On Vastness and Skepticism: Entering the Field of Yoga

This is an excerpt from the book Wind Through Quiet Tensions. Yoga’s traditions have ancient roots that spread across several cultures, winding through the interpretations of countless teachers through history. As a field of knowledge, yoga is incredibly vast. In spite of this, we have to start somewhere.

Entering yoga is something like walking into a library. I shudder to think of all that the library contains, yet I’m still able to browse the stacks, pick out a book, and begin to learn. I’m capable of being in awe of yoga’s immensity and, at the same time, entering into specific practices and reaping their benefits. It’s easy to be seduced into paralysis by the sheer diversity of opinions and techniques in general circulation. Surveying the field won’t get us very far, though. Better to take a step forward and see how it feels.

There are very smart people who are convinced that the western mind, built on the social beliefs of western culture, is incapable of comprehending yoga, much less practicing it. Yoga, from this perspective, is the final peak of an exquisitely treacherous mountain that few will ever reach. It is the domain of the smallest fraction of auspicious practitioners whose lives are completely dedicated to achieving the highest stages of spiritual experience. On the other end of the spectrum, there are very smart people who think that yoga is for everyone, that the discipline is infinitely adaptable to any situation, that it is great when paired with wine or chocolate, and practicable by your pets, too. Between these two poles — Yoga Is For Almost Nobody and Yoga Is For Everybody — there are innumerable positions that students and teachers take with regard to their definition of yoga and the perceived authenticity of their experience within it.

For a moment, let’s suspend judgment and assume that, somehow, everybody is right. Let’s be open to the prospect of innumerable yogas with a range of seemingly unrelated goals that lie somewhere on the spectrum between feeling better and reaching the unknown. Let’s assume that this heterogeneity is productive, and that our individual goals within yoga are snakelike in their ability to penetrate the field of yoga, to take us somewhere, and also to shed their skin and reveal new goals when the time is right.

As a practitioner I’m focused on walking my path, remaining curious, and taking notes. There are peaks high above my head on the mountain of yoga, but I don’t believe that the fact of their existence invalidates the many scenic routes. My practice and even the philosophy that supports it may contradict other approaches, but I believe we’re all supported by the same essential structure. It is through our disparate philosophies, cultural programming, unconscious beliefs, and personal histories that we have arrived at our various treks through the landscape.

It’s important to consider the macro and the micro when approaching this discipline, to be humble before yoga, to honor its vastness while also walking our own paths through it. It’s important to be enamored with the potential of its wisdom and at the same time honest about how localized and specific is the space of what we actually know.

The ego craves stability and as we embody a personal yoga practice it is tempting to slide into smug self-importance, to believe that our teachers and our systems are the real ones, and to become dismissive or hostile toward other interpretations. I fall into this periodically, almost unconsciously, but I loosen up again by reminding myself that my practice is built upon the foundation of my being. It is configured to light up this body, this mind, and this heart. My life is the only domain over which I have the jurisdiction to judge the efficacy of practice. It’s a waste of energy to attempt to evaluate what I don’t understand, and I need all the energy I have to work toward a deeper comprehension of what it is I’m actually doing. The deeper philosophy of yoga hinges upon interrelationship, and if we rely on criticizing other approaches for the sake of defining our own, we’re just setting obstacles in the path of our own progress.

While we work to remain open to the potential of many forms of yoga practice, we can also honor our context, that we live in a world of global capitalism, and that yoga has captivated not just our culture’s spiritual heart but also its economic imagination. Recent history has given us sad manipulations of yoga, from aggressive global yoga brands to power-drunk yoga gurus leaving the shattered psyches of disciples in the wake of their ego trips.

In this climate, our skepticism is an essential tool in navigating toward the right context, guidance, and community to practice yoga within. We need to be wary of any teacher or system that demands a radical shift in our beliefs or behaviors, particularly one that demands uncritical reverence. I value self-aware teachers who validate my experience, whose teaching is an intersection between their ideas and my realities. There are moments of deep connection between me and those who guide me, but there is also plenty of autonomy. Committing to yoga means that transformation is surely coming, but it is not a coercive force.

