I. There’s a new code of conduct in town.
II. Autonomy = ruling yourself.
III. The Yoga Alliance fears us when we’re clear.
Ashtanga is a wild cast of characters, all just anti-establishment enough to wake up in the dark every morning to go hard against the stream of social norms. Yes, yes yes, we take the edge off that with our reverence for seventh series – a grounding of this disciplined, awe-driven sadhana in the context of mundane family life. It is an everyday person’s practice, because some householders are also Jedii.
What I’ve found is if you take the inborn mystic-disciplined outsider-ness that draws a person to ashtanga, and then add to it the years of self-study and surrender that make this practice a deep kind of yoga, what you can get is a powerhouse of love and service in this world. Lots of times it goes wrong. Good influences help. Luck helps.
Are ashtanga practitioners really that marginal/ underground/ strange? Well… we value dis-identification from the thoughts we hold most dear; we carve awareness extremely deep into our bodies in a way many would find terrifying or infuriating; we mine our emotional triggers for blocked energy. For fun, we massage our flesh with castor oil. Each one of us becomes gradually more surprising, cantankerous, exactly who we are. We’re disciplined in life because ritual is what we like, it’s what we choose. We choose a teacher and stay true to them I think because this is incredibly subversive (thus re-balancing) in an age of impulsiveness, and escapism, and human objectification-via-internet. Devotion is subversive. Choosing a teacher and spiritual community, and staying alive to them for years, means you have strong non-mainstreaming influences on your life path.
The ones who tap into this stream and follow it beyond the phase of looking insanely hot and getting everything you want — they have stuck around to practice yoga that for its own sake. They go on entering altered states of consciousness and ecstatic community day in day out for years, until it’s not a thing anymore, as casually as they brush their teeth. This “normal” is so, so not normal. Sometimes I forget.
Ashtangis have a funny, paradoxical relationship with rules. Most of us are extremely autonomous. Self-ruling. We don’t want to practice to a stupid playlists or be told what to do according to the random group-sequence-of-the-night. We love, love love technique – lots of precision, learning challenges, stuff so complicated it demands all our thoughts and emotions become focused. We want to own our practices, do them when and where we choose, and very fundamentally breathe at our own pace. The paradox is that the rule we give ourselves is to enter relationships with both teachers and friends on the path. Relationships challenge autonomy. The yin to our hyper-independent yang is that we are a definite WE. There’s a love for stable habits – sadhana makes intrinsic sense to us. We love expertise, and thus place a huge amount of value in long time experience, and therefore in legitimate experts. We’re good with tradition – this is not the crew that needs variety for its own sake, but rather a tribe that naturally finds increased depth in repetition. What the internet forgets, too, is that this tribe is almost entirely analog. What you see on the internet, including here, is just steam. The way ashtanga works is that you lone-wolf it a lot, off-gridding in your bedroom or in private shala spaces. And then you make contact with your expert, either once per practice in the Mysore room, or once every year or two for a study trip.
The emphasis on autonomy means we have a lot of energy around student-teacher dynamics. If and only if I choose to enter into a relationship where my autonomy might be influenced by another, I get learn from any compulsions or reactions that arise. I also get to experience surrender in a way that isn’t the cop-out relinquishing of responsibility that westerners might assume, but rather a kind of nervous system event that involves two people and one line of shared experience and expertise. It’s impossible for me to put this surrender in words, so I won’t try. But I can say that my moral code includes “because my teacher said x, I do x” and this is one of the deepest forms of autonomy I know. Quit my professional job; don’t teach in yoga studios; these are my hard choices based on his nudges. I actually want to channel his expertise over my own if there is any disagreement. And I trust my personal morality itself to catch me and force me to rebel if I ever find myself in an immoral situation.
For all us strange birds, there is this not-unproblematic element of accepting instruction. Years ago now, my teacher told me to give up a project he thought I was arrogant to undertake. I had to make a choice – accept the instruction and stay in integrity in the relationship, or leave the relationship and carry on the project. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I chose to trust him. His vote of no confidence actually changed my inner desire because I trusted him. I accepted his point of view, added it to my own, and therefore my view changed. Those of you who have been agreeing with this post so far because I’m writing like a rogue might suddenly be super uncomfortable. Sorry. The thing is, I can do what I want and be in a devoted relationship with a teacher who may alter my course. I have not abdicated my view; I’ve found a person who sees and respects me well enough that I want his viewpoint to influence my own.
Learning to show up fully as myself in this dynamic has been the major teaching of my last ten years. I first went to Mysore to pay my respects only. I judged that others were there to get a piece of the teacher, to grasp after attention or authorization; I wanted to remain invisible and reverential and giving. But, I was expected to ask for more. To get out of the back corner of the room, to learn to make something like soul-moving eye contact, to let all my feelings show besides the overwhelming gratitude… feelings I found so easy to ignore because I for whatever reason I learned right from the start how to hack my discursive mind and practice without thinking. For the first 9 years of practice, I thought that my super-concentrated mind meant I was doing it right, that Angela’s particular personhood didn’t belong on the mat. The message in relationship, though, was that was more to my yoga than my perfected concentration and my exactly equalized inhale/exhale. Getting the subtle energy technique exactly right had enabled me to hide whole continents of my personality, and made the student-teacher dynamic overly easy because I was only showing up with my light. Over the years, my breath changed and sometimes got more uneven, as I let the subconscious mind and more start to permeate the experience on the mat. Now the work is re-stabilizing the breath, from that place of openness to everything that I still don’t know about being alive. Cantankerous Angela is very much integrated now, but she has a light touch.
I think for many of us the emergence of a unique inner teacher has something to do with the nature of each unique mindbody, and how this interacts with the concept of a fixed ritual. The bodymind might not humble you at first – you might think you can embody perfect breath or vinyasa without fluctuation. But eventually you must let your awareness rest in the energy body and in the previously unconscious/collective mindspace, where the practice is driving it. To survive this without going to the dark side (Siths are real), you must give yourself laws for how to practice with truth and non-harming in the mind-body you have. Hang on to the letter of the law and you’ll simply break your body or destroy all your relationships or dissociate into a two-dimensional cartoon; a safe way through for the long term is to develop a guiding spirit of moral conduct on a personal level.
So… you study your impulses and your heart in light of the incredibly abstract moral code of yamas and niyamas. Living theory/practice like this, I think, is a meaningful way to find a moral code. Our deep, moral autonomy. If we find it at all.
So now ashtanga has a new code of conduct. These external rules are less stringent than the rules I have given myself. They say don’t exploit your students for personal gain, dress modestly, stay off the workshop circuit. These other things are non-evil and potentially harmless: teacher trainings, pricey workout “style,” workshopping postures you body’s not ready for with a teacher you barely know. But they distract from this particular method. The code just says knock off this twenty-teens bling.
My personal teaching code is based on love of Mysore style + grad student economic values + personal aesthetics. This is just what I find works for my work: teaching at home, taking on a small number of students, putting others/groups/breath at the center of attention. So there is no question about signing the CoC. But secretly it has made things a tiny bit more boring for me. I’m an ashtangi – like the rest of y’all, I like doing what others write off as impractical, too hard, naively idealistic.
Thing is, if you have enough expertise to support students through the entire life-time of their practice, then an independent, quiet Mysore-style school (the model of the CoC) is easier and more sustainable than the yoga-preneurism of the internet set. If what you love is Mysore Style, and you believe things happen in that setting that can’t happen elsewhere, then your actions are already a lot more refined than what they need to be for the CoC.
I remember ten years ago, August 11 2008, when an email went out from Mysore to all the AYRI teachers saying something even stronger than the new code. It said cease the TT’s at once – they’re an affront to the method. Knock off the worshops. AND come back to Mysore every 18 months because we are all students. I read about it on the EZ Board: that old ashtanga internet was a two-tone green message board where we used made-up names and emoji didn’t exist yet. The next day, after Mysore class, my mentor and I went for our usual hours-long coffee sesh across the street from Yogaworks Santa Monica. I remember we skipped the café that day and sat at a wire table outside the Whole Foods. We ate muffins. I was incensed about the letter, having absorbed the opinions on the internet, where victimhood and resentment ruled. Who did these people in Mysore think they were to try to regulate our precious practice, telling local teachers what to do? My independent values flared. Then my mentor – still the biggest lifestyle rogue I know – set me straight. He understood the situation better than I did, and didn’t have a problem with the letter. The deep, rich content of this practice comes to us from our teachers; who are we to bite the hand that feeds us? Sitting in that wire chair I re-examined the story I’d pieced together from angry voices on the internet, trying to integrate the influence of this actually experienced teacher, who’d spent years of his life in Mysore. I was entitled and belligerent. He, as usual, didn’t absorb the opinions of others and didn’t lose his cool.
