4.2
April 23, 2011

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

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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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.