I’ve been thinking a lot about how we think about yoga in the west and here’s what I think: When you take the tools of a system out of its thinking structure and plop them into your own, the results are going to be distorted at best.
The west views reality from a materialistic, reductionist perspective. And I don’t mean that we spend too much time shopping and making sauces – although that might be true. What I’m saying is that the way we think about health and science limits the way we think about yoga.
Think about our medical system. Just about everything is a specialty – if you have a heart problem you go to a cardiologist – break a bone, an orthopedist. Our thinking is from the ground up. The body is built out of various components, like a car. So if you want to fix it, you just fix the broken part. The body is material and that’s what matters. The mind is an epiphenomenon of the body. And consciousness is something that (we admit somewhat reluctantly) arises from the brain.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some benefits to those thinking structures – but the problem is, I’m not a car. Once I tried talking to a dermatologist about how I thought a skin rash I had might be related to my digestive problems, perhaps an overgrowth of bacteria in my small intestine and he looked at me like I was from Venus and said, “Try not to over-think this.”
As westerners we are mostly unconscious adherents to a scientific, reductionist paradigm. It’s not that we’ve bought into it, it’s just part of how we’re taught to think. It’s the western way. And so as yoga teachers, it’s pretty natural for us to think this way too. Yoga is good for your health – so if you need stretch-ier hamstrings, it can do that for you. Need to lose weight? We got your hot yoga class over here. Need to balance your thyroid – no problem, shoulderstand is the ticket
Look at how we level yoga classes in this country. Typically it’s Beginners, and then Level 1, 2, 3, and 4. As you get closer to level 4, your foot gets further behind your head, most likely while you’re inverted and twisted. This structuring is completely western. The harder your asanas get, the more advanced you are at yoga.
The logical conclusion to this thinking is that the contortionists in Cirque du Soleil are all basking in the bliss of their enlightenment. (And they very well may be, but I would suggest their extreme yoga poses have little to do with it).
Yoga teachers love to say things like, “Go at your own pace.” And “This isn’t about anyone else in the room, it’s only about you in this moment.” But then there are 40 other hot sweaty western-minded bodies in the room trying to achieve enlightenment through their bodies – cause that’s how we know how to think.
This yoga stuff is great, it makes me feel great, I love the non-competitiveness of it – well, at least how the teachers talk about non-competitiveness. It’s a bit of a mixed message really, to talk about non-competitiveness and then ask everyone to do scorpion in the middle of the room. The thing is, unless we are willing to shift our thinking structures, we’re going to do yoga pretty much the same way we did aerobics with in the eighties – maybe with a little mindfulness sprinkled on top – but we haven’t radically changed the way we think.
The great sage Ashtavakra had severe scoliosis. (His name means, “Bent in eight places”). He probably couldn’t have done ashtavakrasana (that’s the one where you wrap your legs around your upper arms and balance on your hands while you look up and smile for the camera). Ashtabakra wrote a sublime expose on spirituality. But regardless of his yogic accomplishments, in the west, we’d have to send him to the Beginner’s class.
According to yogic thinking structures, the less you have to do to calm your mind, the more advanced you are. More advanced practitioners need to do a less intense physical practice because they don’t need much to settle their minds for meditation.
The body is the basis of our health and our thinking in the west, but yoga comes out of a thinking structure that stands ours on its head.
According to the Upanishads, sacred Vedantic texts, we are ultimately pure soul or consciousness. The first part of our self that emanates from the soul is the Bliss layer (anandamaya kosha). In other words, bliss is the largest part of the structure of who we are.
That means bliss isn’t something that you get by doing a backbend on your knees and elbows, rather it’s something to understand and experience as the foundational structure of your being.
And you get there by meditating, whether or not you can do side crow in full lotus is rather irrelevant. From the Bliss layer emanates the Witness layer, from the witness comes the mind, from the mind comes the energy body and finally, from all of that comes your physical body.
So if you have a digestive complaint, you might use asanas, herbs, diet, massage etc. – which will help you from the layer of the physical body, but if you really want to heal, you look up into who you are in a more expanded sense. Where is your breathing disturbed? Where is the mind disturbed? You come from bliss and ultimately you are pure Soul, so whatever ails you can be remedied from a return to the Source of who you are – from meditating on the infinite within. From a yogic perspective, if you want to heal, it is useful to look up.
One of my husband’s favorite sayings is, “All thinking models are wrong, but at least some are useful.” Trying to get Oneness out of Yoga while living with a western mindset is kind of like trying to breathe on Pandora.
But you see all this unspoken materialistic thinking around yoga like the harder the poses, the more advanced your practice or the more Lululemons you own and popular classes you attend, the better yogi you are. And for teachers, the more students you have, the more popular you are, the more enlightened you have become. Yikes.
It’s unspoken because we vaguely and rather ashamedly understand that yoga is really not about that. But how do we change our thinking structure to accomodate the idea that the more you’ve expanded your bliss consciousness the closer you are to Oneness? How do you rewire neuro-patterning laid down in your infancy?
Our materialistic thinking has helped create things like life savings surgery and perhaps even more lifesaving iphones. But it also directly created the global crisis we’re in – environmental, financial, social and ethical. Part of the problem is that materialism and reductionism necessitate that we narrow our perspective. We specialize. But life isn’t specialized. It is a big interconnected system. If we want to heal ourselves and our planet, we need a broader perspective.
Yoga was developed by people who sat and expanded their minds to the edges of the universe and beyond. And that’s what it can offer us if we’re willing to look at our practice differently – as an opportunity to see things differently, to think about things with a more expanded perspective. And that is ultimately what will help us change the way we do things – personally and collectively.