One of the marks of a great text seems to be that it can be deeply important to wildly different people from cultures separated from each other by vast distances of time and space. A theater company in Kolkata establishes a reputation for cutting social realism by putting on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, while a British director in France hubristically (and with some success) attempts to stage the entire Mahabharata. A Japanese director who traces his lineage to medieval Noh theater creates a viscerally danced Elektra, and a New York-based postmodernist turns the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion into a meditation on the fractured 21st century urban self. Texts that have managed to be preserved across centuries and continents, through all the complex conditions that make preservation possible, acquire new forms and meanings as new hands crack the spines of new editions and translations, each version speaking to new ears, bodies, minds.
With “spiritual” texts, which is to say any that go deep into the big issues (whatever that means to you) and toward which emotion and attachment form a great part of their mechanism of preservation, the complexity compounds. When interpretation of a text is coupled with religious or cultural identity, the layers of interpretation and socially-constructed value that form around a text can start to eclipse the text itself. All the major spiritual texts suffer from this; layers of commentarial padding so thick that in some cases the original form is quite obscured. If that sentence, and the longing behind it — for a mythically pure “original form” — were my thesis, I would reveal myself as a certain kind of romanticizing modernist. And I would not be alone.
How many religious and spiritual communities spend their time contesting new interpretations of their core texts? So many. I do it myself, though I try to do so in the name of deepening, rather than shutting down, inquiry. I don’t know if I succeed. The line between Wise View and Fundamentalism becomes ever sharper as attachment to a doctrine eclipses the wisdom the doctrine teaches.
When a text from one culture not only survives the ravages of time to be reinterpreted by later generations of its home culture but travels the world in translations, versions, revisions, and remixes, does an unchanging core remain? If a text is like a self (since both can be understood as conditioned structures, formed of narrative, that interact with the world through unique but interdependent manifestations), then Buddhist theory would conclude that it has no unchanging core, no stable signifier. The text is always already empty of fixity, always in relationship, in context, contingent. This classic post-structuralist position marries well with Emptiness (śūnyatā), and is one way to crack the brittle fundamentalism that can develop when we love one version or reading of a powerful text more than others (and others’, and Others).
The contingency and mutability of great texts is part of their power. Millions of people, after all, have been able to identify with Hamlet in his angst, or Sītā resisting her captor’s advances, or Abraham leading Isaac up the mountain. These stories contain a drop of universal truth, perhaps, but also oceans of tribe, culture, power, and trauma, changing form with each retelling, as water takes the shape of the container that holds it. In the retelling, connections are made. Elektra in Tokyo is different than Elektra in Athens, but energy moves between the two great cultures when the text is shared. In the exchange of stories is also a play of power, and to understand the ethical implications of a story’s travel, looking for the power dynamic is necessary.
Some great texts seem like they belong to the whole world, while some seem like the property of specific tribes or communities. What makes that difference? Here’s a few over-simplistic possibilities for the power dynamics in cultural exchange, and some names for them:
- A story is imposed by a powerful culture on a less powerful one: colonization, indoctrination, philanthropy, nation-building.
- A story is taken from a powerful culture and repurposed by a less powerful one: culture jamming, hacking, remix, collage, sampling.
- A story is taken from a less powerful culture and repurposed by a more powerful one: appropriation, resource extraction, preservation.
- A story is offered by a less powerful culture to a more powerful one: gift? (Does this happen, or is it always appropriation?), maybe also subversion, resistance, revolution…
Dualistic models like these rely on one thing for their existence: borders. Separation, which creates both relationship and conflict, lover and Other. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes about borders like this:
Constantly guarded, reinforced, destroyed, set up, and reclaimed, boundaries not only express the desire to free/to subject one practice, one culture, one national community from/to another, but also expose the extent to which cultures are products of the continuing struggle between official and unofficial narratives — those largely circulated in favor of the State and its policies of inclusion, incorporation, and validation, as well as of exclusion, appropriation, and dispossession.(Minh-ha, elsewhere, within here)
Power over always is a consequence of difference, separation, inequality. Wherever there is difference there is the dual.
Of course no culture sits just on one side of this seesaw, and no relationship is static. Colonized India had been dominated and stripped of most independent economic and political power, and suffered deeply under the weight of the British imperial Raj, but held a spiritual power that fascinated Hegel, Emerson, and much of the Romantic West, manifesting for instance as Vivekananda’s majestic performance at the 1893 Parliament of Religions. Spiritual power in many cultures trumps material power, and in India this has long been true, with the brahmins atop the hierarchy of castes, kśatriya kings and warriors a step down.
