March 23, 2011

Yoga & the Religious Attitude.

by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie

Modern yoga exists at the juncture of faith and faithlessness, on the cusp between belief and inquiry. It begs the question in a thousand ways: can faithful people have substantive conversations with those for whom faith is an open question?

A month ago, we published our introductory piece to our ongoing series in the 2.0 reading of Patanjali. Since then, 55 comments have been appended to that post. Scott and I have been puzzling over one of them ever since.

The commentator “Mahatma” had two points. One was technical. Mahatma pointed out that modern western yogis should be aware that the ascendency of the Patanjalian sutras in our culture is not representative of the broader tradition, and that the majority of the Hatha Yoga lineage that follows Patanjali evokes a more tantric ethics of relationship, involvement, and embodied action. We agreed in our reply, and added the additional observation that the ashta-anga of the sutras meshed very nicely with the Neo-Platonic reading agendas of early 19th-century translators. In other words, we agreed that we have adopted Patanjali as our modern yoga bible because it resonates nicely with our vestigial Judaeo-Christianity. It divides spirit from matter, disciplines the unruly body of its desires and assymetries, surrenders to authority – whether external (the perfection of a divine agent) or internal (the perfection of your unseen soul), and tells a general story of redemption from a natural state of sin. Its aesthetic is quietist: classical yogis and Christian saints radiate nimbuses of mildness. This was all very clear, and gratifying for us to have the opportunity to sketch out in brief as we prepare more complete reflections on this intersection for a later post.

all you need

But Mahatma’s second point was much different. S/he began by casting an aspersion on our training and our relationships to teachers, and suggested that the ethical dilemmas that we raised to begin our interrogation of Patanjali’s relevance to our postmodern age were the product of our unfortunate disconnection from “authentic” yogic learning. Now, we don’t think we know the commentator personally – s/he posted under a pseudonym – so we can’t really say how s/he came to any conclusion about our education. According to them, our very questions seemed to place us beyond the pale of valid inquiry. Without the right teacher, Mahatma seemed to be saying, we don’t even know what questions to ask. Besides, a good teacher would go farther than answering questions,– a good teacher could actually unwire the mind that asks questions.

Further, our apparent outsidership was presumed by Mahatma (albeit tacitly) to be psychologically stressful to us. S/he kindly reassured us that our answers were indeed available, but only accessible to us through a corrected relationship to authority. Other commentators went further in their psychoanalysis of our questioning stance, worrying aloud about the amount of internal pain that our professed uncertainty must be causing.

We appreciated the psychological concern, but found it a bit unnecessary and overreaching, because we both honestly love our questions and their elliptical jet streams. We are bhaktis of inquiry. And we don’t even really have any problems with authority, either. We either ignore authority, resist it, or accept it provisionally. For us, authority is plural, and the more the merrier. We compare amongst them, short-circuit their hierarchies of knowledge through analysis and discussion, and disperse their power amongst everyone who comes to the party.

Over many pots of Ethiopian coffee since that post, we’ve come up with a few thoughts about these comments, and we’d love to open a new level of discussion: about how yoga inquiry is produced and received, and what this says about what knowledge is, who owns it, what it is used for, and, most importantly, what it shows us about where religion and philosophy tangle.

Modern yoga exists, it seems, at the juncture of faith and faithlessness, on the cusp between belief and inquiry. It begs the question in a thousand ways: can faithful people have substantive conversations with people like us, for whom faith is an open question?


Scott leaned back in his chair and opened with a bright volley. “In what way is the statement: ‘You will understand Patanjali when you meet an authentic teacher’ different from the statement: ‘You will understand the Bible when you accept Jesus as your personal saviour?’” (You can substitute any religious text or figure for “Jesus”.)

I was puzzled – I said: “Well, presumably an ‘authentic teacher’ would sit before you in the flesh, would know you and your learning needs, would be able to improvise and time the most relevant examples and so on. ‘Accepting Jesus’ doesn’t involve quite the same kind of dialogue.”

