Tuesday, October 5, 2010

America Against Spiritual Discipline

About every Christmas for the past three years, I've talked to my sister-in-law about Yoga. She's studying to be a Yoga instructor, which involves taking so many hours of Yoga classes, and reading some classic texts in the Yoga tradition, and writing some responses, etc. She's a devotee of Shiva Rea, a popular teacher of Yoga loosely in the Hatha tradition. It's this "loosely" that fascinates me. Shiva Rea is pretty mainstream, very Western, very marketable. Check her out:

So anyway, this Christmas, my sister-in-law had recently attended a weekend workshop with Shiva Rea. She recounted hours of sitting in Lotus position, silent meditation, poses, etc. Then she excitedly mentioned that during one of the sessions, Shiva Rea instructed the class, "Now just dance around as wild and crazy as you will!--" and they did that for almost an hour! My sister-in-law loved this, but it really made me scratch my head.

What is Yoga? I've heard it called a science. I've heard lots of translations of the word "Yoga," but the most interesting might be "means" (as in, a "means" to an end). My understanding of Yoga is quite specific: it is a series of motions and poses, developed experientially, and maintained within a tradition, to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine. So I asked my sister-in-law, "Wait a minute: is that random dancing really Yoga?--or is it kind of just a break?" Because to me, Yoga is a specific series of motions and poses... to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine.

Do you see the problem here? See what I'm going to ask? Is Yoga arbitrary? Is it exercise? Or is it a very particular, time-tested, scientific way of manipulating the body and mind with the goal of experiencing oneness with everything?

If it's exercise, then dancing for an hour--or playing basketball, or fishing--might be considered Yoga. But the question I'd like to ask Shiva Rea is, "Are you teaching these new, non-traditional forms of Yoga, based on an experiential pedagogy?--that is, did you achieve enlightenment by incorporating dance into traditional Kundalini?--or are you just randomly providing Westerners with fun and slightly exotic exercise?" Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Or the other side of that question: what is the purpose of Yoga? Tellingly, even Wikipedia, that most democratic of sources, makes this distinction: here is Wikipedia's Yoga page; and here is Wikipedia's "Yoga as Exercise" page. (...the latter begins, "Yoga, in addition to its traditional role as a system for developing the highest wisdom in enlightenment, has also become established as, 1) a scientifically validated system of alternative healthcare, and, 2) as a widely practiced form of physical exercise.")

Here's what I'm afraid of: I'm afraid "the West" does this to sacred teaching traditions. I'm afraid the West is culturally unable to understand the end of spiritual discipline and practice. It's understandable in Yoga: if all it requires is 300+ hours of experience, a few 4-page papers, some reading (but no evidence of enlightenment), then any diligent, unenlightened person (Shiva Rea?) can become a certified teacher. Then, inevitably, the "science" becomes little more than a game of physical-telephone.

What if the same has become of Philosophy? Of Christianity? Of the Liberal Arts? Of Education? Have we accepted institutional certification as a substitute for authentic mastery?--is that wise? Do we care?

This strikes me as the problematic essence of protestantism: neglect practice, skip the discipline. Do whatever feels right. Fasting? No thanks. Secret Prayer? Leave off. Vegetarianism? No. Sacred chanting? Not for me.

Give us enlightenment, or salvation--but give it to us on the couch.


  1. so i read her "about page" and specifically about her "roots", and i can't imagine a less honest paragraph.

    those aren't her roots. those are terms of jargon that are meant to convince us—if we've already bought into their meaning—that she agrees with our assumptions.

    i don't know. maybe i'm looking for something that doesn't need to be there.

  2. That's the thing I'm wondering: maybe authenticity isn't necessary? I mean--maybe there's only exercise?

  3. I'm wondering what exactly it is that the "West" does. I can think of two lines of thought.

    The first is that we streamline for efficiency. Someone once referred to this as the West's technological drive--it traces all the way back to ancient Greece and the search for order, definition, hierarchy, ontology. All the fun words. Everything has A place, everything has A use, everything is standing-reserve to be used. Every body, then, becomes standing-reserve for the Yoga-as-exercise machine.

    But your emphasis on end, which suggests that there are proper ends and unfaithful ends, suggests you might mean something different here--something that betrays. The West as skeptical toward metaphysics?

    When, recently, I have written regarding growing institutional forms of assessment, I am writing about the idea in your 7th paragraph. Our educational institutions would prefer training to experiencing, teaching to learning, control to chaos. Freud once postulated that people only learn when they are uncomfortable. I think more and more institutions (especially the mass-market knowledge factories competing for customer, err, student, dollars) seek to streamline education into something fundamentally comfortable and easy, a stroll down the buffet line.

    Those of us who love to learn know that it isn't ever easy. There is frustration, hair-pulling, failure, torture. But there is also that glorious moment of discovery, fleeting accomplishment, that gives us our high and sends us back down into the depths. Those of us who chase down dark corners. There can be enlightenment without Enlightenment--but it is a risky path, and one that I, personally, think our culture, our schools, and our students do not desire.

  4. Santos!--Eureka. I'm with you once again!

    Please, say more. I hadn't thought to filter this through the lens of "Education," but certainly that's a parallel problem, if we accept that there was a time when Education was not so rigid in its institutional structure that it was more concerned with "learning" than it was with granting degrees (perhaps we have to go all the way back to the Academy at Athens?).

    And I'm very interested in your last idea: that maybe we should work against "our culture" here, which seems complacent--seems comfortable with the degree-granting model. It seems many, even most educators, certainly in higher education, "believe" in Education as something that's more than just preparation for various occupations.

    I'm even comfortable with your lower-case-"e" enlightenment, where teachers might be driving at different ends... so long as some of them aren't required to aim at career-based ends.

    Anyway: the floor is yours!