Before I begin, I want to state that this blog is designed as a discussion rather that a conclusive point of view. I fully admit that I have, to quote Stewart Lee (characterisation of Roy Chubby Brown), 'done no research'. I welcome feedback and will update and amend accordingly.
My intention is in no way to dissuade anyone from practicing, teaching and/or otherwise enjoying yoga in any way they wish. As always I just hope it provides some semblance of light onto one of many mirky subjects in the yoga which people usually do not discuss..
I am keenly aware that my journey in the yoga world is limited (as I acknowledge below) and that others will have insights that I do not. I recognise that this does not provide a complete perspective on the topic however, for numerous reasons including brevity, it is what it is for now.
Those who know me will be well accustomed to my general cynicism. As a child, I was notorious for never listening to adults’ instructions and rarely appreciated being told what to do. This streak of mine was not borne out of maliciousness or rebelliousness, but purely because I always needed to find out for myself. Faith and trust are definitely not two of my natural instincts.
So, it’s curious in many ways (to me at least), why I have found myself so heavily involved in the global yoga community - specifically the Ashtanga Yoga community. I have on many occasions, sometimes daily, found myself asking whether so many of the things we do and talk about aren't in fact (to use a technical term) just a load of old bollocks*.
*For any non-native readers - 'Bollocks' is an English word for testicles and is frequently used to describe something false or incorrect.
Over the weekend, I was listening to yoga podcast interview with a world famous Ashtanga teacher. A teacher whom I don’t know personally but one whom by reputation I respect. I could tell from what I heard that he had his head screwed on. Early on in the interview he started talking about ‘Prana’. You know Prana - that thing. Energy. Life force. One of those nondescript terms used for anything in the yoga world we can't actually explain. I found myself blurting out loud ‘oh bullshit’.
In normal circumstances, I may have been concerned about my impromptu public cursing but hey, this is Berlin - public cursing goes with the territory. (Somehow ‘Bullenscheiße’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Anyway I digress…….
As I continued to listen, these questions continued to surface in me. But isn't yoga just another form of exercise? In the past I have brushed this question off as being irrelevant – what does it matter so long as you enjoy it? Perhaps however my attitude has been naive. Given that so many teachers and practitioners alike do think that Yoga is far more than that, perhaps this question is extremely relevant.
We continually dress up yoga. We gloss it with mystical and [faux] spiritual connotations. Why do we do this? Perhaps because we are so desperate for it to be more than just exercise. Why? Perhaps because so many of us who have come to yoga are seeking something more than exercise is supposed to bring.
From a teachers’ perspective, we have an incentive to add the mysticism. It gives us an edge over other sports and recreations. It gives us our USP (Unique Selling Point). So arrange an altar, light some incense and throw around a few puja flowers. Talk openly about your ‘guru’ (frequently someone dead or with whom you’ve had little to no contact with) and see if this draws a few more in. Perhaps this is just good marketing? But I wonder if it flies in the face of what yoga purports to be.
I suspect, that a good proportion of people who walk down a yoga path (and by that, I mean those who do more than just do the odd gym yoga class), are people hurting in some way. Those a little broken and seeking relief from their pain, or at least some justification for their suffering. Some higher power or grand plan to help explain why we have been crawling though their own personal shit and bile.
But really, what actually is there? What superior force relates to a hamstring stretch or putting a leg behind one’s head. Is it possible there is nothing? I mean there are the variety of hormones released from exercise (principally: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and endocannabinoids). Do we just get a corresponding bodily reaction from the satisfaction of achieving something in our daily life, whether that be an asana routine, pranayama practice or cacao ceremony?
But ‘wait!’ you say, 'you are only experienced in asana' (and a single form thereof to boot!!!) - 'what right do you have to talk of yoga as a whole?' I admit this is true. Perhaps I simply haven’t scratched the surface enough to see the shiny wondrous yoga diamond that lies beneath. Perhaps I am merely too blinkered, too cynical in my judgement of what I expect should be underpinning all of this.
So let’s take a look at this – aside asana, what else is there that makes up yoga?
For sure, there are clearly neurological benefits from meditational practices or, to use it's 21st century pseudonym ‘mindfulness’. But this isn’t exactly spiritual nor mystical. Neither is meditation something exclusive to yoga. It's common amongst many practices and religions.
I know I will be shot down by people for this but pranayama..... really? Do most of the breathing techniques practiced actually do anything? Does holding our breath for extended periods with our abdomen contracted, connect us to 'god' in some way? Does making bee noises and lion roars help us be one with the universe? While I can understand there are going to be benefits to gaining greater control over one’s breath, is a daily bout of alternate nostril breathing, likely have any singular impact other than perhaps clearing excess mucus from the nasal cavities?
I can't help but feel that pranayama - for most that do it - is simply because they are seeking something more than asana. It allows them to believe they are doing more than just exercise. Now they are experiencing ‘real yoga’.
The reader should note here that my overwhelming cynicism and general lack of interest in pranayama may be the result of too much cigarette smoking in my younger years.
Given my life outside of Yoga most people would expect that the philosophy element would be my bag - the bit that I would plunge headlong into and devour with my every fibre. But to be honest, when it comes to yoga philosophy I have always struggled. And I don't think I am unique in this. As much as I have tried, it has always appear to be steeped in religious doctrine and often nonsensical. Here and there you can just about get your head around a concept but at no point can you stand back and have any idea what the bigger picture is. What is it they are actually trying to convey?
I realise that yogic philosophy is not unique in being an interwoven religious construct but fundamentally it always falls at the first hurdle. How can a dualistic ideology can fit into a world which seems anything but?
And the Bhagavad Gita........ is this anything more than Brahmin justification for the caste system disguised as a philosophical text?
I realise it doesn't help that effective teachers of yoga philosophy are lacking. While some of this is a result of cultural differences, I also question whether its because very few also understand it themselves. Finding anyone willing to teach chapters 3 and 4 of the Sutras for example is rare.
Broadly I suspect the issue is I just don't really care. And I don't really care what others do either. But I want people to be honest with themselves. And to be honest with their students.
As I stated at the start, I have no wish to dissuade anyone from yoga. Despite my reservations, I fully intend to continue to practice and teach myself. However, if we are luring students into our studios and workshops and taking their money on the basis of misinformation and false claims of spiritual awakening, are we not ourselves guilty of exploitation on some level? Should we at least level with them from the outset that it (yoga), for all intents and purposes, is probably all just bullshit?