Towards an Indigenous Yoga Practice – Co-option and Delusion, or Innovation and Integration?

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Artwork by Kate MacDowell

 

Earth my body

Water my blood

Air my breath

And fire my spirit

(traditional chant)

The bodymind work I explore and share is a yoga of contact, and of the connections and conversations that this puts in motion. Almost two decades now of increasingly quiet, careful, delicate attendance to my feeling-sense, to the inner chasms of my physical body as it cycles through the ebbs and flows of female embodiment, as well as to the edges of my body – the tender, ever-shifting meeting places between myself and the world as I stand, sit, or lie – all of these thousands of hours of tracking, listening, paying respectful attention, courting relationship, have taught me much that is of use in terms of how to live healthily. They have also gifted me a conviction that although the word “yoga” has come to mean many things (and that this is problematic in itself), I can best explain the yoga I practice as an opening of the channels of communication between the different parts of me, and between me and not-me. It foregrounds communication and the spontaneous arising of community – between my breath and my spine, between my feet and the grass, between my skin and the winged creatures that zip past on these warm, wet summer days, with the clay that lies under the lawn in this part of the country; as much as the community that is my family, my neighbours, my group of friends, my students and my colleagues.

My formal practice takes place in a wild and overgrown corner of English countryside. These days, I am, I notice, twitchy and irritated by the straight lines, perfect cleanliness and shiny pseudo-zen vibes of studios and purpose-built centres. They served me once … But mine is a yoga of hedgerows and woodlands; meadows, lakes, and rivers; puddles, brief, dazzling heat and light, interminable rain and infinitely nuanced shades of grey-brown. The land that I live on, the country of my birth and the customs and habits of its denizens (both human and more-than-human) have nurtured and expanded, pruned and refined my experience and understanding of embodiment, as they have for us all, anywhere else you can think of. Though yoga may be claimed a technology of transcendence, an individual’s practice will always reflect the physical, social, cultural and religious environment in which it takes place. Accordingly, our practice also impacts upon these systems – in our tiny way, we contribute to the cultures of which we are part.

My connection with myself is rooted in the land that I blessed to have as a support in this challenging work, and in local and specific ways of knowing. I am a householder who is required to chop wood on a daily basis to ensure warmth and comfort for my family for more than half of the year; I walk many miles through the countryside each week to facilitate my children’s busy lives. I am unromantic about nature, being at its mercy in my old, tumbledown house, but I am nonetheless grateful that my body has direct experience of its wildness, fierceness, and harshness, as well as its bounties and beauties and blessings, and that I am in deep relationship with the land here. I know it to be a rare privilege to be as intimate with areas of woodland and fields as with a lover’s body.

My formal practice takes place outdoors if at all possible. In this secluded, tangled garden, leading to a gnarled apple orchard, I can stretch and rest, extend and contract my body and breath, delighting in syncing my internal human rhythms with the unfolding and the retraction of the seasons. I can lie with the wind caressing my skin, breathe the rich soil, reach sunwards, fall and nestle into the roots of the trees. I wrap in many jumpers, and have been known to take hot water bottles in order to savour the coming spring in the sharp, still-winter-really air, or to eke the last of the precious golden light of autumn before the long darkness of winter. I practice in gentle summer rain, brief thunderstorms, unpredictable gusts of wind, and fierce heat. Nature is not a place to visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon, or a concept I read about. It is not a pretty backdrop to photos of me in advanced asana, or a convenient symbol upon which to explain yogic concepts to students. it is part and parcel of my embodiment, my understanding of that, and even my ability to articulate that. It is literally the ground from which it all springs – and, in a surprising and graceful turn of events, the ground to which it returns, now that I teach in a little wooden barn a minute’s walk from my house.

Although I have had skilled and experienced teachers in relatively traditional (if highly Westernised) yoga, applied yoga and yoga therapeutics, I take more inspiration from North European wisdom traditions than from Indian philosophy. These traditions are my heritage, and they are rooted in people’s connection with this land. They speak of and to my lived experience. My formal teaching has been in “yoga”, but this found fertile ground in time I had previously spent at festivals, raves and outdoor parties, and in my private forays into sacred sexuality, paganism and goddess worship. My apprenticeship has been in balancing committed practice with the informal but highly challenging discipline of being a wife and parent, at least as much as a “yoga teacher”. So while I am no fan of the yoga mashups mushrooming in the “anything goes” culture of the free market (rage yoga? snoga? hip hop yoga? yes, they’re all things, apparently), I must own that I respond more readily and wholeheartedly to what I know of native shamanism, paganism, and modern-day revivals such as wicca and the Goddess movement, than I am by what I know of yoga philosophy.

I understand that for many scholars and practitioners, this might be highly problematic. For one thing, my knowledge of the philosophies and worldview that shape yoga philosophy is minimal, and whether this qualifies me as a “yoga teacher” can certainly be called into question. I practice asanaspranayamapratyahara, the yamas and niyamas, and make forays into dharana and dhyana, in a country far removed geographically and culturally from the land that these practices are rooted in, and I splice them with nuggets of wisdom, and occasionally other practices, that I have received (and tested) from very different cultures. The practices intersect with my uniquely-conditioned bodymind, and produce a unique expression. It is undeniably a removal – even a severing – of yoga from its roots.

Perhaps no practice is ever “pure” or transcendent in the sense that it exists outside of the human experience, which is by its nature conditioned, and therefore both variable and limited. Certainly, I contend that a yoga pose – let’s say trikonasana – does not exist as such by itself. It needs a human bodymind to enact it. Despite the flattening effect of social media, in which a seemingly endless parade of “perfect” poses are displayed in desirable locations (each replete with their comment streams proclaiming “inspirational” and “beautiful” and the breathless “wow!”), yoga is participatory, and therefore unique to each practitioner. Thousands of books, websites, and blogs exist which describe in minute detail the external rotation of the front leg in trikonasana, the alignment and the feeling tone and the breathwave in the chest, but trikonasana does not exist for you until there you are, stretching your limbs and your lungs, easing and opening into the unfolding of the moment.

I freely own that the dilution of yoga that I enact and disseminate through my teaching might allow for all kinds of misunderstandings, and resultant misrepresentations of this thing called yoga. This dismemberment plays a large part in the undeniable watering-down of the teachings that is recognised and railed against by so many now (even if it’s to contrast their own “deeper” understandings and teachings). Perhaps it becomes part of another narrative – that of the uneasy coexistence, a subtler, modern form of the dominator/dominated paradigm, that has existed between Britain and India since Britain consolidated its trading presence there, and used that as leverage to control the whole country by the end of the 18th century. (This article says that 29 million Indian people lost their lives under the Raj; this may be a conservative estimate according to others.)

Recent scholarship is showing that yoga has always been syncretic, and that although some key features tend to remain wherever and whenever it flourishes, it is infinitely adaptable. The techniques and practices of yoga are rooted in the specific culture of its birth, where it flourished, and for the inheritors of whom many wise and thoughtful people (and some zealots) are working to reclaim and reframe it within the wisdom traditions of that part of the world. But “my” yoga is an indigenous practice, and in truth it cannot ever be otherwise. To pretend so would be a dishonesty, an overreach, an arrogance; and a continuation of the colonising mindset. I have read and studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but I cannot teach “Patanjali yoga” with the kind of teachings I have myself received, from the teachers with whom I have studied, and with the kind of life that I live. I have read some tantras, but I cannot truthfully teach tantrik yoga, never having had a tantra teacher.

