2013/08/26 § Leave a comment
First of all, it’s strange to come back to a blog you’ve long since stopped checking the stats for every day to see you’ve gotten linked from Buzzfeed, and that one of their lists has included several quotes from your very blog. I knew a number of those quotes sounded familiar when the post circulated Facebook a couple months ago.
Being in the business I’m in (yoga), I often have people remarking how easy it must be to look backwards at India’s history, traditions, etc., without having to wade through Christian “white”-washing and destruction.
This always makes me laugh.
Why? Because it’s so detached from reality. What people seem to forget (or ignore) is hundreds of years of recent colonial rule at the hands of the British Empire. While India may not have been christianised en masse like some (most) other places of the world, the impact of colonialism on India’s traditions and Indian society in general, is undeniable.
One needs to merely look at the medicinal science of ayurveda (which isn’t really my area of expertise anyway. Perhaps there is someone reading that could shed more concrete light on the subject). The constant attempt to place ayurveda within a Western biomedical framework has led to it being labelled as “quackery”, the attempt to canonise ayurveda into a singular, all-encompassing framework of understanding with rights-and-wrongs, etc. (which is funny in a Western medical context anyway, because it seems to misunderstand the concept of “diagnosis”).
Never mind the actual, real effects of Western colonialism on the people of India. I could easily write a thesis on that, but I’m not going to. One need not look much further than the effect White Colonialism has had on people of colour the world over.
So I’m not sure why India is often perceived as making it out of this whole decolonisation process relatively unscathed, especially when Indians will have to start putting up bond money in order to entire the United Kingdom shortly. The nation by which they were colonised. When their spiritual beliefs are referred to as “Hindu” – a name which stems from colonisation – and are oversimplified in a Christian, colonial framework by White People the world over.
Indeed, the idea that India, Indian beliefs and traditions, and Indian people as a whole, had made it through decolonisation with all the aforementioned intact, everything as it was previously, is a fallacy. And a big one, at that. The canonisation of Indian spirituality and philosophy by the West could easily been seen as an 18th and 19th Century attempt at what hippies and New Age spiritualists the world over are doing right now, i.e. cultural appropriation. It was canonised in order to be seen as of similar standing to Christianity and to be looked at within a Christian framework. And many people see it through that lens.
While the caste system wasn’t invented during British Colonial rule, they certainly utilised and shaped it. When our lives for a time have been dictated and shaped by the concept of the “Nation-State”, it’s difficult to look and things such as the caste system outside of that framework, and it’s relation to pre-colonial Indian society. What have colonisers done for centuries (besides systematically murder untold numbers of people, etc.)? Pitted people against each other in order to serve their own ambitions and needs. Once one group is given a shred of socio-political power over another one, what tends to happen?
In some ways India’s colonial history and the “nation” and “people” have somehow made it through without systemic destruction, appropriation, white-washing and delegitimising, is connected to both Romanticism and Orientalism.
I am a historian by trade. I’ve spent a hefty portion of my short life studying history, even if what I call “history” isn’t often seen as such by the old school pseudo-academics grounded in some kind of warped pseudo-Romantic understanding of history and it’s so-called connection to one’s historical, or rather, “traditional”, past. I don’t study dates, Kings, conquests, and national myths based on someone’s attempt to exert superiority over whoever seemed to be deemed inferior at that point in time. I’m not interested in what 19th Century Romantics considered to be “traditional living” and what the intelligentsia 200 years ago decided their underlings believed in at some point in the past, or still believed in at the time without actually endeavouring to speak to them (and indeed, subjugating many of them through a colonial-capitalist system that forced them to forgo these so-called “traditional” practices in order to build the nation and be productive). I’m not interested in myths and stories disguised as pre-Christian “fables” with Christian morality rife throughout. It’s boring.
