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The Philosophy of Yoga

by Miles Mathis

Although I have tried yoga several times over the years, I have only recently become addicted. I am now past 45, and I live in a cold climate, so I was experiencing some circulation problems in my hands and feet in the winter. Basically too much sugar and too much sitting. So I ditched the sugar and enrolled in a local yoga class. I tend to be a bit obsessive, and I found I was soon up to three or four classes a week. Since I have some gymnastics and ballet in my background, I was already predisposed to stretching and balancing and so on, and I progressed very quickly. That ability was part of the addiction, I suppose, but a greater part came from the artistic elements of yoga. I discovered that what appealed to me about yoga was more the visual and tactile and sensual aspect than the spiritual aspect. As with Catholicism, the real beauty for me was in the beauty, rather than in the enlightenment or the awakening (more on that later).

Of course beauty is its own sort of enlightenment and awakening, but the philosophy of yoga is not sold in those terms, neither in the east nor in the west. It is true that American yoga is often a pale reflection of Indian yoga, and may even be a terrible bastardization of it, but what I will say here applies to both.

Yes, I have just switched from an addiction to a critique, which may seem like a reversal, but it is quite easy to be addicted to a thing you don't fully trust, or to critique a thing you love. In fact, a critique may be the greatest sign of love.

Yoga has gotten very popular, and it has achieved this popularity for many good reasons. It is a great form of exercise, since unlike most western exercise, it is well-rounded, it includes very large doses of stretching, it teaches breathing, and it embraces the sensual side of motion. Beyond that, it is artistic in the sense that it pays attention to surroundings: wooden floors and ceilings, candles, light, heat, decorations, clothing, and so on. This is where I compare it Catholicism. It is careful to create a proper mood. The Americans need to get rid of their PVC mats and foam blocks, but other than that, yoga tends to remain a very eastern exercise in its attention to detail.

Yoga is also artistic, by my personal definition, in that mixed exercise is a delight for the eyes. In the west, yoga and yoga classes are dominated by women. In my experience, the ratio of women to men tends to be at least 4 to 1. That is a ratio I like. It is always a spiritual blessing, come what may, to be surrounded by females. To be involved in a common motion makes it that much more soothing to man's spirit, even if the bodies are separated by many feet. In the east they can admit these things without blush, but here in the west I am in danger of being tagged a pervert by putting it in print. It is this fear of feeling what you feel that prevents more western men from doing yoga, in my opinion. The ladies think it is because men are afraid of being seen as sissy, but it isn't that. It is that most men really are too sissy to mix with women on their own turf. Men are afraid to be outnumbered, lest they find themselves in a situation where they lose control of their eyes. As for me, I let my eyes go where they like. The truth is, the modern woman is so into herself she doesn't even know you have eyes. You could be naked, painted red, and on fire, and she wouldn't notice or care.

There is also a great emphasis on relaxation in western yoga, perhaps more than in eastern, and I have no real quibble with that. In the east, the going-in is thought of in more religious terms, but in the west we tend to have different needs. It is not that we don't need the deeper aspects, it is that what we need first is to turn off the constant din of input. Most western people are in a constant society and a constant socializing and a constant doing. Therefore, their primary need from yoga is a non-doing. The breath is used to take them away from the western world.

Again, nothing wrong with that. But I have an ongoing mental tussle with my teachers, since unlike most westerners, I don't need that. I am alone all day, I sleep vast amounts, I enjoy all the quietude one man can ask for, and I am a master of non-doing. So when I come to class the last thing I need is to waste time in shavasana. I am in shavasana almost all the time. I don't mind the chanting and ohming, since singing in company is always good for the spirit. But shavasana just irks me. Not because I am so western and controlling and hyper-active, but because I am the opposite of those things. My teachers have not spent a day with me and can't understand that. They assume that because I am an American, I have standard American needs.

