Saturday, December 29, 2012

Yoga Ph.D.

Carol Horton’s Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body is one of those books (and delightfully there are ever more of them being published*) that I’d love to see every student in every Yoga Teacher Training read and take its message to heart. I believe it’s that important a contribution to what may perhaps be the most important question facing the very growth and existence of Yoga. Though Horton wrote it to find answers to her questions regarding the origins of yoga, how it “works,” and why it’s become so popular, the koan facing all practitioners, and in particular teachers of yoga, that she offers is whether the paradoxes embodied in contemporary yoga will remain generative or will its very popularity and commercialization usurp it of its vitality?

What paradoxes? In Horton’s words: Contemporary yoga “is a modern invention with ancient roots, a fitness fad with spiritual sustenance, a $6 billion ‘industry’ with non-material values;” a weird synthesis “of the utterly pedestrian and magically transformative.” And while Horton generally seems to have a better opinion of contemporary mainstream yoga and it’s paradoxes than I do, her own conclusion seems paradoxical as well. She ends with hope that postmodern yoga will indeed remain generative, with each successive generation of practitioners and teachers planting and nurturing new seeds. As she clearly summarizes, the history of yoga shows that it has always changed to meet the demands of the times, while somehow retaining something of its ancient roots. I am reminded of Georg Feurstein’s calling yoga “a living fossil,” in this regard. And I agree that's a good thing.

Yet, she also admits elsewhere that she guesses “the already pronounced tendency to turn yoga into yet another means of commodifying the body” will continue because “the commercial potential of idealized images of the ‘yoga body’ has simply become too good to pass up.” Sadly, this commercialized pull undermines the tremendous potential of yoga practice and theory to create the transformative self-integration possible. And that's a bad thing. Yes folks, it ain't "all good" in yoga or in life!

Chapter Six, “Self-Commodification, Teacher Worship, & Spirituality Lite” is worth the price of the book and should indeed be mandatory reading for yoga teacher trainees. In a “culture” that tends to hide it’s critical thinking potential in the mud, this chapter clearly presents the major blind-spots that tend toward undermining yoga’s real potential and offers the antidote: critical thinking.

For me, it’s come to the point where I hesitate to tell people I teach yoga because of what “yoga” has come to represent in contemporary culture. While Horton asks why American yoga culture seems to be growing ever more shallowly commercial, morphing from “intimate, organic, and essentially counter-cultural to corporate, ‘branded,’ and aggressively mainstream” while at the same time there is something about it that differentiates it from other fitness regimens and self-help programs, I question if there is anything different in the way most people approach and practice it. One of the more popular yoga studios here in Tucson, for instance, is popular and as successful as it is because it offers one-hour "workouts" with maybe some one-word "theme" that can loosely be considered "spiritual." 

In Chapter Seven, “Yoga, Modernity, and the Body,” in a section sub-titled “But Why Does It Work?” Horton parses out for herself the reasons, and then hypothesizes why yoga “works” and summarizes: “I believe yoga works so well for me for the same basic reason it does for so many others: it gives me a connection to my body that I wouldn’t otherwise have” with its “combination of physical postures, mental focus, and breath regulation” providing that connection “in an exceptionally accessible way.”

As she also explains, the postural emphasis in contemporary hatha-yoga is rooted in the worldwide physical culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was conceived as education through and not merely of the body and, as Mark Singleton shows in his revelatory Yoga Body, was intended for the cultivation of mind, body and spirit. In my experience, if I bring mental focus and breath regulation to my weight-lifting, it is every bit as much yoga as practicing Surya Namaskara. The same is true of gardening or any other activity. When that understanding is lost, the practice of “doing yoga” arises and becomes no different than how many of my fellow weight-lifters approach their lifting.

Horton knows this too, and admits that such transformative, self-integration is not unique to yoga practice. What her book so eloquently argues is that for contemporary yoga to avoid losing its soul altogether, it must learn to integrate the life of the mind with the wisdom of the body. If her book is read by enough people, then perhaps the conversation and self-questioning it could provoke might just help save post-modern yoga’s “soul.” Curmudgeon that I can often be, I won’t be holding my breath.

* among them: Mark Singleton, Yoga Body; Carol Horton & Roseanne Harvey (eds), 21st Century Yoga; Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga