November 25, 2011

The Natural Pluralism of Yoga. ~ Chetana Panwar

I have been feeling concerned lately about some of the discourse surrounding yoga and social action, and yoga and its intersection with business, advertising and particular socio-economic philosophies. I am troubled by a presumed homogeneity of socio-political perspective that is being attributed to yogis and yoga philosophy.

It seems so innocent, and I am sure I have used the phrase before, to say “yoga philosophy says…”. Perhaps as teachers we might use this kind of short cut or generalization when exploring a very specific aspect of yoga thought, the context of which is understood, such as when explaining the yamas in fairly non-contentious, straight forward terms. But even here, if we stray into saying “Patanjali says…” and then give a more interpretive statement about the Yoga Sutras, it is misleading. We really should only say Patanjali says… when quoting the Sanskrit text, or a translation of an aphorism while at the same time making clear the interpretive decisions of the translator. Otherwise, the looseness of discourse implies that we can clearly outline what yoga is in a few simple, uncontested statements with which all yoga practitioners and teachers would agree. I doubt this could be done except in the most broad and generalized terms, because, in fact, yoga in its wider sense includes an incredible pluralism.

Stephen Cope mentions that we often teach a diverse jumble of yoga teachings without too much concern for the inconsistencies or different textual origins. We teach a bit of Vedanta, a bit of Tantra, a bit of Samkhya, and us the term yoga to include all of these in its broader sense. In fact, I don’t mind this approach and preserving the diversity of the various aspects of the yoga tradition. AND, I feel it would be wonderful if even more yoga teachers were aware of the complexities and could guide group explorations of different positions of different streams of yogic thought on some of the more contentious or divergent aspects of the tradition (i.e ideas that were not agreed upon, why, the distinctions and how they may affect our interpretations in the current context). This way, rather than people rejecting ‘yoga’ due to a particular perceived failing of a certain school of thought, they could simply discover and explore other equally authentic schools of yoga thought.

For example, yoga is often presented as a tradition of literal renunciation in which the focus on the body was viewed as an obstacle to enlightenment, and that this had to be overcome. In our modern context it is common for this to be interpreted as body-negative. There are layers of issues I’m alluding to, but suffice it to say, that this is not an accurate description of the whole of the yoga tradition, but is most common to a more extreme practice and expression of Vedanta that I understand to have flowered around 1500 BC along with Sannyas Yoga, and to have peaked again with Shankaracharya in the early Middle Ages. Although Tantra and Vedanta share one of the same basic tenets, and that is Monism, Tantra is typified by the recognition that if there is only one fundamental essence, it is here within all situations and within the body as well; as such the body and all of its actions can be ritualized as tools for realization. Tantra Yoga and early Shamanic Vedic tradition can be viewed as body positive, and not requiring literal renunciation. Krishna makes this case when he synthesizes action and renunciation in his presentation of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. I use this as an example of how it is simply very limiting to ignore the plurality in the wider yoga tradition.

Having briefly presented the pluralism inhering in the broader yoga tradition, I would like to come back to the issue of yoga teachers currently using discourse which suggests that we can establish a common socio-political world view for yoga practitioners and yoga teachers to fall in line with. When we say, “All yoga teachers should support the Occupy Movement,” or imply that a philosopher like Ayn Rand has nothing to say to anyone in the yoga community, and that her novels and other writings are fundamentally un-yogic, we begin to walk down a road where there is no dialogue, and no diversity of opinion or social action is acceptable. If leaders in the community put out this type of message it ironically goes against the more post-modern, popular, democratic movements which in essence are in favour of decreased power disparity, increased circle dialogue and working through collaborative management. Inspiring guilt and subtly suggestion a ‘party line’ that yoga teachers must toe is a dangerous step and one I feel I must speak up about. I believe we can work together even more richly through navigating and celebrating our diversity of practices, philosophies, backgrounds and ideas of how to bring various aspects of yoga into our lives and into our society.

This week in various Facebook posts, blogs and newspaper blog comments, I have seen an incredible and categorical condemnation of Lululemon and Ayn Rand, which has come about due to the yoga wear company’s putting the controversial “Who is John Galt?” phrase from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on their shopping bags. The comments were mostly aggressive, black and white and belittling. Yes, Lululemon is a corporation. Yes, their clothes are no longer made in Canada. Yes, their clothes are probably more expensive than necessary, AND they offer free yoga classes several times a week in their stores. There is inevitably light in the darkness and dark in the light. This is not an article in defense of a corporation. For me it is all about how we inquire, how we listen to all of the sides, and how we express ourselves even when there is emotion. What change might we most like to inspire in the company. Surely not simply the dropping of a bag slogan. What about a clear statement of intent to use some of the profits to better the working conditions of overseas workers?

The founder of Lululemon’s explanation of why he used the phrase on the bags has been summarily rejected. For me, it is one of the interesting aspects of this: Rand’s concept of rising out of automatism and mediocrity. Further, I have not seen anywhere any attempt to understand where Ayn Rand might have been coming from as a Russian emigrée in the earlier part of the last century, with her distaste for state controls and her belief that art, ideas and inventions flourish when they are not controlled by an oppressive state or the guilt of coerced altruism. In fact, yoga is often seen as a process of de-socialization, the process of getting at our authentic responses un-encombered by the layers of armour we develop over the years of self-protection and influence. We cannot say that there is nothing at all in Rand that can be understood through the yogic lens. Rand makes her case against totalitarianism and for free will, and she was a capitalist. Probably most yoga teachers are not in favour of totalitarianism either.