From my personal vantage point, I observe that this is a chronically unlooked-at facet of many Western yoga teachers’ practice and teaching. I suppose that if a spiritual technology is alleged to be transcendent in that it speaks to and of all human experience, this could lead to a conviction that one’s practice (from which so many teachers’ actual teachings spring) – such an intensely personal experience – is done some kind of disservice through looking at it through lenses of history and politics. I think I can understand this mindset. However, it can intersect with an unacknowledged sense of entitlement in a very uncomfortable way. For instance, what are we to make of teachers who, never having studied with an Indian teacher themselves, travel with their own privileged and wealthy students to Indian retreat centres owned by Westerners, proclaiming that “we’re all one” while Indian people, the rightful inheritors of yoga, clean their toilets for a few rupees a day?

The demands and delights of a householder’s life mean that I am unlikely to personally run an exotic retreat any time soon, but this issue is a huge dissonance for me. Yet, it is not one that I want to comfortably and conveniently resolve. I consider that I have a responsibility to hold the following questions in mind:

Is my practice yoga? Can I claim it as such?

Can I call what I teach yoga? Who gains from this, and at what cost; and who loses? Is my personal gain inseparable from these losses?

I have been to India precisely once. I lay on a beach, visited waterfalls, felt that peculiar combination of being both an alien and at home (like a good festival, it is leaving India, as my husband pointed out, that causes the culture shock, not the country itself). And I did a shitload of yoga practice. Yes, it was beautiful, deep and profound. But the country of my birth is also a land of great beauty – a land of wild roses and green hills; mists and bubbling rivers; kingfishers and dragonflies and buzzards. Britain is, of course, a ravaged land, a raped land, a terrain with too few guardians. Our ancient woodland cover has declined greatly. Only 3,090 square kilometres of ancient woodland survive – less than 20% of the total wooded area. More than eight out of ten ancient woodland sites in England and Wales are less than 200,000 square metres in area, only 501 exceed 1 square kilometre, and a mere fourteen are larger than 3 square kilometres. So many of our indigenous birds, plants, fish and insects are under constant threat, and their populations in severe and steep descent, that it is hard to even get up to-date-figures, but a recent report concludes that 10% of the UK’s species are currently threatened with extinction. Ash dieback is the latest disease to rip though what is left of our woods. Large-scale fracking continues to be an ever-present menace.

Britain is ancient. In May 2013, footprints that are at least 840 000, and possibly as old as 950 000 years, were discovered on a beach in the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk, on the east coast. (They were found in a newly-uncovered layer of sediment, and were destroyed by the tide within two weeks of exposure.) Three years earlier, archaeologists had discovered flint tools near the site, which were dated to 800 000 years old at the youngest, and are possibly as old as 970 000 years. The Happisburgh prints are the oldest ever uncovered apart from those found in eastern Africa, which are estimated at around 4 000 000 years old. Archaeology has also shown that Britain has been continuously inhabited for at least 13 000 years. If we can set aside our conditioning and narrow education about civilisation and the march of progress, this agedness, and continuity of life, surely suggests that the indigenous population of this land would have had their own wisdom traditions. Perhaps they rivalled technologies such as yoga in their sophistication. We may continue to be fascinated by the combination of antiquity and exoticism of the highly-developed cultures of the Indus Valley (perhaps 8 000 years old), by cities such as Catal Huyuk in modern-day Turkey (9 000 years old), but it is troubling to me that we know so little of our own history and heritage, and that our education does not generally permit us to join the dots between the history of this land and our current lived experience. And perhaps our fascination with the exotic, and our wholesale buying-into systems of knowledge such as yoga, serves to further obscure our own cultural and spiritual birthright.

It is imperative that we do not use our privileged positions as the inheritors (and therefore wielders) of enormous relative cultural power and wealth to minimise the very real loss that people suffer when their traditions are stolen – and then sold back to them at a price. Debates rage on the interwebs about cultural appropriation (see herehere and here for an introduction to this complex topic). Too often in this disembodied form of communication, participants lose sight of the real opportunity for mutual understanding; some retreat in angry indignation that that their personal losses, their personal feelings of deep powerlessness within the larger systems that govern our lives, are unacknowledged. Those who fall into or who take on the role of agitators or educators can seem to lose sight of our common humanity, and forget that the teasing out of our shadowy heritage is painful work which is accompanied by strong emotional reactions. But in considering issues of cultural appropriation, it feels relevant to me to acknowledge the spiritual losses of the appropriators as a driver of their behaviour.

Questions of appropriation are currently being discussed with fervour in America, where citizens are still conditioned to some extent by narratives of the American Dream. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that all are equal, with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Founded on a set of ideals around freedom (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality), the American Dream takes the form of opportunity for prosperity, wealth and material accumulation, equally and always available to all citizens. An upward curve of success, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers, is part of the prevailing mythos. Writer and historian James Truslow Adams opined in 1931 that ”life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

These high ideals, however, are undercut by the bare facts of the genocide, land theft and spiritual warfare that the founders of the States visited upon the indigenous peoples of the land itself. Migration of Europeans began in the 15th century, and political tensions, ethnic violence and social disruption were the predictable results of the yawning chasm between the world views of the invaders and the native peoples. Smallpox alone, brought by settlers and to which native dwellers had no immunity, is thought to have accounted for the loss of some eighteen million lives. (There are verified stories of deliberate infection.) Mass starvation resulting from land theft and calculated disruption of traditional ways of life killed countless others. As I write, construction crews are destroying sacred sites and poisoning drinking water in North Dakota, the home of the Sioux tribe, in order to build the $3.7bn pipeline that is required to transport fracked oil. (Protestors representing many, several traditionally mutually hostile tribes, say that the pipeline is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy in which a zuzeca – black snake – threatens the world.)

England has a similar history of bloody warfare against its ancient inhabitants. The Roman invasion that began in 43CE decimated the population of Britain, sublimated its survivors, and systematically destroyed the cultural and spiritual heritage of the survivors. Historians also surmise that something dramatic happened in England just as the Roman empire was collapsing. A second wave of obliteration in the 4th century CE, by the Anglo-Saxons, reduced the Romano-Celtic population (estimated at between 2 million and 3.7 million people) by about a million.

The study of religious and spiritual practice in the early Anglo-Saxon period is difficult, because most of the texts that may contain relevant information are not contemporary, but written later by Christian writers who tended to have a hostile attitude to pre-Christian beliefs, and who are likely to have distorted their portrayal of them. And so of course, these brief histories of England and the USA are fragmented and decontextualised. They are also regularly subject to hijacking by political agendas, either to ally indigenous peoples with troubling notions of primitivism (which the western world views as “backward” and from which people need emancipation via Western aid or ideologies), or to claim intellectual territory (the charming Nick Griffin of the far-right BNP refers to British “aborigines” in order to draw attention to those who live in Britain but are immigrants or refugees). I tell them here to illustrate that citizens of the two countries – and we could include many others here, too – have had significant parts of their histories effectively erased. I have only become aware of them recently, although I remember having inklings of erased stories, of counter-narratives, and of how stories and histories are owned, when at school.