Back to this new Code of Conduct. Could I have followed it if it came to me ten years ago, when I got all angry about the letter from KPJAYI? No way. Had I been teaching then, I would have wanted to look outside of myself for guidance – how do other people make it as a yoga teacher? What are the “industry standards”? The inner logic of a grounded, relationship-centered Mysore program would not have been viable until I felt that I was enough as a teacher. That I had enough support, and understood enough, and was non-reactive enough, to support another person. Because I waited to teach, in the first couple of years of our program, when the number of students 4-6, they also were enough. Grasping for more would have compromised what we had together. As it happened, that small early crew formed a foundation for deep practice both locally and in the various places they moved—-where they, too, know that their practice is enough. Like my mentor, though unlike me at times, they just don’t lose their cool.
Is that crazy, to live by an honor code?
Do you know anyone who you suspect runs on one?
It’s big. I think a human has to go to the crossroads of will and surrender to even find their honor code. It’s not received through some external initiation, or from some talking bush. If you have a living code, it’s because you have wrestled with living in the world and you’re working out your honor through that process. Yoga if you take it to heart is good for forcing that kind of inquiry on you. For killing absolutistic mindsets. Living with a code is a razor’s edge thing, and it is rare.
Even more rare now: small groups where honor codes truly work. Take for example the simple idea that “word is bond”: if you say you will do something, that’s a contract. There are many good reasons not to live by this code, but it’s possible and potentially beneficial. And, there are worlds where this contract holds. Cultures of self-mastery. The Stark family. Some ashtanga school in Ann Arbor. It’s not a conversation topic. It’s just an action pattern.
If a person has an honor code with guts, it’s sourced inside. It’s not a shame-based super-ego thing, an attempt to look virtuous in the eyes of others or stay out of trouble. Spiritual warrior codes are self-given: your code is intrinsically good to you, intrinsically true, intrinsically beautiful. You choose it, and interpret it, and it’s alive through you.
A lot of “moral” behavior comes from shame. Pace cheap New Age narcissism that says you should never feel bad about your small self, I’d argue that healthy shame is fine. Guilt about narcissism is not tragic; it’s safe. That super-ego keeps humans who don’t care about others from stealing, killing, lying and such most of the time. Basic social norms restrain violence a little bit. BUT if there is a rule you disagree with on moral principle, yet you follow that rule out of fear, who are you? Maybe (a) you’re the kind of person who doesn’t do empathetic reflection or understand the consequences of your actions, so you need rules to be less of a menace to society. Or maybe (b) you’re the pawn of an authoritarian regime. If the later, what’s moral is to be different. There’s this other world, in which you take moral action not because you’re afraid or guilty, but because that’s what you work out inside regardless of the cost.
The autonomous person does what they want. There is alignment of principle, and desire, and action. Inner alignment. “Do what thou wilt” is the hardest code I know. I reflect on it now, together with the yamas and niyamas. I didn’t reflect seriously on what “I” “want” as a moral question until recent years, after more than a decade of practicing with the principles of nonviolence, truthfulness, nongrasping, contentment and so on. When my “I” had become environmentally and interpersonally connected so it wasn’t just a small ego; and when my “want” was “may all beings be safe, happy, healthy and free…” that’s when it made moral sense to me to start asking myself what I truly want.
The question tends to yield creative and non-normative ways to be useful in this world, to love all beings, and to enjoy being alive. The same question would have led to narcissistic pleasure seeking in my 20s. Now it’s the question I use to push my subconscious (often playful, wild, totally harmless) mind-pictures to the surface. To keep myself from falling out of love with everything, from falling back into my delusions of disconnection.
