Thursday 27th July 2017,
Hindu Human Rights Online News Magazine

“Who’s flying this plane? : The blind leading the blind in Western Yoga”

“Who’s flying this plane? : The blind leading the blind in Western Yoga”
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Just as Yoga in the West seemed ready to set flight with that many more passengers aboard, something stalled the latest take-off.  The Western Yoga world vomited all over itself.  We’d been holding back our own bile for so long, and then a single Yoga teacher in Ottawa finally triggered the gag-reflex — and a whole lot of stuff came spewing out.  Words that were never to cross the lips of 200-RYTs in those pretty rooms stacked with mats and blocks — Hinduism, India, colonialism, appropriation, digestion… — were suddenly forced out.

And all of the big names in the Western Yoga blogosphere — those we so trusted to steer our beloved Yoga journeys — scrambled to spit out some sense onto their screens…and just left a bigger mess for us to clean up.

On Meaning, Misappropriation and a Whole Lot of Mess

J. brown

We’d been choking back the answer to the question “Are we appropriating Yoga?” (which incidentally — adding in a “mis” and substituting an “I” for good semantical measure — was nearly the exact title of a recent blog post by J Brown .

He, in point of fact, never answers the question for himself directly, arriving at a general feel-good conclusion that resists push-back and nuanced debate.  As it usually goes, all of the talking heads in online Yoga world had us clicking-through to see which side to choose based on the latest they had to dish out.

This isn’t to say this is not a good question.  It is, and at the very least, we all should be forced to sit with it and answer honestly.  So, it is fair for me to give my own answer.  If anyone is keeping score, you can mark me down on the “yes, of course we are!” side of the debate.  Here’s the “but” though:  that’s not where we stop.  The question points to a very substantial problem, yes.

But if we stop there, we’ve just landed right back in our own echo chamber — the same voices bouncing off the walls, all of the self-designated “thought-leaders” playing word games to try to steer themselves back on course and take us along for the ride.  It is about time to ask some other questions.

This “Plurality” is not That “Plurality”

Hot Yoga.  Christian Yoga.  Mommy and Me Yoga.  Gentle Yoga   Rocket Yoga   Yoga for stress-relief.  Yoga for runners.  Yoga in beautiful, exotic places.  Aerial Yoga   Acro-Yoga.  Yoga as the political.  Yoga for your core.  Yoga as a “thought-experiment.”  That last one is really not made-up, I promise you.
 
Everyone by this point is accustomed to more and more accessibility and reach within the walls of the Yoga studio down the street (and that new one across the street, too).  It’s easy enough to find some iteration that will leave you feeling blissed-out in your own special way — and bring in the business on the other end, of course.  We’re straight-out told, in fact, that “It’s All Yoga, Baby.”  Here’s the thing though:  it’s not.
 

So, why did we think that it was?  This requires some unraveling.  For starters, we should assume that when we are speaking of those involved in Western Yoga, we are referring to those, like myself, who did not grow up in a Hindu tradition and, for the most part, were raised in the West.  Our journeys started with a whole lot of cultural baggage — and it’s pretty important to unpack that along the way.

 

Georg Feuerstein

To begin, let us consider this:  plurality, of course, is a significant part of the history and tradition of Yoga.  There is not one branch of Yoga, after all.  The late Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. gives a very illuminating overview of Yoga and all of its proliferations in his piece “What You May Not Realize About Yoga,” (recently republished:)

 
“Yoga is the most sophisticated spiritual tradition in the world. It is also the oldest continuous endeavor to map the path from the valley of spiritual ignorance to the peak of enlightenment, and it offers the largest assemblage of practical tools for self-transformation and self-transcendence. Think of Yoga as an experiment that has been conducted for at least five millennia by millions of practitioners, including thousands of advanced realizers, and a small but consequential group of truly great masters.”
 

Dr. Jeffery Long

We must also view Yoga among the other Hindu systems of philosophy which affirm the authority of the Vedas, the ṣaḍ darśanas:  Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Mīmāṃsā (Pūrva Mīmāṃsā), and Vedānta (Uttara Mīmāṃsā). Dr. Jeffery Long’s recent piece,ṣaḍ darśana: Six Views on Reality provides an excellent history and explanation on the Hindu systems of philosophy. .

 
Moreover, to get a very basic sense of the scope and depth of the tradition, we must also consider Yoga within the whole of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma).  In Dr. Long’s interview on his own journey to Hindu Dharma, he gives a comprehensive overview on the tenets of Hinduism — its commonalities with other religions and what makes it stand out from others

“If the question is what makes Hinduism stand out more than most, I would have to say the internal variety that the basic Hindu worldview accommodates. It is controversial to say that Hinduism is diverse, if by this one means that it lacks unity or cohesion. It does have unity. But it also allows for incredible diversity, and respects the freedom of each person to find his or her own way to truth.”

