on the ideas but still reasonably respectful of Matthew the person. Actually it shows a lot of respect just for Ramesh to take the time to write such a blog.

    Moreover, Ramesh's approach is completely in keeping with the no-holds barred, let it all hang out, tell it like you see it philosophy of yoga 2.0 itself, which loves wide open discussion and debate above all else. The only time I've see Matthew (and I assume Scott, too) disappointed and kind of flat is when no one disagrees with him. Hell, half the time he disagrees with himself just to get the fire going.

    (Now watch Matthew open his rebuttal blog with "I can't tell you how deeply hurt I was by Ramesh's vicious personal attack…)

  4. yogiclarebear says:

    I don't have anything to contribute to the discussion, but wanted to say thanks for the article and for the explanations/definitions of "truth" in the yogic language and philosophy. Very clarifying.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Carol…you like Mathew's writing for its "experiment in radical openess". Yes his writing is clever and detailed and of course very cerebral. His writings on Yoga 2.0 really don't sing to me as I follow the teachings of the Buddha. I can say that if I am reading Mathew correctly he is dealing on an exterior outer level with little regard for the inner universe. Personally I have no problem with science because the buddhist methods are completely empirically derived and promote empiricism. The notion that this openess is radical is a stretch. We recognize 86,000 emotions and their antidotes. Counting stars is for fools.

  6. Ramesh says:

    Frankjude, point well taken about there being both dualist (patanjali) and nondualist (shankaracharya) yogis, but I was speaking about union here; in other words pointing out that point of view….in other words emphasizing that point for Bob. Of course, another point entirely is which one is the most yogic point of view, the dualist or the nondualist; that question is in itself a worthy exploration, a very relevant exploration.

  7. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Chelsea, for your perspective, which i respect and will take to heart…. eve though I cannot guarantee that you will always like everything i write 🙂

  8. Ramesh says:

    You are very welcome, yogiclearbear!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for these links, Luke! And for sharing your point of view!

  10. Ramesh says:

    Yes, I agree, Bob, and thanks for thanking yogiclearbear!!!

  11. Ramesh says:

    Matt, we seem to sing the same philosophical song and i appreciate your balanced perspective, which alludes to my larger point in the article, which all the sensitive voices seems to have missed: that there are insightful and limited aspect to both scepticism and intellectualism as well as intuition and spirituality. I very much appreciate Wilber's contribution in this regard even though he often rubs the overly spiritual crowd the wrong way.

  12. Ramesh says:

    Carol, as with Rumi," beloved" here can mean your beloved human lover or your spiritual nonhuman lover, God/Godess. You took your pick, I made mine.
    i certainly do not write to please everyone of my readers 100% of the time, but I do very much appreciate that you take the time to read my stuff, what more can a writer ask for?

  13. integralhack says:

    Thanks, Luke.

  14. Padma Kadag says:

    Carol there is nothing about my comment which even suggests ant-intellectual. Yoga though is better suited for intelligent people who regard the teachings with the sincere desire to be liberated…this is their mechanic, if you will. No yoga or the vajrayana will not liberate you using only theory and logic..it requires yoga.

  15. I like Desikachar's explanation best. In his interpretation of the Yoga Sutra (and his father's spirituality), The Heart of Yoga, he defends the duality of the Yoga Sutra as simply being a stepping stone to an understanding of non-duality. In other words, one is contained within the other, rather than being opposing philosophies.

  16. Utterly fascinating responses, Frank. Thanks for taking the time to write them.

    Much as I admire Matthews exceptional linguistic virtuosity, I do agree that he chose the wrong word "cynicism", here.

    As usual, your comments are articles in their own right. Ready to publish some actual articles for Elephant whenever you're ready.

    Warmly,

    Bob

  17. Ramesh says:

    Great point, Bob. In tantra this is beautifully summed up in the Brahman=Shiva (consciousness, or nonduality)+Shakti (energy or duality)–the idea that reality is nodualistic-dualistic-nondualism.
    Yoga is to embrace both as the whole.

  18. Personally I love mano a mano blogging like I love competitive tennis. My opponents and I are always good friends afterward, even if we just beat the heck out of each other, probably better friends because we just beat the heck out of each other.

    Great spectator sport, too. I'm sitting here in the box seats in excited anticipation of the next set of this one.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  19. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Ramesh,
    It’s interesting that here there are many words to describe something where in other cultures there may be one word to describe many things. The topic of truth is fundamental at all times but right now it’s in question more than I can remember. There seems to be license to lie that comes down from the government through corporate America. It’s a lousy example for the country. Therefore any discussion of truth is a good reminder and touchstone so thank you for that. I found your explanation interesting and deliberate and ….true.

    In (my) truth I see that both you and Matt resonate with the density of both Indian language and the multi layered lore, traditions, teachings that twist and turn and hypnotize. It may be true or just my opinion but it seems you two are quite alike both in your devotion to declare truth and your desire to be right (though of course, we all desire to be right). I’ve heard you declare your enlightenment to be superior to others and it also feels to me that Matt declares himself in not so many words, a superior thinker. Both these things may be true or not. It really doesn’t matter to anyone. If there’s one ironic glitch in the yoga community that’s prevalent, it’s the poison of insecurity and ego. Let’s not forgo the bigger picture for the sake of arguing. It would be a shame to be tempted to overlook the excellent discussions both you and Matt present in a chauvinist battle: So much for enlightenment and brilliance.