As we look at the dynamics of a text or tradition moving from one culture to another, the inquiry is in part about the seat of power. Who gains by the translation of a text or tradition into another language, idiom, cultural frame? Who loses? And a text is not a material resource. When a story is told to another, what substance passes between bodies? What actually is the force that is transmitted?
The mysterious Yoga-Sūtra
This post is a meditation on culture, exchange, and interpretation, inspired by David Gordon White’s new book tracing the reception history of Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra (YS). The book is engaging, challenging, myth-busting, and completely au courant, weaving into the debates on cultural appropriation, colonization, and the reinvention of yoga and South Asian spiritual practice in the postmodern west. The basic thesis of the book is something like “Everything you’ve heard about the Yoga Sūtra is wrong.”
- The assertion in the frontispiece to BKS Iyengar’s classic translation and commentary, for instance, “All yoga as practiced today is based on the Yoga Sutras” might not be at all true. The Yoga Sūtra may not be as central to yoga, historically, as we think.
- All of the various commentaries on the YS push rival spiritual agendas, such that there’s no agreed upon interpretation of major tenets of the text. In fact, the original Saṃkhya-Yoga position is one of the least common interpretations among the commentaries.
- And most contentiously for current western yogis, the 20th century revival of the text is fraught with colonial politics, fabrication, marketing, and myth. The stories we’ve heard about the founder, core practice, and primary text of modern yoga all have been outed as more myth than historical reality.
How did this collection of enigmatic philosophical theory and meditation instruction written sometime between 200 BCE and 400 CE by an unknown author, who may or may not have been the same person as the one who wrote the first major commentary on the work, come to be a venerated inspiration by millions of European and American asana practitioners? The history is tangled. Matthew Remski, whose remix of the Sutras is one of the most powerful meditations on the text I’ve read, wrote this solid review of the book, which goes through the historical claims of White’s book in some detail, and I won’t repeat his work.
David Gordon White is a prolific and controversial scholar. His insights into yoga history in his previous books Sinister Yogis and The Alchemical Body are provocative, but his methods have received some criticism. Fellow yoga scholar James Mallinson commented at the end of Remski’s post critiquing White’s methods, and asserting the existence of exactly the oral lineage that White claims to have found no evidence of. The academic details are subtle, and Mallinson subsequently apologized (Remski posts White’s response here), but I think the narrative White spins is grounded enough to stand, even if many details are still contentious. In a way, the whole point is that the details are contentious. Welcome to yoga scholarship: where uncertainty almost always takes it.
It’s ripe timing for a book de-(or re-)constructing the history of the Yoga Sutra. As second and third generation western yoga practitioners mature in practice (and the same is happening in the Buddhist world with books like Eric Braun’s narrative of the 20th century birth/revival of Insight Meditation, abbreviated here), we are questioning what we’ve received from our teachers. We don’t want to blindly repeat the myths we heard, which carried more of an evangelical impulse perhaps than we need to maintain now. Those stories brought yoga to us, often at the cost of a radical simplification and a blurring of cultural and political difference. Other stories will serve us as we deepen in the complexities of practice, and the richness of current scholarship is one manifestation of this deepening.
“Memory is a process that depends crucially on forgetting.”(Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead)
So the western yoga ocean is churning now with a series of exposés, mostly from scholars and journalists rather than professional teachers, that perform the kind of unsparing historicization and analysis that devotees never seem to write. For western practitioners, the prime example is Mark Singleton’s 2010 Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, which dramatically rebuts the claims of the ancientness of asana (postures) that so many yogis hear from their teachers (both Euro-American and Asian).
“Yoga is 3000 years old.”
“This [posture-based yoga] is an ancient Tantric practice.”
Singleton weaves an engaging narrative that reduces down to something like this: The yoga we know comes mostly from an early 20th century revival in Mysore in which sanitized Hatha Yoga asana (eliminating the sexual energetics) and pranayama were supplemented with YMCA calisthenics, Victorian sideshow contortion, and anti-colonial Indian martial arts. Add to that an ethical and practice framework from Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, a Saṃkhya- and Buddhism-influenced meditation text that barely mentions asana at all, and Modern Postural Yoga (MPY, as scholars call our “yoga”) is a strange brew indeed.
