Truth and Honesty
When your version of the truth is challenged, how do you react?
I’ve been grappling with this question while reading a new (to me) text, Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton. A few chapters in, it’s abundantly clear that (1) the man has done his research, and (2) that he is taking the myth of yoga as a practice with a clear lineage from ancient India to your local studio, and blowing it up.
I have known a little bit about this for a few years now. There are hints and murmurs everywhere, but you have to listen carefully. There are some aspects of yoga that would never make an appearance in your hot vinyasa class, and not-so-distant times when calling yourself a yogi would all but guarantee you being shunned from civil, polite society. And when students say things to me like “But these postures are thousands of years old,” I know just enough to equivocate: Well, not exactly.
The truth about the history of yoga, including many, many different definitions of the word and its practitioners, is that it’s a mess. A messy, messy, mess. (Which Singleton articulates and deconstructs quite well, and I definitely recommend the read). The East is influenced by the West, which is then influenced by the East. Yoga shifts and changes, and sheds what it doesn’t need in any given cultural moment. It becomes nationalized, then westernized- again- and somewhere along the way we add the poses that we most identify with as yoga. Plus we added stretchy pants (not that I’m complaining).
I have called my practice a place that feels like church or religion. But yoga is not my god, and it’s not yours either. It’s too slippery to be pinned down, too wily and too subversive. I’m not even sure yoga can be referenced as a singular it, as it has embodied so many different meanings throughout history that it’s hard to imagine we’ve landed on just one in our own time.
We like order, as humans. We like things to be neat, and to have stories that make sense. We love the notion of yoga as an ancient wisdom tradition, sacred, holy, and unblemished by the human failings of the people who practiced it. And removing that might ruin the practice for some people, might take it off the pedestal, discarded as one more tradition whose legitimacy simply doesn’t hold up.
There’s a silver lining.
The messy history of yoga, whether intentionally or not, turns a mirror back on the practitioner. If you attach value to the practice because it’s old and ancient, and if that’s gone, what’s left? A practice that may be sacred and holy, not because a lot of people for a long time have said so, but because it is sacred and holy- to you. To me. Because we have chosen to treat it that way. Honestly, when did we all agree that everything ancient was automatically good (or better) anyway? The true history of yoga denies us the ability to latch on to unexamined assumptions, and challenges us to create our own meaning instead.
Where else does this happen to me? To you? Where else do we adopt assumptions about what makes a successful career, a successful relationship, a successful life? Did we ever ask why we assume success is desirable in the first place? How powerful, to live knowing we choose to go outside of society and create our own meaning, anytime we wish.
As a teacher, like all teachers, yoga is imperfect. Filing that under lessons I've learned.