Yoga’s Not Property • 12 May 2017


I’m on the Indiana dune shores of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago and south of the especially-white-supremacist zone of Michigan state. Three days alone to read and write and vision, between walks in the forest. There’s a lot of reality to catch up on: world events the past month, emails from anyone who’s not a student, life-plans for anything beyond the monastic day-to-day of carrying a Mysore program. A reading retreat rather than an inner-contemplative retreat.

Indiana explains some things. This woodsy airbnb sits on the grounds of a radiant green nature preserve, walking distance to views of the Michigan City nuclear reactor on the shore. A million frogs are mating; their lewd evening loudness is a different kind of quiet. The people who live here grow vegetables together and practice cooperative governance. Their buildings are minimalist and sustainable: mid-century modern meets doomsday prepper. Sadly, I like that. Surrounding the preserve is the heaviest, rustiest, most depressed and racist post-industrial America I’ve found. Everything is decayed and for sale. Billboards dominate the ghost-landscape and are written for second-grade literacy. Land of Pence; land where the political lie of re-industrialization means everything. The lady at the vegetable market said “why did you come here?” Sometimes I imagine I understand this country through strong ties to poor rural Montana crossed with a lot of time agitating or studying history in west coast cities… but there’s such dramatic socio-economic change going down that I feel I don’t understand this country’s trajectory at all. We are destroying the land, and our own minds, in ways it is so hard to make conscious. I intend to try.


About the monasticism of stewarding a shala. It’s like this: very long mornings in the Mysore room, the peaceful administrative hours, cooking at home, sitting practice, email, and evenings walks in the woods behind my house. If the job description is just to support one’s students, then I guess it’s right that slowly my capacity to show up for others is increasing. From four relationships in the first year, to three times that in the second, and so on up to a limit. The quality of my show-up is determined by the quality of my mind. Like on formal meditation retreat, during the teaching week, there is an incredibly nourishing rhythm to the days; the radiant, slightly tired, super-embodied, energetically hyper-sensory vibes around all of this activity mean that things go a little dim in my pre-frontal cortex. Things the monasticized life does not include: TV, film, push notifications, social media feeds, dinner, eating weird, public gatherings, running errands, keeping up closely with friends. These things are nice at times, but they just don’t fit in the teaching week.

Everyone sees that digital connectivity is fragmenting our minds and making relationships shallow, but I also think that the social-entertainment industry meets (to excess) a human need that’s beautiful: our need to hear and tell stories. Some of this is degrading, sure. Political life reduced to cock fights; channeling of our drive for transformation into violent team sports; everything related to celebrity, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong: story-less-ness is the main thing many of us are discovering in yoga. Emptiness. How to drop the narrative, and the problem-fixing, and the explaining, and the compulsive search for something to happen. But also, in the very long run, practitioners are on some sort of a path. Sadhana is not static. Sadhana changes you. Usually this makes for a few big stories to share – stories that express the growth of consciousness, and that do give energy to others.

Twice this month someone said this: You must write a book of the stories of people who come to this place. It wasn’t always like this, but yes, the last couple years the shala has felt like a dense, deep narrative feed. Epic realization and transformation all over the place. Apparently, a long-run Mysore practice might also anchor personal revelation, prophecy, acts of courage, self-mastery, extreme synchronicity, demon-hunting, dragon-slaying, rapture, confession, realization, completion. The practice changes minds, changes bodies, clarifies realities. I am buffeted now by these storylines playing out for the people I see every day. I hear TV is good now, but this probably beats TV.

It’s like I get to stand off to the side of the stage with a finger holding up the background where a lifeworld plays out. Events, ripples in consciousness, rise and fall. They must, because we’re humans. This involves suffering, but from a certain standpoint it is still extremely beautiful.

The people we trust with our privacy are the ones who really listen closely, but don’t hang on to a detail. The trust-worthy know that next year you will have a different mind, and they won’t hold on to anything but compassion for your future past selves. So there will be no notes, no books, no stories at all outside the cone of silence that is this Mysore room. My role is to witness with soft eyes and then forget. Poof. And then, without disrupting the stability the work requires, to find some space-time for my own rising and falling action. Because no human really stands outside narrative. Otherwise we’re dead.

