November 21, 2012

Seeking Evidence that Yoga & Meditation Are Not Politically Neutral: a Proposal to Results-Test our Practice for Empathy.

by Matthew Remski

amygdala registering empathy: imagining self and other in pain. (wikicommons)

It’s been about three weeks since I became “the most dangerous man in yoga”, according to one over-excited commenter, by calling upon yoga culture to endorse Obama for another term. Aside from a lone barking-mad post that actually urged yogis not to vote, and a few pointed criticisms of my position in the comment threads, the call was generally well-received, endorsements happily poured in, and a healthy discussion about the nature of yoga and politics ensued. And: our guy won.

Now, many of us are still holding our noses, in the words of Frank Jude Boccio, as we watch him wade through the Slough of Compromise with the tax-cut junkies while making a virtue of moral flaccidity in foreign policy. But at least we’re holding noses instead of gaping flesh wounds as we work with a guy who doesn’t callously demean the beneficiaries of our shredded safety net while fondling his ducats, and whose religion doesn’t have a theological interest (as opposed to a humanitarian interest) in how Israel/Palestine partitions its bloody dust.

I was heartened to see yoga culture at least begin to consider its political energy, heritage, and future in a way that honours its recent Indian activist past. The most vigorous discussion centered around pragmatism and the third-party consideration, and I hope this continues. No-one likes limited options, and I’m glad to know that many yogis will be continuing to help Jill Stein and other heroes amplify the progressive voice on the national stage. Also valuable was the reminder from Nathan Thompson, amongst others, to engage with the daily grind of local progressive politics in order to earn the right to opine every four years on the presidential shit-show. Blogging about your zafu-revelations on the eve of a national election is a lot easier than unrolling your mat down at city hall on a dreary Thursday morning in February.

But one argument that emerged through the discussion has kept me awake almost as much as my baby boy Jacob over these past weeks. It goes like this:

— Yoga culture is not inherently progressive in its politics, because

— yoga practices are politically/ethically neutral, which is proven by the fact that they are utilized by people of all political persuasions, and

— to insist that yoga is progressive is to risk bullying a large demographic of practitioners who either wish to split their politics off from their practice, or who are in fact right-of-centre in their sentiments, and no amount of mindful embodiment or breath-observance will change them, nor should it, because yoga is “beyond” politics, or anything else that might compromise our sense of one-ness.

(This last point speaks to a conundrum within yoga discourse: the acknowledgement that practice is highly personal, but also should be conceived of in the broadest inclusionary terms, which leaves us in the awkward position of believing that we all share something that is impossible to talk about in an evidenced-based way. Yoga is a mystery we share through a strange hallowed silence that seems to chill any healthy debate that would clarify WTF it is. I’ll leave this problem for another study, but it hovers in the background.)

Aside from a small but vocal yoga-libertarian contingent who I believe are attracted to this argument simply because they prickle at the first whiff of a collectivist vibe, the substantive support for the position comes from some excellent work by my 21st Century Yoga colleague Be Scofield. Scofield has argued forcefully that yoga and meditation practice do not necessarily lead a practitioner to progressive politics. Over several articles and a book chapter, he critiques numerous examples of spiritual practice eliding or even colluding with apathetic-to-oppressive politics, from the tone-deaf-to-postcolonial-issues seva-tourism of Off The Mat to the genocidal fanaticism of WWII Japanese zen cults. I appreciate Scofield’s sobering assessment, his blistering critique of “privatized spirituality”, and especially his argument that blindly assuming practices such as yoga and meditation lead to socio-political progressivism can fool us into ignoring the structural contexts of oppression by somehow hoping they will go away as the bells tinkle to end our cozy morning sit. Chasing the oneness experience often means ignoring what’s going on at City Hall. I know this can be true – I did it myself for years.

