November 16, 2010

The Oprah-fication of Patanjali: Culturally Homogenizing the Yoga Sutra.

If you’re involved with yoga, sooner or later (depending on what method you’re doing) you’ll encounter the Yoga Sutra (YS).

Written by the mysterious Patanjali way back around 250 B.C.E., this cryptic collection of 195 short statements (“sutras” or aphorisms), is by far the closest thing to a common sacred text that we’ve got in the yoga community today.

On one level, I love this. In a culture where knowledge of what happened two months ago regularly gets thrown in the trash bin of forgotten history, it’s exciting to discover that so many people care about a truly ancient text.


More often than not, I find myself irritated by the way that the YS’s treated by American yogis.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert. But I think that it’s safe to assume that the YS was not written as a feel-good text for more-or-less-normal 21st century Americans like me.

Which is why it gets my goat when I keep running across smarmy paeans to “how-the-Yoga-Sutra-can-help-you-be-the-best-healthy-and-happy-you!” (Perhaps accompanied by “five easy poses for everlasting bliss” you can do in 15 minutes or less . . . )

OK, I’m being snarky. But consider how articles such as the tellingly entitled “Paths to Happiness” (published in Yoga Journal) seek to assure us that the YS fits oh-so-comfortably into our contemporary culture:

Centuries ago, the great sage Patanjali laid out a kind of map—one that suggests not just asana and meditation but also attitudes and behaviors—to help you chart your own course to contentment.

At first glance, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra . . . may seem esoteric and impenetrable. But the ancient manual is worth a closer look, because it contains essential advice for daily living. ‘Patanjali has offered us guidelines that will allow us to have enhanced emotional and mental well-being and a more fulfilling and meaningful life . . . The Yoga Sutra is specifically designed to lead to greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment for you and everyone around you.’

Um, really? That’s funny, because I thought that the YS was about realizing Samadhi, or “assimilation with pure Being.”

But wait, you may say – what’s the difference? Isn’t Samadhi just another term for “happiness”? Like that blissful feeling I get seeing an amazing sunset or playing with my cute puppy in the garden?

Not to be a party pooper, but . . . really, I don’t think so.

I say that not to denigrate everyday happiness – hey, I’m using yoga to get more of that myself. Nor do I want to diss the YS. Quite the contrary.

Rather, I want to insist on a difference between “happiness” and “Samadhi” because I think that we’ll get more out of both our contemporary practice and our encounters with ancient texts if we don’t blur them together into one big indistinguishable mush.

YS 1.2: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.

Lost in Translation

According to Mircea Eliade’s classic work, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, the goal of Patanjali’s yoga is “perfectly clear”: “To emancipate man from his human condition, to conquer absolute freedom, to realize the unconditioned.”

This is not the same as our everyday sense of “happiness” and “contentment.” As Eliade explains:

The method comprises a number of different techniques (physiological, mental, mystical), but they all have one characteristic in common – they are antisocial, or, indeed, antihuman . . . The worldly man is ‘possessed’ by this own life; the yogin refuses to ‘let himself live’ . . .

It is here that we become better aware of the initiatory character of Yoga. For in initiation, too, one ‘dies’ to be ‘reborn’; but this new birth is not a repetition of natural birth; the candidate does not return to the profane world to which he has just died during his initiation; he finds a sacred world corresponding to a new mode of being that is inaccessible to the ‘natural’ (profane) level of existence.

And so on.

Yet Yoga Journal assures us that this same method is “designed to lead you, step-by-step, toward everlasting contentment.” Well . . . I suppose one could argue that it all depends on what your definition of “contentment” is. But really, I think that this ancient, radically ascetic discipline had quite different goals.

While articles such as “Paths to Happiness” intend to honor the Yoga Sutra, I believe that they inadvertently serve to render it invisible. By so completely assimilating it into our everyday cultural categories, all signs that it might actually be speaking of something different are washed away.

What’s left is more or less the same sort of uplifting, feel-good spirituality that you might find on Oprah. You can just imagine Patanjali sitting on her couch, chatting nicely about how the eight limbs of yoga can help you “follow your bliss.”

But does that truly constitute “death to profane existence?” It seems pretty clear that the answer is “no.”

Black Magic and Perverse Sexuality

If the YS is not really ready-for-prime-time, why is it usually presented – even by prominent yoga teachers – as if it is?

In part, I think it’s a carry-over from the not-so-distant past, when Hatha yoga had a really, really bad reputation, both among respectable, middle class Indians, and most certainly in the West.

As Mark Singleton explains in Yoga Body, Europeans colonizers began denouncing yogis as “itinerant renouncers known for their disreputable (and sometimes violent) behavior, mendicancy, and outlandish austerities” back in the 1600s. As recently as the early 20th century, Hatha yogis were associated with “black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity” by many Europeans and Indians alike.

