Sunday, September 5, 2010

YOGA 2.0: Mala 1, by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie - A War-Cry Manifesto for Deconstructing the Yoga Body

Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie's new book is a must-read

"The doors of life must be broken to test the hinges and the doors."
Andre Breton, 1922
wrote eccentric, dissident artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in the Futurist Manifesto of 1908, as he announced a brand new art movement that was daring forward at breakneck speed into the unknown. In a wholescale rejection of the past, he affirmed that the basic structures of the day must be destroyed in order to be put to the test. In 1924, Andre Breton put out an inflammatory piece of writing called Le Manifeste du Surrealisme in which he proclaimed: 
 "The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly"
 In Yoga 2.0, Mala 1: Shamanic Echoes,  authors Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie declare:
"...all yogis must resist Yoga. If you meet the "Yogi",  kill the "Yogi".

In the art-world, this kind of hyperbole may be commonplace. But in the tenderfooted, deferential, and well-mannered world of contemporary yoga, this kind of statement carries a tenor decidedly more sweeping and incendiary. As if that is not warning enough, this book comes with an additional warning. Namely, that this is not a book at all.

Matthew Remski
Scott Petrie
It is not a textbook, or a guidebook, or a warm and fuzzy personal account of the trinkets and prizes hard won by the soul through earnest yoga practice. There are no anatomical drawings; or prescriptions for specific asanas. In fact, by the latter part of the book, the book admits it does not want to be a book. In fact, it's suspicious of book culture altogether. Then you notice that all its careful observation is countered by equal proportion of wild hypothesis and adventurous suggestion. Well then, you think, this is not the work of a neutral observer, or a cool academic, or worthy scientist, is it? And, from the quote above, anyone can see that it doesn't shrink at provocation. So what is this colorful piece of writing... this delinquent, prodigal text written in grand hyperbole and rich allegory?

Yoga 2.0 is nothing short of a yoga manifesto, replete with similar hallmarks, props and literary devices. By the time Matthew and Scott are done with their narrative of yoga, as it ticks through the timeline of evolutionary biology, "Capital Y" Yoga, as a permanent entity, with appeals to scriptural authority and authenticity, is, if not demolished, at least knocked around a bit. By the end of the book,  contemporary yoga practice looks rickety enough that it might be little more than an elegant acropolis built from toothpicks.

Matthew Resmki and Scott Petrie are long-studied, practicing yogis who have their hands on so many projects in the Toronto Yoga community that you'd hardly remember that they are also relentlessly driven as yoga dissidents, hell-bent on demolishing those parts of yoga practice that they think do not serve the community, or the individual's internal awarenesses. This is a book written by yogis who are confounded and riddled by the questions that keep urging them to keep practicing.

Painting of a shaman, Edward S. Curtis, cc usage
And while its language never tumbles into analysis; it does, like any manifesto start by examining the structures that exist, and issuing a public safety warning about the casualties associated with the shaky and damaged areas of yoga's old ground. And then, by means of provocation, the reader is taunted into turning all they know inside-out really take a look at yoga's seams. And that's when Yoga 2.0 has got you looking inside, to your body as an ecological laboratory, as you dig up your roots, looking for real shakti or power; for any real connection to planet earth, and for some inner shaman to bring solutions to the whole mess.

Yoga 2.0 is an elaborate string of verses, written playfully in the format of sutras, that join together to produce a mala, or garland of arguments urging the reader to reconsider yoga's past and re-write its future. In its non-literal writing style, it weaves through the history of yoga in allegory, riddle and aphorism. But underneath the poetry of its stride, there are several assertions made about the way we currently practice yoga that you wouldn't want to gloss over. The arguments come by way of four sections, or padas, entitled: "Yoga and Evolutionary Biology", "Yoga and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", "Yoga, Orality, text, and Intimacy" and "Yoga and Gazing at/through the Postmodern Body". While it's not easy to pin down the imaginative flights of 2.0, I'll take a stab at summarizing two of those arguments put forward in Yoga 2.0.