And so it seems that the vicious distaste for Ayn Rand expressed recently in the yoga community has to do with her promotion of capitalism and the pursuit of individual happiness.  On Facebook, I made a case for the concept that in order to facilitate yoga sessions where we hope to lead experiences that are designed to be integrative and help people embrace and discover wholeness, we have to have glimpsed contentment, integration and wholeness ourselves. And so, yoga is both an individual exploration in wholeness and transformation (of the way we see things), and a social one. But, individual processes are there alongside collective ones. The pursuit of individual happiness is not evil, it is simply a part of a larger process and a wider engagement. Further, at the moment economic recession is giving a large nudge in opening up discussion of modifications of our current capitalist and mixed social-capitalist systems. This is our current reality. But, I imagine that not all yoga philosophers and teachers have exactly the same ideas on economic reform or how to achieve social and economic equality. I personally am what I would describe as a social liberal interested in post-modern educational and dialogic methods. And yet, I am not willing to label those more fiscally conservative as un-yogic.

In my view, we do not need a separation between Ayn Rand or any philosopher and yoga, we need to be open enough to understand different views and to see and speak to our perception of their benefits and limitations in a respectful and undogmatic manner. Perhaps skill in action is the yoga here.

What I think perhaps we ought to collectively consider is what common ideals we hope for the yoga community and teaching community, such as accessibility, fairness, non-violence or abuse etc. For this we could look closely at:

a) how power shows up in yoga teaching, and how we can create more safety, fairness, equality in the teaching/learning experience.

b) how yoga teachers can effectively provide for themselves as well as make yoga accessible;

c) how we as a community can create arbitration in cases of ethical problems, breeches or concerns possibly through an ombudsperson; et cetera.

First, our community and communities of yoga teachers and practitioners needs to find ways of coming together as a community to address issues of immediate concern in yoga teaching, as well as to find ways of doing outreach in a more cooperative and effective manner, and increasing public awareness about yoga and concerns in teaching etc. If people are speaking to the public on behalf of yoga teachers, they should be elected spokespeople and there would need to be ways of having broad-based dialogue within our communities. These are desperately needed first orders of business which we have been speaking about in some forums lately, but which is difficult given that we are an unregulated profession with no clear ways of organizing collectively.

It’s all in the method, people! If we look at popular yoga teaching methods, we can find clues to why we have not been entirely successful in coming together as a community. Do we teach in a way that allows for diversity, or do we promote one way, and use methods of delivery that squash dialogue? Are yoga teachers strongly encouraged to follow rank and file? I have seen this very dynamic recently in classrooms where a teacher says a contentious statement at the very end of a talk, such as “and obviously this would not be appropriate, right,” followed by automatic replies of “right”, suppressed “I’m not sure’s”, and the lecture is closed – time to go. Does that sound familiar? Suppressing dialogue and pluralism, or guilting groups into certain thoughts or behaviours is not new. It creates fear that our inner thoughts and ideas are unacceptable. This is not what the 99% is calling for, is it? Just the opposite, I think. In terms of teaching methodology, we can bring in more dialogue by recognizing that the group has a greater collective wisdom than as singular members, and that discussion and skillful disagreements in classes are rich and important and we do have time for them. We can make time for them, and learn how to skillfully facilitate such dialogue within focused class sessions. Kripalu Centre really excels at this and has really taken seriously the importance of method. Increasingly, I experience myself and my colleagues bringing more inquiry and sharing into yoga education.  This is exciting – it is the demonstration of non-aggression, fairness, equality and honouring.

When I first started teaching yoga, I feel that I slipped into teaching in black and white maxims, and presenting yoga as a monolithic entity. A few students thankfully challenged me, and I started to think more, a lot more about how the method parallels the message. The more I teach and live, the more I recognize yogic vision as offering a paradoxical, alchemical unity in what appears to be opposite. I am less and less able to say this is un-yogic, or that is un-yogic. An action or method of coming to a decision is skillful or unskillful, and most often a bit of both. And all this is part of our individual and collective evolution.  It’s all part of the process. I recognize yoga (in part) as a method of inquiry and a state of harmony which arises when one allows oneself to explore the multiple aspects of one’s identity, and opens to one’s best-suited role in society (dharma).

My intention in this post is not to criticize, but rather to promote the idea of pluralism in yoga, dialogue as an educational methodology, and to promote textured understandings of philosophies and lifestyles as very often multi-facetted.

Chétana is passionate about integrating Jnana and Bhakti yoga: philosophical contemplation, and devotional practices. “Yoga is unity in diversity, and allows us to recognize that the apparent duality between mind and heart is illusory”.  This merging of mind and heart is apparent in her workshops and in her writing: poetry, short stories, yoga magazine articles and now a yoga blog.  Blending insights from her Master’s degree in adult education, and her training in yoga, she developed the curriculum and manual for World Conscious Yoga Family’s YTT courses.  Chétana teaches philosophy, teaching methodology and transformational experiences for the YTT programs.  She is enthusiastic about helping yoga teachers learn to design and offer interactive, experiential workshops. Along with her husband, Yogi Vishvketu, she co-founded Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh (India) where they live part of the year with their children.

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