Piedmont Yoga Studio Newsletter: Janaury 2012 | iHanuman


Love, Service, Devotion, Yoga

Piedmont Yoga Studio Newsletter: Janaury 2012

It was a late lunch/early dinner (linner? Or lunner?) with a good friend, and after addressing and quickly solving a number of thorny issues that have troubled humankind for millennia, our attention wandered from swerve of shore to bend of bay and settled on the strange case of the Yoga Sutra. No one knows much of anything concrete about the origins and authorship of this little curiosity of about 1200 words, maybe 100 fewer than the Declaration of Independence. Estimates of its date of composition range anywhere from 200 BCE to 200 CE, its authorship, or more precisely compilation attributed to a semi-mythical figure named Patanjali. Most likely, like most Indian documents of a certain age, it's an amalgam of two or more documents produced by different hands and laid for convenience at the feet of a single individual, but whether there actually was a Patanjali who actually contributed to the work is impossible to say. Its language is Sanskrit, the classical language of India, as Latin is of the West, written in the terse sutra style, which means that unless it's accompanied by an expert commentary, or unless you're an expert yourself, it's next to impossible to catch its full meaning. It's hard to figure why Patanjali gets so much credit as a teacher, all he really did was put together an outline or what's called a mnemonic device to help students memorize the theoretical and practical aspects of a particular yoga system. Most of what we really know about the teaching comes from the first surviving commentary, written around 400 or 500 CE by someone named Vyasa, who the typical YS student has never heard and so has never read (in all fairness, Patanjali may well have been an accomplished yogi who wrote his own commentary, which has been lost or is buried deep in some Indian library).
The system itself couldn't be more foreign to what's recognized as "yoga" today, especially the immensely popular "flow" variations. In this extremely rigorous form of meditation, the practitioner is enjoined to sit stock-still, withdraw his senses from the outside world, and focus all his attention on the resulting intensified mental processes. The goal is to separate the static, unborn-undying "seer," somewhat crudely equivalent to our "soul," from its mistaken identification with ephemeral and so impermanent nature. Why? Long story short: To bring an end to existential suffering by achieving a blissed-out state called kaivalya, "aloneness," in which what remains of practitioner is perfectly self-contained and self-absorbed for all eternity.
My friend and I agreed that such a practice with such a result isn't very appealing, especially to get-up-and-go Westerners, to whom the idea of spending the rest of eternity alone without their iPhones and drinking buddies is more a vision of Hell than Heaven. But over the last 40 years, the YS has been translated into English, by my rough count, over 100 times, it's a standard text in just about every yoga teacher training program in the country, and it's frequently quoted in books and magazine articles on yoga. How has what started out as a helpful (but possibly not indispensable) tool compiled for a coterie of specialists been transformed into a kind of modern self-help manual for the masses, from a guide to world renunciation and ultimate rejection to an up-with-people, feel-good treatise on how to live a happy, healthy life? The answer popped up immediately: modern translators/commentators have radically re-interpreted the original teaching, they've essentially turned it about 180; moreover, if they hadn't, the YS would be of interest only to Indologists, and then only as a historical document representing the first systematic yoga school.
I want to emphasize that there's absolutely nothing wrong with what we've done with the YS-the clipped sutra style itself encourages free interpretation-as long as translators/commentators ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THIS IS WHAT'S THEY'RE DOING. But they don't. Pretty much all of them, with a few significant exceptions, seem to want us to believe that what they're feeding us is the authentic stuff. This simply exacerbates our already distorted view of the yoga tradition. I find it particularly egregious that Patanjali, who may or may not have existed, and who may or may not have been a yogi, is often invoked as a semi-divine figure, and that the "special self" known as ishvara, is depicted as a deity deserving of and rewarding the practitioner's devotion, while in fact its presence in the system is something of an afterthought, and as a totally passive, necessarily unresponsive principle it can do nothing more than serve as an "ideal yogi" (at least in terms of this system) role model.
There's more though. The first and second limbs of the eight-limb practice, established as the first step in the practitioner's drive toward quiescence and world withdrawal, are presented instead as guidelines to improved interpersonal relations and self-valuation (and the yamas as a unique set of moral injunctions, although they pretty much cover the same ground as the 10 Commandments minus the "jealous god" element). The third and fourth limbs, which require the practitioner to essentially stop all movement and, for all intents and purposes, all breathing for hours on end are anachronistically juiced up with Hatha-type exercises, not yet ready for prime time for at least another 800 years, to appeal to modern proclivities. The 30-odd powers adumbrated in the third chapter, the "reward" of a successful practice, are condemned as obstacles to final realization, and practitioners are strongly cautioned to shun them entirely; in fact, traditionally, the powers are highly prized-else why dedicate almost an entire chapter, maybe a quarter of a document in which succinctness is the standard, to a supposedly verboten subject? How did this happen? Because modern teachers, needing to allay Western concerns about "yoga" turning unsuspecting Anakin Skywalkers into orange-robed Darth Vaders, made this the party line. The ultimate stage, eternal "aloneness," is instead pictured as a loving union of self and God which heals all and creates a perfect you.
There's no doubt the wholesale re-interpretation of the YS has made it a more useful document for our time, and I applaud the efforts of the modern translators/commentators. But please, can we own up that the YS was never ORIGINALLY intended to be used in this way. Why should we? Over the last 110 years, the long and venerable yoga tradition has been increasingly misrepresented and distorted, first by Indian teachers eager to export their re-imagined version of Hatha Yoga to the West, and then by Westerners just as eager to advance their own yoga agendas. Today the average student has very little or no idea where her practice came from and, worse, of the true depth of its transformative potential, beyond firming sagging buns and relieving for a short time some superficial stress. I know this sounds like a contradiction, but it seems to me we all need to take a step back in order to take the next step forward.

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