by Matthew Remski
I’ve had a number of questions about the Ayurvedic riff in my last post on the Anusara situation. I had suggested that the bio-rhythm of a corporate/transglobal spiritual culture built on air travel, resort-land heart-openings, Shringlish, and gobs of marketing wind would be intensely aggravating to vata dosha. I suggested that John Friend might do well to take up gardening and turkey-baster an ounce or two of warm ghee up his rectum every afternoon to relax the vayus and bring him down to earth. But there’s quite a bit more to say here, and I won’t be as flip.
The principle behind my suggested protocol involves “the application of opposites”. The homeless, hyper-mobile, light, fast-paced, and breathless quality of the Anusara collapse can be pacified through various expressions of warmth, weight, stillness, moisture, regular stool production, oiliness, and familial cuddling. Ayurvedic therapy begins here: identifying a central imbalance, and applying balancing/opposing forces to existing vulnerabilities. The most precious thing I learned from my teachers was ‘There’s nothing good or bad. A thing is always good-for, or bad-for.” The technique uses any tool available to correct qualitative imbalances in diet, asana and other physical pursuits, career path, relationships, meditation experience, and even spiritual path.
But here’s the problem that Ayurveda face as it tries to re-integrate with the new streams of modern postural yoga. The therapeutic application of opposites is antithetical to a culture that markets ideas of universality and ultimacy. The very notion of “Universal Principles” implies that a single thing can be good or right for everyone. Obviously, this is not true.
Modern yoga culture is dominated by overdetermined methods and systems protected by branding and copyrighting. Branding and copyrighting amplifies a more traditional fixation upon “authenticity” and “completeness”. As those who have invested time and money and emotional ballast into the Anusara meme try to sort out the new valuation of their stake, there’s a rising chorus emerging that suggests the Method is yet pristine, still universal, embodying a preternatural authenticity and completeness. While understandable, this reification will only strengthen the root of continued commodification, as we’re starting to see with the recent “restructuring” announcements from Michal Lichtman, which don’t really restructure anything at all. I’d like to address the “completeness” claim in a post next week, and how it amplifies the bullying of spiritual marketing, but for now I’ll limit the question to: “Even if Anusara is ‘complete’ and it ‘works’ – who exactly does it work for, and how?” That’s what Ayurveda can speak to.
Here are some first thoughts:
For those with chronically miserable self-perception, the Tantric assumptions of always-already-divine and the admonition to “Look always for the good” might be encouraging, in an Adlerian sense, or from the perspective of CBT. But for those who have developed heavy patterns of emotional stuffing or splitting, too much bliss-speak might be toxic. All constitutions are vulnerable here: kaphas may use it to suppress pain, pittas may use it to deny pain, and vatas may use it to dissociate from pain.
For those who feel alienated from community and withdrawn from intimate contact, the ubiquitous backbending of Anusara might indeed “open the heart”. Gentle thoracic extension is also a smart antidote for computer-back. Great. But for those with poor boundary issues or a history of compensatory behaviour, repeated backbending might exacerbate patterns of relational sacrifice. Let’s remember that consciously opening the sternum depends upon less-conscious abdominal extension: the baring of the belly to primal vulnerability. This might not be the best action to repeat in the context of a dysfunctional power relationship with a narcissistic guru, for example. And the pace at which backbending is tackled is important in discerning the almost-invisible threshold between “opening” and retraumatizing. In another vein, for the pitta-dominant, the constant adrenal-squeezing of backbending (if not antidoted by generous kidney-looping) may over-caffeinate, overheat, and bring a fanatical edge to a practice and/or belief system. Also: we do have back-bodies, folks. That’s where the shadows be. The forward fold of surya namaskar is an invitation to the sun to illuminate what we cannot see.
For those who have been rejected by their families and micro-cultures (as Shaka McGlotten astutely pointed out in a comment to my previous post), the surrogate tribe of the kula might be very welcoming. But for those who have not even attempted to integrate their familial tensions and wounds, this surrogacy can be a grand distraction while time passes, parents age, and estrangements deepen. In Ayurveda, this can also contribute to vataaggravation, as the life-story becomes less rooted, and memories (subtle earth element, along with supportive fats) dissolve.
For those whose angst is heavy, Shri can brighten a gloomy day. But for those who are existentially naive, Shri might lobotomize. For those who are insecure, the piercing heat of this bija mantra (agni), combined with the abstractions of its meanings (akasha), can whip up a good case of vata-pushing-pitta into udana vayu. This is in fact what gives that sharp tenor edge to charismatic speech, which is heavy on insistence, but sometimes scant on balance and detail.