That said, I am aware that I would be seen as even more insubordinate in the east. There, the relationship is more severely and traditionally a master/student relationship, and a student is not seen as having the right to have personal needs. Personal needs are an idiosyncrasy to be jettisoned at the door. So in complaint against western practice I am not claiming superiority of eastern. I have strong intuition they are both wrong for me in that regard.

Which brings us to the real reason I wrote this paper. All I have said up to now is but an introduction and anecdote. The greater problem I have with the philosophy of yoga has nothing to do with east or west, or with any personal need of mine. In a more fundamental way, I intuit that yoga cannot provide the enlightenment it promises. You will say that this is a big statement from someone who is just a beginner, but the fact is, I am not just a beginner in either life or enlightenment. I am now past middle age, and I have spent my life studying everything that came my way. I have read the major eastern texts and have studied the specific texts of yoga. I have never been drawn to them, and I will tell you why.

On the lowest level, it is because enlightenment cannot be achieved through physical exercise of any kind, no matter how perfect or advanced. A perfect physical exercise like yoga is one of the requirements, no doubt, but it is insufficient on its own. This is generally understood, even in the west, but in practice most yogis and yoginis spend too much time studying themselves and too little time studying the world. This is true both east and west, since the subtlest eastern adepts and texts teach that breath and meditation are to be used to escape the world. You are taught to block out your own thoughts and emotions and to instead focus on the eternal and inanimate and unthinking. As a short-term cure of over-action or anxiety, this is fine, as I said, but as a road to enlightenment it is a road to nowhere.

On a middle level, I have not been drawn to eastern religious texts, since I saw no point in exchanging one illogic for another. Like many, I have struggled to free myself from the nastier confines of western religions, and had no desire to exchange one narrow chamber for another, one compression tank for another. This seemed to me like digging out of a cave only to seek another smaller cave. Most religions have their good points as well as their bad, and I am not trying to sell atheism or agnosticism here, but unlike many, I did not feel much of a void at the loss of Christianity. I was in no hurry to replace it with Buddhism.

On a higher level, yoga on the mat is supplemented with readings from various texts and with other disciplines of the mind and body. But the texts of yoga and Hinduism and Buddhism are fairly narrow, in the way that the Bible is narrow. All the physical and mental discipline in the world must be in service of something, and it is not clear to me that that something has been discovered in any of the eastern texts. It has not been discovered in any of the western texts either (and the more modern a text the less likely it is to be of any use). But my point is that true enlightenment will come, if it ever does come, from a wider reading and a wider experience. I am not contradicting Thoreau and claiming that one needs to travel the globe for enlightenment, but one must travel through and over and around great sources of information, one way or another. Whatever else it may be, the Bible is only one book. Whatever the merits of Buddhism or Hinduism, they are only the limited teachings of a limited people. Their own adepts knew that, and enlightenment, if it meant anything, meant the recognition that there were no limits on questioning and answering.

But enlightenment, as a goal, has never much impressed me, either. It is like its western counterpart: happiness. In my opinion, an enlightened person does not seek enlightenment. Perhaps that is a zen koan, perhaps not, but enlightenment and happiness are both selfish and shallow goals. A wise person seeks to do something that needs to be done. He or she seeks significant action.

Let us take a trivial and fictional and contemporary example, to prevent bias. Let us take Gandalf or Yoda as our guru, and ask what place “enlightenment” has in our description. Both may be said to be powerful because they are enlightened, but the enlightenment is a rather vague characteristic, is it not? Do you think either Gandalf himself, his controlling or leading gods, or any of the surrounding characters found any value or enjoyment in his enlightenment? No, if anyone finds Gandalf of any use, it is for his actions or his words or his presence. Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine Gandalf or Yoda studying for centuries or millennia to achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment was a side-effect of their journey, not the goal of the journey.

I speak here in very bald terms, purposely without the usual religious or philosophic fluff, because I believe all this is comprehensible to all, even those furthest from enlightenment. You don't have to be especially well-read to understand that happiness is not a lofty goal. You don't have to be a shaman to perceive that enlightenment is an adjective that applies to the self and the self alone. Wisdom or action can affect others, but only “I” am enlightened.