Yoga Body remains shocking, since Western yogis still regularly hear claims about the ancient origins of yoga (meaning āsana) that have been largely rebutted by scholars. Some teachers contend that postural practice was a secret tantric art transmitted orally for centuries before it began to be written down in the 16th century Haṭha Yoga texts, but the historical evidence Singleton collected suggests that most of the postures we do really are less than 100 years old. at least in the way we do them.
David Gordon White’s book performs the same upending of received myths about the venerable Yoga Sūtra. The history of how the YS interacted with the various Indian philosophical schools, and how Patañjali’s text was used (and abused) by Tantric, Bhakti, Vedanta, and Islamic commentators is complex, and White’s narrative isn’t easy to follow. But the real hit comes in the last chapter, which examines the biography and contribution of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (TK), who plays the starring role in MPY’s Mysore origin story and is also the subject of Singleton’s final chapter.
Krishnamacharya & modern Yoga
Krishnamacharya, who taught the teachers most responsible for bringing yoga to the west: BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, TKV Desikachar, and Indra Devi, is rightly known by his devotees as the “father of modern yoga”. He virtually invented āsana and vinyasa as we practice them, which was an incredible creative act, but even that is part the problem: he seems to have largely invented them. White fact-checks the various biographies of him written by his disciples, and the stories don’t add up.
At the heart of it, at least as far as the Yoga Sūtra is concerned, is the claim that Krishnamacharya studied the YS as well as learning 700 āsana and vinyasa from a Tibetan master named Ramamohan Brahmachari. But the dates and places given for his various studies are geographically impossible and inconsistent. He claimed to have transcribed an ancient text that nobody has ever seen, which was eaten by ants before anyone else could read it. His students claimed he was an expert on the YS but he hardly mentions it in most of his early writings, and imprecisely at that, only releasing a commentary on it very late in his life. His clearest contribution to YS interpretation and practice seems to be Vedic-style chanting of the Sanskrit text, which was a centerpiece of his practice.
Like Singleton’s story of āsana — that the practice as we know it arose out of a very recent cauldron of colonial struggle and nationalistic reinvention, White’s story of the Yoga Sutra suggests that our core text was actually a relatively minor enigmatic work, and not the center of Yoga philosophy we think it to be. (Texts like the Yoga Vasistha and Yoga Yajñavalkya may have been much more influential, for instance, as was of course the Bhagavad Gītā. The Yoga Sūtra might even have been originally a Buddhist text!)
Its commentarial tradition shows no consensus on its meaning, and the text may have largely fallen into obsolescence by the 18th century (here’s a place where Mallinson disagrees). While most modern yogis focus on the Eight-Limb (aṣṭāṅga) practice as the heart of the text, early commentators ignored that part and mostly discussed the contentious sutras on Īśvara (“Lord”), sometimes interpreted as being synonymous with the Guru, sometimes with an abstracted Pure Awareness, sometimes with Brahma (God); and the “supernatural powers” described in the text’s 3rd chapter.
The Yoga Sutra came to the west through a revival in the late 19th century, largely at the hands of the brilliant Hindu evangelist Vivekananda, who wrote a stirring, and largely intuitive, commentary on it (The Raja Yoga, 1896). Vivekananda wrote it in 6 months in New York while trying to attract funding, and did not have access to earlier commentaries while he wrote it, so it reflects his devotional Vedanta lineage, rather than the largely non-theistic Saṃkhya-Yoga tradition the YS originated in.
It also substantially reflects the rational and scientific Enlightenment in vogue in the west, Theosophy, and tremendously popular western esoteric/occult teachings. Vivekananda asserted that the YS was the pinnacle of Indian spiritual thought, partly as a way to discredit the fakirs and sadhus performing physical yoga as public spectacle. Vivekananda was making a bid for Hinduism as one of the world’s Great Religions, with yoga as its practical expression, and that meant distancing it from guys sitting on beds of nails. The rational, and malleable, Yoga Sūtra served this purpose perfectly, and it has been embraced in the west in ways it never was at home. White writes, “Once an orphan in its own land, no other work of Indian philosophy has ever known such a host of adoptive non-Indian parents.” I have seen the yogi and he is us.
