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