The time in monastic/teaching mode has gradually taught me to live a state of flow. Literally. A long-term, deliberately constructed, disciplined life-practice eventually normalizes states of deeply concentrated, non-fragmented activity. Somehow this embodied, embedded version of a “newsfeed” has the opposite effect of my fragmenting twitter feed. It is deepening the experience of being in a stream of consciousness.


After two days here in the woods, I’ve slogged down to emails from from late April, raising the question of who is the rightful heir to the yoga method I practice. Sounds like there were some good internet debates about this.

Ok. Who is the rightful heir. Rightful. Heir.

Rightful heir is the language of primogeniture and legitimacy.

Primogeniture is the medieval M.O. of property.

Property is the machine of kingdom, and class, and caste, and capitalism. Where there is a property claim, often there is violence or the threat of it.*

This question – who is the yoga’s rightful heir – is serious, but not because of the answer. It’s serious because the question itself solidifies the dominant assumption that yoga is property. Most conversation and activity around yoga now is already turning yoga into a commodity, and therefore into property. This brings on important questions about ownership, transmission, appropriation and legitimacy. This extreme question – who is the yoga’s rightful heir – throws light on to all of that. Excellent.

Fast response: Yoga’s not property.

What is the “yoga” that this question refers to? Hmmm. Thinking this over highlights for me that, for now, working definitions of “yoga” fall in to three big bins.

1. Yoga is something that is yours, or part of a personal identity. It’s property.

2. Yoga is something you do. It’s practice.

3. Yoga is something that happens to you. Yoga is a state of consciousness.

This is not to say that yoga’s a “floating signifier,” (a term coined 57 years ago to show how the meaning of symbols changes constantly, based on the power of those using them; I’ll shut that rabbit hole because what happens down there often obscures exactly that – how power is used – by focusing on the diverse, un-pin-downable nature of meaning). What I’m saying is descriptive. This is meant to clarify assumptions, and consequences, of the ways we use ideas. So, YOGA has three extremely different meanings among people I interact with. And there are three worlds that surround each meaning.

Details on Yoga1, yoga = property. This yoga is a noun. It can be inherited. Claimed. Stolen. Mis-represented. Rescued. Authority is key in this life-world because it legitimates property claims. A lot of the activity in this zone involves performances of authority and legitimacy, and rituals that solidify one’s identity as a member of the property-holding group. The people who own more of this yoga are more special. This is measured, as in all of capitalism, by counting. Material mind commodifies, and then it accumulates. Asanas, students, money, followers, friends, anything you can boil down to a hash mark.

Yoga1 has won. This definition dominates all discourse on yoga. It just won the whole 21st century. Yoga1 created the yoga industry. Yoga1 is defended by a nasty invisible army (the imperative of increasing profits) and it is now so successful that it’s hard to even see anything else.**

I guess the hazards of the yoga-is-property mindset are obvious. There are a few notes in the typology graph. The easiest way for me to think about this is to observe the long-term effect of commodification on planet Earth. The key activities here are property claims, separation from nature, resource extraction, isolation of certain elemental qualities into quantites and their sale as commodities. There is a loss of beauty and natural intelligence. Property is the one concept that drives the capitalist mindset. It drives the colonizing mindset.

In the typology I included benefits and hazards of all three definitions, and want to note that Yoga1 is brilliant in a way. Accepting yoga-as-property enables those originally oppressed by that definition to push back against it. Strongly. This is keen co-optation, not so different from women who love women taking back the language of “dyke” and filling it with personal power. Dyke is a kettle bell, dyke is a cannon ball; similarly “yoga” as intellectual property, “yoga” as patrimony, has that kind of weight. A Yoga1 backhand gets colonialism where it lives. Like this: “No yoga is not yours. It’s ours. You stole it and in so doing you propertified it to make yourselves rich, and now we will rightfully claim our property.” Nice! This is a smart way to resist, and when property is being used to accumulate massive amounts of power/wealth for a few, and oppress anyone else, it’s the best strategy.

But Yoga1 also keeps a mind in a defended, tightly bounded place. If yoga is property, most people I connect with, well, we are not super involved in said yoga. Because the property mindset isn’t epistemically generous unless you’re fascinated by marketing. It does not breed much learning for people who know the next two yogas. This conceptual poverty is a peaceful means for a worldview to die. Not because it gets defeated. But because it gets boring. May we all be increasingly bored by the bling. OM.

Which leads on, into the dance of Yoga2 and Yoga3. Oh god, this is where the yoga lives. Or lived. Before Yoga1 dragged us off the dancefloor. Yoga1 is exactly that, a drag.

Quickly on the Yoga2 (practice), and the Yoga3 (transcendence).

Yoga2 is a verb. It is what you repeatedly do. But it’s not anything you do – please let’s not go down the side track of on how folding laundry occasionally is “practice,” or sitting on a meditation cushion thinking about other people is “practice,” or drinking beer consciously is “practice.” No; well-theorized and grounded practice – praxis – which you systematically show up for cannot die these deaths of a thousand qualifications. Yoga2 is a whole living library of techniques that address human imbalance, and delusion, and self-congratulation, and proceed to heal and clarify the mind and body. This is a big topic. My life-work is about it. This blog is about it. Yoga2 is above all consistent, dispassionate, equanimous. However, if practice is all yoga is, ever, it’s a long, dark night of routine.

Yoga3 is not a noun or a verb or any other part of speech. It’s a syllable, is all. Yoga as OM is nothing more or less than, um, OM. You can’t own unity consciousness. Can’t even practice it. Oneness happens. OM. There. Yoga3 sometimes asserts itself over all else and pretends nothing else matters. That’s just Shiva’s devotees being cheeky, and they don’t mean it. He knows, and we know, that OM, it comes and goes. And the thing is, if we’re even talking about pure empty awareness, it’s because oneness has gone off hiding, poised to re-infiltrate the spaces between the letters.

Yoga=practice and yoga=transcendence bring up a ton of good trouble. On one hand, yoga is what you repeatedly do! Dirga kala to the core; D(iscipline) to the D(edication) to the D(etermination) to the D(evotion). But no, on the other hand it’s easy to see that this emphasis on “works” is just a trip. Yoga isn’t the doing; it’s the light and the nothingness that shows through it. Yoga is only oneness. Stop talking already.

OHHhh!!! for godsakes this is so rich. Go ahead, make an argument that one of these two is primary. If you want to put more life in your practice, and drain more energy off the experience of Yoga as I-Me-Mine, go find the debates on sadhana versus sadhya. Live them out. Inhabit that space between abhyasa and vairagya, discipline and non-attachment, between works and grace. The epic narratives, the transformation arcs that go beyond the shallow stories, all of this experience cycles through the vibrating space between practice and pure consciousness.

You can’t wake up today and exult that yoga is only consciousness (!!!!!), only something that happens TO you from BEYOND you, if you didn’t wake up YESTERDAY with the glory of nonreactive rhythmic practice on your lips. And if you didn’t ALSO keep practicing, without attachment, right through the rapture. It is DOING that begets BEING, and being doing, on and on and on until some humans finally invented concepts like the dialectic and the lila pandava. These are maps of the space between action and consciousness, wherein all the true stories arise.

Process and destination, abhyasa and vairagya, consciousness and manifestation. All of this is the Yoga2 of practice and Yoga3 of OM. Practice without OM is a brittle old noodle. OM without practice is the water on the edge of a ripple, waiting for some reality already.

Put the two in relationship and you have electricity. Breath, emptiness, devotion, passion, mistakes, prana, sunshine, new moons, awkwardness, brilliance, newness, remembering, learning, discovery, LIFE. We’re actively forgetting this vitality. Distracted from the dance. We make yoga an identity ritual, a life style, a career, a body size, a legitimacy trip, a pair of pants. Dammit, this is just not alive. It’s just not interesting. Consciousness at play has no agenda except its own expansion.

To study the history of property is to see how it makes us dull and sad and selfish. So in response to the question of who owns this yoga, I guess I have to argue, as far as I honestly can, against the notion that yoga can be owned. The rightful heir is no one because yoga is not property. Its understanding “belongs” to those who actually practice, and who know well because of the emptiness that this action doesn’t make it theirs.