Yoga ethics or empty posturing

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I’ve just put up another short piece on MercatorNet, this time looking at the conflict between Yoga as Western fitness fad and Yoga as ancient spiritual discipline:

what most Westerners know as “Yoga” is more accurately described simply as “asanas” or postures. Traditional Yoga (from Sanskrit yoga, think “yoke”) is a spiritual discipline aimed at union with the divine.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled around 400 AD, include eight aspects or “limbs” of this spiritual discipline

5 thoughts on “Yoga ethics or empty posturing

  1. You’re a hard man to please Zac but let me give it a try!

    Any “exercise physiologist” or those of a similar religious persuasion can testify to the benefits of stretching or “empty posturing”. However, it would seem to me to be somewhat unreasonable if I had to become a fully-fledged exercise physiologist or a Hindu (or whatever the relevant religion might be) to practice this. Surely I can get my ethics, values, spiritual guidance and salvation from somewhere else, while I get my physical rehabilitation, preparation for strenuous sporting activity (mainly loosening of my hamstrings) from a few Yoga poses can’t I? Or are there other religions that can help me with my tight hamstrings? I hear Islam is very comprehensive in its prescriptions.

    But of course therein lies the dilemma. We in the west are fortunate enough to have the freedom (or audacity?) to cherry pick from various practices and traditions without necessarily committing ourselves to those traditions entirely. For example, if indeed there are teachings in Islam that can help me loosen my hamstrings then I have a third option! But the inevitable dilemma of not being able to eat bacon or drink beer might pose a problem (perhaps more so for you than me!). So do I forgo having loose hamstrings? Do I forgo bacon and beer? Or do I cherry pick? I would have to go with the latter! Because not only does this allow me to maintain at least some semblance of my personal identity (bacon eating, beer swigging, wannabe athlete that I am!) but it also allows me to smell the cultural potpourri which I assume at least some other people might also enjoy.

    But despite this the dilemma does rear it’s ugly head from time to time. I was once quite taken aback by the fact that a person (friend of a friend of a friend) living in Salisbury knew all the best places in Adelaide to eat Pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup). Such was my arrogance that I assumed that I being 35% culturally Vietnamese, would know better than this Salisburian Caucasian lass. I had a similar experience when I saw a former Prime Minister (do I need to mention that he is a Caucasian?) speak fluent Mandarin on TV which made me green with envy because I’m supposed to be 100% genetically Chinese and have an 8% chance of carrying Genghis Khan’s Y-chromosome, yet my Mandarin (if I can call it that) is utterly inferior. None of this seems right to me but I’m sure I’m just as guilty of creating this type of cognitive dissonance in others as these people did in me (e.g. philosophy graduate as opposed to accounting/pharmacy/medicine/dentistry/engineering graduate?). I guess people of integrity are hard to come by these days.

    Of course some do have integrity and hence choose to go all the way and fully convert to a new culture/religion altogether (e.g. Anglo-Saxon women who convert to Islam as part of their marriage to Muslim men) but as you alluded to this is not the norm. The norm is indeed the “denaturing and secularisation” (I prefer to call it “cherry picking” or “a la carte” cultural dining!) of culture and tradition. People no longer treat culture and tradition as an all or nothing affair. It’s almost like we are unconsciously inclined towards this whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not.

    So is this a la carte approach to personal/physical/spiritual nourishment a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose for most people it depends on which traditions one is speaking of. In relation to the example that you use (yoga), one must bear in mind that the positioning and contorting of one’s body according to certain poses (asanas) in 40C degree heat for the sake of improving one’s physical/mental appearance/fitness or perhaps for the sake of doing something novel, may be considered by many as a “lesser evil” than say attempting to realise an altered state of consciousness so as to “yoke” oneself with “Brahman” (“union with the divine”). In this case some might argue that a Western “yoga fad” (so long as it doesn’t involve sexual exploitation) is better than full blown conversion to Yoga-proper/Hinduism (whatever that may entail). This once again demonstrates the ongoing dilemma we wrestle with in relation to cherry picking vs “all or nothing” attitudes.

    Speaking of fads, a fad that I can’t seem to relate to is the recent fad of vampires, Wicca and the occult (thanks partly to Twilight and Harry Potter I suspect). But nevertheless one has to ask, could the “empty posturing” of the mainstream yoga demographic in the West be considered a “lesser evil” than attempting to perform Wiccan spells or some other form of dabbling in the occult? Surely it’s lesser of an evil than the popular religious observance of fanatically following a football team such as the Port Power, which true South Australians know constitutes football-apostasy! Or is it all bad? Then what is left? What is good? Who might have the answer?

    This constitutes another ongoing dilemma which is the dilemma of which tradition/culture/religion to fully fledge oneself to. That is, which do we commit our “all or nothing” attitude towards if we don’t want to cherry pick? What disturbs me is that there were reports of people getting cosmetic surgery to make themselves look like “real” vampires! I have also heard that there are Port Power supporters who paint their faces black, white and teal and shout aggressive platitudes at their congregations. In these cases it’s not so much the cherry picking from these traditions/cultures that is the issue but rather it’s the fact that they fully embrace these evil practices!

