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...
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)|
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)|
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.