But I think Scofield’s argument is strong to the extent that his definitions of “yoga”, “meditation” and “spirituality” are weak. His reasoning is sharp when it comes to political analysis and the deconstruction of the motives and affects of a yoga culture soaking in racial and financial privilege. But he consistently lumps “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spirituality” into amorphous and unexamined heaps. The clearest example of this is in his recent critique of a (purposefully, I think) simplistic statement from the Dalai Lama: “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Scofield takes care to deconstruct the concept of “violence”, but he doesn’t touch “meditation”, which by the Dalai Lama’s own tradition is as vague a term as “exercising”– such is the variance of meditative techniques, from philosophical analysis to tantric fantasy to breath-observance. It’s just not fair to pick on Tenzin Gyatso’s “violence” as an unexamined term, and then assume that everyone knows what he means by “meditation”.

(Also, a more sensitive ear to the rhetorical devices of Indo-Tibetan teaching might be in order. Tenzin Gyatso is probably practicing what the Indians call artha vada – “wealth of speech” — a kind of pedagogical hyperbole arising from the oral tradition intended to land a memorable point with a given crowd at a given time. If this is what he’s doing, it unfortunately doesn’t translate to the new-agers who re-tweet him ad infinitum. Marianne Williamson, under the spell of the Course in Miracles, is an incorrigible literalist, seemingly incapable of irony.)

So what do we actually mean by “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spiritual practice”? I want to continue from where I left off in my post-endorsement-call roundup. By “yoga”, “meditation”, and “spiritual practice”, I argue that we generally mean more than socio-politically neutral techniques of self-regulation and internal harmony that anyone can use to become a more effective sociopath. We’re shy of saying it, for reasons that baffle me, but I believe we know in our bones that a practice that does not lead to empathy, enhanced intimacy and relationship, and the progressive political desires that naturally flow from these, is not the real deal. But to really smoke this out we have to clarify our terms.

Let’s take “meditation”. As far as I can tell, there are two general divisions of meditation that reflect two types of internal therapeutic dialogue that we can have. The first is within the realm of metacognition – conscious thought interacting with conscious thought – and the second is the conversation we can experience between conscious awareness and our perceptual/autonomic foundation.

The first type of content-oriented meditation – called che-gom in the Tibetan tradition– is a conscious/analytical reorientation of the content of inner experience via prayer, visualization, or attention on a particular object to dialogue with and absorb its qualities. This is akin to cognitive behavioural therapy, really. It can definitely be described as politically neutral, insofar as it can be used to enhance any mental pursuit or psychic quality. In my Buddhist days I used it to memorize the wheel of dependent arising, to convince myself of the immanence of my death, and to memorize the lineage tree of my adopted tradition. Content-based cognitive meditation can be used to enhance concentration, business acumen, martial arts skills, or the powers of seduction. For all we know, Donald Trump is an top-shelf analytical meditator. As was Gandhi, I’m sure. Politically neutral? Absolutely.

The other division of meditation — let’s call it the “mindfulness” category — at least tries to abandon analysis, meaning, cognitive reactivity, and even language itself to focus with open curiosity on the root sensations of being alive. Mindfulness isn’t about cognitive content, but about where attention lies. It is given over to sensations alone: of breath, pulse, pain, compression, expansiveness, etc.

Here’s the rub. Attention to autonomic function generally (and at different rates for different people) leads to an experience of internal and external interdependence through a thinning of the individuation habit – a sama-dhi (holding firmly the sameness or connection between self and other). A clear ethics arises out of simple ecology. The lesson of mindfulness to embodied sensation is “I’m alive, I’m changing, I have pain, I have joy.” Opening your eyes from this, you know you’re not alone. The paradox is: withdrawing from cognition and metacognition into raw perceptual awareness can create a reality-based groundwork for empathy, from which new cognitive insights can flow. This is a darned good place from which political change can begin and receive ongoing support.

