September 7, 2011

The Yoga of Self-Expression: a Little Cucumber-Water for the Pitta of Josh Schrei

by Matthew Remski

Preface: I was fortunate to be able to run an earlier draft of this by Josh before publishing, to ensure he wouldn’t feel misrepresented. He set me straight as whether or not he’s as austere in person as he is on the page: clearly he’s not. Goes to show how distracting a writing persona can be. It also reminds me of the Vedic pedagogical principle of artha vada – hyperbole – and how natural it is for bloggers to exaggerate to make a point. I’m quite guilty myself.

The skinny is that Josh writes as a yoga-protector, and I write as a yoga-evolutionist. He presents tradition and meaning as fixed and certain, and I focus on meaning and tradition as being unstable, yet growing. Over several very long and plainspoken e-mails we had a fruitful exchange about our differences, and I’m happy for the response to my response that’s sure to come, and look forward to working together in the future, in some way we can’t envision yet. I think he and I speak to different needs in modern yoga, and I am grateful to see them compared in this forum, and through comparison, perhaps brought closer together.


Josh Schrei recently posted an eloquent piece on the distraction of overshared emotions in modern yoga culture, staying consistent to his argument for a commitment to an authoritative and well-defined yoga of austerity, an argument he has developed in earlier articles on moderation and satya. Josh has become a powerful voice for discipline, absolute roadmaps, and self-certainty in these pages. For him, yoga truly seems a “crucible”, as his Facebook moniker has it, through which many readers and students find bright and burning inspiration.

But I feel compelled to pour some cool water over all this late-summer fire. Tejas is great, until begins to flame out soma, or to present a narrow or inflexible view, or to burn innocent little yogis. My concern is that in his enthusiasm for purity and transformation, Josh filters his yoga resources through a selective view that rarefies practice beyond the grasp of everyday life. Unfortunately, this voice often makes him sound to me like he is degrading the practices of people he doesn’t even know, whether they be Candice Garrett and her now-famous cocktail, or devotees of deconstruction, or a woman on the mat beside him who vocalizes during her asanas. I’m personally uncomfortable with signs of this very muscular and masculine judgment: it just feels like what happens in the rest of the world, and throughout history. The yoga I have come to appreciate has a wider path, and no metaphysical six-pack.


My first point for Josh is that it’s important to note that modern culture, as democratic and inclusive as we can manage it to be, is probably attracted to yoga precisely because of its liberal breadth of practices and views throughout the ages. There really is something for everyone on the yoga bus: even moderation (Ayurveda) and deconstruction (Vaisheshika, Shankara, and many Upanishads)! Even ten minutes on old EJ here makes this clear. Acknowledging the diversity of our practices makes us stewards to our values as they evolve, rather than the janitors of the “shoulds” and “must-dos” of other times and places.

Even the quickest survey of yoga culture shows the very masculine austerity and restraint Josh advocates to actually be a minority and exclusivist path, useful in particular ages (uncertain times) for particular tasks (alchemical) and times of life (pitta, pitta). Schrei presents austerity as a monolithic ideal. (For austerely pitta people, it is.)

Here are a few sprinkles that might be helpful to cool down some of Josh’s blazing absolutisms:

  1. Patanjali’s text is extraordinary, but it is relatively minor in the history of yoga, amplified in importance by the whims of Victorian-era scholarship. Yoga Vashistha is a vastly more common text within Indian yoga. This incredible work, 32K verses long, lays out a 7-limbed path, in which ethics are not accorded their own limbs, but referred to rather sparsely throughout.
  2. Many bhakti traditions are obsessed with emotional expression, of all varieties. Don’t tell them they’re not yogis – they’ll boil you down into ladoos, gobble you up, and continue the ecstatic dance.
  3. Some tantra indeed works directly and immediately with the movement and discharge of emotion – through mantra. Of course it also has a history of teachers deliberately putting students into absurd and convention-free scenarios, so that, as in Nietzsche’s experiment, the removal of assumed patterns can make the underlying matrix of self-expressed freedom more palpable. I personally had teachers who did nothing but un-restrain me. I’m still trying to find some of my knickers.
  4. The entire Puranic tradition is stuffed with heroes discovering their natures (svabhava) and destinies (daiva) through yogas of self-expression that are often impulsive, chaotic and violent. Restraint is in very short supply in yogic mythology, and rarely employed for moksha. In one left-handed story, Lord Brahma creates the very Rsis by ejaculating into the sacred fire while fantasizing about his darling Saraswati. Brahmacharya indeed.
  5. Going back to the Candice Garrett dressing-down – Josh asserts that there is a “collective ban on alcohol in spiritual circles” (paragraph 8). This is simply untrue. To take the obvious example, wine is the very lifeblood of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic mythology, poetry, and, in many cases, sacrament. Rumi and Hildegaard are soaking in must. There’s no more exquisite metaphor for the rising vapour of love and the transmutation of death. Mystic language has always been hammered: trampling sweetness underfoot, and waiting in silent reverie while unseen time breaks down summer sun into winter fire in earthen pots and oak barrels. Tantric poetry goes even further, colluding decay with the very source of bliss. Life (sattva) dies and ferments in the dark (tamas) glows amber in your cup (rajas) and stirs the senses (rajas) upwards (rajas), lifting you high above (sattva) your known space – before delight is exhausted (tamas).
  6. And about all that Blazing Divinity: some yogis are interested in ideas like Divine Alignment. And some have been (and still are) atheist materialists. The Carvakans, for instance – an accepted nastika (beyond-the-pale) school in India. Known for such hits as: “Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings!” and “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world!” (– from Brihaspati – “guru” of the Carvakan lineage.)


Beyond the facts, however — and beyond the purview of Josh’s piece (which means I’m shifting mainly into opinion mode now) — I’m concerned that something more important is being obscured by the shimmering ardour of such writings. What is often missed in the “traditional stewardship” pose is the fact that yoga today exists in a broader progressive culture that is finally learning intersubjectivity. A culture which, exhausted by alienation and failed transcendentalisms, is beginning to dream, tentatively, of its interdependence. And beginning to honour diversity not just as a fact of civic life, but as the life-blood of our growth.

This dream is unfolding in the modern yoga studio, which is becoming that rare public space in which rigid identities can be laid aside for an hour or two while the body and breath are brought to collective attention. A space in which we presumably take care not to judge how each person’s authenticity emerges.

Josh begins with a good story about some emotional Tourette’s ripping up a Manhattan yoga studio session. We all know the scene — the uncouth ejaculations of yawns, sighs, and grunts. Recovering Yogi goes to town on this stuff, and especially on how it’s milked by woo-woo yoga teacher lingo: mmm, what a delicious stretch, feel it, feeeeell it in svadisthana cakra! And then: more groans. Yes, the overshare can feel icky.

But why so icky, really? There might truly be a boundary issue, in which the groaner has no regard for her mat-mates. But it might also feel icky because our social training against empathy is very strong. When the woman beside Josh becomes “difficult-childbirth” vocal with her asanas, it’s possible that she’s being self-indulgent and impolite. But it’s just as likely that a trauma might be flowing through some nameless process that might trigger our own.

Or she might be groaning somewhere in that majority human zone between narcissism and sincerity. We honestly don’t know why she vocalizes. We only know that she feels safe doing it then and there. I’d be very careful about restraining her with lectures about the higher virtues of internalized work or the worthless indulgence of catharsis. Chances are good she’s been restrained quite enough. Who knows how many loads of shit she’s had to swallow and suppress? And who knows what stage of release she is at, and whether she is ready to hold her emotions in the interior space of ascetic meditation, or if this would even be of value to her?

In general, metaphysical views speak to what we think life should be, and must therefore must decide what noises are correct for this woman’s asanas according to one system or another. But therapy, which is what yoga is becoming, simply speaks to what works for life as it is. The worst thing a therapist can have is a system. Because then the encounter becomes about the system, and not the people. Simple question: how much yoga have you done that seemed to be about yoga itself, rather than about you, or those around you?

