The un-magic of yoga

Why does yoga have to lead to action?

I ask this question sincerely, not rhetorically – meaning it would probably be better framed, should yoga lead to action?

Choosing to engage in an eight-limbed yoga practice, in the lineage of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois or otherwise, means recognising the practice of yoga as engagement in an ethical way of being in the world. You may not embrace every principle wholeheartedly right away, but the awareness is a first step. In the writings on the internet and in books reflecting on the state of yoga in 21st century America and the world, I’ve observed a distinct tendency toward dissatisfaction with the amount of action in yoga. All these people doing yoga does not seem to lead to social justice, people point out. If yoga is so great, then why is this the case? There are a couple of threads I see, and I’m not unsympathetic to any of them. They all make me think about my own practice and the meaning of this daily investment I make in progressing as a yogi.

It could be we don’t understand yoga. We have failed to connect to the essence of real yoga and instead remain fixated on asana, and by implication on the body and health. This means we have a yoga that makes coconut water and a vegan diet cool. This kind of yoga is an ideal vehicle for corporate marketing.

It could also be we understand an old-fashioned yoga, designed for renunciants and invested in the discovery of the self at the expense of building community. This understanding makes for an atomised community of yogis, who might practice next to each other but cannot come together to support one another at crucial moments. This is a selfish yoga.

It could also be we fail at yoga. Despite all the hours on the mat, we continue to be judgemental individuals who are obsessed with our bodies and their capabilities – a malady that Charlotte Shane described incisively for The New Inquiry. Yoga might actually turn you into an egomaniac, a far cry from the progress toward kindness and tolerance that it promises.

As I said, I am sympathetic to all of these arguments for yoga to deliver on more of its promises to make us all into better people, or, for us as yogis to invest more deeply in pursuing a higher standard of yoga. Still, I don’t think that describes my own yoga journey.

It could be that yoga has made me a better person, but you’d have to ask my friends and family if that is the case. What four years of a six-day-a-week practice has done for me is, make it possible to have realisations. Now, I can get on the mat in the morning and recognise when I have turned this simple act of showing up into a massive hurdle to get over before I can have coffee and look at Twitter. I can feel when a powerful negative samskara has taken over my thought-stream, and in moments of real clarity, I can acknowledge that samskara and recognise it as citta vritti. I never would have been able to do this without a regular ashtanga practice. Still, they remain small victories.

I am sympathetic to calls for a better yoga, for a more social conscious and socially just yoga. I would love for yoga to remake the world in its image.

But we are its image. There are no super-humans doing yoga, just regular humans who struggle to control their egos and are occupied by worldly concerns like fitting in time to practice asana between numerous other commitments and finally learning to balance in pincha mayurasana and losing five kilos to look nice in a party dress. Does the fact that yoga fails to make them saintly mean it is not working?

To me, part of doing my yoga has meant learning not to overestimate the yoga. David Garrigues told his Mysore retreat participants this year that he had done amazing things, become a person he never imagined he would be, thanks to yoga. But still, he said, I am stuck with same old suffering me. And so are we all, stuck with our same old suffering selves.

The fact that yoga has become a $6 billion industry without transforming the world for the better isn’t a strike against yoga, I don’t think. The yogic tradition has lots of ways to describe our human weakness and ineptitude. It doesn’t claim to be magic – although sometimes yogis make that mistake.


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