Saturday, September 3, 2011

And the Right Answer IS....Yoga and The Dreaded Multiple Choice Question: Mark Singleton at Yoga Festival Toronto

S o we've all received questionnaires in our lives and those of us that like our lateral thinking don't usually appreciate their bent. They're pushy, presumptuous, know-it-alls, so sometimes I don't even check off boxes. I have refused, squirmed out-of, and refused again to answer any question that limited my options.

So when I put the multiple choice question, “Is your postural yoga practice, - in your personal experience -  a) spiritual, b) religious, or c) secular?" to Mark Singleton, the author of the pivotal and influential book on modern yoga, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice at Yoga Festival Toronto, I expected no easy answer. I mean it's the kind of question anyone dreads unless they never quite got enough of multiple choice exams, or are by nature incredibly dull. So I was glad when Mark hesitated. I mean hesitation has the potential to be truly exciting. As blogger for Think Body Electric Carol Horton noted in her wonderful commemorative post on Yoga Festival Toronto, it was a great moment, and it tapped into a collective fear of the three dreaded words (religion, spirituality and secularism) as the giggles subsided and a nervous hush spread through the room...

As I remember it, in that moment things got very still. It was stunning - in the most literal sense of that word. I saw Mark's right pupil open, slow-motion, wider than widescreen. The audience could have palpated that moment like a seized muscle as I listened, leaning in even closer to grasp the precise hesitation in his tone, and savour the rationale for not being able to categorize yoga practice precisely into any one of the suggested categories.

Mark's explanation was subtle and nuanced with a careful knowledge of yoga's historical relationship with those words. And as such, his did in fact answer the question with a number of salient points which I'll get to talking about when I write up the transcript of that interview next month.

But Carol Horton did raise an interesting issue with regard to a sense that practitioners do not relate to these words in general. What does it say about us that we are aware of our inability to  communicate the nature of our yoga experience in these common categories? I'm not suggesting this difficulty is news. Dance scholarship, for instance, is rife with discussions about the challenges in communicating the experience of embodied practice with reference to these ubiquitous terms. But that is what makes any environment interesting.

And it's also why we've created new words/theories for gaps in all kinds of disciplines: somaesthetic, "the peak experience", "flow theory"...In Bharatanatyam dance terms, the ineffable experience associated with bhakti yoga (the way of devotion) has sometimes been called "svarga", a kind of blink-of-an-eye "heaven", formless and without qualities, from which we must unfortunately return.

(Mikko Kuorinki, Wall Piece of 200 letters installation)

(Simeon the monk on a pillar in Syria for 37 years)
And in not finding categories that apply, some of us turn to art...submitting even before we start that language has its limitations.

But is the inability to answer this question an indication of an ineffable experience, or a contemporary struggle with the complex, baroque weight of those words "religious", "spiritual" and "secular"? Are some of us saying that yoga practice is equivalent to the wordless experience mystics have described? Or is it this a contemporary category that has yet to find a name? And even if hatha yoga practice did not evolve via these succinct categories should we still not ask how these words are impacting practice now? What's going on with our practice today that we read about sectarian struggles in yoga classes and yet a good number of us don't feel these categories even fit?

Okay... so if you're a real mystic and you've been standing on a pillar desert-fathers-style for 40 years, then maybe you can opt out of this discussion. Because you clearly don't care about the outside world and the perception of the meaning of your practice in the world of the entangled. Fair enough, maybe your very contribution is the statement of your standing there for goddamn-ever...

(anti-Christian anti-muslim riots, India 2008)
But it is necessary for practitioners and writers to glance at those words again and again in order to understand what our current categories are, and to address them in whatever way we can so that the practice is better understood and documented. It may be a car crash, but if you want to say you were there, you gotta take a look.

And we should consider ourselves lucky that this, and most yoga discussions, are not multiple choice exams. Unlike a mutiple choice question, you can take as much time and space as you'd like in order to answer the question. You could even answer with a koan or a performance piece. And so in this case, the oversimplified question is a deliberate strategy, a reduction of possibilities by way of question, designed to create a storm in your citta "consciousness/perception" (but as ancient Indians might map it, in the physical location of your heart).

So you tell me spiritual, religious, secular....what is this yoga thing for you?

There are no categories in life that are simple. And certainly I don't think everything that exists needs a name. But when the existing categories appear so insufficient as to evade answers altogether, then it's worth asking what needs to change. And as yogis, making change, alchemical or otherwise, is our greatest trade secret.

I will be posting a full transcript of that interview at Shivers Up the Spine hopefully in a month's time. I just started my PhD this week, so needless to say, my time's been eaten with the usual back-to-school routines of buying loose leaf and making sure my new school bag is up to the task.


  1. Thanks so much for this, Priya. It is brilliant. And I couldn't agree with you more. Grappling with the necessity AND limitations of the words we have to communicate our experience is, I believe, invaluable. Not as an intellectual exercise (although I must admit for someone like me, that has an intrinsic appeal), but for the processes of personal growth that it fosters.

    Rather than taking the taken-for-granted for granted, we call it into question. This increases our freedom and as such, carries a certain charge, even fear - it's stepping out into more unknown and unbounded territory. But isn't that what yoga is all about?

    I also really like your suggestion that contemporary yoga needs to invent a new vocabulary to better express what it's really about. The conventional English words are way too limited (I use "spiritual" despite the fact that I'm horribly frustrated with it, simply for lack of a better alternative). Many practitioners shift to using Sanskrit terms instead - which can be useful, and beautiful, but also carries a certain risk of reigniting colonial romantic fantasies of the "mystic East" - and in fact, I think this happens all the time.

    I hope that you'll write more of your own direct commentaries and essays as opposed to simply interview transcripts - which are invaluable but lack the clarity of your own distinct voice.

    Finally, I think that this incident in your interview with Mark was truly a "teachable moment" that deserves to be written about further - the issues involved are deep and complex - and valuable - but take time and work to absorb. Looking forward to more - thanks again.

  2. so glad i saw this via carol horton on facebook

    and very much looking fwd to the transcript, though i do think your phd wk should properly take precedence ;-)

    the questions about the multiple choice question, have waited, can wait, and be the weight they're meant to (what"ever") be -

    i like the play of ideas that, possibly, words are enough, and thus we go to art, but are the words simply not "updated" yet enough

    as a writer, an artist, and a person who loves dance and music as well, it's funny when one art form is declared insufficient to express some human experience, even so-called divineness stuff ;-) and then another art form is used as a "better" vehicle

    and then to see that happen cross-ways between the arts!

    i can "dance" what you cannot say - i can speak what you cannot move - i can picture all that moves and speaks

    i beat myself up for decades going from one art form to the other, as each art form's limitations met their current-wall-of-expression

    now, i simply accept i need all the art forms i'm capable of doing, and enjoy, to express myself ;-)

  3. Mark Singletons entire enterprise is about answering questions that no one is asking, so when faced with a real question it is little surprise that he ducked it. Yoga is nothing but religious, because spiritual is religious and secular is also religious in the strict sense of the word, which means "to adhere". There are very few people I have read that can claim to be truly non-religious, most are just anti-religious or just confused, like Singleton. Carol - If you want your yoga to be outside of the religious altogether then you need to start reading U.G. Krishnamurti, (not JJ)

  4. hi all,

    carol first off thank you for the kind words, and for bringing the your issue with those words to my attention in the first place. it's an interesting point to consider...and hopefully a gateway to think about what it means to do yoga in this place and at this time... look forward to chatting more! adan - good to meet you here. thanks so much for your thoughts about creative work. and mat some provocative thoughts and sentiments...a note though - mark didn't duck the question. but his answer will be in the final transcript. so i hope you will watch for that - where as i'm sure you can appreciate, "all will be revealed" ok thank you everyone, priya

  5. Priya, I was present at your interview of Mark Singleton and really enjoyed the clarity of your questions and Mark's receptivity to answering them. I had attended Mark's first session at the festival and what I wanted to know by the end of it was what his own experience of yoga was because while the historical research he has done is interesting, the only container he gives it is an academic one, which is totally inadequate to answering the question I think he is asking: what is yoga? That morning I had a sense of his own honest confusion as to the answer and that he has written his book as a way to engage with it. Asking him how he perceives his own practice got to the crux of the matter, I thought.

    I think Mark's work is very helpful for sorting out what yoga isn't. If there is such a thing as an experience that lies within a body unconfined by the cultural mind, Mark illuminates the many permutations of that confinement, worldwide and through time.

    Words can tangle but the right ones can also untangle. Mat referred to UG in his comment above. Saturated in religious, spiritual and cultural concepts in his early life, he later found himself free of them and played fiercely with language thereafter. I think our job is to keep playing.

  6. hey crescence, good to see you here! thank you for your thoughts. i'm really happy that you found the dialogue engaging - the thoughts you and everyone else have offered point to serious issues that i hope will generate critical (but no less playful) responses! it's also an indication that people didn't take the interview as a display of good questions/good answers...but as a way to re-engage with those questions in their own way so that the practice is better "aligned". here's to keeping the mindbody strong and bendy. worthwhile discussion everyone. thank you and hope to see you again. priya

  7. Thought provoking post--a question I've wrestled with for years.

    At the risk of sounding like a banal relativist, I think the question assumes that these categories like secularism etc. (with all its various various connectives, such as separation of church and state) are not more slippery than they appear to be at a first glance. For some France's declaration of war against the niqab could be seen as profoundly religious. Talal Asad's work, I'm sure you know it, helps to at least think through these slipperiness of these terms we invoke often without questioning the ways in which they are unmarked, and almost invisible.

    Ok, so if I move away from a relativist position (which, I think, in Asad's case has a lot of merit), and start to think about religion as the formalization of mysticism--then yoga it would seem is profoundly religious because it formalizes itself into various gestures and motions, much like Muslim salat is formalized.

    -Hazrat Inayat Khan's discussion on how yoga developed from siddhi's who experienced *shakti and became so enlivened by it that they spontaneously adopted asanas. This itself seems like the mystical element of yoga, which I doubt one can learn in the context of yoga class in Kensington market (god bless them though), but in my opinion through the initiation of one who has already attained such awakening. Then in a sense we are back in the terrain of formalization (religion) although a much fresher approach (because one lives in the context, or serves a teacher)--not a tradition. One can turn to a tradition, a teacher, or teaching and at the risk of sounding like an outlandishly new age, I think most religions give us three options: submission to teaching/tradition, community, or teacher--sometimes in more subversive ways (such as sufism--where in some communities we sing songs that most mullahs would ban).

    (not a decent of force in the frontal line, but a yogic awakening of the sushumna, and the ascent of force, piercing the chakras....)

    I don't know what the hell I wrote above. I'm just thinking. I appreciate the post, b/c I'm working through these questions in the context of my life.

    Peace sister,