It’s easy to look at things within this framework. This is the same framework that dictates how we live, interact and impact even now. Looking at traditional systems, for example, whether spiritual or otherwise, becomes increasingly more difficult if we’re to even attempt to see them from a different framework. This requires a measure of deconstruction and decolonisation at a personal level, in addition to a structural one. At the same time, it’s also quite easy to state that one sees things through a decolonised lens without actually committing to deconstructing. Self-reflection and deconstructing the grandiose myths one has grown up with and/or built one’s life around isn’t easy or done quickly, nor is it something one can say one has “completed” successful. The nature of the act relies on it’s inherent incompletion – it never will be fully realised.
We have a hierarchy in how we approach, see and interact with things. When dealing with so-called “heathen” spirituality, and/or the histories and traditions of so-called “heathen” peoples, individuals within certain structural systems of understanding, such as the Romantics, wrote their histories with a specific purpose, goal and aim. The mystics of the 19th and early 20th Century did much of the same. The need for comparison to systems that share little in common in order to legitimise systems they didn’t clearly understand because they didn’t fit into their framework of understanding is an indication of this, see the previous example of “Hinduism” and it’s placement alongside the Abrahamic religions, and being presented within that framework in order to “legitimise” it. Even if that presentation is misrepresenting things. I’ve read Blavatsky, for example, and while things of interest can be taken from her writings, I feel similarly towards her works (which I’m sure I’ll get neverending shit for, but I don’t really care) – the same can be applied to Castenada, Tolle, and others, for that matter.
An example: I’ve studied the indigenous peoples of the arctic regions* a bit. Depending on who you read, and in what language, the material can differ widely. Though I can’t read Russian, and clearly need to take this information with some measure of critique in that I am not privy to actually referring to source material, I’ve read about the problematic nature of trying to canonise even just one group’s belief systems, as they were not seen as being static and unchanging. That one group could have a different understanding of the world than another, within the same indigenous community. That one “shaman” could, while still basing his worldview to some extent on that of the previous one’s, see things slightly different, and have different experiences than another. And therein lies one of the many problems with trying to canonise. But not only that, problems with trying to understand, describe, give life and importance to systems and structures, you, the storyteller, the one with the voice, can’t fully understand within your framework. And if you’re unwilling to decolonise yourself, your mind, your perspectives, etc., and continually work on, and reflect on, that, you’ll never even come close.
When we oversimplify and try to misrepresent systems to present them as fitting within our framework of understanding, we lose so much, and we have lost so much from traditions and spiritualities that have been destroyed through colonialism’s misrepresentation and attempt to legitimise traditions within it’s framework of understanding. It’s lazy and dishonest.
This is why I’ll never be interested in the Romantic ideal of what “traditional living” and “‘Heathen’ spirituality” is. Why the concept of the “nation-state” in conjunction with the vast majority of pre-Christian belief systems and structures is non-workable in my mind. And this is why I’ll keep raising an eyebrow at people who have declared themselves as somehow free from a framework that has for centuries dictated how they perceive and accept things.
*I realise the problems with grouping them as such, and am not doing it to insinuate a collective belief system, social structures or anything of the like. In this case, it’s a matter of convenience, though a problematic one. For the sake of brevity, it’ll have to do, I suppose.
2013/06/11 § Leave a comment
I’ve been busy with other things this year. My activity, so to speak, has become more inward, personal, but yet not. I haven’t felt inclined to document my understandings and interpretations publicly. It’s not really anyone else’s business but my own, and it never will be.
At the same time, I’ve steadily gotten e-mails about things related to this blog, so I felt inclined to give an update of some kind. But that’s a bit characteristic of me – sticking my head out for other people. I’ll respond to each e-mail eventually. I promise that much. Even the ones which were sent several months ago.
I’m not going to make excuses, or use the “busy” illusion. I just haven’t felt like it/haven’t checked. Until now.
Actually, an alarming amount of contact I’ve gotten, it appears, is from individuals thinking I’m connected to some kind of far-right extremism. At first, I was pretty shocked at that conclusion, but it is kind of obvious why. Though I feel like I’ve done my duty in not connecting this blog or it’s contents to any kind of political activity, it’s no surprise that other people have drawn the conclusions they have. Perhaps I should have taken more care to disclaim things I personally view as abhorrent.
