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May 2, 2011

Yoga and Your Body: Did Patanjali Really Say That Your Body Is Disgusting?

Our interpretation of yoga philosophy matters. It may even have severe historical consequences. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a case in point.

In a recent debate on Elephant Journal, prolific blogger Matthew Remski wrote: “that ‘yoga philosophy is always imperfect’ is proven by 2:40, which proposes that bodily disgust is a virtue. this is certainly a view that is subject to revision.”

Matthew Remski is here referring to Patanjali’s famed and sometimes controversial Yoga Sutra 91, Chapter 2, Verse 40 in which he states: Shauchat svanga jugupsa parairasansargahare

Georg Feuerstein, one of the most read and respected yoga scholars in the world today, translates this sutra thus:

“Through purity [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.”

In his commentary, Feuerstein emphasizes that what Patanjali means is this: to have a positive idea of the body, of being “on one’s guard” with respect to one’s body. In other words, take good care of it, so that it becomes a good vehicle for spiritual pursuits, for meditation.

However, not everyone has interpreted this sutra in such a body-positive way. Not according to Indian blogger Srinivan, who claims that Indian commentator’s misunderstood Patanjali and thereby brought not only yoga but the whole Indian civilization down with them.

He writes (typos included): “This one misunderstanding has created the worst sin for Indian consciousness. Jugupsa being translated as disgust is like a thorn inserted nto the Indian consciousness. This is responsible for the untouchability and and western civilizations used it as a weapon to destroy the civilization.”

So, according to Srinivan, “this one misunderstanding” of Patanjali’s words may have something to do with the creation of India’s caste system, sexual repression, religious dogma, etc. That’s a serious accusation! Could the dark sides of Indian civilization be caused by the terse words of a yoga philosopher? Perhaps. Philosophy does indeed matter.

That at least many Indians, perhaps including Patanjali, and just like puritan Westerners, have had a conflicted relationship with the body, can be exemplified by these two examples:

When living in India, I once practiced asanas with a group of male friends. While performing shoulder stand, I jokingly touched the head of a young Indian man with my toe. He suddenly got up and ran away. He was not seen in the ashram for several months.

Little did I know at that time, but in India it is considered a sin to touch someone’s head with one’s foot.

Once, while listening to NPR, I heard a well known Indian feminist writer say the following: “In India we have two views of women. They are either prostitutes or Goddesses.”  But we should not just point fingers at India. In the puritan West, the Madonna-Whore complex is deeply ingrained in men who marry “proper wives” while still having sex in secret with other, beautiful women.

Someone named Luke, a frequent contributor to debates on Elephant Journal, responded with these words to Remski’s remarks:

“2.40 does not say anything about virtue. It says that as a consequence of practicing cleanliness/purity, there is disgust for one’s own parts. A warning perhaps, but not a call to vomit. Cleanliness/purity is also said to result in sense-control, one-pointedness, and cheerfulness, among others.”

Not a call to vomit, perhaps, but still, does it not look as if  Patanjali had a strong bout of duality when writing this sutra? Did he not mean that the body is impure and that we need to distance ourselves from it in order to gain enlightenment from within?

I think he did, actually. But even if that is the case, what is the problem?

The important part, I think, is in how we interpret, how we translate this traditional wisdom, how we practice it. Do we, in our balancing of the body, mind and spirit suppress the body and its needs, or do we purify it, lust and all, with love and care?

Hence, the key word here, I think, is “sauca” or purity. Not a dualistic, puritan cleanliness, but rather a holistic purity. The kind of purity that Nischala Joy Devi uses in her translation of the same sutra:

“Through simplicity and continual refinement, the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the self within.”

When I lived in India, I witnessed firsthand the “misunderstanding” that Srinivan alludes to in his comments above, that the Indian ascetic disgust for the body has had many cruel consequences. Indeed, it often seemed something had been seriously and often violently lost in translation.

When I saw yogis holding their hands up high for 13 years straight, nails growing through their flesh; when I saw subdued, untouchable women making gravel by the road with hammers, one rock at-a-time; when I saw “impure” low caste villagers living as slaves—did I witness what Srinivan called a grave, historical “misunderstanding, a disgust for the body, for that which is impure, low, base, vile, disgusting?

With this sutra, are we witness to something lost in translation? Or are we simply witnessing an inbuilt disgust for the body within traditional India, the yoga community itself, and, as here, expressed by Patanjali, one of yoga’s greatest philosophers?

What seems clear is that philosophy matters. It matters a great deal, in fact. How we read and translate philosophy matters. My own Indian teacher used to say, for example, that India has suffered greatly because of Shankaracarya’s Vedantic idea that “the world is an illusion.”

He furthermore said this: millions of Indians are poor and downtrodden precisely because such ideas makes them believe that there is no use in changing this world for the better—it’s just an illusion. It will be better for me in my next incarnation.

My teacher’s answer: Why not make this incarnation better? Why not make this world better?

This philosophical concept of the world as illusion, or the body as something disgusting, is in stark contrast to the tantric idea that this world is sacred, that this world is real, that this world can be heaven on earth. A stark contrast to the idea of engaged spirituality, of sacred activism.

So, yes. Philosophy matters.

What we are also witnessing in this debate over this sutra is a cultural, historical, and spiritual duality in India as well as the greater yoga community: namely the differences between the vedic and the tantric worldviews, practices, and philosophies.

This duality between the vedantic idea that the world is an illusion and the tantric idea that the world is sacred; the duality between dogma and the free expression of ideas; the duality between tradition and new transmission of ideas, the duality between religious tradition and mystic introspection; the duality between tradition and experimentation –these dualities are indeed complex and in themselves reflections of the pulsating reality we live in.

Hence, I do not mean to sum this debate up by simply saying that Patanjali was wrong and that Vedanta is bad; that the yoga tradition is outmoded and that only the new, postmodern, democratic, innovative thinking of the West is good. No, not at all. Realty is much more complex and interesting than such philosophical and practical simplifications.

Poet Robert Bly summed this up nicely when he said that we need both vertical (traditional) and horizontal (innovative) thinking to lead balanced lives in a dynamic, ever-changing world. This means to energetically debate the old sayings, the old philosophers while also energetically developing new ideas, but without throwing all that is good in tradition out with the bath water.

In doing so, we will, I think, realize there is much from the old that has been tested and tried throughout time, much that is worthy of saving and nurturing. And much, that, with a few alterations by writers such as Nischala Joy Devi, can bring fresh new insight and wisdom.

Indeed, I venture to say that most yogic wisdom and practice is worthy of saving. Precisely because yoga is not a dogma but a living, changing tradition.

Indeed, it is also worth noting that in India itself, Patanjali is not very popular or well read. He is considered too dry, too dualistic. Why? Because there is this other wild side to India; the tantric side; the ecstatic side; the shamanic side; the bhakti side—that side of India in which caste, high and low, pure and impure melts in dance and devotion, in prayer and ritual, and reaches a place of heart and mind beyond the limits of philosophy. A place within where philosophy indeed does not matter at all.

In other words, we need Patanjali as much as we need Nischala Joy Devi. We need both tradition and innovation. But more than anything, we yogis need spiritual love, devotion, ecstasy, wild kirtan dancing.

Because, without the incredible contributions of Patanjali, and of the multiplicity and complexity of Mother India herself, we would not be having this discussion in the first place.

So, yes, Remski is right. Philosophy must always be up for close scrutiny. And, yes, new philosophers, new interpreters can sometimes improve upon the texts of old.

And Luke is also right, there is no need to vomit, even if a great philosopher hints at your body being even just a tad bit disgusting. Just alter the translation;  just alter the interpretation.

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