“Being delivered into a new form comes about when natural forces overflow.”(Yoga Sutra 4.2, Chip Hartranft)
The YS describes the process of change as what happens when the force latent in something overflows its container and is channeled in a specific direction by current conditions and intentions. His metaphor is of a farmer diverting a stream for irrigation. Past experiences combine with ongoing conditions to create a kind of momentum that each object or being is subject to, called saṃskāra, or “latent impressions”. Manifesting as habit, conditioning, tradition, trauma, and culture, saṃskāra are the onrushing force of the stream of sensory experience. Change happens when this stream bed changes, and the water takes on the new form of its new container.
Patañjali, like the Buddha, tells us that we are each subject to this process, and that it’s quite impersonal. Diverting water into a reservoir doesn’t change the nature of water or the law of gravity, it simply channels these into a specific, and temporary, form. In some ways, White’s book is a description of how the water (the Yoga Sūtra) has been channeled into many different kinds of irrigation channels, and has watered many different kinds of crops. Here’s a few of them, in sort of chronological order:
- In its “original” (maybe 4th c) form, without the commentaries, the Yoga Sūtra, written in what’s known as Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, uses many technical terms from Buddhist theory (the Abhidharma), and propounds a theory of suffering and its end that is in substantial harmony with Buddhist teachings. Places where it differs from Buddhism are particularly in the verses referring to the divine archetype called Īśvara (“Lord”, but also maybe referring to one’s guru, a deity, or an archetypal personification of Transcendent Awareness). It is one of the core texts of “Yoga”, capitalized to refer to the specific Indian philosophical school of that name. But Yoga was often thought of just as an offshoot of another, more major, school: Saṃkhya. The first, and most important, commentary on the YS was by a Saṃkhya philosopher named Vyāsa (which just means “editor”, and could refer to Patañjali himself, or a contemporary, or someone else centuries later… unknown!), who interpreted the YS in what would become the standard Saṃkhya terms, with a theistic (and so proto-Hindu) orientation.
- Saṃkhya hinged on the ontological dualism that one thing called Nature (prakṛti), which includes the planet, all things, bodies, and minds, was known by lots of individual Persons (puruṣa), or “luminous, transcendent consciousness[es]” (White, 26), and that Nature’s purpose was to reveal itself to each Person. When a Person (which means not your individual self/personality, but your… let’s say “soul”) through yoga (meaning meditation) cultivates enough stillness that Nature’s ceaseless flux quiets down enough to appear mirror-like, the Person sees a reflection of itself, recognizing that its activity — unchanging consciousness — is distinct from ever-changing Nature. Seeing this distinction, the confusion of identifying with the objects of awareness (Nature) ceases, and the yogi is liberated. The state of liberation is called kaivalya, “isolation”. In the Saṃkhya system, both Persons and Nature are “real”, but separate.
- In the 9th, or 14th, century, the Advaita Vedanta sage Śaṅkara (or Śaṅkarācārya, if they’re the same person… unknown!) wrote, or may have written, a commentary. This one, from the Non-dual perspective, argues that there is only one Person (puruṣa), not many, and that that Person is God, otherwise known as Īśvara. In the Advaita system, The Person (God) is real, but Nature is illusion (māyā).
- Sages Vācaspati Miśra (10th c) and a yogi king named Bhoja (11th c) hit back with Saṃkhya-Yoga commentaries, defending the earlier position against Shankara’s Advaita.
- Then Vijñanabhikshu (16th c) wrote a “Qualified Non-dual” Vedānta commentary that suggested that Union of each Person with the divine could be experienced (phenomenologically), but that the two were still fundamentally (ontologically) separate. More importantly, he reflected the growing bhakti (devotional) trend in Hinduism, and so added to the original model of prakṛti and puruṣa one higher force: God. So now instead of yoga being defined as the cessation of fluctuations of consciousness (YS 1.2), it is defined as it is throughout the devotional literature: as Union with God.
The theistic interpretation becomes the strongest interpretation of the YS for a while, and the Eight Limb practice (aṣṭāṅga) a method for meditating on God in order to attain Union with Him. The Yoga Sūtra went from being interpreted as a largely atheistic (Saṃkhya) text to being interpreted as fully theistic (Vedānta). Do you want some God with your yoga? Apparently it’s optional, but for a while was a very popular option.
By this point, the YS was showing up in Europe, to fascination and disdain. Here’s G.W.F. Hegel, for instance, not impressed:
The Indian isolation of the soul into emptiness is rather a stupefaction which perhaps does not at all deserve the name mysticism and which cannot lead to the discovery of true insights, because it is void of any contents…(White, 89)
Apparently Hegel came around a bit in the end, but I have heard echoes of his dismissal of samādhi — which he undoubtedly never actually experienced, since it’s not like that at all — by current western followers of tantric schools who also dismiss Patañjali’s samādhi as a quietistic dead end (who I have to also assume haven’t experienced, or understood, it).
