Monday, January 24, 2011

This is No Time for Dull Instruments. Yogis and Philosophy with Shyam Ranganathan, PhD.

"The sign of a true yogi is thus not how flexible their bodies are, but rather how willing they are to be philosophical about personhood, and critical of their own prejudices, while being serious about living in the Natural world." (Shyam Ranganathan, author of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra)

D oes a Yogi need to be a philosopher? Is being able to debate philosophically important to your personal practice? According to York University professor and author of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (Penguin Classics 2009), Dr. Shyam Ranganathan, yogis must, at the very least, be able to engage in a philosophical argument. Maybe you're thinking, "Wait a second, that sounds a bit intense. Can we not practice yoga a-la-carte, grabbing what we like as we shop"?
Well, not according to Shyam Ranganathan. And, he'll be the first to tell you that according to his reading of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, a yoga practice without philosophical agility is not yoga. It's something Ranganathan calls "pseudo-yoga".


As contemporary yogis who practice an assorted grab-bag of practices, we likely have little daily interaction with philosophical debate vis a vis yoga. We know this makes the practice easier to integrate into a mainstream lifestyle; making it a practice that anyone, anywhere, can dip into without getting ponderous. But what if it's the philosophical questions that do the heavy lifting when it comes to finding out what you're made of??

So how are we to develop skills at argument? Well, I took a stab at it by asking Shyam a few questions; and his answers illustrate just how much careful consideration the process of philosophical inquiry requires. Time and attention knot together in these answers; and untangling each question takes the same delicate patience and eye for detail that you would reserve for untying a knot.

Shyam Ranganathan has an MA in philosophy, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, and a PhD in philosophy from York University. He is author of Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass 2008) as well as translator and commentator of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (Penguin Classics 2009). He is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s area editor for Indian Philosophy. He has written articles on Yoga, and taught yoga philosophy both in an academic environment and to students of yoga in the community. In addition to Indian Philosophy, his research focuses on ethics and the philosophy of language, with a special focus on the role of translation across cultures and languages. He teaches philosophy at York University.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Cultural Circuitry of Yoga in America: An Interview with Author Stefanie Syman

(Ruth St. Denis and Denishawn dancers in Yoga Meditation, 1915)
"The group, Leary, Swain and the Vedanta devotees then sat cross-legged on Oriental rugs and chanted. When the acid hit, Leary saw shock and amazement on the "Holy folk", despite their years of practicing Bhakti and Raja yoga. He himself imagined, briefly, that he was Shiva". (from The Subtle Body, The Story of Yoga in America by Stefanie Syman)

(Ruth St. Denis)

I f you're American and you do yoga, you've probably wondered, at some point mid-way through a sonorous closing chant of "OM" how yoga even found its way to these shores. The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America is Stefanie Syman's folio of American yoga memories; a book dedicated to uncovering the cultural circuitry of American yoga practice. Each snapshot is a peek at the complicated love affair of Americans with yoga. A tango of a relationship that runs hot and cold by turns,  
The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, tracks the historical development of yoga in American popular consciousness, its momentum, and its surprising staying power.

(3 pics clockwise: madonna, bks iyengar 89th birthday, marilyn monroe)

The book begins in New England where we see naive strains of Hindu thought germinating in the work of Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, before it shifts to the first transatlantic visits of gurus such as Vivekananda. And the story doesn't stop there. It careens through the literary and spiritual histories of luminaries, and documents the spiritual shifts in a country's consciousness through their stories. Among those explored are: Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Indra Devi, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Ruth St. Denis, Greta Garbo, BKS Iyengar, Bikram, Pattabhi Jois and Madonna.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy 2011!

(Dundas W. Toronto, photo courtesy 100m)

H ard to believe, I know....but it's true. This season of zealous festivity is waning. For many of us that means we're back at a desk. And, if you live in inclement weather zones where sub zero is a fact of life, the sky is a mile-wide horizon of grey.

Nonetheless, a new year! And to start 2011, I have a copy of Stefanie Syman's book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America to give away. Just scroll down to "Submissions" on this page and the first to send me a note will get a free book in the post courtesy of Stefanie Syman and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I'll be posting the interview I did with Stefanie Syman regarding yoga in America in the next week. It covers everything from the antics of Pierre Bernard to heated debates about evangelical yoga, and perceptions of yoga in popular culture... everyone from Garbo to Monroe in the fray...

Here's to yoga, blue balloons and anything else that interrupts your days at a desk.

Happy 2011!