These histories are highly relevant to modern-day practitioners of yoga, because opening ourselves to them forces us to confront questions of whether we practice in a vacuum, or within the context of social responsibility and care (that oft-used yoga term, “community”). It also requires that we face the loss of our spiritual heritage and what that might mean.

I have been wondering how British and North American yoga practitioners make sense of the complex and difficult emotions these histories might give rise to. Researchers in the complementary fields of neuroscience, psychiatry, and interpersonal biology know that unresolved trauma impacts upon a person’s sense of self at every level, including the physical. Further, work with surviving members of oppressed and or marginalised communities, such as Australian Aborigines, Canadian First Nations peoples and holocaust survivors, is showing that trauma (particularly if deliberately inflicted) has a measurable trickle-down affect upon subsequent generations.

What might this mean for those of us drawn towards a contemplative life, in which a practice such as yoga might play a pivotal part? What memories of violence, hatred, terror might be inadvertently woken from the depths of a psyche by a practice? How far back in our personal family histories do we need to travel in order to directly encounter events that give rise to fear, loss, grief? On a community level, how do we make sense of the guilt and shame, and the tendency to blame and shift responsibility for events that caused immeasurable loss to others? How do we experience these ghosts of emotion in our own bodies? What pit of psychological horror might we unwittingly fall into in following the most innocuous of instructions in a yoga class, such as “stand with your feet on the ground”? What if that ground ran with blood, and our direct ancestors were implicated?

It seems to me that indigenous spirituality and religion; ways of knowing, of understanding ourselves and of the world, have been lost or almost completely obscured. Certainly, lineages do exist, but they tend to stretch back no further than a couple of hundred years, to be a hodgepodge mix of occultism and the alluringly exotic, or to be so hidden to even a determined seeker that they are, to all intents and purposes, invisible. As with yoga, this is not to claim that wisdom traditions can ever be pure or unadulterated, or that their value lies mainly in their age or alleged untaintedness; but it is to recognise that for most people here in the UK, authentic spiritual heritage is absent.

But: is there not a strange and circular irony in utilising psycho-spiritual tools from a different culture, country and historical period, in order to integrate and make peace with the uncomfortable emotions we experience as the inheritors of ruthless, deliberate violence against people from that very timespace?

Might there be some relationship between the “it’s all good”, “follow your bliss” model of yoga that currently holds sway, and our blindness to the histories of the peoples of these lands? Could this paradigm (/parody) of yoga be part of a process of continuing our ignorance; even, our determined unconsciousness?

What are the mechanisms by which we personally escape discomfort? Is yoga one of them? Is this elision of parts of our humanity – our vulnerability, our sensitivity, our tendernesses and capacity for empathy with others – a violence against ourselves? Is this intrusion into our private emotional landscape by notions of what we think we should and should not feel a kind of colonisation of our psychological space? Does this become part of the larger ongoing process of colonisation of land, property and cultural artefact?

I have no wish to minimise or belittle the sophistication and depth of the yoga tradition. But I feel strongly that whilst an experienced teacher to whom I was able to commit as a student would be able to teach me much that I cannot even conceive of, I am qualified to speak from the vantage point of my experience. And from here I want to assert two things. Firstly, that it’s my observation that while the yoga tradition has codified, refined and developed techniques of knowledge, the arising of the desire for this in the first place is a spontaneous phenomenon that occurs in all cultures and societies, from antiquity to the present day. The form will and indeed should vary according to the environment, or it risks essentialism and ossification. My responsibility is therefore to be as clear and honest about my positionality as regards what I do in relation to what I know of yoga’s heritage, and to remain committed to dialogue. Within this, however, I want to be able to walk the tightrope that is strung between adherence to traditional yoga, and creating an individual, freeform mashup that might represent my own interests but bears little relationship to the traditions it references. I’m pondering whether this approach might in itself be an act of yoga.

Secondly, we are in the midst of an ecological crisis, the like of which the world has never known, and the true horrors of which we are largely unaware. The world in which yoga is now practiced and taught is very different to ancient India, and yoga has to be responsive to the demands of both its students and of the world that they inhabit. I see no use any longer in insisting on the sameness and the unchangeability of the human psyche if that does not allow me to engage with this inescapable fact: that ancient Indian yoga masters can have had no comprehension of our chronic stress, deadened and hyperstimulated senses, almost total lack of attunement to the natural world including our own bodily wisdom that is now so common as to be “normal”, and the ecological precipice on which we tip. So as Toby Hindson says, “the Earth speaks and we have to act”. Can a yoga practice be earth-centric? If we utilise practical, tried-and-tested techniques of self-knowledge in the service of garnering knowledge of our embodied connection to the land we practice on (and with), might that not now be a more noble aim than Patanjali’s yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah – ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness’? (translation by Georg Feuerstein)

And so … I have to come back to my own body, this life, living on this piece of land. I have spent so many frustrated years as a practitioner and teacher, waiting for my children to get older and more independent, my financial situation to improve, my practice to somehow mature, so that I can search out a true teacher, spend an extended period of time focused on formal practice, travel to India to look for yoga’s authentic roots. I realise now that not only is the drive to do these things unlikely to be resolved by chasing after them, but that I am perpetuating both an idea of yoga that does not serve me, it, or this precious planet.

So. This land. I want to trust that those who share it with me – the basket-makers, gardeners, doulas, herbalists, walkers; the poets and musicians and storytellers – those rooted in pragmatic, embodied traditions and lineages, might be the heirs to our wisdom traditions. This body. This breath. These feet, contacting these blades of grass, part of a patch that, along with elder and nettle and herb robert, grows up the trunk of this tree. The physicality of this land; standing and lying and sitting upon it not as an abstract concept of body and gravity, but as a felt relationship. This wood. This life. I have to trust that it is enough.

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Outdoor Practice, August 2016

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Lifting my arms in warrior I, I tilt my head back and catch sight of a pair of buzzards wheeling high above me. For a brief moment a dragonfly hangs motionless in the air between the buzzards and I, so that the air that meets my nostrils for this one precious inbreath is filtered through buzzard feather, dragonfly wing.

The wind picks up, and the sound of its movement through the silvery leaves of the huge poplar in the field merges with its passage through the willow close to me, and the ash trees that border the garden. The cresting noise and sudden silence as the gust dies away bring my awareness to the delicate shells of my outer ears, so that I travel on the moment deep into their intricate spirals.

And then, turning my head in warrior II, I am whooshed back out of the secret chasms of my inner ear chambers as the scent of rose and honeysuckle float towards me on the warm evening air. The perfume directs my awareness to my nostrils, and I feel the air swirl slightly in a figure of 8 loop around them, and the tip of my nose, as the contours of my facial bones guide the moist, life-laden air first towards my left nostril, then my right. Damp warmth is tangible as the air streams into my nasal passages, down the back of my throat, and deep into my body, a river in spate rushing through and over and past and under everything it encounters. My breastbone lifts and broadens, my collarbones and shoulder blades wing out towards my arms and nudge my upper arm bones outwards also, so that the soft skin of my inner arms moves to meet the air. My belly swells up, out and back towards my spine as the breathwave continues on its way, undulating my my lower spine forwards, lifting my bottom, swinging the front of my pelvis down. The swell, gentle now and less perceptible, continues on its way down, pushing the tops of my thigh bones outwards, pressing insistently on the soft, fleshy areas at the base of my pelvis so that they balloon outwards.

A pause, in which gravity calls powerfully, as though the core of my body and the Earth’s speak. A fundamental re-organisation of the bones of my feet floods upwards through my legs and pelvis, spine and neck around this immense intelligence, this most elementary and trustworthy of relationships. And then the tide turns, and as breath finds its way back out of my body, nudging and jostling organs as it goes, my body mirrors the internal retraction and condensing that must follow the inbreath’s expansion, and I curl and swivel and loop and twist out of the formal pose in something like dance, something like lovemaking with the ground on which I stand, the air I breathe, the taste and texture and fragrance of the moment.

I’m lying down now, washed clean, my awareness zooming in and out as I choose from the creaking eucalyptus branches high overhead to the embrace of the ground. The crows caw harshly as they settle down to roost in the oaks. In an informal brahmari, I let each exhale escape my throat in a soft hum, so that the simple act of breathing becomes an opportunity to play a part in the symphony of evening sound.

In moments such as these, I am filled with a conviction that if my decades of yoga practice is for anything, it has to be this – the deep and abiding embodied love for this beautiful Earth.

In the early years of my practice, I was utterly seduced by promises of enlightenment, of learning to still my mind and emotions and gain control over my wayward body and nature. As I have become “better” at yoga – more able to balance in crooked shapes, to extend my limbs and to regulate my breathing in complex asana and pranayama – I have become less and less interested in these fireworks. Yoga for me now is about cultivating an exquisite sensitivity to sensory input, and a careful and faithful tracking of the habits, tendencies and patterns that are revealed through my ingrained reactions and cultivated responses to this data. The humble bramble, scourge of gardeners everywhere, is an ally in this work. After a rainstorm as I walk down the track next to my house, the scent of wet bramble branches and leaves rises up from the hedge, rainforest-fecund and exotic. Everyday acts of watching clouds morph overhead, of tracking the green woodpecker’s looping flight with my eyes as though unwinding a thread from my eyes to the bird: all these teach me so much about how to be with myself; with the ebbs and flows of sensation and bare-bones experience. I have learnt that the simple pleasure of draping my eyes across the horizon of tree branches lifting in the wind, of waiting for and savouring the burst of wild sweetness of a sun-warmed strawberry, of inhaling meadowsweet as though into my heart, of walking through dew-soaked grass and of sifting the elements of birdsong at dawn – blackbird the topnote, full-throated warblers the bass, a perfume or a wine of sound – is not escapism or fancy, a holiday from reality. It is a necessary stage in re-inhabiting our maligned bodies. It is a falling in love with and a re-enchantment of the jaded, hyper-stimulated but chronically numbed and deadened gateways that exist as our birthright, portals into the world and into our secret selves.

Oh, but pratyahara, you say, yogis? (Pratyahara is the fifth limb of classical ashtanga yoga, and is variously translated as “withdrawal of the senses”, “withdrawal of the mimd from sense-objects”, “gaining mastery over external influences”.) Perhaps, one day, this will be seem relevant. In an age of climate chaos and mounting crisis, a time when the rights of indigenous peoples – those who know in their boneseed how to live lightly on the Earth – are under attack; an epoch when children’s lack of contact with the natural world has given rise to “nature deficit disorder” and our species is increasingly, subtly re-wired for urban life … I wonder, moving through the warrior poses, just what kind of warrior I might be if my yoga practice does not demand of me that I re-enchant myself with, and speak and fight for, this beautiful, troubled planet.

Embodiment 1

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I fell in love with yoga in the second class I went to. (The first had been at university, when my body still carried a distinct memory of the highs of competitive swimming, and consequently I found it incredibly boring.) It spoke directly to my body: not negating my over-exercised, recently-departed from academia brain, but emphatically not allowing it to run the show, either. I remember that sunny late-summer evening as an oasis in which thoughts, memories, desires, emotions, so insistent and exhausting at that point in my life, thrummed pleasantly in the background, nothing more than a comforting buzz like the distant traffic.

As the teacher led us through the poses, my body, in all its idiosyncrasies, strange callings and needs, irrational fears and closings, rejoiced, seemed to take flight in the way it did with my new lover (now husband of fifteen years); the way it did dancing in a field as the sun came up with thousands of other blissed-out party-goers, the bass as much a part of me as my own heartbeat; with the simple, elegant ease I that recalled from lying in a cornfield at the back of a friend’s house as a teenager. My body drank in the opportunity to be itself as a parched land drinks in rain. I saw clearly that although much of what I was being guided through was hard, my body simply didn’t (yet) understand what was being asked of it. There was no sense of lack or inadequacy; rather, an almost psychedelic sense of holiness intermixed with the mundane – the simple relief of homecoming.

Nineteen years and countless hours of yoga later, I still have a love relationship with asana, as well as a growing delight in exploratory breathwork, and subtle practices such as antar mouna and yoga nidra. My practice has moved from the dusty church halls, centres loosely affiliated with the yoga path, and purpose-built studios that once nurtured it, and is tended at home (outside in nature if the English weather feels at all friendly). I don’t attend classes, and the only teaching I do takes place in a barn a minute’s walk from my house, grassroots-style. Perhaps that’s one reason why I am no longer sure that what I do on the mat is yoga.

Certainly, many of the shapes, positions, movements and sounds I move through (or which flow through me) would be familiar to practitioners around the world today. But while I continue to fall deeply, passionately in love with what I do on the mat, I am out of love, and patience, with much of what I see around me of yoga. I am not a fan of studio culture, of the power plays and subtle jostlings of group dynamics, of adjustments and assists and how-can-we-deepen-that-pose? Still less do I enjoy the mixed messages of teachers and schools and brands and communities to “be where we are” while marketing themselves in showy poses. I distrust the overreach and arrogance that is almost demanded of new teachers as we try to make our way in a highly competitive market. I am profoundly disturbed by the stark non-action of British yogis in the face of the humanitarian tragedies of our times: the lack of coherence or urgency from this community when presented with the reality of the flood tide of refugees on the move; the apparent apathy or political motivation even while spouting rhetoric about oneness and universal consciousness sickens me. Then, there’s also the nagging, growing sense that because I have little to no understanding of what yoga in India is, representing what I do as yoga might be a continuation of Western imperialism … oh, I could go on, and probably will in another blog. Suffice to say, I have a complex relationship with yoga – whatever that is.

My actual removal from classes as both a student and teacher occurred as both a shocking rupture and a stealthy meander. Any new mother knows how hard it often is to find time to even brush her teeth: for me, finding yoga clothes, travelling to the nearest town for an hour and a half and then back home again seemed a ludicrous indulgence, as likely to cause heightened stress for everyone in my house in my absence as to grant me access to the mind and body experiences I thought I wanted. (Though to be clear, I am not dissing indulgence for new mums – give a new mum in your life a present, just because.) I began to wonder – is yoga an escape from my life? Is it an end in itself, or can it be a technology for a kinder, happier life – for actually living my life? If it’s the latter, then do I really need to carve time out of my life – as full of love, discovery, wonder and beauty as it most certainly then was – in order to do it?