I’ll take another example of a naturally-arising ethics from a strong current in today’s yoga pedagogy. I’m willing to bet that at this very moment there are 1000 classes worldwide in which the teacher is making an explicit analogy between breath and wind or breath and sea. Eco-poetics is an essential substrate of all yoga instruction and culture today, and to think that recognizing the indivisibility of the universe and the flesh, as Patanjali expresses in 2.47 (according to Hartranft), would not lead to a green politics is very strange to me. Unless of course we’re so dissociated from our ecology that we contact it through metaphor alone. When I think of the number of carbon-spewing charters leaving NYC this winter flying yogis to Cancun to do lunges on the beach in front of rising seas, I wonder. And then of course there might be Evangelicals who use nature/flesh analogies in their Praise Moves vinyasas on Saturday, and then on Sunday murmur hallelujah as their preachers thump out creationism.  But I hope that these are distortions proving a rule: for the vast majority of urbanized, postmodern practitioners, the eco-awareness of asana language is like rain to the parched, constantly reminding us of our foundation. It must, to one degree or another, influence the earnest student towards an eco-protective politics. In an ideal world, this reads as: more asana classes = more votes for Stein. In the political landscape we have right now, this reads as: more asana classes = more votes against the pathological liar who thinks the earth is a 5-star-layover on the way to Kobol.

So there’s my argument: mindfulness and asana lead to empathy and ecology, which naturally leads to progressive political stances. Does this imply a narrowing of the definitions of yoga, meditation, and spirituality? Yes it does. Am I willing to do that? Yes I am. How? By proposing results-based definitions of practice, using the established metrics for empathy that have been developed by clinical psychology.

The biggest problem with the “what is yoga?” discussion is that we begin and end our dialogue through self-reporting that can never transgress the threshold of the “private”. There are no standards for independent observation of techniques or results. I can say that meditation leads to empathy, and a WWII zen-fascist monk can say that meditation leads to conquest. We’re both self-reporting on internal and private activities, using a highly plastic term. Until we actually ask: “What are we actually doing when we say we’re meditating?”, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Further than that: until we can test the meditator to assess whether they’re actually doing what they say they’re doing, we know even less. What we’re left with, if we don’t inquire further, is a parade of yogic performances and mindful appearances. But what’s really under that dhoti, that robe?

An elderly Indian sampradaya guy once said something to me that has echoed loudly for years in my heart. “If you want to know how your spiritual practice is going – ask the people.” He told me to find guys I went to high school with, buy them lunch, describe what I’ve been doing, for how long, and why, and then to ask them if they thought I was becoming any less of an asshole for all of my noble efforts. There’s something stunningly elegant about this. I recounted it to my partner who spent years in the food industry, and she suggested a refinement to the old man’s challenge: “If you want to know how your spiritual practice is going, ask the servers at your favourite restaurant whether it’s working or not. They’ll tell you how goddam evolved you are.”

We all have common-sense ways of establishing who’s walking the empathy walk. But we also now have sophisticated tools to measure the actual amount of empathy we’re capable of and demonstrate in our behaviour, and neuropsychology is making deep inroads into assessing the vitality of empathetic social functions, including their pathological or sub-pathological absence. Of particular interest to yoga/mediation/spiritual practitioners would be the measurement of what clinical psychology calls “dispositional empathy” – a kind of base-line attitude towards the well-being of others that could be enhanced by long-term disciplines – as opposed to “situational empathy”, which opens doors at the bank and offers subway seats to the elderly, but can often be blended with superego motivations.

Why shouldn’t we define yoga practice by its results? Imagine somebody claiming to be a microbiologist who couldn’t or wouldn’t produce any data for peer review. They claim: “I’m doing a very important and complex experiment, hidden away in my special room, and I can’t show you what it is, but it involves many beakers and charts, and I’m definitely doing it.” In the absence of their sharable data, most of us would simply say they were bullshitting. But those who’ve given their lives to microbiology might be pissed: dragging the word through the mud of laziness demeans the whole discipline.

What are the problems with defining practice by its results? I can see three sore points that should generate good discussion:

— It puts the service-providers of yoga culture – studio owners –  in the financially risky position of inflecting their programming with a political mood.

— It might infringe upon those practitioners who are at a “social-pratyahara” stage of their yoga career, in which internal focus is the most-needed therapy. One commenter to my previous post explained that she came to yoga after 25 years as a political operative, and found her apolitical studio space to be of great solace. Fair enough. But I would wonder if she’s in a transitional stage in which her political withdrawal is possible only for while, and only because someone else is engaged in the process of running the studio within the political context of city, state, and nation.