It is within this very construct of diversity and complexity that we can begin to puzzle out how and where the self-proclaimed “thought-leaders” in Western Yoga go wrong.  Within all of this discussion of complexity, diversity, and plurality of choice, we encounter their first egregious error in understanding:  because Yoga can be many things, that means it can be anything we want it to be at any given moment.  Bookmark this idea for the moment:  there’s more to come on what’s behind the mindset that allows for this distorted conclusion.
 
It’s a fair to say that most of us in the West grew up — if not religiously, then at least within a secular framework of understanding — within one of the Abrahamic religions.  Even if we describe ourselves now as “lapsed,” non-practicing, “spiritual but not religious,” ” agnostic, atheist, secular or what-have-you — most of us have (or have had) the Abrahamic shadow cast over how we consider all religion.  Unless we start to understand what makes Hinduism (with Yoga as a part) different from that, we start off driving with blinders on.  From Dr. Long:

“…if we look at the mainstream, or at generalities, as could be found in a world religions textbook, Abrahamic traditions tend to teach that the world was created at a particular time by one supreme deity. This deity is also the moral judge of humanity. Just as the universe began at a particular time, it will also be brought to an end, at which point there will be a judgment.

The souls of the good will experience an eternal reward, and the souls of those who have strayed from the divine will are damned forever. The supreme deity intervenes in history, and each of the Abrahamic traditions has its own variant on the same basic story of God entering into covenants with human beings, sending prophets to make the divine will known, and so on. And of course there is also a felt need to convert others to these traditions, especially since we each have only one lifetime in which to get right with God.”

And at the same time, for the sake uncovering the wrong twists and turns of the blind who’ve been leading the blind in Western Yoga world, it is also important to note the important commonalities between Hinduism and other religions.  Dr. Long again:
 
“If we wanted to place the religious aspects of Dharma in a framework that would include all the world religions and ask, “What are the commonalities?” I think we could say that all religions are rooted in an aspiration to perceive and experience truth at a greater level of depth than is available through the senses alone. They are based on a deep need for a meaningful narrative into which we can place our lives and see our many sufferings not as random events, but as purposeful, and as leading to a higher, transcendent aim.”
 
In the same way the religious issue informs our mindset, there is another major cultural influence, whether we are aware of the shadow it casts or not, which has shaped our Western purview:  the postmodern narrative.  Clearly, we can’t explore the entire history of postmodernism and all of that which could fall under the broad, umbrella term.  That said, there are characteristics that we can say represent “postmodern thinking.”

To condense the historical timeline and make a long story very, very short, we arrive in the latter half of the 20th century — an age ushered in with less of a bang and more of a whisper.  What preceded this point historically was the modern age which was (again, in admittedly very short synopsis) marked by rebellion against the values of Victorian culture.

As the reactionary tendency of the historical narrative goes, that which we call “postmodern,” then turns away from the defining characteristics of its own historical predecessor, modernism.  ** I’ll point out here that as much as postmodern thought attempted to differentiate itself from that which defined the modern, there are many similarities between the two — and this fact is not inconsequential, as it points to the limitations of historical thinking in general as a defining worldview. **

What does postmodernism mean, and what does this matter to Western Yoga?  Here we have a whole new ball of wax.  Interestingly, it’s perhaps most useful to consider that which postmodernism typically criticizes if we are to understand what it means.  And to highlight the characteristics and claims of postmodernism as they compare (or rather differ) from those of Yoga — and more specifically, compare (or differ) from the Western Yoga “thought leaders,” as they’ve assumed the voice of authority on Yoga in the West.

From the Introduction in the anthology from Modernism to Postmodernism (edited by Lawrence Cahoone):
 
“Postmodernism typically criticizes presence or presentation (versus representation and construction), origin (versus phenomena), unity (versus plurality), and transcendence of norms (versus their immanence).  It typically offers an analysis of phenomena through constitutive otherness…
 
The denial of presence occasionally leads postmodernists to substitute the analysis of representations of a thing for discussion of the thing…We can never say what is independent of all saying…
 
Origin is the notion of the source of whatever is under consideration…for modern philosophies of the self…the attempt to discover the origin of the self is the road to authenticity.  Postmodernism in the strict sense denies any such possibility.  It denies the possibility of returning to, recapturing, or even representing the origin, source, or any deeper reality behind phenomena, and casts doubts on or even denies its existence…
 
Virtually in every kind of intellectual endeavor, postmodernism tries to show that what others have regarded as a unity, single, integral existence or concept is plural…human self is not a simple unity:  rather it is a multiplicity of forces or elements.  It would be more true to say that I have selves, than a self….
 