While filled with cultural chauvinism and religious intolerance, these denunciations did have some basis in reality. Singleton documents that from the 15th – early 19th centuries, “highly organized bands of militarized yogis controlled trade routes across Northern India . . . It was in fact the hatha yoga-practicing Nath Yogins themselves . . . who were the first major religious group to organize militarily.”

Once Indian elites and British colonialists joined forces and cracked down on these militarized yogis, many turned to lives of “showmanship and mendicancy, becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society, and of voyeuristic fascination or disgust for European visitors.” Lurid tales of extreme austerities circulated widely, e.g., “overgrown nails that pierce the flesh of the hand, dislocated arms, and excruciating postures held for so long that the limbs in question become ossified and shriveled.” (And, all “showmanship” aside, it’s also true that radical austerities have long held an important place in Indian religious culture.)

"indian Fakirs in Various Positions" (Scientific American, 1885)

As recently as 1983, Geeta Iyengar (daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar) noted that “the word Yoga evokes all sorts of images in the popular mind”:

Some associate it with recluses, saffron robed, body smeared with ashes, with begging bowl in hand, and wandering from town to town; or sitting cross-legged atop a mountain or on the banks of a sacred river. Cartoons depict a Yogi sitting on a bed of nails, performing the rope trick, and walking on water. In others he is a magician drinking acid or swallowing pieces of glass.

Geeta, like her father, is devoted to countering such conceptions, promoting an alternative understanding of yoga that emphasizes its capacities to develop physical, psychological, and spiritual health for all.

As Singleton and others have documented, however, this new understanding was in fact a modernized reinterpretation of the yoga tradition developed by Sivananda, Krishnamarcharya, and other luminaries during the 1910s-30s. The ancient tradition represented by the YS was something quite different.

Sanitizing the Sutras

Following the precedent set by Swami Vivekandanda’s immensely influential Raja Yoga (1896), the newly modernized form of Hatha yoga that emerged in the early 20th century nonetheless came to orient itself around the ancient authority of the Yoga Sutra.

Given all of Hatha’s negative associations, it’s not surprising that the modern invocations of the YS heavily emphasized its presentation of ethical precepts (the Yamas and Niyamas), rather than extraordinary powers (the Siddhis). In the modern context, dedication to non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, and so on remain admirable, worthy virtues. Powers such as knowing the past and future, understanding the language of animals, reading minds, becoming invisible, leaving and entering bodies at will, levitating, and walking on water (all enumerated in the YS), however, are – to say the least – much more controversial.

Hindu Ascetics on Tiger Skins (early 19th c.)

A recent interview in the Magazine of Yoga with scholar David Gordon White, however, points out that:

It suffices to cast a glance at the Yoga Sutra to see that the acquisition of Siddhis was at the forefront of yogic theory and practice in the first centuries of the common era: Nearly all of the 55 sutras of Book 3 of this work are devoted to the Siddhis, and the ‘disclaimer’ in Verse 37 of this book – that ‘these powers are impediments to Samadhi, but are acquisitions in a normal fluctuating state of mind’ – seems only to apply, in fact, to the Siddhis enumerated in the two preceding verses.

By suppressing this dimension of the Sutras – as well as the larger history of yoga that it’s a part of – the yoga community is sanitizing them to fit cleanly into our culture.

A serious discussion of the Siddhis definitely wouldn’t cut it on Oprah.

Pushing the Envelope

Until quite recently, however, presenting a sanitized version of the YS was probably a requirement for making it – along with the longer tradition it represents – more popular and accessible.

Even today, Christian conservatives are warning that going to a run-of-the-mill yoga class puts one at risk of demonic possession. Now, such extreme views are seen as silly outside of fundamentalist circles. But such highly negative views of yoga (not to mention Hinduism and India more generally) were common in the West until the mid-20th century.

And yoga really didn’t lose its association with counter-cultural weirdness until the late 1990s. So it’s only been a decade or so that yoga’s been seen as a non-threatening – even wholesome – practice.

Until this time, it was reasonable to assume that discussing the more culturally alien – even discomforting – aspects of yoga’s past would drive people away from it, preventing them from experiencing all of the amazing benefits it has to offer.

Today, however, we no longer have to worry about this. Frankly, most contemporary yoga practitioners simply won’t care about whatever weird facts might turn up studying yogic history. They know that they enjoy their local yoga class – and that, for all intents and purposes, is that.

Which is totally fine. There’s no reason that everyone who practices today needs to care about the past.

But for those of us with a deeper curiosity about the yoga tradition, I think that it’s time to rethink our approach to the Yoga Sutra.

We have endless self-help aids promising quick-fix routes to happiness and contentment. Homogenizing the YS so that it fits into that familiar feel-good niche serves no useful purpose. On the contrary, I believe that we’re missing an opportunity to push the envelope of our understanding of yoga by honestly grappling with the culturally unfamiliar dimensions of this ancient practice.

In all honesty, I love Oprah. But I’m more fascinated by Patanjali – or at least a version of him that’s far too radically esoteric to cut it on her show.

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