All this is to say that there were at least three major Indian streams of YS commentary, and they disagree about fundamental aspects of its meaning. This is not even including folks like the Islamic commentators, a version of the YS that appeared in Java, and the Theosophists, who loved yoga, but focused mostly on prāna as cosmic energy, or ether, and the “magnetosphere” that surrounded everything. Yes, total woo, but their theories influenced lots of Indian yogis, including Vivekananda.
Where does all this leave us?
First, we can realize that the Yoga Sūtra performs a fundamental ambiguity. The stanzas themselves are terse, enigmatic, hard to translate, and the whole text only has 4 verbs in it! No wonder divergent interpretations have flowed fast and furious. Then we can investigate where our own interpretations are coming from. Are we repeating some of these classical ideas? Does your interpretation lean toward one of those listed above? And if not, then what?
Much of what I hear in recent casual conversation with yogi friends and students in teacher trainings reflects a philosophical orientation I might call Affirmational Non-dualism. There’s a tendency toward “It’s All One”, with an emphasis on the power of the individual mind to create reality. The communal implications of “It’s All One” and the Libertarian implications of the Power of Attraction ideology are strange bedfellows here, but they suit American self-help yoga perfectly. The (Advaita) idea that material reality is illusion doesn’t seem popular, nor the (Buddhist) idea that the self is illusory, nor the (Saṃkhya) vision of the isolation of the Person from Nature.
I think most yogis I know want to be told that they are real, that relationships matter, that service and community matter, and that yoga leads to happy, healthy, non-neurotic people who enjoy the aesthetic, sensual, and intellectual pleasures of the world without having to give up anything except anxiety. This is a glorious middle-class vision of spiritual fruition.
I know I sound a little sarcastic (sorry, manifesters), and I admit that I get grumpy at this point, but I see Affirmational Non-dualism as reflecting a quite delusional recent strain of spiritual practice, in which a privileged class uses yogic-sounding ideas to affirm their self-absorption rather than deconstruct the tendencies of mind that cause division and suffering, both individually and socially. This hedonistic philosophy superficially resembles some interpretations of the more radical forms of Non-dual Tantra, and if there’s a classical Indian philosophy that most approximates this attitude, it’s the vast and potentially ecstatic Non-dualism of some Śaiva schools (though as I understand it, interpreting classical Tantra as permission for hedonism is still a misinterpretation).
Influenced by Śaiva Tantra teachings of the ultimate union of Śiva and Śakti, and the vibration (spanda) that manifests as this unified divinity performs the acts of revealing and concealing (and creation-sustaining-dissolution), I have heard yogis dismiss ethical concerns, as well as concentrative meditation itself, as being unattractively “dualistic”. This dismissal is sometimes accompanied by a literal dissing of the Yoga Sūtra. One yoga teacher I know personally said, “Oh, Patañjali is ok, he just doesn’t go far enough. We [Tantric yogis] don’t get stuck in a checked-out trance.” To make it more complicated, this isn’t just delusional White privilege and arrogance speaking, though it is that, it’s also a version of what some actual tantric texts seem to be saying. (They’re not. The relationship of concentration to open awareness practices is far more complex than that.)
Others simply reinterpret the Sutra to suit their philosophy. I sound like I’m dissing this, but isn’t that what we just read that Vyasa, Shankara, Vijñanabhikshu, and Vivekananda all did? Current Tantric teacher Nischala Joy Devi rewrites YS 1.2 (yogas citta vrtti nirodha, “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness” in Iyengar’s version) as “Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.” Tantric teacher Ramesh Bjonnes champions this version, writing:
Devi’s translation gives us a feeling of warmth, unity, and hope; that yoga is about opening ourselves into a state of being that is already known to our hearts…
Nischala Joy Devi writes: “When this sutra is referencing only the mind, the emphasis is on control, restraint, or some form of restriction. It encourages students to be harsh with consciousness.”
Because of this harshness of language, of interpretation, of philosophy—for Patanjali was first and foremost a philosopher—the Yoga Sutras never became popular in India, writes Feuerstein. Why? Because the Indian people, as Gregory David Robert writes in his bestselling book Shantaram, they are all about the heart. They live first and foremost in the heart.