    Of course the greatest evil practice is the corporatisation of research under the guise of “evidence based practice”, whereby this creates the conditions for one to get away with plagiarism and suggesting that because Deepak Chopra is an M.D. his assertions about meditation therefore constitute “scientific evidence” and thus applying his teachings constitutes “evidence based practice”. As a devout and fundamentalist “Analytic Philosopher” of the “naturalistic/scientistic/empiricist” denomination, this is pure heresy!

    So we need to bear in mind these dilemmas when we consider the question you raise which is “can the fitness fad live up to its (yoga’s) traditional roots?” Well I see the answer as being contained within that question itself which is “no”! It’s a fitness “fad”! It’s not supposed to have anything to do with tradition. Of course clever marketing can perhaps fool some of those who think they are immersing themselves in some exotic tradition/culture perhaps because their own culture is bereft of anything interesting or as exotic as stretching in 40C heat. But obviously these a la carte diners see virtue in cherry picking which suits their own subjective tastes without getting too devout about it. As you allude to, take away the empty posturing, the skimpy outfits, the esteem that might come with being so flexible and tolerant of heat and body odour, and replace it with the opportunity to “yoke” one’s “higher self” with “Brahman” and you will see the yoga fad die out and perhaps the football fad flourish!

    The philosopher in me has to be honest and admit that I am indeed one of these cherry pickers and have been guilty of cherry picking from yoga. But the secularist in me sees no choice but to accept that many people will indeed cherry pick and should be able to cherry pick (within reason). I admit that I’ve done various forms of empty posturing and I have indeed done Bikram Yoga though I have not had the privilege of having Mr. Bikram stand on my back in his speedos. However, if it’s any consolation (which I believe it is) I have had the dubious privilege of being the only male in a 40C room filled with 30 young, attractive, sweaty, flexible girls all of whom are wearing essentially underwear even though it’s marketed as sportswear! The room was surrounded by mirrors which explains why I was so perceptive, speaking of which, did I mention they were very flexible?

    I think the problem is that mainstream society is beginning to adopt the mentality of a “philosopher”, because nothing is off-limits to a philosopher! We’ll dabble in anything and any combinations of things. Nothing is off limits when it comes to our love of wisdom. Some of our more extreme and fundamentalist counterparts have even dabbled in bestiality and incest (by “dabble” I do mean “philosophize” just to make that clear!). When people hear or read about the content of our philosophizing this often creates discontent and confusion for all concerned. But of course it also creates opportunity for stimulating debate especially when human society throughout its entire history has had a propensity towards all kinds of fads and cherry picking without which there would be little to debate or pontificate about. So if we weren’t allowed to cherry pick in relation to discussion of certain taboo topics (such as bestiality or the integrity of a newly formed research centre) not only would philosophers be without a job, we’d be without a hobby!

    How can philosophy be the problem? Well consider the example of the “philosopher” Bruce Lee who once said “use only that which works and take it from any place you can find it”. Indeed, the recent “fad” known as “mixed martial arts” (MMA) claims to trace its roots to this particular “philosopher” (though I would argue that it traces its roots to Brazillian Jiu Jitsu with the famous “Gracie” family and one or two businessmen playing key roles). I don’t like MMA. It represents every thing that goes against my conception of “martial arts” but I have no choice but to condone it lest my own conceptions and cherry picking not be condoned. Of course we’re allowed to debate its merits and “dis” it, which is indeed a hobby of mine.

    Another case in point is the famous pop singer Lady Gaga. She made a career out of being weird and unusual and often pushing the boundaries of taste in terms of her appearance and her lyrics. However, her recent appearance and performance of “The Sound of Music” at the Oscars would make her worthy of a Damehood! Well, at least she would be my choice if I was “captain”! I was indeed quite impressed by her performance and her appearance, but of course I was not surprised by such versatility given that she majored in Philosophy.

    Another famous person (an actor) who also majored in philosophy was known to enjoy flying planes (I’m not just talking about the “Milennium Falcon”, I’m talking real planes!) In addition to dropping out of the sky recently, rumour has it that he dropped out of College too before he graduated. See what a major in Philosophy could do for one’s career?

    There are many other famous cherry picking philosophy majors that I could speak about, however, I don’t want to come across as glorifying what we do! Suffice to say, from my perspective (as a devout philosophy student) it’s hard to address such issues and evaluate various traditions, practices and religions, when anyone and everyone will argue that I don’t have an objective standard by which I can even begin to address these issues. Of course anyone who does claim to have such an objective basis will also be met with disagreement from anyone and everyone on this matter too, so at least I’m not alone. Paradoxically, what we all have in common is that we find ourselves within a complex and diverse multicultural milieu and despite our inclinations towards the familiar the differences are more vast and salient than the commonalities.

    Therefore what may be the only thing that can unite us as a species is our willingness to go our separate ways and allow others to go their separate ways even if it means that they/we borrow from their/our path from time to time. If we can achieve this then no matter how challenging our journey in life may be, at least we (meaning also “they”) will have found the path of least resistance. The alternative is to somehow hope or coerce everyone onto the one same path but if history has taught us anything it has taught us that we as a species don’t actually want this. Maybe this depends on the type of path but we’ve had opportunities in the past to traverse the same path as someone else yet we’ve chosen not to. This is still the case obviously.