The first argument is that the history of yoga, -according to a model based in evolutionary biology-, is a history of incrementally moving away from our shamanic source; or the "bicameral mind". Remski and Petrie devote a good section of the book to exploring the bicameral mind, and its relationship to shamanism and yoga. They trace the way through human history, elaborating the loss of our shamanic roots, and point out the pitfalls of a yoga built on a continual process of moving away from relationship with the earth, relationship with the body, and relationship with the self.

As a consequence, our relationship with yoga has been subverted from the internal and relational; to the external and alienated. Yoga 2.0 illustrates this development variously; through the transition of oral teachings to book knowledge, physical instruction to the use of indirect teaching technology, and from a shamanic view of the earth, to the dominion over, and extinction of animals.

The second argument -and one that is critical to being able to provide any solutions to the situation-, is that we need to consider a concept of time that is circular, rather than linear and progress-driven. History is not a narrative of continual, unimpeded progress of human beings towards enlightenment. We only need to take a quick look at the ecological crisis we are facing to see that we're not home-free. While history shows we have had developments that contributed to ecological well-being, we have also had periods where we slid back. So history is a curvy business that requires vigilance.

And in that same sense, yoga is not completed; it is still being written. Moreover, it deserves to be rewritten continually in order to outgrow those parts of its practice that are culturally-specific and/or not vital to the communities that practice it. This is key to the idea of a new "version 2.0" yoga. Yoga needs to reconsider its roots in order to better serve its current context and its challenges: ecological disaster, corporate power, crumbling political processes, the alienation and cacophany spilling out of our our crowded urban streets, and into our inner lives.

This is why "all yogis must resist Yoga". Yoga, with a capital "Y"; is the idea of it as unchangeable, static, or fossilized. Yoga 2.0 suggests that all yogis need to be aware that all things are subject to conditions, and that yoga is subject to these same conditions. And, that any desire to invest authority in things that are subject to change runs counter to the practice. This is not so far from the idea of "abhinivesa"  in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The concept of abhinivesa warns that clinging to life, the comfortably familiar, or the status quo, is a hindrance to the path of matter where we find it.

And this is where the final insight of the book leaves us off. Yoga is not meant to be a fossil. It should not be handled as if it were a museum artifact. It is a living body/mind practice; changing, modulating, and shapeshifting. And, yoga is subject to the alterations, trends and sweeps of sand that can bury whole empires.

Now does that mean that I would wholeheartedly agree to change every tradition that has come before me? Does that mean that there will not be chaos and disagreement amongst many people about what needs change, and what does not? Does yoga need new idioms, definitions, and standards?
Well, there are as many answers to those questions as there are people.

But a multiplicity of questions and answers have always been part of yoga's bounty. And, I'm guessing Yoga 2.0 doesn't mind. If my hunch is right, this book is a call to arms; a call to practice yoga, not an attempt to codify a new system. It is a provocation to action. It's meant to be read as a manifesto to challenge to the idioms, conventions, and traditions of the past, by means of experimenting with new ideas. In exhuming the language of manifesto, we are being deliberately provoked about our own practice. And if our practice shakes with seismic rumbles while we read the questions, then the only thing left to do is to get it together, start over, and manifest our yoga again.

Unknown artists replication of ancient pictograph found in Central Asia
 • To read it and challenge everything you thought you knew about yoga, buy it at: Yoga 2.0, Mala 1: Shamanic Echoes


  1. so there are people in the now paying attention and offering solutions

    how lovely

  2. Nice review - I'm reading the book now and it's so non-standard that translating it into normal "book review" idiom I, at least, would find a challenge! Art, surrealism, shamanism . . . plus some straightforward left-brain analysis on your part - good stuff. Thanks.

  3. hey carol,
    no worries. loved reading the book - put my world topsy-turvy for a week at least. glad you're into it!