January 14, 2013

Does Yoga Have To Mean Leaving Your Brain At the Door?

I first got into yoga as a graduate student—more specifically, a graduate student on the edge of losing the mind I was trying so hard to cultivate.

Beginning Ph.D. students meet up in the department lounge; those at the dissertation level—self-isolating, endlessly caught up in complex cerebral gymnastics, facing a terrifyingly bleak job market at the end of the tunnel—are more likely to be found at the campus mental health office.

And, as it turns out, many go to yoga class. To bleary bifocaled eyes, the local studio seemed a calm happy oasis in the harsh, deconstructive deserts of my overly intellectualized existence. In place of the valorization of the intellect above all, body and spirit—whatever the hell that meant—were nurtured. From a place where distance from one’s subject was considering essential, on the mat, knowledge was largely experiential, the test subject always oneself. In stark contradistinction to a milieu where it would be embarrassing to admit that I found the books I planned on dedicating my life to studying personally meaningful or moving, feeling was held in higher esteem than thinking. Never mind that I hated downward facing dog.

Still, it wasn’t until after I got fed up and left academia that my practice got serious. And then, crotchety intellectual that I remain, I couldn’t help but start thinking about it, and soon realized that, yes, it is probably a good thing to try to feel more and think less if you’re seriously going to try and swallow the ludicrous affirmations and blatant contradictions that pass for so much of popular yoga philosophy.  (And, y’know, seriously, in a society where most people are doing their best to avoid knowing about looming environmental catastrophe because it’s depressing, what could be more appropriate than making a conscious effort to think even less so we that can enjoy the simple pleasures of our conspicuous consumption?) And so, unto us was born a yoga cynic, typing out rambling elliptical blog posts somewhere ‘twixt earnest and joke* in hopes that, somehow, out of this mess, something meaningful might emerge.

In Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, noted yoga blogger and former professor Carol Horton has chosen a somewhat more rigorous—one might even say academic—approach to exploring these very fault lines, “to analyze yoga in a new way, to…weave its crazy contradictions into an analytically coherent whole.” And, lest I scare anybody away, she turns out to be one of those rare academics who can actually write like an analytically coherent human being. While she might get theoretical, at times, the personal is never far away. And that, in fact, is her point, to experiment with being both “the Professor and the Yogini.”

She begins with a journey through her own history—a person dedicated to detached scholarly analysis trying on a healthy semi-exotic pursuit for purely material and utilitarian reasons only to find, like a character in a Poe story, experiences that seemed to go outside of her perfectly reasonable frame of reference. Notably, however, what she experienced was not one thing instead of another, but a dazzling mixture: “fitness, physical therapy, stress relief, self-help—and developing different parts of my brain/mind/consciousness.”

From there, she delves into complicated histories of yoga in the West, yoga in the East, and the intricately tangled meetings of the two. You may have read in yoga blogs that yoga is a totally pure and spiritual tradition from the totally pure and spiritual East which is being corrupted in the totally corrupt and un-spiritual modern West. Yoga Ph.D. dismisses this popular Romantic conception**, arguing that what we know as yoga is “a hybrid from its inception: a blend of East and West, ancient and modern, the traditional and the revolutionary.” And, more radically, she suggests that this is as it should be.

What she’s doing, thus, is not attempting to distill something “pure” from a magical past—nor does she think that’s even desirable—but to explore the possibilities of a mixture that’s resulted in a practice “akin to an instrument that can be played in multiple keys.” While yoga traditionalists point out the many large schisms between traditional yogic thought and the modern yoga world, almost always with a sense of “see how we’ve fallen,” she takes a more nuanced view—upholding a reasonably reverent attitude toward the ancient tradition(s) but combining that with a modern academic’s sense of progressive inquiry.