— Finally, my proposal might sound divisive in its outline. (It need not be in practice.)

But why risk this declarative re-definition at all? For me, the central tension in the history of yoga is the interplay between the transcendence of the traumatized and the empathetic immanence that rises from embodied presence. The former dominates, unfortunately, but for good reason. The Iron-Age origins of yoga practice looked skywards for release from prakriti, the gunas, the endless cycles of life and death, and the unmanageable ambivalence of our recently-evolved interiority. Patanjali’s manual points to the goal of kaivalya: the “isolation” of consciousness from its material root. From these shadows, contemporary yoga culture has imported a penitential malaise that meshes with our vestigial puritanism, and litters our discourse with a theology of purification and self-perfection, and the fantasy of rising up and above the battlefield of life – as if it were all a dream.

The time for this transcendent impulse is over. We have to stop using spirituality to speculate, isolate, and escape, and start using it to connect to each other with improved tools of trust and non-reactivity. Interpersonally first, socially second, politically third. The world and the species depends upon it. To me at this point in time, yoga practice that avoids its political context is a kind of masturbatory consumerism that conceals the wound of alienation.

It comes down to this: our practice is not just about us anymore. It’s not just about internal states and sensations and resolutions. It’s not about our being, but about our being-in-the-world-with-others, to steal a phrase from Heidegger. We can’t really take people at their word that they are improving themselves with private practices without measuring their self-reporting against the culture they create.

I’m not advocating some impossible wheat-from-the-chaff litmus test for who’s allowed to call themselves a yogi. Perhaps we could just start with some research. We can already claim that MBSR techniques promote good social and learning outcomes in the school environments in which they are implemented. We already know that asana practice reduces stress markers with great efficiency. We’re generally happy with such validation. Why not turn now to matters of the heart? Run an experiment with 1000 yogis to register the empathy gains of yoga practice that emphasized mindfulness and ecology over time. Hypothesize on what would raise scores.


Carol Horton is always kindly reminding me that my views are markedly Canadian, (and that I often seem to wish for Patanjali’s ethics to be more intersubjective than they are – a wish so deep I “remixed” them). She’s right: there’s something about an evolutionary practice like yoga that, as a Canadian, I naturally associate with always-improving social welfare. While the U.S. has seemed to kick the advances of the New Deal to the curb of neo-liberalism, we still at least somewhat believe that personal advancement is intrinsic with the enhancement of the common good. So it’s constitutionally difficult for me to conceive of a society in which higher education, refined culture, physical health and emotional well-being do not translate directly into higher quotients of social empathy and progressive politics.

But I am also in the saucer-eyed flush of new parenthood, in which I cannot believe that this overwhelming experience of love and interdependence does not radically and permanently change the politics of everyone who undergoes it towards a progressive arc. Perhaps I’m not really talking about yoga at all in this article, but simply the unstoppable empathy that arises from being present to the emergency of living. I know: oppressors bear children they truly love, and they grow up to oppress others. But I can’t understand this right now. I can’t understand how anything this simple and tender and twitching – whether it’s this baby I gaze at or the breath that I watch – does not immediately inspire the wish to nurture and celebrate all of life, and then to work tirelessly to help others, upon whom we absolutely depend, do the same.


Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto, and a new papa. He is a co-contributor to 21st Century Yoga. His new “remix” translation of Patanjali  – threads of yoga – is now available. Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, says of threads: “I don’t know of any reading of the yoga sutras as wildly creative, as impassioned and as earnest as this. it engages Patanjali and the reader in an urgent, electrified conversation that weaves philosophy, symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis and cultural history. There’s a kind of delight and freshness in this book that is very rare in writing on yoga, and especially rare in writing on the yoga sutras. This is a Patanjali for postmoderns, less a translation than a startlingly relevant report on our current condition, through the prism of this ancient text.” Please check out Matthew’s site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.

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