If we apply that to yoga, we find that the recommendation to flee the world and your own thoughts is counterproductive, either to action or enlightenment. Meditation of any kind should not be the banishment of thought, it should be the sharpening of thought. Most people need to think more, not less. Yes, they need to think less about shopping and paying the bills and soap operas and politics and so on, but they do not need to think less in general. When they are finished with their perfect exercise on the mat, they need to stare at the ceiling and turn their thoughts on, not off. But they need to direct these thoughts to significant things. That is why they must read significant texts. These texts give them things to think about. It is sorting through these texts and thoughts that will make them wise, and that wisdom will make them powerful. It will make them capable of significant action.

It used to be said that a man could learn everything he needs to know from the Bible. But while the Bible certainly contains a wealth of information, and a man is better off reading it than not, a person who read only the Bible would still be a narrow and pinched sort of person. This applies equally to the Vedas or the Upanishads or the Ramayana or the Koran or any other book. All the religious texts of the world should be read and studied, but the world was always broader than that. These days, there is no excuse for any sort of seeker not to study as widely as possible, since it is so easy to do so. There is hardly any reason to stare at the ceiling and think of Oprah or the Olympics, when better mental fare is just down the road at the public library, or a click away online. Any man or woman who claims to seek enlightenment but doesn't have a pile of books in his or her bed is a faker (not a fakir, but a faker). If you don't have to move a stack of papers to get to your mat, you are on the wrong road.

And this is where the Bible and other religious texts can get in the way, since those who read them often seem to come under the impression that certain rows at the library are unrequired or useless or harmful. Any row at the library, aye, any book, chosen at random, will be more useful to you and less harmful than what you are likely reading now, and the dustier the book is, the bigger my wager on this. Biography, history, poetry, science, novels (the older the better), art books, actual religious texts (not commentary on them): anything is better than reading bestsellers, or reading nothing.

This is what galls me most about yoga, perhaps: seeing an emphasis on eastern religious and pseudo-religious texts when the west has the greatest wealth of literature, by far. Westerners now commonly know nothing about their own history and literature, but they have been convinced by the failures of contemporary western society that this history is not worth looking at. Or, in most cases, it is even shallower than that: they have been convinced by contemporary publishing frauds that eastern literature is deeper or more altruistic or less capitalistic. Eastern literature is less capitalistic, certainly, but for the rest, the sales pitch is hollow. There is nothing especially altruistic about navel-gazing or personal quests or even enlightenment. Besides, the east has had its share of empires and dictators and Khans. Its literature is just as full of glorifications of war. Its religious texts are just as illogical and contradictory as ours. The difference is, our non-religious literature is far vaster and richer than theirs.

I have never been a cheerleader for contemporary western culture. I recently wrote a paper trashing 20th century novels, I am a hard-nose conspiracy theorist, I despise modern art, and I think the New World Order people are the worst thing since the Nazis. Nor am I a believer in the ability of science to rule or cure or fix or lead the world. But, unlike many of these other seekers of enlightenment, I have read most of the books in the western canon. I have studied Greece and Rome and the Renaissance. I know the history of the west and the history of art and the history of poetry and the history of literature and the history of science. I have had my time in most of the rows at the library and know all of Dewey's hundreds. So I know firsthand that our own history is not a history to be ignored, or a history to be ashamed of. Large parts of it could be seen as highly unfortunate, but that applies east as well as west. And once you judge beyond this historical aspect, you see that any scholar or seeker who ignored the west would have to be called a fool. If only because our history has been more varied than that of India or China or Japan, there are more lessons to be drawn from our mistakes. The east has been known for its solidity and continuity, and while those traits are admirable in a culture, they provide a somewhat narrower platform for scholarship or other study. Assuming that we do not want to universalize what India or China has been for thousands of years, and continue it indefinitely, we must enlighten ourselves in other ways.