Methodological postmodernism rejects the possibility of establishing foundations…that is, knowledge claimed to represent the true…there is a question of the political implications of postmodernism.  It’s most well-known political manifestation is the attempt to make contemporary culture acknowledge and respond to “difference” or “otherness”…it is arguable that postmodernism by itself need not lead in any particular political direction.  Its political usefulness lies in criticizing any established authority.”
 

There is always, of course, the specifics within these generalities.  It may be useful (or at the very least, interesting), to know the particulars and authorship of postmodern ideas relating to notions of being, self, time and language.  Or not.  What is significant and striking are the ways in which postmodernism (even in its value of plurality) stands diametrically opposed as a worldview to Hindu Dharma (in all of its plurality).

In very short-order, to oppose any authority or sense of Truth beyond one’s own I-sense of such things puts postmodernism directly at odds with Yoga.  For many in Western Yoga world, it goes without saying that the Yoga experience offered an alternative to their formative experiences of religion.  But — once “God was dead” — instead of taking Yoga for what is was, in true postmodern form, they decided to make it into what they wanted it to be. And “spiritual exercise” fit the bill: all the light and love you want — and none of your childhood hang-ups with authority to make it a drag.

Deconstructing the Great Minds of Western Yoga World

 What are these “great” minds in Western Yoga telling us about “Yoga,” after all?  Because the truth is, they all posit themselves as authorities.  However sheepishly they demure the honor of that authority bestowed upon them by their social media followers, we don’t see any of them stepping down and relinquishing their ties to the money and esteem that their authority grants them.

To be very clear, this is not about whether we consider someone to be a “nice” person, respectful, gracious, intelligent, well-spoken or well-versed in whatever knowledge they happen to have had privilege to.  It is not even about whether someone seems to have genuine intention for inquiry.

Let’s just set all of that aside right now.  Because social niceties, intellectual veneer and sincerity of those whose bread and butter is always based on the next big “Western Yoga reveal” are a really part of what we have to confront in Western Yoga world when sort out what Yoga is and is not.

Image result for Carol HortonAnd there are boundaries — contrary to what some would like you to believe.  In short, this is about ideas, not personalities.

This leads us to the discussion of what we mean by “authentic” Yoga.  Postmodernism would put this in quotations for effect…and so does Carol Horton, self-designated Yoga Ph.D., of course.  But on the subject of authenticity, let’s start with the obvious before moving onto the insidious.
 

The latest Yoga Journal features a piece by photographer Robert Sturman,Stoke Your Spirit: 26 Images to Inspire Authenticity .  Before the onslaught of advanced asana spreads out for our viewing pleasure, Sturman shares a snippet of his own little Yogic wisdom to preface:  “On the spiritual path we seek satyaor truthfulness, which comes with a fierce commitment to authenticity.

Robert Sturman

By recognizing and staying true to your Self—no matter the people, place, or circumstance—you embrace your individuality and identity.”  But really, how much more postmodern (as opposed to Yoga) can this get?

The deep immersion into own’s personal narrative to find one’s inner truest truth — complete with Capitalization that gives the appearance of Deep Meaning and the body as the portrait of the S/self’s fluidity?  If weren’t so self-serious, it could sell itself as postmodernism’s Yoga of the absurd.   It speaks to how much we are so immersed in the postmodern narrative — with its distorted use of language where every meaning is fluid and relative — that “authenticity” means that the undisputed origin in question is entirely self-referential.

Now, I’m sure Dr. Horton believes her Yoga is less absurd than this.  But is it any more authentic?  She doesn’t seem to care.  In fact, in a recent blog post, she carries on about those who “trash the practice” of Yoga in the West, declaring the issue with those who denounce it is sour grapes — them wanting to uphold some unrealizable standard of Yoga purity.

Dr. Horton describes the practice of Yoga as a “positive” and “beautiful” way to feel a “heart-felt, soul-felt connection” and unearth deeper, personal meaning — whether it’s be found in the Yoga Sutras or the Bible.

Any talk of “authentic” Yoga is all just “imaginary.”  Dr. Horton’s Yoga sounds just lovely, all warm and fuzzy even.  There’s only one problem:  it’s not Yoga.  Her personal experience of practice doesn’t define Yoga, any more than Sturman’s contortionists depict authenticity.