“True,” said Scott. “But the end result is the same from the perspective of the learning process. Both statements attempt to generate a feeling of certainty that forecloses on all future questions by deferring to an external power. I don’t think Mahatma is simply empathizing with our lack of mentorship,” he continued. “I think he’s saying that we’re non-believers, and we won’t get anywhere or know anything verifiable or useful until we develop a faith relationship to authority. He’s saying: ‘Everything will be answered when you finally put your faith in a teacher who answers everything for you.’”

Scott’s point was simple. Whether you are accepting Jesus as your personal saviour or accepting an “authentic” teacher’s interpretation of Patanjali (or anything else in the yoga tradition as whole and complete) you are doing the same thing. You are giving your authority away. This may not be a bad strategy in some cases, but there’s a catch. You can only really do this with pleasure and comfort if you also enjoy the psychological support of a faithful attitude. In other words, accepting first a teacher’s authenticity, and then accepting their authority over whatever they choose to interpret, is an act of faith, plain and simple. Acts of faith are not designed to advance knowledge. They are designed to soothe the anxious mind. They are religious, in the sense that they manufacture certainty, as opposed to philosophical modes, which produce discourse.

Imagine someone saying: “When I come to have faith in Jesus, I will see that the questions I ask without faith are meaningless.” Well of course! This is so obvious that it can’t be meaningful. But we have no desire to come to have faith in Jesus! So can we get on with the discussion, please? Or is faith in Jesus my entrance fee to your church, which is the only place we can legally talk about him?

When someone writes to encourage us to find and surrender to the authority of an authentic teacher, they are appealing for the development of our faith. They are saying: “If you take a religious stance towards these issues, your questions will cease.” The assumption also seems to be: we’d be happier without our autonomy, and so would everyone else. Sometimes, there also seems to be some underlying resentment: “I gave away my autonomy — why do you get to keep yours?”

When this agenda is uncovered, it suddenly makes sense why no commentator who takes this tack would be excited to actually engage the content of the original article. (If you read through the criticisms, you’ll see that almost none are substantive. Rather, most focus on issues of tone or presumed attitude. Ramesh provides the notable exception.) Such critics don’t address the questions we raise, because the questions are irrelevant. Their target is the questioning and faithless mind itself. If they did actually engage on the level of content, they would have to do so by forfeiting their language of faith.  They would have to climb down out of the private certainty they hold in relative solitude, into the uncertainty that everyone shares. This is very hard for a certain kind of person to do. We think that that person is likely harbouring a religious attitude towards life and knowledge.

Really – what would be the point of telling a writer “You don’t know enough because your training is incomplete”, and then failing to concretely engage with the alleged shortcomings in the writing? Does this serve knowledge, or community? Or is simply about power? Does Mahatma not care about the actual content, or worse – about how Scott and I may be endangering ourselves with falsehoods? Is it more important for him or her to simply tell us that we are outsiders, and would be better off silent until we join the Light Team?

Mahatma implied that we were wrong, and then seemed to have nothing to offer. It might be that s/he just didn’t have time that morning. But still: s/he could have taught us something. It feels like the message of exclusivity was a higher priority.


Postmodern yoga culture has a very complex relationship with religion. On one hand, it has Universalist strands, presented most clearly by Vivekananda and his lineage, which suggests that yoga provides an ecumenical forum for the blending of all religions. This looks good on paper, but it seems rare for it to reach out beyond the level of abstraction and multicultural sentiment.

On the other hand, many modern yogis are insistent that yoga is not a religion. This claim is useful in the support of at least three different agendas: the yogi’s wish to differentiate herself from her own (presumably bankrupt) religious heritage; the yogi’s wish to simplify the marketing of her brand (whether she’s trying to open a heartland studio or a corporate call-in business); and finally, the yogi’s wish to elevate the process of inquiry over the product of certainty. This last agenda is probably the most fruitful and forward-looking.