She describes, in a very lucid way, the manner in which the likes of Swami Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya found common ground between the two, in a wholly new “synthesis of yoga, democracy, and science.” Vivekananda, she says, presented yoga as a field in which “both rational and extra-rational experiences were valuable capacities of the human mind.” Yoga itself, thus, might provide the bridge between the celebration of “feeling” in the new agey yoga class and the intellectualism of the modern university.

That’s not to say, however that all is well in today’s yoga world. Having largely praised the syncretism of modern yoga, she goes on to decry an “American yoga culture…growing every more shallowly commercial,” from “intimate, organic, and essentially counter-cultural to corporate, ‘branded,’ and aggressively mainstream.”

As a long time reader of yoga blogs, I must confess to rolling my eyes in expectation of yet another self-righteous jeremiad based on a yogic past most of us really wouldn’t want to live in anyway, or the sage words of some guru who preaches overcoming spiritual materialism from his fleet of Rolls Royces. Instead, Yoga Ph.D. calmly provides a wealth of strong evidence for just what’s wrong with, among other things, allowing yoga to be enveloped in self-commodification and our modern day obsession with weight loss. The problem, in other words, isn’t that it’s not what they do in traditional Indian villages, it’s that it’s turning something that should be empowering and healthy into something disempowering and harmful.

She suggests that, to save itself from utter commercialized crappification (my term, not hers), “the North American yoga community needs to develop a much stronger capacity for critical self-reflection and awareness,” which would include overcoming its “allergy to critical thinking.” No “forget the mind and just follow your heart” for the Yoga Ph.D.

In line with that, the book also includes an insightful discussion of correlations between western psychology and yoga, including apt terms like “spiritual bypassing” that would seem to describe at least half of the self-consciously spiritual people I know. I was also very happy to find someone who has the same problems with the word “spiritual” I do, but gives a convincing rationale for using the word, anyway.

In places, the attitudes of the scholar and the yogi intertwine nicely, while at others they seem to stand in an uneasy truce across paragraph breaks, one poetic and revering the yogic tradition and the other painfully sober while fearlessly standing up for modernity and innovation. And while, generally, I like Yoga Ph.D.’s brevity, particularly as I worried, initially, that, like most books on yoga written by academics, it was going to be a thick, dense tome I’d spend weeks working through, this might be the book’s biggest weakness. In places, things build to a point and then the subject changes just when it’s getting interesting. Sometimes, that’s fine, leaving things open to further inquiry, but, at others, I find myself shaking my head thinking: “what the hell was that Jung quote about the ‘relativity of the gods’ supposed to mean?!”

Overall, I found myself surprised at the extent to which I saw eye to eye with Carol Horton. I mean, I kinda know her online—we’re charter members of that rancorous bunch of opinionated a-holes known as the yoga blogging community, and she seems to get along with a lot of online personages I can’t be in the same virtual room with. But, maybe she’s just easier to get along with than I am. Her book, certainly, makes a down to earth and intelligent companion for some well spent hours, on or off the yoga mat.


To learn more about the Yoga Ph.D., visit the book website at yogaphd.com. You can also access Carol’s companion work, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice (co-edited with Roseanne Harvey) at 21centuryyoga.com.


* William Blake

**never mind that nothing could be more Western than the Romanticism that, as the academic in me might say, tries to reject the “fallen” west in favor of an imagined conception of an idealized Oriental other***

*** though, actually, one place I disagree with Carol is her assertion that Romanticism is “a product of East-West hybridity.” I’m more inclined to see Romanticism, at its best, as revolutionary in that it allowed the openness to other cultures, born out of dissatisfaction with the limitations of Western thought (spurring the work of the early Romantics, including the ornery old dude named in my first footnote), necessary to create that hybridity, as well as, at its worst, the tendency to thoughtlessly idealize otherness. As a result, Eastern thought became a huge influence on later Romantics, particularly the American transcendentalists discussed in Yoga Ph.D.****.

**** Man, I’m really sounding like an academic now—that’s why I put all this in footnotes. Ignore it, please.



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