Sadly, it’s difficult to share experiences if we insist on promoting ideals. We will consistently downgrade common experience and emotion as being “extremely — and I mean extremely — small, short-lived, and myopic.” And what will we learn? We’ll learn to drive the wedge deeper between the “sacred” and the “profane”. We’ll split more, and integrate less. As within, so without: a splitting practice might split relationship as well, or not let it happen at all.

Yoga has become something that different people come together to do for different reasons. So we are in very different territory, lush with new opportunity. Here, the consideration of another’s vocalese or pain-release or pleasure-rushes or movement hybrids within asana is very much part of our own context and story. How we respond will tell us a lot about our connectivity.

The mat is not an idealistic bubble anymore. Its rubbery edges are fraying as we get to know each other. Last month, my colleague Scott started to experiment with a new meditation instruction. He invited us to switch from the perception of our own breath to the perception of the breath of the person beside us. Watch your neighbour’s breath as if it were your own, he said. Astonishing. That’s Scott for you, being self-expressive within a yoga medium. He couldn’t do it if he was trying to figure out whether someone else was getting it or not.


The nastier shadow of the awkward-overshare-situation is that we don’t know if we can believe that the emoting person is sincere in either their feelings or their expression. Or worse: we don’t believe they have a right to their emotions. While depressing, this is understandable, given our consumer context of manufactured emotions, and our emoticon status updates. It’s very hard to believe in the Other in a world of marketing, in which the majority eye-contact is the digital wink. Still, I think we desperately long to feel and believe each other again. And is there anything more important than this?

Josh also raises the worthy issue of catharsis. He has good reason to say that the sometimes-naive language of modern yoga colludes self-expression with catharsis. And it’s true that catharsis in itself is not purificatory: having a feeling, expressing the feeling, and resolving the feeling are all distinct actions. Catharsis is only part of the healing deal, and can be counterproductive if unduly willed.

However, cathartic release is also only part of the reward of unpremeditated self-expression. Epiphany is another result: that eruption of growth that changes your language and paradigm. Unpremeditated, free, self-expressive action is not simply a discharge of libido, unless you’re a devotee of Freud. It is also — graduating to Jung — the song of the systemless psyche. Hence, art.

I work in Ayurveda, which resists all systems by encouraging people to find their unique ecology through experimentation and phenomenological immersion. After meeting with about 1000 clients, most of whom are active yoga practitioners, I have found that the vast majority do not require restraint — except when it comes to refined sugar (– we have some good tricks). For most yogis, ethics are pretty clear, discipline is more of a guilt-machine than a tool, and restraint often involves torturing the real with the ideal. Yoga practitioners generally want to evolve into the better, fuller people that they’ve often locked up inside. Restraint is not their ticket, unless they are clawing their way back from some serious addictions or emotional dysfunction. If they are, restraint will help them stabilize in the present moment, but the open road before them is yet a mystery, and requires adventure. I don’t think one restrains oneself towards authenticity.

I find myself constantly suggesting that practitioners loosen discipline to better find themselves. This comes not only from professional experience, but from my personal story, in which each revelation marking my growth has emerged not because a discipline worked in itself towards its promised conclusion, but because it worked until it broke apart at the seams, and showed me something unimagined.

The traditionalist/austere vision might be well-suited to grad-level practitioners – yoga-ninjas who have tuned their ecologies to some impeccable harmony, and are gearing up for extended internal space-ride-research. Fair enough. We have a need for the alchemists and string-theory dudes. But we also need mothers, and Venus, and Bacchus.

For the majority of us, I think that the yoga of expression and emotional transparency can meet the yoga of empathy in a way that directly serves our most immediate and desperate needs for connection. And we just don’t know what that sounds like, beside our mats or in our hearts, when the myriad restraints are temporarily lifted.

Discipline? Creativity? Clearly there is a season for both. And moreso for the intelligence to blend them. Which is why I’m glad I’m dialoguing with Josh.



photo by ek park

I’m an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out my new website. With Scott Petrie I am co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.

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