So I began to practice at home with more regularity, interest and trust than I had ever been able to muster when I had classes and workshops to fall back on. As the years passed (with intermittent input from teachers to whom I am grateful), I began to think of this thing that I do as embodiment. This felt like a more accurate and honest description of the practice that was unfolding, and perhaps a more realistic goal than “yoga”, given that I’m not sure how to reconcile its wildly different manifestations, let alone where I might fit into that world.

The phenomenon of embodiment has been explored in many philosophical, social and political disciplines. Within these areas, embodiment generally refers to, and is explored through, emphasis on the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Within yoga, I consider embodiment as a method of coming to know ourselves, and the world around us, through the relationship between the two. So embodiment is not a practice that is likely to lead to the oft-quoted goal of yoga, that of “transcending the body”. It is a route of enquiry, not denial and it requires open-hearted engagement with moment-to-moment sensation.

My own (working) definition of embodiment implies:

  • Working with the wisdom of the body, and not treating my animal nature as something separate, outside of me, or in any way “lower” or less valid than any other part of me. This means that on the mat, I work diligently and creatively to encourage my mammalian self to drop anchor, in order to shift the locus of selfhood from both the thinking, conceptual mind and the call and response game between my thoughts and my emotions. In turn, this might then mean:
  • Locating the body as precisely as I am able in this particular, unique timespace moment: snuggling up to it, welcoming it, offering it the kind of tenderness I knew my babies were owed as their birthright.
  • Prioritising the feeling sense(s) over all other ways of experiencing, knowing, and understanding, while welcoming the stimulation of all sensory input as awakenings of the relevant sense-organs, as a map to follow to guide me into myself. Recognising that there are ways of knowing that are entirely non-verbal.
  • Living as, through, and with the body, as opposed to living inthe body, or attempting to silence or displace the thinking, critical mind. (These conceptions of embodiment seem halfway stations, and to me to perpetuate the mind/body split that I consider damaging to a human, particularly at this historical juncture.)
  • Making an effort to learn the body’s language: its silences as well as its utterances. Allowing for the arising of questions such as, perhaps embodiment is establishing dialogue between these seemingly distinct parts of me? – without needing a definitive answer.

I believe that yoga would be a far more democratic practice if embodiment was the goal of asana practice. Because embodiment is so highly personal, it is necessarily anarchic. If teachers were interested primarily in allowing and championing the quiet inner voice of the body, this would necessarily foreground the Other, and therefore diversity, plurality and multiplicity – therefore relationship; and that lovely and rare thing, companionship; the knowledge that others walk beside us.

For a while, teaching yoga became highly problematic for me, as I tried to devise ways of simultaneously honouring each individual’s bodymind while communicating to (and from, and with) our common humanity. Although in my personal practice I have some standard vinyasa (commonly translated as “flow sequences”), I know that just as often as wanting to do this, my body strikes out in completely unexpected directions. I might start practice with an idea about what I need to do, based on what I’m feeling, but as often as not I find I am led by my body’s own mysterious workings into poses, and other forms of practice entirely, that I did not, could not have known were needed. From this perspective, attempting to keep cohesion in a class while allowing all members to dive into the mysterious depths of their own embodiment felt very difficult. Happily, I am currently at a place where I find identikit poses somewhat creepy. I love it when every single person in my classes is doing something different – everyone there has a different body, a different relationship to her body, and a different history, and it makes no logical or ethical sense whatsoever that my job as teacher should be to erase those differences in the name of some kind of “spiritual practice”.

As it is, yoga, having been pretty thoroughly and effectively co-opted by the juggernaut of capitalism, largely reflects all the cultural biases of our time, so that young, white, able bodies, clad in the symbols of affluence, hold sway, in the media at least. Even collectives such as the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, formed with the specific intention of reflecting and promoting diversity within yoga, are under attack from the bland- and blondification process that is endemic to the culture.

Asana-as-embodiment, however, invites in a specific way of knowing, a particular approach to relating to truth. It stealthily undercuts the stories we are told about what a body is (and what it needs to consume or display so as to be deemed worthy), because a human being who is in direct communication with that personal, never-ending wellspring of personal wisdom cannot be dictated to. Embodiment reasserts the primacy of our animal natures, not as denial of our highly developed cognitive, human, “civillised” selves, but as necessary balance to this. And, I contend that however it may be that we go about discovering and exploring our embodiment, this may prove to be a more practicable, accessible, adaptable and kindly practice than this thing we call “yoga” – and that it may, nowadays, even be the more radical practice, too.

Asteya and Parenting: Part 1 of an Occasional Series on the Yamas and Parenting

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“… Let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.”

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet 

Children don’t require 100% of our attention all the time. Even the tiniest, neediest, most vulnerable baby sometimes sleeps, is happy in someone else’s arms, or content in their own company for a few moments. In these times, we can step into the wisdom of asteya. Traditionally translated from the Sanskrit as “non stealing”, I was originally taught to explore it as “not taking what is not freely given”. As a non-traditional slant, this might be problematic; however, as an embodied enquiry, it enriched and deepened my asana and pranayama practice. Like some of the other yamas (ethical observances), it has also given me a framework within which to explore the nature and purpose of parenting, and the relationships between myself and my children. I offer this short piece as a riff on traditional takes on asteya, that it may give you similar opportunity.

We can move bodily, with gratitude and breath, into the times when we are not needed by our children. Sometimes, they are really just moments. I have had many, many practice sessions when I had just started to settle into a juicy supported back arc, feeling my body sink gratefully into the ground and the blocks, and my tired, strained upper back and chest open and breathe more fully ….only to be called by my sleeping child who was stirring fitfully, or rousing into light sleep, or bawling at the indignity of finding himself awake but still tired and/or grumpy. And of course, in the rest of my life, there have been near-constant interruptions of whatever I have been occupied with (including sleep), when I have felt an almost gravitational pull of my attention towards my child and his seemingly unending needs.

When moments of space open up, we can be attentive to them, and give ourselves some of the nurturing that we have become so adept at giving to our children.

My sense is that many of us find this very difficult. This might be in part due to the models of female behaviour that we have been handed. It might stem from the economic conditions that most of us are required to parent under, which may lead to thought trains such as the following – “baby’s asleep – thank god – I’m exhausted – but so’s my partner, and (s)he’s at work – at least we can still pay the mortgage even though I’m not working – I’d better just do the hoovering”. And I think it also stems from the chronic tuning-out of the body that we’re all subject too. So even though the baby might be sleeping peacefully (and perhaps your baby is even – I’ve heard they do exist! – a RELIABLE sleeper, and so you can pretty much guarantee (s)he’ll be asleep for an hour or so), we’re still completely on duty. Our parenting antennae are still feeling around, being drawn in by our baby’s every snort and snuffle, ready to minister to him or her as soon as we think we’re needed. We are in a state of high alert that becomes the new normal. Tending to ourselves becomes an unimaginable luxury – either we cannot allow ourselves to relax into the time that is not dictated by a child’s needs, or we cannot gift ourselves with it in the first place.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating tuning out the needs of a child here. As a staunch advocate of what has come to be known as attachment parenting, I have been breastfeeding continually for almost 14 years, sharing my and my partner’s bed with a small one for most of that time, and, I’m somewhat less proud to say, spending a lot of time feeling that I’m mouldering away at home while the real business of the world goes on elsewhere. (A mindset that I examine carefully, as I suspect it says more about the what modern culture values than it does about me, or my values.) I do not pretend to have got the balance between my needs and those of my children right for much more than a few days at a time. Asteya helps me to understand that the balance is a process, and is a foundation of any intimate relationship.