  20. […] article is a response to Ramesh Bjonnes’ “Yoga, Truth, and Dogma: 5 Ways of Knowing What’s Real”, published on this site on 4/21. Bjonnes’ piece is itself a critical response to our recent post: […]

  21. Ramesh says:

    Hi Lindsay, great to hear from you. Just for the record: I have never claimed enlightenment nor brilliance. having an occasional samadhi experience does not make anyone enlightened nor brilliant.

  22. Karmeshvar says:

    Brilliant! Kudos!

  23. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Karmeshvar, for taking the time to read!

  24. […] Yoga, Truth, and Dogma: 5 Ways of Knowing What’s Real. […]

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  26. yogijulian says:

    ramesh – there is something going on here that is a little off the mark.

    it has to do with how we define "dogma" and what the distinction is between religious ideology and inquiry-based almost scientific approach that we can and should take in a contemporary spiritual context.

    i will flesh this out a little in my next comment.

  27. yogijulian says:

    i think in the yoga community it is important that we try to make something clear:

    dogmatism is not making a strong well-reasoned argument or pointing to the evidence of something we are saying.

    that is in fact the OPPOSITE of dogmatism.

    dogmatism is claiming that what i am saying is true simply because:

    1) i say so, or
    2) god told me or
    3) my teacher who is in touch with god or is an expert in such and such a text says so.

    the revolution that happened in the rational enlightenment of the mid eighteenth century (far from being the tragic death of meaning and spirituality that many in our community think it was) was a turning point for western society – in which the oppression generated out of truly dogmatic religious authoritarianism and abuse of power was thoroughly debunked in favor of reason, evidence, scientific method and the spirit of equality that comes from such a set of values.

    why does reason and scientific method imbue equality?

    well because they value an approach to truth that is available to anyone willing to perform the experiment, examine the logic or study the methods employed. this makes everyone who s willing to learn good methods for avoiding self-delusion to find out what is actually true, regardless of the holy book (bible OR sutras) , regardless of what the president or pope says, regardless of what you would wishfully like to be the case…

    this shift in emphasis about where truth comes from and how it can be determined cannot be underestimated – and in fact it lies at the heart of democracy, freedom from religious tyranny, and the progress of science that has made the western world so much more powerful, prosperous, happy and free than the parts of the world that have yet to go through this momentous evolutionary step.

    in fact it is the very movement toward post enlightenment values that even makes it possible for people from western democracies to become not only intellectually/spiritually interested in yoga, meditation and even things like shamanism, or wicca, but able to explore these paths experientially without fear of state or religious retribution, being excommunicated, banished, persecuted etc… it is only in the free world that you can explore whatever kind of spirituality you want, but this doesn't mean that people well-educated in science and reason have to accept whatever claims you make about what it proves!

    because we are no longer restrained by true dogma, seekers in the west are also free to make good arguments, to challenge arguments from authority <a href="http://(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority)” target=”_blank”>(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority) or claims that blur the lines between interior experience and exterior reality or about how we construct metaphysical beliefs.

    for me what is essential as a contemporary yogi and thinker is to not simply trade in one set of culturally conditioned beliefs (say a judaeo-christian one) for another (say a hindu-buddhist one) but rather to keep moving forward and relinquishing the existentially dishonest or philosophically incoherent claims of all old world religions…

    for me yoga survives because it is relevant to our experience and reality now – and anything that no longer adds up, has turned out not to be true or is a relic of cultural baggage form another time and place gets offered to the fire.

    the question as to how one determines what is true is tricky but not impossible – especially if we are willing to clear-eyed and honest with ourselves.

    with regard to spirituality – there seems to be a stage-wise process of

    a) experience (i was meditating and felt myself expand even as i became more centered)

    leading to b) an interpretation (ahhh this must be what my teacher/that scripture meant when they said it was possible to to be one with the consciousness behind the manifest universe)

    and progressing to c) a belief (there really is a divine godhead behind all things that i will return to when i die – i know because i am a meditator!)

    – and the more we tease apart these three stages of the process the more we might see that very often beliefs are thought to be supported by interpretations of experiences that may be incorrect, misguided, overstated or based in wishful thinking.

    one can engage in the transformational process of experiential practice without carrying around the baggage of highly improbable metaphysics – in fact i would argue it makes the practice itself even more alive, vital and potent to do so!

  28. yogijulian says:

    i think too you may have bought into a dualism that says one cannot ride the wave of flow and expansion while asking questions – when in fact it may be that the very doorway into flow and expansion is to KEEP asking questions, keep letting go of outdated defenses and perspectives, keep courting truth and beauty and goodness as a trinity of sacred principles that maintain genuine open-ness…

    the attitude of questioning, far from being cynical, exhibits a deep and enduring humanistic faith in the truth setting you free!

    your article comes across at times as defensive of a belief system you would rather not question simply because it feels good, and as advancing a position that makes non-questioning a spiritual virtue – you may shudder to realize that this is true dogmatism a la religious certainty or totalitarian thought control!

    be unafraid to question and anything you are enamored of that is actually true will remain – anything that was a lie or misperception will be put on the fire….. this hurts a little but it is always for the best!

  29. yogijulian says:

    oh – and this may put me to the right even of your nemesis, but i will publish a critique of the jill bolte taylor stuff soon….i think it is way problematic to link brain pathology to enlightenment! 🙂

  30. Looks like an article to me!

  31. Ganesh says:

    ohhhhh stop the talking and do Dhyana…………

    great article Ramesh

  32. […] have forgotten (or perhaps never learned) how to trust ourselves. Our inner truth has become so foreign that we barely recognize it. Once we’re able to hold our values up against the light of public scrutiny and admit to […]

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