Matthew Remski

The irony is that as much as Horton and her associates — and we’ll get to them, too — want to be able to mix up their very own meanings of Yoga, they are always the first to ring the alarm bell when someone else out there in Western Yoga world offends their delicate sensibilities.

Lululemon’s latest antics gets Matthew Remski all up-in-arms over the commercialization of Yoga, but somehow his best-selling remix of the The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali that benefited from his “discoveries from modernism and postmodernism” are apparently supposed to be less offensive to the tradition of Yoga because…he uses big words?

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So what says the self-anointed master of ceremonies on the cultural appropriation issue in Yoga world?  After he plays Yoga snoop and uncovers all of the sordid details of the Ottawa Yoga teacher debacle (like we were really thinking this was all about that one incident, right?), Remski gets climbs up on his trusty high-horse and rails against all of the white people out there in Western Yoga world taking such offense to being called out for cultural appropriation:
 
“What these straw man arguments miss is that the modern yoga space, unlike the blues bar or the ballet theatre, is explicitly advertised as a universalist site of equality to which everyone can repair for self-inquiry and healing. It certainly doesn’t consider itself provincial or nativist.”

The ever illusory “modern yoga space”:  a place we can come to heal our wounds….and entertain “ourselves” — as much as “we” would do in the blues bar or ballet theatre?  When did Yoga replace the therapist’s couch…or weeknight “hang out” joint?  And who falls within Remski’s “we” exactly?  Who is the “provincial” and “nativist” in comparison?  A lot is left up in the air as usual:  most especially what he is speaking for — and for whose interests.

His latest attempts to highlight the “South Asian” (not Hindu, mind you) voice in Yoga is no more sincere or clear in intent than his attempts to speak for whatever voice he wished to highlight for whatever the purpose-of-the-moment was before.  It’s only now he needed to listen to that voice — for the sake saving face and salvaging his own reputation.  What would he do, after all, if he didn’t have Yoga to make a living off of — and a very good one at that?  Now, that may very well be the $25,000 question, no?

Ultimately, we must return to the idea of authority.  If the Western Yoga “thought leaders” dismiss Truth, i.e., or essentially accept their personal truth over any absolute truth beyond the historical and individual narrative, it follows that there is no authority that such believers hold valuable beyond their own personal sense of autonomy and power.

And, to back-up a bit, there’s monotheistic religious baggage here, too.  Original sin, Catholic guilt (or whatever other Abrahamic iteration applies), the whole linear sin-to-absolution-or-damnation dynamic — it’s all there, sure.

Wrap that up with the postmodern narrative that allows us to reject all authority, excepting that of our ego’s will, and we set ourselves up for…basically what we see now in Western Yoga world:  an “anything goes” effort devoid of any absolute value and doomed to, well, a hellish projection of our desires, fears, and above all, ignorance.

A sad situation indeed, but one that only (or should only) point to the need for greater self-inquiry under knowledgable guidance (or our own self-contained self-pity if we can’t muster the motivation for that).  It’s certainly not an excuse to go pillage another culture’s traditions, reinvent them for our own purposes, and sell them in repackaged form for our own benefit.

There is a point that cultural appropriation crosses a line into something far more insidious.  Mr. Remski is oblivious to the irony of his when he proclaims in his latest soap-box stand against the horrors of Western Yoga in the online space:
 
“it constitutes a high-speed clickbait echo chamber designed to find what it’s looking for, and report on it in the language they’ve market-tested on its readership. This can only distort issues and bolster dominant narratives.

He’s been the first to highlight how many “hits” his Yoga articles have received, not-too-subtly suggesting that his followers connect-the-dots from the popularity of his posts to his authenticity and authority on the issues.  He is not the only one, of course.

Image result for Sri louiseSri Louise, in her article, “Yoga as the Colonized Subject”  rightfully calls out the other well-knowns who’ve been throwing up smoke-screens in the West and notes how the tables are turning:

 
“American ‘Yogis’ have enjoyed an unimpeded foray into the identity and business of Yoga for over a hundred years, but alas, as with all colonial enterprises, resistance is inevitable and a new South Asian intervention ‘reversing the white gaze’ has thrown a wrench in the North American Yoga Industrial Complex. Since 2008 the on going debate over who ‘owns’ Yoga, and what exactly defines Yoga has dominated the Yoga discourse. The answer depends wholly upon the subjectivity granted to the topic.”
 