I use asteya to understand how we can live our lives wholeheartedly and joyfully while still giving ourselves fully to our children. When our child is asleep, or contentedly engaged, we can relax into that moment. We can unroll that dusty yoga mat and lie in a restorative pose. We can breathe deeply, giving light attention to the outbreath, allowing it to leave fully and to clear the way for an aware, prana-giving inbreath. We can allow our attention to rest in our buttocks as they settle into the seat of the car, feel our pelvis, thighs and spine adapting to the bumps and jolts as the vehicle moves. We can feel our baby as he or she breathes against us, snuggled in a comfy sling. We can taste our cup of tea, feel the wind on our cheeks, hear traffic on the road … we can move into this space that has unexpectedly opened up for us, and fully inhabit it. We can rest with deep engagement and interest in the richness and vibrancy of this moment. We can feel something within us stir and expand, as naturally as leaves unfurl, time and again, from the bud, whether the winter has been long and hard or relatively easy. We can look upon that, and the knowledge of its poignancy – of how much we need and deserve this time and space to ourselves – as a gift of parenthood.

And so parenthood can be a seed of passionately engaged living (and spiritual practice, if we’re so inclined). The ability to go deep within our own experience, even if for a few breaths, nourishes our innate but perhaps dormant capabilities to give to others. And the care, attention, love, and clear-eyed seeing that relationship with a small being develops can be applied to our precious selves.

The dance of intimacy, in which we immerse ourselves in the reality of another, and the inevitable disentangling from that otherness, can teach us much about how to live healthfully, with boundaries and openness mutually reinforcing each other. And it can teach us too about the extraordinarily supple nature of consciousness. As parents, we can shift in the blink of an eye from awareness that is almost oceanic in scope, so that our child can bodily feel our loving attention even while he is a different room, to minute and delighted concentration upon the exact shape, colour, texture of a mug we turn over in our hands as we wash it up for perhaps the thousandth time. As he leaves toddlerhood, my son can splash in the bath by himself, delighted in his discovery of the silvery path of water across his skin as he pours it from old shampoo bottles, wrapped and cocooned in my care even as my attention is given to this piece of writing.

These thoroughly commonplace experiences are described in a surprising way in yogic literature – translated as “attainments” or “perfections”, the siddhis are the famous yogic superpowers and magical abilities. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, for instance, a yogi is described as one who can “shrink the body to the size of the atom … [and] become very large” (pada 3 45, transl Alistair Shearer), which oddly fits the description of elasticity of consciousness that a mother can experience, many times a day, in relationship to her child. Of course, it is highly unlikely that Patanjali had the daily miracle of childrearing in mind when he complied the sutras. By the time hatha yoga practices were being codified in such a way, lineages of female practitioners had largely died out, been subsumed into dominant (male) narratives of spirituality, or allied with other areas of practice altogether such as Buddhism and tantra. And women’s work has been undervalued within dominant culture, including spirituality and religious practice.

The Yoga Sutras are pored over by modern practitioners and form a cornerstone of most, if not all teacher trainings, but these parts of the text tend to be ignored in favour of more prosaic and easily applicable diktats such as “perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless” (pada 2 47). As Uma Dinsmore Tuli says in Yoni Shakti (read it!), “it is as if they are the ‘forgotten sutras’ that contain all the weird and embarrassing stuff none of the popular promoters of yoga ever talk about” (pg 112). Personally, after a decade and a half of studying various translations of the text, I am suspicious of Patanjali’s text’s world-denying and renunciate implications, and I tend to find inspiration elsewhere. But it is useful here to illustrate the possibilities contained within the life of a mother. Perhaps the mundane work of childrearing is a most magnificent opportunity for self-knowledge. Perhaps we can learn much as about the nature of embodied practice through motherhood – for even after a pregnancy ends, motherhood is most definitely a discipline of the body, as any exhausted mother will tell you – as at any luxurious tropical retreat. And perhaps also there is an invitation, in noticing the sneaky, sidelong advances the call to waking up makes upon us, to expand our understanding of what a modern spiritual practice might be, and to place centre stage the skills and wisdom of women who are right under our noses, whose daily experiences refuse, disrupt and defy neat, convenient categorisations of “practice” and “life”.

What can I tell you about all this?
After all we are ordinary, and surely
you’ve seen us, in the park, by
the lake – daily, we watch the swans,
yearlings, come in their dozens,
pale-beaked, identical, throw
them our bread again and again.

I have nothing to say and will say
anyway: we are commonplace,
he and I, we are borderless, glorious,
we are mother and child coming
home together, and we walk
on fields as green as any field …

Kate Clanchy, “Commonplace”

Whispering Bodies

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(“The Space between the Fox and the Hare” – Image credit Jackie Morris)

“When the body speaks

All else is hollow”

Depeche Mode

Under, behind, and through the noise of civilised life, our bodies carry on conversations with everything and everyone they encounter. Our many senses take in and filter a constant stream of data, and through this, we come to know the world and our place within it. This is a dialogue, an exchange, with our bodies giving out breath, sloughing off skin cells, that texture and scent and sound may be imbibed.

Sometimes, it’s true, bodies may shout, exalt, and exclaim. Urgent messages may need to be relayed about sickness, exhaustion, once-in-a-lifetime attraction. But mostly, bodies whisper their truths.

Flesh mutters and murmurs.

Essence insinuates, hints, trades gossip with its hinterlands, and with those outside its boundaries.

Whisper is …

From Old English hwisprian, of Germanic origin; related to Germanic wispeln, both meaning “whistle”.

To murmur, breathe, mutter, mumble, purr, speak in hushed tones, say softly, utter under the breath

To gossip, hint, intimate, insinuate; to suggest or to rumour

To rustle, sigh, moan, hiss, swish, sough, susurrate.

(from the Collins English Dictionary)

Body is …

From Old English bodig, related to Old Norse buthkr, meaning “box”.

The entire physical structure of an animal or human being: physique, build, form, figure, shape, make-up, frame, constitution, flesh and bones; the flesh, as opposed to the spirit

The trunk or torso, not including the limbs, head, or tail

A dead human or animal; corpse

The largest or main part of anything: the central part; the majority; matter, heart, material, mass, substance, bulk, essence, hub

A separate or distinct mass of water or land: expanse, area, mass, stretch, sweep, extent, tract, breadth

A number of individuals regarded as a single entity or group: company, group, society, association, institution, corporation, syndicate

A three-dimensional region with an interior (mathematics)

An object or substance that has three dimensions, a mass, and is distinguishable from surrounding objects (physics)

Substance or firmness; texture, density, solidity.