I cringe, frankly, to see practitioners (or anyone else) reading Ken Wilber or Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle. They might as well be reading The Secret. With the first flutter of enlightenment, a reader becomes skeptical of all bestsellers, especially those in certain sections like psychology or spirituality or eastern studies. With the next flutter of enlightenment, you see that, with the number of books published in history and on the library shelves, it is very unlikely that the one you need to read next was published this year, or in the past five years. Whatever your reading path may be, it is statistically very unlikely that its most efficient arc passes through the current New York Times list. If you have read every classic ever written, you may have the luxury of wasting time with Eckhart Tolle; otherwise you would be better off digging a bit deeper in the stacks. Yes, Eckhart Tolle is easier to read than Meister Eckhart or Epictetus, but is that how a yogi chooses? You welcome the challenge of chataranga or vrischikasana, but you avoid to flex the brain-asana? As you would dig deep into halasana, dig deep into the library shelves, petitioning Shiva or Shakti to send you the required volume. I have found the library to be the most magical place, the most spirit-inhabited place of all, and this request is normally welcomed and granted by the resident genii.

I know that this paper reads very western, in its patterns and ideas. Its emphasis on action would be the first clue. In places I begin to sound like Mark Twain on the Jews or like Carlyle castrating the peers. But I embrace that. Although I would distance myself from modern people, I have no desire to distance myself from Twain or the rest. I am a product of my culture, and not all products of this culture are debased, even now. There has been entirely too much baby-containing bathwater released into the polluted lakes and streams, and we had best put a sieve over the drain.

Somehow we in the 20th century have managed the unconscionable and near-miraculous feat of metamorphing a butterfly into a worm. We have mined some 40 centuries of civilized humanity, discarding the pure ore and molding a being of dross. But moving our mining operations to India is not the answer. The precious metals remain buried in the mud here, oozing between our very toes as we sun-salute the foreign gods. All it takes is a stoop and a gentle clawing of the earth. Our ancestors did the hard digging: all we have to do wash the subtle dirt away.

All the answers are not in the past, here anymore than in India. If they were, some point in the past would have been an idyll, and we know that is not so. But it is only by studying the past that we can surpass it. All the purest ore of millennia will not make a perfect being of gold, but we must remold that statue-being nonetheless, to see where he is lacking. We must have the mannequin in front of us, in full light, before we restuff it or paint it or sew the dress. We must dig the poppet from the mire and remove the pins and replace the eyes. We must know a thousand bad theories before we can cobble together a good one. We must know a thousand flawed poems before we write a better one. We must analyze a thousand scientific hypotheses before we find one that persists. We must keep a catalog of a thousand lesser histories, and fully comprehend them, before we can compose a greater history.

For this reason, I am in no hurry to get to India for my next decade of progress, personal or otherwise. Nor will I go to my mat expecting increased “awareness” or “expanded consciousness.” I cherish my mat as I cherish my bed and my chair and a warm bathtub, but I have no spiritual or intellectual demands from any of them. Yoga, like sex or food, is a great good and a real benefit, and I have no desire to deny it, but just as I don't expect enlightenment from sex, I also don't expect enlightenment from exercise. To become a better person, in any way meaningful to me, I will have to do more than perfect my handstand or my breath or my posture. My breath and posture are just carriers of a bigger seat above them, the seat of intelligence. It is the prana of this asana that defines me now, and that will define me in future. No future scrabbler in the mud, digging out my ore, will care how perfect my padmasana was or how calm I was in between actions. I choose to take care of myself, but I have an intuitive feeling that Van Gogh was more spiritual than any yogi I have met or heard tell of. Vincent would be an embarrassment to any possible yoga class. Assuming it is still possible to imagine a Vincent in contemporary society, he would probably be the first person ever tossed from a yoga class for sheer monstrosity. Still, the monster may be more real than the fairy princess or Ford model, and more enlightened to boot.

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