Currently the Yoga Alliance wants power to make ashtanga do what it wants. The underlying intellectual agenda here is something called “post lineage yoga.” Post lineage yoga (PLY) is anything you want it to be. Anywhere, any way. We love goat yoga, and naked yoga, and beer yoga. (Who doesn’t? Thumbs up for anything related to nakedness, beer, and goats. I especially love goats.) No judgment. No accountability. As long as there is no extended student-teacher transmission (that’s so important they put it in the movement’s name, “post-lineage”), and probably as long as nobody puts their feet behind their heads.*
Intrinsic to PLY is a new ontological status for yoga. In this vision, yoga is not a methodology or tradition rooted in India – yoga is a floating signifier.** It’s ahistorical, non-scientific, and lacks unified purpose.
Before you get angry, I’d like to offer the idea that this is a interesting and relatively harmless cultural phase. As humans living through the legacies of colonialsm and post-modernism, we kind of have to go through it. May as well do it consciously, by really studying colonialism. When I put the Yoga Alliance in this greater historical context, as part of what American governance looks like from 2016-2020, I accept PLY as predictable and very temporary. Also, because it has naked beer goats, I think it’s a little cute when it’s not acting hateful and dominating.
Let’s say that PLY got its way, and the new definition of yoga were to fully erase the the very old, impractical ethos of “yogis don’t travel, yogi’s don’t self-promote, yogis devote themselves to a few students.” (I think this old idea informs the implicit ethos of a lot of us, and the CoC.) Let’s say the yamas and niyamas were not just ignored – as they are in the marketplace now – but fully discredited as some sort of oppressive canon. Then, in yoga’s Year Zero, you would graft a new moral sensibility on to asana practice– the new modern morality would be whatever virtue signals get the most Facebook likes lately. When your only space for negotiating this ephemeral morality is the toxic negativity trap that produced it – social media – then the regnant “morality” will be the power of bullies. Just watch. That’s how social media works. Charismatic authorities create in-groups and mutual appreciation societies; they fill their cabinets with allies who don’t know let alone love the entity they’re supposed to regulate; they get energy by imagining and persecuting out-groups. The more power they think they have, the more narcissistic they act, and the more everyone else can see their abusive nature. Soon anyone with a little moral intelligence will see what’s happening. Give this scene another five minutes of cosmic time before it dies, and see it clearly while it lasts.
Meantime, here’s the fun thing. Ashtanga’s a big problem for the PLY agenda. Here is a massive, diverse group of people who know that yoga is from India. People who know diretly, in our cells, the power of transmission through from student/teacher, to student/teacher, to student/teacher. People who are irrevocably analog, present deep in the body, well enough acquainted with states of yogic absorbtion to know practice doesn’t really work with naked goat beers. People who take pilgrimage to holy sites; and who take profound moral journeys within themselves. People who understand yoga to have a purpose, and a path. People who are incredibly reverent as a result of our awe, yet not easily pushed around. People who have mastered themselves to some small degree, and who are very much on fire.
More problematic for the post-lineage agenda, we are a wildly diverse group of people who all understand from direct experience that the 200-hour teacher training model (the cash cow of the Yoga Alliance and its current intellectual leaders) is a joke. People who all agree that trying to teach without many years of daily practice and mentorship is not just a threat to students’ minds and bodies; it’s an actual a moral hazard, and a professional nightmare. This is a subculture where people generally agree that teaching an art/science you can’t define is factually confusing, morally problematic, and about as smart as getting drunk with naked goats.
It is good, and truthful, and beautiful, to be rogues in times such as these.
*Unless it’s one of the “hundred flowers [that] bloom. See the writing by and about post-modern philosopher Richard Rorty on the embrace of all views on all things, to the point of unintelligibility.
**See Stewart Hall’s really interesting work from the 70s for context here. The intro-level postmodernism that followed from that died in academia—except for in some anthropology departments—decades ago, but it’s now getting used as a warrant to carpet-bomb yoga practices rooted in India and establish a Year Zero for “modern postural yoga.” It’s also getting used by right wing communications operatives. The reason this sort of post-modernism died is that it is absolutistic about its moral relativism; like with most intellectual fashions, eventually its promoters couldn’t live with the performative contradiction that gave it so much juice for a time. You can see this absolutist moral relativism alive and well now when the Yoga Alliance folks talk about what yoga is and where it’s from.