(from the Collins English Dictionary)

Riffs on “body”:

A body of water (sometimes poetically called a waterbody) is defined as a significant accumulation on a planet’s surface, and can refer to oceans, seas, lakes, ponds, areas of wetland, and sometimes puddles. Most waterbodies are naturally occurring, but some, such as harbours and reservoirs, are created through artificial construction.

A waterbody does not need to be still, or even contained and clearly delineated, to be defined as a body. Rivers, streams and canals, for instance, are in constant movement, the water flowing from one place to another, but are still considered bodies of water.

An astronomical or celestial body is, like a waterbody, a collection of matter that constitutes a unit. It can refer to a single planet, or a comet, or an asteroid, or to a grouping of objects such as an asteroid belt or a nebula. The term refers to a cohesive structure that is bound together by gravity, and sometimes by electromagnetism.

body of work does not refer to a single piece of work, but to a substantial amount of output by an artist, or author. It is distinct from an oeuvre, a word that most often refers to an artist’s lifetime of work. A body of work is comprised of multiple pieces that are cohesive in nature, and might therefore be grouped together by subject matter, colour, or media.

Professional and regulatory bodies have specific intentions and scope, such as advancing the knowledge and practice of professionals within a specific sector, or responsibility for some area of human activity in a supervisory capacity. The individuals making up these bodies are required to adhere to a clear framework, which bestows authority upon the body as a whole.

So is a body …
A discrete entity
Defined in opposition to bodies around it
Delineated and knowable, with fixed borders?

Is a body a conglomeration of cells, atoms, bacterial colonisers
A temporary coming-together of separate to create not-separate
A community, an orchestra
Conveniently boxed-in to appease the human need to know with the intellect?

How might we speak to the body, from the perspective of being in the body, and of the body?
What might those conversations sound like? And feel like?
Can this precious body, maligned as not-spirit, not-intellect, not-me, not-good-enough; ridden over roughshod just as we plunder, rape and ravage the body of the Earth, ever do more than whisper?
Can we – should we – ever expect more than mutterings, murmurs, silences; interludes and lacunae; sporadic outpourings?
Might we tease these suggestions into declarations and expressions?

Listening to the body is an art.

Though we may misconstrue its meanings, and glean its messages only partially, and though it may be a lifetime’s work to learn its language, the body does not – cannot – lie.

Ssssshhhhhh …

“Listen to your body”, Yoga Teachers Say.

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Does your body speak in a recognisable language, one that you are fluent in, or will listening to it require you to retrieve skills not used since your childhood, when you leant your mother tongue? Are silences and pauses part of your body’s language?

Do you understand what is at stake here: stepping out of old paradigms of knowing into the surging-forth of unrelenting, inconceivable interconnectedness?

Embodiment is picking up the scent of a hidden, ancient and well-trodden path, tasting the fear of making the journey alone, trusting that the path will intersect with others’.

What would your body say if it could? What fresh tenderness, what ancient ache, would call for your attention? How would it give voice to long-held suspicions – with relief, accompanied by glorious outpourings of emotion?

What inconvenience would we be presented with if we attuned our inner ears to the requests of embodiment?

i cannot thrive in town …
i need to know you exist at night, not just in the waking hours …
i am tired, so tired; i am exhausted beyond comprehension …
… actually, you know, i am not hungry just now …

In body-based methodologies, such as yoga has primarily become in the west, certain bodies are listened to in preference to others. It is a truism in every area of life to say that if you are white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, yours is a body that shouts in relation to a black, female body. Even a scorned and societally unacceptable body – the man stinking of piss on the bus, the young woman lingering on the corner with a shifty eye and a palpable desperation as she awaits delivery of the substance her body has come to need, the toddler braced against the buggy as he screams – all of these whose physicality assaults our sense of rightness and niceness are listened to far more than the buzz of the bee as he passes by your ear on the wind, the hiss of the wind itself, the speck of life that is the ant crossing the vast plain of our foot. We sign the online petitions wanting to ban neonicotinoids; we travel to exotic countries and exclaim over the native flora and fauna, letting the novelty of the beauty there wash us clean – we care, for sure. We care about our world, and we care about our selves. Entire schooling systems have sprung to life attempting to give children the access to nature that researchers now say impedes our development as human beings; grief at the immeasurable loss and senseless destruction of Earth is now recognised by psychotherapists as a real phenomenon experienced by many.

And yet: what do we do when actually confronted with the wild voice of the other? We all have lines in the sand we’re not willing, or able, yet, to cross. My partner – OK, I’ll listen to him. The ache of my womb for a few hours a month, telling me, perhaps, that I need to rest and slow down. My best friend, calling to tell me about the dissatisfaction of her work/life balance. These, I can, nowadays, almost hear without fitting those voices into my own grand narrative. I can listen to them as they are, and let them be.

Mowing the lawn yesterday, trying to strike a balance between avoiding wholesale destruction of insect ecosystems and getting the job done, I felt my body ease into the state of awareness in which the boundaries between me/not me become porous. The world enters me, and I expand; the world receives me, and I rest in its embrace as a child with her mother. Flashes of memory came to me as I stood there on the lawn, the mingled scents of lilac and wisteria washing over my skin as palpably as a warm bath – sparrowhawk inexplicably lying dead on my doorstep, fox almost hurtling into me in her headlong flight from the hunt, glowworms lying like alien jewels on a midsummer night.

If we listened with our animal senses to the world around us, would we be lost? Or would we mirror ourselves back with sharp clarity?

I was recently part of an online conversation which initially looped and skirted, and then settled on a thorny subject that many of the participants found challenging. Positions were staked, often in relation to others’ perceived opinions; ground was gained and then lost as voices were added and then fell away; as contributors mustered command of language to express themselves with lucidity and clarity. Posts became heated and inflammatory and were TYPED IN CAPITAL LETTERS. One lone voice needled and attempted to draw out some thought-through honesty on others’ parts. The debate was over before it really began, as the admin of the group deleted the conversation when it strayed into uncharted and difficult-to-navigate territory. For some weeks now I have been bothered by the silencing of the one voice, and unable to pinpoint just why it jars so badly. This has nothing to do with politeness, decorum, or arcane online debating rules, or even what the voice was trying to articulate. It has to with the choice to open up to what is happening in every given moment: the surging of life, painful and joyous and continually breaking us open so that we might understand and participate fully in the mystery of life. It has to do with choosing relationship over the taking and hoarding of power. It has to do with choice, awareness taking precedence over conditioning.

If we habitually tune out some voices and prioritise others in the world around us, what do we hear? Nothing that will challenge our comfortable thoughtforms. Confirmation bias. We need voices to question and challenge and jolt us out of our comfortable, numb existences – particularly those of us who make a commitment to the supposedly spiritual life. We need, in fact, to make a spiritual practice of listening to something that we don’t really want to hear. Your new baby, your scorned ex. The ant colony inhabiting your lawn.

