Something’s off in my community. A lot of us who’ve been around a while, we don’t have words for it. It’s a sense of unease. There’s air of disillusionment, and fearing. Self-silencing. The vibrant online spaces where teachers once supported each other in the work are destroyed. The community of people with whom we feel safe is, for each of us, smaller than before. And there is less meaning than before; so the cults of charisma and the young body beautiful are filling the void. This will pass. We’ll grow. We need connection, love, and practice. But right now: it may help to look straight at a deep contradiction we’re living out. Between the outward movement of self-promotion via images, and the inward movement of self-trust through sadhana. Between training students in celebrity worship, and putting the Hathayogapradipika in their hands.
What if there is one thing the young ones need to know about how to succeed in yoga, and we teachers are not telling them because we don’t want them to know?
For once I’m going to TL;DR this post at the end. But first, context. This blog is for sharing a point of view, not just points. And the beginning of my 2019 has been…… moonsets on rooftops after practice. Rejoining the Mysore soundscape. This is how I echolocate back in, like Star Trek teleporting but for the hyper-auditory mind. Listen up, listen down, listen north, east, west, and south.
Morning prayers from the mosque shore up the shape of the land: wails in an updraft from someplace watery and resonant like a basin. The rooster’s right over the wall, voice bouncing off breeze blocks and plastic. Electricity lines running two directions drone so strongly that the empty hollow in the middle of my brain fills with their hum. A few hidden fridges match that rhythm, but with this comforting metallic rattle. And then, there is my mind…
We took a week of primary series, grounding and coming into a group rhythm. On New Year’s morning, some hormone released in my brain halfway through, maybe a melatonin wave. I’d get to the fourth breath of a posture, fall asleep, and wake up again on the fifth breath. Ten years ago on my first silent retreat, we sat a yaza, watching the mind all night through the various states of consciousness. Learning to stay meta-aware, stay in the upright posture, as the body went into sleeping and dreaming and delirious modes, and back to craving for rest.
Esoteric traditions play with sleep as a way of revealing the mutability of mind states. What you learn is to sustain continuity of awareness regardless of brain state. Waking and sleeping and dreaming come and go; within them, words and images and emotions also come and go. There is usually some grasping/rejection around all of them. You work behind that, aware of awareness, allowing the show. That said, not recommended: pretty sure adding in sleep-breaths to vinyasas is not helpful.
January was a lot of time with my Ayurvedic physician. Taking a jungle doctor is taking a teacher: you show up to them with whatever’s been going on physically – mentally – emotionally – spiritually, and lay it down. Then you discuss, take instructions to heart, let the art+science of Ayurveda do its work.
This is emphatically not an authoritarian thing. My doctor has a degree in surgery and an MD, and twenty years of ayurvedic practice. When I sit down he notes with delight that we also met at 11:00 am on January 2 in 2017 – he’s reviewed years of notes, which I can’t read because they’re in Devanagari. He is delighted to see me, asks for news of work and family, say I am doing such a good job of taking care. No matter what my condition, every year he meets me the same way. But now his expectations are higher. He takes my pulse: “Tell me: what am I going to find?” Well, he has taught me to construct, and then perceive, the fluctuation of doshas within my body; so I tell him that vata is high while the rest is in balance. “You know Angela. You are correct.” Then I ask, based on what I’ve been through this year, what course of treatment he recommends during January. He brightens his eyes at me: “But what is your thought about this?” And I tell him. And he says this is what he also had in mind. I say that staying at his medical ashram throughout the week will make my vata mind restless and dissatisfied and he says that sounds like I’m giving myself a prescription to address this directly. “Yes.” “Then you stay.” No matter what the patient presents, this is always the message. You have wellness inside of you. Let us give you the tools to make that wellness stronger.
I’ve earned my doctor’s trust, invested in a long-term relationship, opened up to be seen. And in turn he is extremely attentive, spiritually and emotionally invested, generous with his knowledge and his resources. I don’t “sleep around” with other physicians when he gives me feedback I’m not ready to hear. I work with the feedback, sometimes disagree, sometimes do something else based on intuition (or based on willful stupidity, which is a thing)… and all the while stay the course with the ups and downs.
This is how it works. The healing isn’t reducible to concepts or techniques; it arises in the context of a committed and disciplined learning relationship. The agency, and increasingly the knowledge, is sourced from the patient herself.