For those whose homebody-ism aggravates the emotional and lymphatic congestion of kapha, a weeklong retreat to the Sierra Nevadas to do vigorous vinyasa while living out of a tent can be invigorating and catalyzing. (Come to think of it, all yoga retreats should offer constitutionally appropriate lodgings: no mattress pads for kapha, lavender sachets and rosewater candies for pitta‘s bed sheets, and lots of velvety pillows and binkies for vata.) But for vata types who never quite know where home is to begin with, traveling to practice yet more flowing movement will be even more ungrounding. And watch out for constipation: added altitude (space element) and dryness (air element) can be real corkers.
For those who have felt postmodern banality obscure the natural mystery of moment-by-moment life, Tantra can re-enchant. But for bliss-ninnies so wispily enmeshed in the etheric mystery that they cannot find their apartment keys, let alone effectively help others or contribute to socio-political change, Tantra can hyper-mystify.
For those who have felt disembodied by technology, the absence of physical labour, and the general pornography of a overly-visual world, rigorous asana might be the most enlightening practice available. But for those who feel the need to discharge their neuroses into grinning repetitive movements in the frontal plane on a 2×6 rectangle of rubber, asana can be profoundly distractive from relationship.
So it all depends – even into the realm of spiritual paths. Are the aesthetics of zen appropriate for vatas? Too cold and abstracting, perhaps. Is Iyengar good for pittas? It may satisfy a need for precise accomplishment, but it can also encourage anal fanaticism. (And hot rooms? Fuhgeddaboudit.) How about bhakti and kapha? Well – if they chant heating mantras at a good clip, this can raise a good therapeutic sweat. But if they loll around singing languorous bhajans and munching on ladoos under the Ganesh murthis, both mucous and lethargic self-satisfaction can accumulate.
In newage culture, we typically encounter spiritual paths in one of two ways: through marketing, or through word-of-mouth. Both tend to feel accidental, and neither of them are intersubjective. Meaning: we encounter the path as a thing we are told we want, rather than experimenting with a loose set of ideas and their mentors as a relationship we could develop. If we had Ayurvedic guidance counselors for every city, we could set up some kind of yoga chamber-of-commerce: “No – you don’t want to go to that guy, his fire will fry out your own. Try the kapha lady down the street: she’ll chill out your pitta.” Or: “It sounds like you have a real fascination with metaphysics. Maybe you can balance that out with a nice kitcheri cooking class, or by volunteering in a homeless shelter.” The application of opposites brings us deeply to wherever our conflict lies, and doesn’t allow a spiritual path to amplify our blind spots in flesh and thought.
Word-of-mouth is a better entrée into a spiritual path than marketing, because your self-selected friends may well be constitutionally resonant with you. But straight-up marketing pulls on the worst possible strings for anyone trying to dance freely of the puppeteer: insecurity, lack, alienation, we know the deal. We’re almost never sold what we need, but what protects our unexamined pain. So it’s really hard to choose the right path. You have to know yourself really well. But you don’t at first.
You can take an online test or fly to Albuquerque to have Dr. Lad read your pulse and give you some constitutional insight, and from there start to ballpark-estimate what might be right for you. These are good starts – on opposite ends of the commitment spectrum. But neither is enough. I tell my clients and students that finding out who you are constitutionally takes about five years of self-study and experimentation, utilizing the perceptual language of elements (bhutas), moods (gunas), and humours (doshas). Of course, five years is about twice as long as most folks stay with any particular brand of spirituality these days. I would imagine that many people leaving the Anusara fold at this point have stayed just long enough to find out what they don’t need. This is perhaps as it should be. A self-announced “universal” practice can serve very well as a static touchstone for your unique responses to it. As you change, and it doesn’t, you realize the vibrancy of your life outshines any imaginable system.
The other thing that I tell my classes is that in my opinion you also don’t know who you are constitutionally until you’ve observed yourself go through a major loss. Divorce. Death in the family. Or the collapse of a community. As the Anusara dust billows, some will stay the course with either faith or denial (kapha), some will thrust and parry towards justice or out of rage (pitta), and others will fly away in the spirit of unleashed creativity or dissociative avoidance (vata). It really takes all types.
But there is one universal-ish remedy in Ayurveda for emotional loss and vata-aggravation. No media after sunset, full massage with warm sesame oil followed by light sweating, a bowl of root-veg soup for dinner, sky-gazing through your window, and then child’s pose, until you feel fully where you actually are. Child’s pose: to feel in the bones that sinking and horizontal maternality that Shringlish and hyperphallic leaders and the whine of jet engines can so easily obscure.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out my new website, where you can peak at other posts, my novels, and books of poetry. With Scott Petrie I am co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project. I’m also involved in the 21st century yoga project, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey.