The world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga, right?
That seems to be a fundamental assumption among yogis — at least yogis in the West. It’s one of those a priori pieces of knowledge. It just is true.
But is it?
In her now widely circulated piece, which I promised we wouldn’t comment on, Kino MacGregor bases her “confession” in part on this unassailable truth, that spreading yoga to the most people possible is absolutely a good thing. It also seems fundamental to projects like Off the Mat, Into the World.
It’s a belief that, I’ll admit — in the spirit of confessions, I guess! — I don’t share. I just haven’t been exactly sure how to define my concern about it.
Then last month, the good folks at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor posted the following quote attributed to David Swenson on their Facebook page:
“I have understood that meditations, prayers, asanas are just a tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfills difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more than an ego of a usual person. Spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.”
I’m pretty sure I heard David say something similar during a workshop. It likely was sometime around when he talked about whether getting a particular pose would make one happier or a better person. (The implied answer: No.)
I’ve kept this statement in the back of my mind, letting it root about to see what might grow. And where it has sprouted, for now at least, is as part of my thinking about the spread and transmission of yoga, and Ashtanga, to a wider audience. That spread isn’t necessarily a good thing. Yoga, asana especially, is just a tool. It isn’t good or bad, anymore than a rake or hoe is good or bad. (In this metaphor, is fertilizer bad? Does it depend?) We have any number of examples of exalted teachers who clearly tilled an ego-filled soil with their practice.
At its most harmless, this belief suggests to me a level of naivety. (I’m sure one answer back at me is that I don’t really understand the power of yoga. Maybe not. But that’s why I was struck by David’s quote.) Doing yoga isn’t enough. Certainly an introduction isn’t. There needs to be something more.
And that leads me to what I think is dangerous about this belief: it removes a sense of responsibility from the teacher-student relationship. Rather than a teacher having to take responsibility for a student’s education, progress, injuries and ultimately the product of that training, just providing the training is enough. A person being introduced to yoga becomes the goal.
But that isn’t, really, enough, as David’s quote suggests. (Somehow, this relates to the giving of boons to demons like Ravana, but I can’t quite tie that in a nice bow right now.) It is why a direct teacher-student relationship is best, is perhaps necessary. But, in 2013, we know that isn’t always possible, and it is only getting easier and easier to create broader and larger channels of information. If spreading the gospel of yoga is the goal, that’s great. But if you add in a layer of responsibility, it gets much trickier. Are there yoga poses that shouldn’t be on Youtube? Is there teaching that shouldn’t be online? Is there a neat and easy disclaimer that could be added? (The passing along of mantras, as I understand it, also is facing these questions.)
How yoga should be spread and taught is a debate worth having for those who are in the public realm of yoga — the teachers, in other words. As the 1995 Yoga Journal article about Ashtanga, which I linked to earlier, suggests, it’s a debate that isn’t new. (For those who are just doing their practice, it might matter little beyond its effect on how they will keep getting more training and information.) It may be a debate that is increasingly important when you add in the new forms of communication we have at our fingertips, the new ways there are to teach; there are nuances that swamis and teachers from just a few decades ago would never have encountered.
And it isn’t as though we can or should go back. I’d just argue that as part of this debate it is worth asking whether we should be trying to spread yoga as far and wide as possible, and if so, whether some additional care is needed.
Perhaps it is something that will come up at the Confluence.
Posted by Steve