This is how ashtanga yoga works also. We have, some of us, forgotten. We have, some of us, never understood.
On topic: in January I was still and listened. Listening behind, and around the imagery that barrages you here at the heart of ashtangaland. The practice is trying to grow up, into a method that places listening to the student at the center. If we don’t, we know all we are is an exercise cult. The healing pedagogy is what was always there but forgotten: asking the student to find, systematically educate, and listen to, an inner teacher.
So for January, sensing the quiet disillusionment, and the fear of speaking, that characterizes all devotional, long-time ashtanga students I know personally, I listened even more within my community. I especially listened behind and around the images of the western highly trained, thin, athletic, western body (I live in such a body) saturating this lifeworld – both the 3D and the screen-based public spaces.
The way we teachers are projecting images of our bodies is directly undermining the growth move this practice is making. It’s an extremely dramatic moment.
The sensitive practitioners aren’t comfortable. People who’ve been practicing a long time but aren’t building a brand, and people who knew from day one that the practice is intimate and sacred. I’ll speak of this. Maybe it is easy to miss, if you’re wrapped up in being part of a following or building an identity. Following/branding becomes its own obsession, making deeper questions about the nature of yoga seem a threat.
Here in Mysore, the image of the awe-some asana is more overwhelming than ever before. If I go to a public place associated with the practice, I do not have the choice of not seeing images of perfect asanas. This is a massive, specific genre: the promotional image, “influencer”-audition material that has a “professional” sheen. There are other asana genres besides the perfect-promotional image, these can have an extremely different effect and so are worth comparing to the “Look at me I’m a yoga teacher and I am here to inspire you” lifestyle stream. But if I use social media, which I tend to do in Mysore to go with the flow, it’s almost impossible to avoid streams of perfect asanas. Going into public online and offline ashtanga spaces is consenting to this experience.
With an ear to the disturbance in the force, I’ve found it doesn’t work to ask people why they feel alienated. But when I ask how folks feel in the face of the Asana Machine, then we talk about The Alienation. After I while, we got down to this door:
How do you feel when you look at promotional asanas on the internet?
And the answer has been: If I’m really honest, I don’t know. Let me get back to you.
And when they come back I am hearing, more and more, and especially from young sensitive practitioners, that looking at asanas makes them stop feeling their bodies. It’s less the presumable negatives of eating disorder triggers, or jealousy (aka inspiration), or lust. I’m hearing about straight-up loss of connection to oneSelf. That plus vague sadness, an empty feeling that something is missing.
WOAH. Serious questions. Is there a specific quality of image that takes you out of your body? Do certain images shut down your connection to the one who knows? Do they assert authority over you?
I have made trying-to-be-graceful asana p0rn, to establish my credibility and demonstrate mastery of the physical practice. After listening this month, I won’t do so again. Well-lit, sinewy demonstation of asana mastery, displayed where it’s difficult for my students to not see, would be a contradiction to my teaching mission of cultivating meaningful, sustainable learning relationships. That’s all I’m doing: passing on an energetic, relational art. The last thing I want is for students to disconnect from their bodies in response to idealized depictions of me. The last thing I want is to transmit embodied practice by suggesting people to do (or admire) what I do. That’s not this method. It’s something else.
HOWEVER. There are other sorts of imagery – artistic choices that do not accidentally stack artistic and advertising tropes against the viewer. Uses of the screen that directly challenge the objectification and loss of embodiment. This has to do with lighting, movement, subject matter, frequency and location of the channel, and implicit messaging about the nature of the body and yoga itself. I’ve learned this month that, from an artistic standpoint, there is a range of techniques to evoke an embodied experience that are more likely to create resonance between creator and viewer. And, by contrast, there are ways to use lighting, form, and meta-messaging to assert power over viewers’ attention and embodied experiences: this is what happens in the bulk of images that reproduce the style of advertising as it morphs into the internet influencer genre. Stock asana imagery is essentially all the same, and essentially advertisement. But learning more about this has sensitized me to the narrow band of imagery that moves me in to my body: resonating with sacred art in any form is an experience not to be missed. We can only digest a very small amount of visual food each day, and while for many of us what we’re getting by on is asana stock, there is more artistic nourishment in this world than I had considered before.
After listening, and reading the experts this month, I feel like my aesthetic discernment is much clearer than it was. For me as a professional teacher, this was important work. It has deepened some of my concerns while opening up other artistic experiences I hadn’t yet fully appreciated.
I’ve been afraid for years to write about this topic, but now it can’t wait. So I did my homework.
My brother is a photography professor. He guided me through Photo 101 this month, showed me what to read and how to formulate good questions. It’s too much information to share here. It’s also too harsh to tell you his view of internet ashtanga. But…how would any art professional – with critical awareness of objectification, neo-colonialism, advertising psychology, and body dysmorphia – respond to what we are doing on the internet?
I didn’t know, so I started with On Photography by Susan Sontag. Went back to Marshall Macluan, the original theorist of what the media does with the image, and on to Neil Postman, who I’d forgotten was a savant future-teller of our present moment and beyond. Read Audre Lorde for the first time, which was no less gorgeous and affirming than climbing Chamundi Hill that same day. I will include other highlights from his reading list in the comments. The internet is amazing in that it gives us access to all this knowledge; it’s a tool we can really use rather than be used by.
Without doing the reading, one might defend idealized, repetitive imagery to advertise on the internet in these ways:
A. I am popularizing yoga. B. This is evangelism + capitalism. See: history of evangelism and its role in colonial and neo-colonial violence. See: psychology of advertising.
A: I am inspiring people. B. See again, psychology of advertising. Also the stuff from last post on Girard’s mimetic desire (a bombshell for me).
A: I am creating a following. It’s about community. B. See MacLuhan and Postman, then the thrilling new mass-market books by Douglas Ruskoff and Shoshana Zuboff.
A: I am depicting my students’ bodies, not mine. It’s not about me. B. See the last year of development of discourse on the relationship of consent and power. Is it honest to claim your students have enough relational power to get in there tell you no, when it’ll please you to go along with your agenda? What will they say ten years from now, when their inner teacher is stronger and they look back on your use of their practice for the internet? (These are somewhat alarming questions for me personally; I had not considered the weight of them until now.)
Learning to ask these questions has taught me that we can submit every image to what artists call a “crit.” We can ask: what are the underlying messages here regarding what asana is all about? Am I being influenced at a primal level beneath the threshold of conscious choice, and can I stop and deliberately not buy the messages for sale? Am I to believe that this person’s body is more special or strong than my own? That extreme discipline = liberation? Can I learn to do what they do, or feel what they say they feel, by following this person? Is the body a thing, to be paired with inspirational quotes that evoke meaning and spirit; or is the simple body, just being the house of being, sacred enough by itself? How is this distribution and consumption of imagery generating demographic data and ad revenue for the platform? What thoughts/ emotions/ addictions is the platform itself using to make me stay here?
Here’s the urgent thing. If you do a little research, you’ll find that there is a TIGHT link between authoritarianism and the use of repetitive, unavoidable, extremely arousing imagery. Ashtanga has the chance now to grow into a culture of student empowerment by sharing practical inner knowledge. This is what esoteric traditions have always done. If teachers continue to overwhelm the image space with repetitive stimulus of triumphant, clean, masterful bodies, then the sensitive, knowledgeable practitioners among us will continue to feel secretly alienated. And eventually if we still don’t learn, the ones who get it will LEAVE.
Because there’s an inner contradiction here. You don’t empower students by getting into their limbic brains and “inspiring” them to follow you. Doesn’t matter the words you put with that. The medium itself is the message.
There’s one more argument in favor of overwhelming the internet with visions of our perfect bodies and idealized depictions of our practices. It’s that we must break the old taboo on talking about your sadhana. Because rules. Empowered people must break rules. Be strong, don’t let the rules keep you down, publicize your sadhana as widely as you possibly can. That is power.
Wait, what taboo? There’s a thing about not talking about your practice?
YES THERE IS A THING ABOUT NOT TALKING ABOUT YOUR PRACTICE.
Sometimes it’s a bad taboo. There’s a little validity to the argument that you should break it. I buy this maybe 15% of the time. Because secrets can hide abuse. It is good that dark things be brought to light. But what about the real juice of your sadhana: daily embodied process; the ups and downs; the “spiritual attainments;” the beautiful aspects of the relationship with teacher and practice; the devotion and stability that comes alive inside you? Do these turn to spiritual lead when you use them for clickbait?
Another reason breaking the taboo might be beneficial is that secrets can also keep good technique hidden. There is such a thing as withholding of spiritual knowledge, and especially in meditation communities, there is good argument that this withholding has slowed serious practitioners on their enlightenment path.* The irony here is that what is now being withheld is the spiritual secret that… talking/posting images about your sadhana might REALLY delay or deform your learning process. The new secret knowledge is that in the past everyone knew the teachings that talking about sadhana (1) turns it into something it’s not, and (2) dilutes your energy.
Personally I have observed this to be true, especially for practitioners in their first ten years. In my observation, there is truth in the old teaching. Talking and posting about sadhana a lot can get a person stuck. The mind just likes to make a thing of things. And a person can do yoga stunts every morning for years without learning to go inside, and just practice for no other reason than the experience itself.
Please don’t take my word for this. Read the scriptures. Run the experiments. Find that mind-stopping verse in the HYP. From there, equally accessible is AG Mohan’s gorgeous translation and commentary on The Yoga Yajnavalkya – here the understanding of yoga as an energy economy is introduced so beautifully, in a way that illuminates all asana practice in the Krishnamacharya tradition. His writing is a gift to us. From there, there’s a whole world of teachings on why you might want to keep certain aspects of your own experience decidedly to yourself.
Speaking from experience, I decided early to remain silent about the raw details of my practice. For two decades, this reticence about my sadhana has been my default, and it will continue to be thus even in these particularly strange times for our practice. I was strict about it for the first decade, the last 9 years I’ve broken the taboo more and more, to share about body challenges I want future generations to be able to avoid, and to communicate with students that I’m just another person on the path who suffers at times. What I still don’t talk about is the love I feel for my teacher and students. That feels too easy to exploit. For example, if I publicly advertise my feelings for my teacher, that is implicitly telling my students to treat me in a special way. If I publicly advertise details of my relationships with students, there are ways this may turn our connection into an advertisement, instead of letting them take the lead in deciding what they feel it should be.
I don’t know. Everything is changing. Maybe this is irrelevant now, or only intended for the few who do the work to find the secret heart of the traditions. Do new students have a right to know the warnings in the original teachings, before they start to imitate the internet?
DIGEST. We’re post-authoritarian now. So teachers’ job (same as my jungle doctor’s) is to listen, study students, give useful knowledge, get out of way. Actually it always was! Maybe some of us forgot. Again: the method = cultivating inner experience/knowledge. It’s inherently non-authoritarian. But WAIT. Problem: authoritarian use of the image (breaking viewers’ connection to own body) is high-jacking post-authoritarian growth. It’s hard to escape relentless images of perfect, disciplined, superior, achiever-bodies. We learn to venerate/imitate them. HELP!? Ok, when listening inside and listening to students, maybe we realize the response to certain (NOT ALL!) kinds of asana imagery is (1) shutting down inner body feelings + (2) maybe sadness or mimetic desire (equally alienating). This makes knowledge of art and history SUPER interesting. If you’re a professional, maybe part of that is getting this knowledge? Authoritarians + advertisers use/d repetitive, perfected, attention-demanding imagery to overpower viewers. Because it WORKS. The masses will “like” you. But some art can slow us down, bringing embodied connection, discernment, and inner authority. I’m learning this; it’s wonderful. Also SORRY, but what about using students’ bodies for ads, now that our society has learned consent and power don’t mix? I dunno: but in art they do “crit”: they study presumptions + effects of each image. Image has super-power because it goes to the gut, but crit helps us get discernment on that. This is where study could help us act responsibly, and maybe decrease the alienation and contradictions in the practice.
The NEW secret is that esoteric yoga says keep your sadhana a secret. Don’t share “attainments.” There are great debates about this. As teachers, should we tell ‘em sadhana was traditionally secret? Do we HAVE to tell em? We’re here to connect students to resources. To the claim that our work is to popularize yoga, that is evangelism and the idea has colonialist history. Not all images disconnect students from themselves: some imagery opens viewers up. But perfect, repetitive, eye-popping images have an authoritarian use and legacy. We might not realize ‘til we study our responses closely. Certain uses of the image is about getting power over others. Stock asana imagery is that. And it’s encouraging new practitioners to copy the format, and discuss/post lots about asana sadhana. Instead of experiencing why it might be awesome to keep practice intimate. Old school, but maybe also new school.