    So perhaps a society devoid of any traditional values or virtues, other than the freedom to cherry pick various practices that originate from particular cultures or traditions, is as good (or as cosmopolitan) as it gets.

    • A (well deserved) sneer at faddishness has gone deeper. But do we really get to cherry pick?

      We know there is ‘more’ to our practices than what is on the surface. But whether we achieve that level depends on much more than our individual qualities.

      For example, piano is much more than a technical display, but my teacher, environment, and the pressure for my Mum, I mean, me, to clock one grade per year, limited my understanding.

      A good yoga teacher would constantly remind students that there are spiritual and ascetic sides to the practise, no matter how much some (guilty as charged) may scoff at the vegetarianism, but we don’t always get to choose our sensei. You rock up at the community centre, pays your $5, and from there it’s a lottery. I like the structured stretching of yoga and it has led to a greater understanding of my body and mind, but if I don’t also refrain from violent deeds or thoughts – I still love me some Call of Duty – then I don’t think it’s wholly due to a deliberate, sometimes flawed, choice.

      When we are lacking, it is human nature to heroically journey beyond the familiar to fill that lack. That lack may be physicality, acceptance, or how to defeat a certain martial arts move. What we find, and whether or not we discover the answer was at home all along, depends on more than just our western liberal assumption that all things can be combined and synthesized.

      Aside: The assumption that you can integrate is not unique to the west. Islam adopted Greek mathematics. The Romans made barbarians leigionnaires. The Japanese rebuilt their government with Western ideals (then they got nuked, then they did it again.)

      There is no need to feel guilt or contempt at cherry-picking, if cherries was all there was.

      • I suppose it is incumbent upon us as cherry pickers to make sure we pick cherries where they are to be picked and leave other non cherry fruits behind. Which means we need to at least spend some time studying what constitutes stone fruits vs non stone fruits. Once we have achieved that then we need to study the various types of stone fruit and then eventually begin our area of stone fruit specialisation.

        Of course some will be better than others at this and some will just be hopeless. We have to try and protect the latter from exploitation by those who want to sell them lemons instead of cherries.

        Our decisions in life all come at an opportunity cost, much of it is due to time. Practicing the technicalities of fingering and not having enough time to learning music theory. Focusing more on performance as opposed to composition. Trying to pass a subject instead of understanding it. But opportunity costs are symmetrical too, meaning that it goes both ways. Spending so much time indulging a subject and thus failing it. Being too busy playing and performing in bands that you end up dropping out of music school. A friend of mine once submit a philosophy essay very late without proper structure and referencing because he wanted to demonstrate understanding more than passing. He was obviously marching to a different beat than most of us were. Another friend of mine was so focused on verbally denigrating high level kicking that he didn’t realise that with all that time he spent talking about it he could be stretching hist legs and gaining flexibility. But of course he hates stretching and thinks its a waste of time.

        Eventually you will have your own subjective goals as far as learning piano is concerned. Likewise you may also want to analyse the maxims which underpin your decisions to do yoga, while eating meat and playing violent video games! Will those maxims hold up in the court that is your moral conscience? I think that depends on who you appoint (cherry pick?) as the judge, prosecution, defense, and jury! Are any of us even ready to appoint anyone or accept that which has been appointed for us?

        In my experience like yours, my yoga teachers have actually gone slightly beyond empty posturing (some more so than others, hence my fascination with meditation took off) to offer nuggets of yogic wisdom. Talk of “prana” and applying it to the analysis of food was a salient example. In another class this issue of empty posturing was raised and even criticisms of Bikram were dished out, which ironically inspired me to try Bikram. At least on my part I can say (at the risk of sounding arrogant) that there was never really any confusion about what I was aiming for in trying various yoga facilities. I had been introduced to Zen Buddhism as part of a philosophy course and it was up to me to pursue this brand of spiritual enlightenment independently of my pursuit to gain flexibility learn new stretches and test my fortitude against 40C heat for 90 minutes at a time while contorting my body. The fact that there mostly scantly clad, spiritually empty, self conscious, girls posturing before me helped to galvanise my fortitude. To date it is the most physically demanding activity that I have done (and most expensive too!).

        As tautological as this may sound, integration and synthesis of ideas which also requires the shedding of old, unnecessary or obsolete ideas is the only way that we can progress from what we are currently practicing. Some syntheses will fail, others will succeed. Failure of particular syntheses is not sufficient reason not to continue with particular syntheses.

        Of course if the identity or essence of a tradition in and of itself is more important then we choose not to tinker with it. If stability and stasis is more important than progress and dynamism then we act accordingly. But the question is indeed, what is more important when it come to particular contentions? On some we push for change and integration, on others we don’t. Why? Who has the correct definition or understanding of what is a cherry and what is not?

        That will be answered by anyone and everyone in a multitude of ways for any tradition or any practice. But in time (beyond our life time or successive generation’s life times) civilization tends to gravitate towards particular forms of consensus though not without the odd detractor here or there.

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