Skepticism is also important when we cohere as a community, when we designate certain people as teachers of these internal practices and decide to follow their lead. Recent history has shown us that people can be both accomplished in the esoteric realms of yogic techniques and deficient in the pragmatic realms of social ethics and responsibility. Esoterics aside, you know an ego trip when you see one. That’s not to say that a teacher with ego problems can’t teach something useful, but I’d be cautious about offering devotion to someone that seems to need it for nourishment. I’ve always been drawn to teachers who shy away from adulation, who try to transmit yoga to students while doing their best to get out of the way. This sets people up for independence and self-reliance, both of which are essential if we’re going to actually harness the teachings.

Yoga is intimately concerned with mystical questions that are at the heart of any faith tradition, and as such it has the potential to interface with any worldview. I believe strongly, despite loud objection from orthodox neighborhoods of various religions, that one should not have to abandon their religious tradition, nor be required to take one up, in order to enter and benefit from yoga practice. The nature of our beliefs is another tool we will use to deepen our experience. The particularities of these beliefs give shape and substance to our practices and it is their intimacy to us, and not their objective truth, that is the source of their power.

There is always tension between mysticism and orthodox ritual within religious systems, even within the boundaries of the same religion. That yoga is a kind of multitool for mystical experience that cuts across religious boundaries will upset anyone from any faith tradition that believes that they are in sole possession of the instruction manual for receiving and interpreting divinity. Certain vocal opponents of yoga, from various positions within non-Hindu religious traditions, go so far as to claim that the practices are demonic. Xenophobia seems to prevent these people from seeing that all faith traditions are vehicles toward similar ends, and these dramatic declarations are sad attempts at scaring people into avoiding something that might, ironically, help them deepen their experience of their own faith. On the opposite side of the fence, there is a vocal Hindu opposition to the practice of yoga outside of the confines of orthodox Hinduism, and this is a much more complex critique, reflecting the justified resentment of Western colonization and cultural appropriation and the frustration at a general cultural acceptance of yoga despite continued discomfort with Hindu identity within the larger Western cultural conversation. This is a valid critique of Western culture and I think it’s on each of us to respond to it with integrity.

Classical yoga has high aims for consciousness, alternately described as liberation, union with the divine, self-realization, and enlightenment. The classical tradition is full of stories of master teachers pushing students to their limits in intense tests of their devotion, will, and worthiness for passing on wisdom and lineage. As a man with a major mood disorder, this kind of severity is not what I’m looking for. Whenever I find that the system I’m engaging in relies too heavily on asceticism or depravation, my intuition always guides me elsewhere.

After all, I’ve experienced transcendence, and it almost killed me. Mania is not enlightenment, and the distinction between psychosis and spiritual ecstasy is a curiosity I’d like to eventually explore. For now, I maintain a healthy fear of sensory ecstasy, privileging grounding over flying, and that whatever self-realization is, it is not sickness, and the mental hospital is no ashram.

My goal for practice is comfort in my physical body and vibrance in my mind. It is fullness of my emotions and stability in my self confidence. It is the condition required in order to step out into the world and interact with it in all its beautiful difficulty. My yoga process has always required that the system I take up have a degree of flexibility, and that there be ample space for gentleness and patience within the teachings and social relationships between me and my teachers. I find that there are times when I’m engaged in intense practice, and these are largely times of vibrant mental health, when I’m inclined to push further and go deeper. But there are plenty of times when my mental health or physical condition is more fragile, unsteady, and resistant to subordination. In those times, the goal is continuity, not intensity. What can I do to get this body on the mat, to get this mind engaged in contemplation? There has to be a contingency plan for the worst days. I have unrolled my mat on difficult mornings and taken naps. It’s almost nothing, but it is not nothing, and that distinction is crucial.

There is nothing novel about my approach. Therapeutic applications of yoga are at least a century old, and probably far older. Krishnamacharya, one of the Indian teachers primarily responsible for the popularity of yoga in the west and a grandfather of sorts for many of the practices I employ, treated many everyday people through a combination of yogic and ayurvedic techniques. He was also an esteemed spiritual authority and highly advanced yoga practitioner, the guru to both B.K.S. Iyengar and Patthabi Jois, whose methods of practice would be adopted by countless students the world over. Krishnamacharya had competence in both the realms of transcendence and wellness, and seemed to teach them both along a fluid continuum.

Perhaps, to head toward the highest goals of consciousness, you need a very stable engine. Some practitioners are able to take their stability for granted, to assume it’s there instead of consciously tending to it day in and day out. I don’t consider myself one of those people. My health is too much of a work in process, too tenuous to ignore. My path is a cautious and pragmatic one that has thus far proven quite effective.

This is an excerpt from the book Wind Through Quiet Tensions.