Then (if we can add a third hand), on the third hand there is outright religiosity in a large portion of modern yoga culture. The same studio that hosts an Iyengar intensive on femoral grounding on Saturday afternoon can easily host a devotional kirtan on Saturday night, in which the pleasure of psychological surrender is the desired experience. Murtis of Ganesh or Siva sit on the reception desk, blessing the key-chain pass-swiper and raw vegan snacks. More than this, many practitioners affect a religious and/or faithful attitude.

This is to be expected. Even the most jaded Judaeo-Christian culture will likely retain its religious sentiments as long as they serve the psychological need for comfort and certainty. We will surely nurture our religious heritage for as long as it hints at that expansive state we know can’t be limited by dogma. The imagery and prayers of other religious traditions may even be particularly useful to us, because they have not accumulated their own dogmas like so much dust. We are like children amongst the Hindu pictures: enthralled on the levels of colour, form, and story. We are inspired by the devattas, perhaps because they haven’t yet begun to tell us what we should do, or how we should exclude those who don’t share our fascination, or how we should discipline those who develop incorrect philosophies.


If there are religious aspects to modern yoga, does yoga 2.0 view them from inside or outside of faith? Where do we stand? Do we need to choose?

The Outsider/Insider conundrum is famous in Religious Studies, where Scott and I both did hard academic time. The question revolves around who has the right and ability to study and describe a set of dogmas – the one who holds them, or the one who doesn’t?

The Outsider to a religion can’t understand it, says the Insider, because she lacks the ecstasy of faith. The Insider to a religion can’t understand it, says the Outsider, because he lacks rational perspective. The Insider defends his private feelings against intrusive analysis. In so doing, he pushes the Outsider further to the periphery. The Outsider’s language must become more penetrative. As Outsider intelligence becomes more penetrative, Insider defensiveness recommits, and recommits.

If Scott and I don’t sit with an authentic teacher that matches Mahatma’s unstated (and probably indefinable) standards, are we outside the tradition? We don’t feel that way – certainly not after 20 combined years of teaching and community organization across many strata of yoga culture: studios, retreats, teacher training programmes, and in the satellite disciplines of Ayurveda and East Indian Astrology.

But at the same time, we don’t really feel like we’re “inside” of anything, either. We definitely feel the same moments of expansiveness, pleasure, wonderment and empathy that lie at the heart of religious sentiment. But for us, our samadhis do not suggest or define or prove a worldview to which we must pledge allegiance, or defend against something that will attack it. They are simply the gifts of life itself, thankfully made more accessible and magnified through yogic technique. When they occur, authority is nowhere to be seen. Nobody asks us to recite a creed on the threshold of the sublime. No priest has led us to joy. No article of faith has brought me to orgasm, or sufficiently explained a single petal on a single lily of the field.

Religious yoga reminds us of Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t join any club that would need me as a member!”


At a certain point in the inside/outside discussion, a strange dialectic takes hold. The Insider begins to prove her insidership by measuring it against the Outsider’s misunderstanding. The Outsider begins to prove her outsidership by measuring it against the Insider’s irrationality. The sides polarize, not because the substantive differences are increasing or harming anyone, but because the perceptions of those differences are closing down the language and the willingness to connect. Emotions run high: the Insider needs to protect the soul he has claimed for himself, and the Outsider seeks for soulfulness in the cracks between claims.


Our first yoga studio was in rural Wisconsin, surrounded by various Christian church compounds. One Lutheran evangelical minister stood in his pulpit one Sunday and expressly forbade his congregants from coming to our studio. Sometimes our building was vandalized. We never found out if that was discriminatory, but we often felt uneasy and untrusted within the larger community, even though the folks that came to our classes seemed edified by what we were able to offer.

My partner also taught theatre classes in the space. Over time we made the acquaintance of the only other theatre-teacher-woman in town, who sent her children to my partner’s classes, played Sonia to my Astrov in a community production of Uncle Vanya that we staged, and began to chat with us about collaborating further. I’ll call her Marian. We got along well. It all had that upbeat Midwestern feeling I still miss.

But one day, somebody at Marian’s church gave her a good talking-to about her association with us. Shortly after, while helping my partner with costumes for a kid’s production of Peter Pan, she announced her concern for our souls. Our practice of yoga, according to her, would prevent us from forming an adequate relationship with Jesus, and it fell to her to let us know. She looked at us gravely, her normally-cheerful colour now ashen.

But she wasn’t upset enough, in my view. When I pressed her about the implications of her concern, she confirmed that it ran deeply: she claimed to believe that my soul would be damned because of my practices and faithlessness. I asked her what damnation meant to her. She replied that it meant eternal separation from God: eternal loneliness, eternal pain.

“That’s bullshit,” I said. She was taken aback. “If you were really concerned that my eternal soul was in this moment being primed for endless torment because of choices I could change right now, you’d be on your knees right here, begging me to convert. If you really were convinced that I was lost, you’d be out of your mind with horror and empathy. And I know you have a big heart – I’ve seen you with your children. So I think this faith of yours is shite. You don’t really believe that stuff. You just want to feel certain about something in your life. And you’re using your projection of my uncertainty to prove that you can feel certain about something. I don’t think it’s going to work out for you in the long run.”

We lost touch with Marian. Everything we shared and everything we had in common was washed away in a pathetic tide of religious misanthropy. It was such a waste.


faith and despair in chekhov

In the closing speech of Uncle Vanya, Sonia masters the poetry of religious despair. I was off-stage: my Astrov having exited in drunken springtime existentialism.

Marian stood centre stage in that tiny regional theatre, and wept openly as she delivered her lines.

Chekhov has built it sublimely: Vanya is tortured by loneliness and class misfortune, driven to servitude at the hand of his pompous brother-in-law, in late middle age, a bachelor, longing for a love he knows will never come. He weeps with angst, and Sonia rebuts with tears of faith.:

SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith…. We shall rest…. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest.

I watched from the wings night after night, knowing Marian’s tears were real. She really did have faith, and it gave her equal parts of poetry, despair, and intolerance for the incompatible feelings of others.

I think that what ultimately separated us from Marian was that we simply couldn’t share her (and Sonia’s) religious morbidity and psychological disempowerment.


While our Wisconsin experience may be a crude example of a religion-stoked impasse, the same thing can definitely happen in yoga as well. Mahatma’s words must only be nudged a little bit further to the right before they turn into a faith-based standoff in which s/he says: “Whatever we do share is outweighed by our differences in belief. I have access to an authority that you do not, and it gives me enough power to say you are mistaken.”

What a way to end a conversation that’s just getting started!


But why pull punches? We actually know that religious exclusivity that derives its power from hierarchy, from defining, reifying and claiming ownership over indescribable experiences abounds in yoga culture. We can feel it: yoga often separates as much as it joins, and it does so through the religious posture of assumed certainty. Assumed certainty provides comfort that decays.

You can feel it whenever you get close to a group who allows you to stay by trying to force your internal reality to wear a particular public mask. You can feel it whenever you are told how to feel or think about authority. You can feel it whenever someone offers you consolation with a vague but insistent promise of certainty in your life – if only you follow their instructions perfectly. You can feel it when you keep going to satsang long after your learning curve has plateaued, and you blame yourself for your declining enthusiasm. You can feel it when it seems like you’re depending on someone for constant propping of your self-worth. You can feel it when you feel relieved to be forgiven by someone you never wronged. You can feel it when you begin doing things to appease authority because appeasement will make you feel welcome, included, and part of the tribe again.

It feels so good to be the prodigal son. It feels so good to be the good boy or girl once again. But this is not empowering for those who are actually growing older, and actually wish to step into the authenticity that they alone can define. It’s no surprise: religion is not about sharing power. Yoga is.

photo by julie daniluk

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers.

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