Who are the whistle-blowing yogins? • 19 October 2009

I bought a new copy of Sjoman for a friend, since in assembling an ashtanga library this comes after Ashtanga Yoga: A Practice Manual and Yoga Mala, but before Gregor Mahle and (alas) The Only Way Out is In or narcisissm folios by certain Scandinavians.

They’re intriguing, the contributions of these (so far) men—the varying quality and genres of advice that they have put down for us. Their ideas of themselves come through strongly, as do their views of the world and how one is supposed to act on it. Writing a how-to reveals how much expertise and power you believe you have, reveals your intelligence and empathy and editing, or lack thereof. (But then, I wonder how these old silverbacks feel about our naïve internet offerings—we are so quick to comment on others’ experiences on the basis of a few years’ self-serious personal practice, plus little or no time in the mat-trenches among the bodies of others.)

Unlike my 1996 copy of The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, the Sjoman in my hands is the 1999 second edition, and contains a new delight. So few people ever get to write a preface to the second edition of their book. What a platform! The author spares no one, and–especially because most will read the preface first–totally changes the spirit of the book as later students will experience it.

His rough edges are clear because he makes them so: a restless, easily disappointed intellect, prone to disbelieve every claim to authority in favor of first-peson experience. Good yogi. His embittered integrity makes his settling firmly on the practice of yoga stand out (to me) as somehow redemptive. There's this glimmer to his minimalist, cagey faith in asana practice.

He sees practice as a maybe just possibly knowable, personal, stable connection both to (1) “the best of what we have” and, maybe even to (2) whatever it was that Patanjali and his ciphers were getting at. Asana seems to be the one thing that has satisfied this dyspeptic seeker, so he’s dignified it with a handful of historical facts and some harsh gestures to those who would make things up because they’re uncomfortable with uncertainty, or worse. Come on! He is saying, You’re good enough to work without a net!

History is an explanation for why we do what we do. For how it is supposed to work. Sjoman is so sensitive to history's pitfalls that he must investigate in the field of what he loves. And he does so as a practitioner because, he says, academics are the most manipulative of all when it comes to claiming fact-power and the ownership of history. (!) He doesn’t talk too much, but decorates the short text with hilarious little insights and very good pictures. It’s not to be missed.

Anyway, after a scandalous remark about BKS in the new preface, a shrug in salute to SKPJ and various other revealing lines, he concludes with this (page 8):

People have misinterpreted my dedication. The “whistle blowing yogis” are the Nathas according to Briggs. But he made a mistake, it was not a whistle they carried but a chillum. Why would yogis want a whistle? Mysore 1999.

What? I also had figured the whistle-blowing yogins in the dedication were some nymphets he found carved on a Vedic temple somewhere—stone muses. But in context… late 90s east-west rapproachments, serious but unstated questions about use of power in the Krishnamacharya line, and the immature business of American yoga really starting to get ahead of itself… I guess he was writing to other sorts of whistle-blowers. Knowing that future muses will need these banana leaves for something.

I guess I understand the unwilling historian differently now. He tosses out a few unknowns, a handful of knowns and the scraps of legends and expects the whistle-blowers to make decently intelligent and honest use of what works. The book is here not to give life to history, but to give life to a practice so that it not be undercut or overblown by stories meant to hoard legitimacy or power.