And so do women. And so do the Tantrics. And that is why I prefer the Tantric interpretation of yoga: that yoga is about uniting consciousness through the way of the heart, through the way of love for the Divine.(Bjonnes, writing inElephant Journal)
Bjonnes and Devi perform the kind of interpretive creativity that apparently has been a hallmark of the Yoga Sutra commentarial tradition, trumping a previous interpretation of the text with a more preferred philosophical approach.
Their Tantra-influenced philosophy reflects most clearly an abundant and sensuous attitude toward yoga and spiritual life that is very popular now, and I find it attractive, though I don’t agree with her characterization of the sutra as encouraging harshness. It’s just not Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, and Bjonnes admits as much: “There is really nothing about the heart or about unity in Patanjali’s original sutra.” He simply “prefer[s] the Tantric interpretation” (or his version of it, as well as a gender and race essentialism I find problematic).
In much the same way that Patañjali describes Nature as the mirror of consciousness, constantly morphing — White compares prakṛti to the shimmery Terminator 2 villain-bot — Devi simply morphs the meaning of the Sūtra to suit her belief system. The text mirrors the yogi, rather than the other way around. I have seen the yogini and she is us.
And before literalists condemn Devi’s version, we can look for its roots: citta in Sanskrit means both mind and heart (because they weren’t separated in early South Asian psychologies), and the translation of “heart” for citta is pretty common nowadays in many Buddhist circles, including in the Thai Forest monastic tradition my lineage is descended from, though it’s a modernist mashup to then interpret “heart” as meaning the personal emotional center.
But if we give her citta as heart, then the only dramatic change in Devi’s version is the shift from a traditional translation of nirodha as “cessation”, “stilling”, or “containing”, to “uniting”. Here, however, if we remember Vijñanabhikshu and the devotional interpretation of yoga most common in the Purāṇas: Union with God, we have a recognizable bhakti gloss of the sutra. Devi’s version performs a 180 on the meaning of nirodha, but Krishnamacharya’s son and heir T.K.V. Desikachar does a similar move, emphasizing the directing of the mind rather than its stilling:
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.(YS 1.2, in Desikachar,Heart of Yoga)
Everything is a remix, and always has been. What we’re saying the text means now is not the same as what any commentators in the past said, but it’s also not radically new. Perhaps it even does what commentaries always have done: built on the foundation of past inquiry a new theory, one that speaks to us, to our time, our minds and hearts, our particular wisdom. Patañjali’s enigmatic text, maybe exactly because it’s ambiguous, becomes the perfect mirror for the postmodern self. It is whatever you want it to be.
Can we have a moment of silence now?
I finished White’s book this weekend while on an anniversary getaway to Harbin, our local New Age hot springs resort/temple. (Despite the fact that the I’m aversive to the New Ageyness of it, I love that there’s a place like this that orients toward spirituality, is fabulously lush (and fabulously hedonistic), and stays working-class affordable. There’s nowhere quite like it. Much of my extended community retreats there, and we always run into friends.)
I floated in the warm pool with a dozen other naked hippies, and watched as the iconography of India floated by me. Ganesha tattoo. Rudrakśa mala. Bindi. OM tattoo. Another OM tattoo. I thought about cultural exchange, and appropriation, and how I bet none of these white people identified as Hindu (for more on conversion, see my recent post on kirtan and appropriation). The story of Krishnamacharya floated through my mind, then heart, and I felt a wave of sadness.
“Why are we doing this?”
The fact-checking police have latched onto this beautiful old man, whose smiling face I see in my mind’s eye, whose life story has been fluffed by his family and devotees. The brilliant scholar and synthesizer who got advanced degrees in Hindu philosophy and devoted his life to transmitting a glorious vision of yoga as a tool for health, strength, and spiritual illumination, which most of the people in this pool practice. I felt self-conscious about my own sharp words in a recent post critiquing teachers and elders for misrepresenting another ancient practice that I love (mindfulness).
“We shouldn’t treat gurus this way”, I said to my partner as we talked about it. I remembered the line from the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s text on Loving Kindness), “Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove”, and wondered about the colonial implications, power, and perhaps unintentional harm woven into all this new scholarship.
We’re a culture that doesn’t venerate our elders. I respect White’s analysis, and completely support its necessity, especially in a yoga culture that loves simplistic myths more than messy reality. And I know that Krishnamacharya’s family are adults that can take care of themselves in the face of criticism, but I still feel a sting. Is it racial/colonial? That white scholars are discrediting an Indian man? Or devotional, as my first impulse was, a reticence to criticize a respected elder? I don’t defend the fabrication of his biography, but I don’t completely trust my culture’s historicizing imperative either, which carries the assumptions, methodologies, and blind spots of our own culture and karma.
Devotion requires some form of belief, after all, and while I can’t agree that a lie is fine if it inspires faith in a tradition, I also know what it feels like to love a tradition without reservation, including its fantasies and myths. White has pulled a weight-bearing block out from the Jenga tower of modern yoga’s founding narrative, and most serious yogis and teacher training programs will have to do some re-stacking. Yogis and believers in India will as well.
Western yogis have been transmitted, been sold, been gifted, inherited, appropriated, co-opted, bowdlerized, and straight up invented a yoga practice that does wonders for our bodies and minds. Sutured to that practice is a strange, ancient meditation text that describes a practice that almost nobody does. That text was attached to these poses by one man with a brilliant vision for practice, and marketed heavily by a few of his students. And we’re now seeing some of the natural and appropriate results of our devotion: hard questions being asked, myths scrutinized, teachers un-pedastaled.
I want to publicly grieve for the mixed effects of our enthusiasm, entitlement, and hubris partly because I don’t think my culture will, either the academics or the yogis. Yoga in the West was offered to us by Krishnamacharya, Vivekananda, and others as a beautiful gift that came laced with their own agendas. It was also appropriated, and translated by westerners through the lens of our own needs, visions of spirit, and particular neuroses. To the sources of this tradition, I offer a bow, with hands in anjalī, the gesture you taught me. To the gurus who I will never be able to venerate as fully this tradition suggests they deserve, I offer a bow. To an enigmatic text that I do adore, and will keep adoring, even as I learn more about its strange provenance, I bow.
Devotion & lineage is the way forward
Recently in Chiang Mai, I visited a shrine to Ajahn Mun, the great reformer of Theravada Buddhism who is the root of the lineage of Thai Forest tradition I practice in. He was my teacher’s teacher’s teacher (Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Mun). The gratitude I felt standing in that tiny wooden temple was one of the sweetest moments of the trip, as I felt connected by a palpable thread to this fierce, passionate practitioner. I felt a glimmer of that this weekend, thinking about Krishnamacharya — also my teacher’s teacher’s teacher (Alice Joanou and Larry Schultz, Pattabhi Jois, TK). A sense that in my small way, through the unfolding of my own longing and intention, I bear the momentum of these powerful seekers’ devotion and realization, new irrigation channels opened, new fields watered, new growth.
Sūtra means “thread”, like suture, and this thin, shimmering text is one thread connecting my students and myself, who sweat and meditate in the postmodern neoliberal semi-secular temples we call yoga studios, to the ancient seekers who once sat in incredible concentration, stilling their minds and bodies to discover subtle truths of the relationship of the self to the world. The path that thread has taken is a tangled one, but it has somehow wound its way into the hearts and bodies of thousands of new yogis whose experience of meditation is worlds away from the luminous stillness Patañjali — whoever he was — described.
White ends his book with this dry paean to western interpretive innocence (or hubris), understanding that modern yogis’ approach to the text is not exegetical but devotional:
[The Yoga Sutra’s] truth, and by extension the authenticity of their own yoga practice, lies in the simple fact that it exists and that its words are there, recoverable across space and time through the simple act of performance.(White, 235)
The text here becomes a fetish object, and in this way resembles many other powerful religious or political texts. I think first of the Bible, and then of Mao’s Red Book, and imagine a sea of yogis in black stretchy pants and tank tops, waving tiny copies of the Yoga Sūtra in the air. “My practice is true because it’s in the book!” But everything seems to be in this book. Its instructions for meditation practice are reinterpreted as guidelines for a wholesome daily life. Its description of suffering and its cause is spun as a hymn to cosmic unity and love. Its ambiguous references (who or what, actually, is Īśvara?) are ignored. And its unattainable promises (supernatural powers and profound liberation through discernment) are used as metaphor or also ignored. But none of this matters, really. The Yoga Sūtra is what we needed, each of us in our own way, alone, seeing history from the slight remove of our mostly newly invented practice: a mirror, revealing not itself but whoever looks into it.