There are very compelling and complex reasons not to listen, often born of our vulnerability, our sensitivity, our need to fit in with a group and to feel ourselves accepted and part of something greater than ourselves. And I get it. Some voices are easier to hear than others. Some tell us that we’re kind, thoughtful, good people, and we want to hear that song. Some tell us we’re mean and thoughtless and will never amount to much and it’s easier to ignore them. We’re mean and thoughtless and arrogant and destructive individuals, or families, or communities, or cultures. Some particularly tricksy voices tell us neither, but murmur that nothing is black and white. Still, I contend that if we choose to silence another’s voice, then we will never be able to really hear the whisperings of the body. If, for whatever reason, we don’t open ourselves up to the uncomfortable truths the body offers us (the nagging pain of the sacroiliac joint as we try to “square the hips” in virabhadrasana I, the dull dragging of gravity on a womb emptying herself, flesh recoiling in sympathy that feels like pain as I walk past my newly-strimmed hedge), then we are similarly deafened to the uncomfortable truths of another being. The skill gained in one provides an entry point into the other. They are in fact one and the same thing: the depth to which we can allow the wild voice of the other is the depth to which we are willing to dive within ourselves. Our individual internal power structures replicate those that we impose upon our world; if we are committed to dismantling one for the good of all beings, we are called to engage with its mirror.

Gotcha: Modern Western Yoga Culture and Toxic Mimicry

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Many disparate and wide-ranging factors are combining to create a culture in which what we commonly view as “yoga” is in fact a toxic mimic. A term I am borrowing from permaculture, toxic mimicry describes the present situation more starkly and effectively than the constant bandying about of esoteric terms such as avidya or kali yuga (meaning ignorance/misconceptions/misunderstandings and the present-day era of strife, war and material focus, as described by Hindu scripture). (Incidentally, although permaculture is of course a world populated by complicated and flawed individuals with unacknowledged shadows, it is one with far more of a focus on ethics than the modern yoga one has*.)

Toxic mimicry describes a situation within an ecosystem in which an animal lures prey by taking on characteristics and/or behaviours in order to mimic the healthy food source. Applied to yoga, the teaching of poses and breathwork, chanting and devotional singing that has proliferated in the west within the last fifteen to twenty years certainly bears resemblance to practices described in ancient texts, and in some cases passed down in what is claimed as living tradition (parampara). But while modern yoga looks like something we assume to be yoga, I contend that very, very few of us in the west, even in a small way, know what yoga actually is. I include myself in this. We may certainly have inklings and flashes and partial understandings. But because our society is so profoundly disconnective – it actually requires disconnection in order to survive, and therefore has evolved multiple insidious means of separating us from ourselves, our fellow humans and non-humans – our resultant perspective of fragmentation, alienation and atomisation ensures that we are unable to say what it is to be whole. We are further entangled in the confusion by our society’s immature spirituality – who of us can say that they have a true teacher, who can light our path to wholeness because they are intimate with it themselves? And, do we even want one? Are we able to make wise, discerning  choices as regards surrender and trust?

Yoga has become a toxic mimic because although it may bear hallmarks of what we presume to be “the real thing”, it has the paradoxical effect of separating us from yoga as a path to wholeness and freedom. Yoga has taken on the characteristics required to be accepted by our culture. It values the effervescent surface over depth, privileges male voice over female, replicates uneven power structures, and positions yoga as a package to consume rather than a ceaseless, intensely personal process. Let’s make no mistake – there is nothing that is accepted or propagated by late capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal, colonising white culture that wants you to feel whole, worthy, or connected. Happy people don’t buy Product, and are disinterested and even bored by the notion of having power over others. To be accepted by mainstream culture, yoga has had to stop being Yoga.

This is not to say that there aren’t pockets, here and there, of what may be the Real Thing. But they are rare gems, and one has to get exceedingly lucky (“ripened karma”?), or mine a terrifying lonely seam, in order to unearth them. As practitioners in our costly, purpose-made yoga trousers, at an expensive retreat on a tropical island thousands of miles from home, sipping from plastic water bottles and lying on mats made of a finite resource – no matter the quality of teachings received – we will be under the impression that what we are doing is Yoga. As teachers, posting shiny pictures of ourselves in advanced asana, or gushing that we’re “inspired” by those photos (hashtag soboredofreadingthat), clamouring to cover classes when our teacher goes away to teach that retreat (and secretly hoping that we’ll be able to do the same one day); rather than promoting or supporting yoga, we ensnare ourselves in our culture’s myths about freedom and happiness, and we add a brick of our own making into the edifice of that shameful culture. Don’t think you can beat it at its own game. It’s bigger and stronger than you, with all your oms and your many hours of practice and your acolytes … bigger, even, in the final analysis, than your moments on the mat broken and teary and lost and bewildered that feel like truthful, breakthrough practice.

Human beings have an innate need for attachment and belonging, and as little ones we evolve highly creative ways to prioritise our primary bonds. If our authenticity bumps up against the relationships with our caregivers, we are hardwired to at ignore, squash and even disown our individual truths. This pattern continues throughout a life, particularly an un-looked-at life, in which the inner work of mature individuation from groupthink (which is in fact indivisible from being able to experience that oft-used yoga translation, union) is not undertaken. I believe that we are all to some degree drawn towards a path of wholeness, but in the most common scenario, practitioners and teachers both seek out these kind of “yoga” scenes again and again in order to meet our needs of fellowship and inclusion. Perhaps one in a hundred of us will meet and study with a true teacher who can mirror us our wholeness, perfection and unique preciousness. (Maybe the number is way lower.) The rest of us, driven by the unconscious, unslakeable need to be accepted, plus a bite-sized morsel of apparent spiritual teaching, will take what’s on offer.

For me – I have no problem with admitting that I don’t know what liberation, or true happiness, or unending compassion looks like, feels like. Stretching back to childhood, I have had regular flashes of experience that I could label with these attractive-sounding buzzwords. But I’m starting to understand that an aptitude for such states has probably predisposed me to try and get this fix in my adult life any way I can. What is on offer in order to support this to full maturity is, I’m sorry to say, woeful. It’s groundwork at best. Apologies, yoga friends, but most of it isn’t even that. It is a lure. The hook can’t be yoga, because it’s a hook: they are totally at odds.

whatsonoffer

Sure, some of these will be fun, and challenging, and supportive on some levels. But … yoga?

And thus, through attending teacher trainings and workshops and immersions and retreats, and 200-hour or even 500-hour “Yoga” Alliance-accredited trainings in this stuff, we’re ensnarled in a cycle of consumption and being deafened to our own barely-glimmering wisdom that leads us ever-further from liberation, because liberation simply cannot be bought or sold. We cannot buy insight or truth. They cannot be sold, because they belong to us to begin with, and to try to conveniently package them is therefore a heinous theft. There are the result of the steady, determined, tortuous journey of unpicking our inner, secret selves, and our worldly selves, and the relationships between them. If the worldly self plays the game of the world and thinks it can win, the inner self will suffer. This is not to say that there is no value in teacher trainings, or in having a teacher. It is not to say that what is called yoga has no value, either. But it is certainly a call to waking up to what it is we are training in, and teaching, and not misrepresenting them because we gain personally from that.

* See this list if you think the modern yoga world is peace, union, love and light.