As resistance grows to counter the steamroller effect of Western Yoga, what happens when “other” voices do speak up?  The professional appropriators call anything from sour grapes to flippantly throwing around labels like fundamentalist, purist or (Remski’s most recent go-to) Hindutva — anything to draw attention away from the spotlight shining down on them, asking them to speak up and be accountable for their own actions in creating this mess…and to acknowledge this:  that which they call Yoga is not.  Remski’s latest oversimplified, misdirected “zinger” on this reactionary trend is really just too-perfect in how it misses the mark:
 

“There is a rising Hindutva discourse that seeks to reclaim all things yogic into an homogenized vision of Indian heritage. It is motivated by just grievances against colonial humiliation, the white privilege and racism of early Indology, and the postcolonial disempowerment of a global wealth inequality against which asana has emerged as a royalty-free multi-billion-dollar cultural export. But the loudest part of this discourse is twisted by saffronisation, the belief that terms as polysemic as “yoga” can be defined (let alone owned) by cultures as diverse as global Hinduism, and the false assumption that global academic Indology hasn’t changed in a century.”

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

As it happens, this next guy may have done us all a very big favor:

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 In just 79 pages, (with a few more pages for his glossary of Yoga terms) his personal treatise on Yoga, Greg Marzullo (a Yoga teacher-of-teachers in the West, of course), manages to unleash every single offensive, undereducated, self-aggrandizing misappropriating trend in Western Yoga.

His book is, all-at-once, a mix of juvenile, anti-authoritarian, Abrahamic religious backlash and poorly-understood, undereducated postmodern antics — and for good measure, he also invites in all of the vapidness and overly commercialized fluff of pop-Yoga for added shock-value.

 

Mr. Marzullo somehow manages to get it all wrong — from the definition of Dharma that he forwards from his “teacher”:  “how we create meaning from experience” (never once mentioning Karma and also including a description of Maya that is unrecognizable)…to vomiting up of confessions that he has no idea what Moksha is and recognizing Bhakti only so far as it bumps up against his claim that “There is no sacred…There is no wrong…There is no god.”  His book is a muddled mess of personal anecdotes and cherry-picked shastra.  In a Facebook blog post marketing his book, Marzullo even gives a shout-out to the grandfather of postmodernism, he who declared the death of God:

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It is what postmodernism was destined to become:  the absurd that takes itself entirely too seriously.  Through his lens of Yoga of the personal-meaning, Mr. Bad Yogi shows us how the postmodern narrative collapses in on itself.  When everything becomes entirely self-reflective, nothing beyond the “I” is illuminated:  we end up blinding each other other by shooting off our own flashbulb ideologies.

Marzullo’s proclamations throughout his book are such poor, laughable imitations of what Zarathustra spoke, you think he must be pulling your leg with all of it:  “We can’t practice yoga, the art of coming into union with God, in the same way we did when dharma stood firmly on four legs, grazing in a field.  The creature is caked with filth, bellowing in agony and crawling from one shit pile to another with three mangled limbs dragging behind it.  

We must try other ways.”  Bad Yogi reads so much like a bad parody that you think it must be — until you remember that this man is making a serious career off of sharing his “wisdom” with the newest Western Yoga teachers (and signing copies if his book for them, too.

And beyond that “woe-is-me” result, we trample over the Truth and everyone who acts to uphold it.  By rejecting Self, we forever pit ourselves against the other.  Marzullo’s effort, however absurd, also casts light on the other shadow that follows the modern “yogi” in the West:  our monotheistic, Abrahamic religion that leaves our S/selves forever divided.  We’re all left “Waiting for Godot” on our expensive yoga mats.

 Moving Beyond our “Feel Good” Moments

Many of us in Western yoga communities have found great benefit from some of the practices that are a part of Yoga.  Because of this, we may often run off with and towards the “feel good.”  In some cases, this tendency leads us to delve more deeply into the roots of the practices, wanting with all sincerity to learn more about the tradition that provided such benefit.  I think many of us have been here.
 
Unfortunately, our good intentions are not enough to absolve our ignorance.  If we are still subject to the mindset of peering through our conditioned lenses, we still miss the mark and trip over the same obstacles again .  Fortunately, there are many paths to follow — beyond the dead-end ones we spend so much of our time trying to carve out with our own efforts.
 
As for what comes next in the bigger picture of Western Yoga, I don’t know.  The tide is turning, and that is definitely something to celebrate.  Whatever is to come, this much is clear:  we all need to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening.  It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world for all of us to just sit down and shut up for awhile.  Or at the very least, let’s not write another book on Yoga anytime soon.
 
“If you tell a person who cannot find their own house that there is a pot of gold inside, they would be happier had they not had this information.  What use is the gold if it cannot be found?  It only causes pain.  First they must find the house and enter it.  Then there are many possibilities.” – T.K.V. Desikachar
 
By Kathleen Reynolds

 

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