At the same time, do such disclaimers do anything but get AFA off someone’s back for a little while? Do they even mean anything? I don’t know. I suppose that is for you, the reader to decide.
I am fully aware and accepting that once you make your views public, you should be open to take critique. And I’m more than open for that. However, I think you’ll find that my knowledge of Marx, Bakunin, Luxemburg, to name a few, is as adequate as my knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and a few Indian philosophical schools.
In other words, and to be perhaps less vague, one can be expected to stand up for oneself when one is falsely associated with ideas one vehemently disagrees with. If that’s your personal journey, fine. It’s not mine.
Anyway, for those who’ve emailed me in the last little while, I’ll get back to you eventually. I don’t have direct plans to update this in the near future, but honestly, I didn’t have plans to stop updating this when I did, either. Time will tell.
“The more enlightened man will become, the less he will employ compulsion and coercion. The really civilized man will divest himself of all fear and authority. He will rise from the dust and stand erect: he will bow to no tsar either in heaven or on earth. He will become fully human when he will scorn to rule and refuse to be ruled. He will be truly free only when there shall be no more masters.” -Alexander Berkman
2013/01/13 § Leave a comment
Life has been busy. Business, while not “booming” per se, has certainly picked up to the point where free time to write and mull about things has been few and far between. That, coupled with the fact I haven’t had much to write about, makes posting rather scarce.
I’ve been talking about (in my classes), and thinking about, the concept svādhyāya, quite a bit. It is one of the niyamas from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The meaning kind of depends who you’re talking to – “svā” essentially means the Self, and “adhyāya”, lesson. In a Vedic context, it refers to one’s own lessons from the Vedas, extolled by one’s guru, and indeed, many of the meanings of the word have connection to some kind of Vedic study, and often, reflection over one’s interpretation of the passages in the Vedic texts.
In the context of yoga, it’s often used to mean some kind of self-reflection, or self-inquiry, in that one of the higher purposes of asana practice is to extoll some kind of ability to reflect and observe over oneself, body, breath and mind, which, in turn, helps us learn something new about ourselves (and of course, can be worked in to meditation practices – certainly many techniques involve at least some kind of self-observation, whether it’s simply the breath, or channeled into one’s environment).
While I don’t dismiss textual study or knowledge gained thereof, practice is something that is more personally valuable to me. The reflections, knowledge and experiences are something that one cannot gain merely from reading or studying texts, no matter how intensely. I often thing that perhaps the individuals who reach the deepest levels of spiritual insight are those who don’t spend much time with textual study, and indeed, if one looks to the Bhagavad Gita for reference, mere scriptural study cannot lead to liberation/enlightenment/whatever one calls it. It’s not possible. However, on the opposite side, one can reach one’s ultimate goal through worship, bhakti yoga. Indeed, the insights one receives from texts may be interesting; however, in my experience, they do not compare to actual practice. While my own “worship”, I suppose one could say, does not involve any manifestation of anything that could be considered a “god” or even “deity”, I think the message in the Gita is interesting – even if jnana (knowledge) is one path, study alone, itself is not enough. (and the third path of course, is karma yoga – action)
Going back to svādhyāya – I have observed that with more intense (not in the physical sense), and frequent asana practice and meditation, I have become more self-reflective. Both in the self-observatory sense, and in a more deeper, spiritual sense, I suppose you could say – being able to tune in what is conducive to myself, and my “path”, and what isn’t. Over the course of the last several months, in particular, while I’ve been open to the perspectives and opinions of others, I’ve become more understanding over the fact that while sometimes helpful, their outsider perspective, so to speak, is often significantly detached from my own, solidifying how I feel about what I posted here. This seems especially true when it has to do with more that just advice on how to conduct my day to day life (e.g. “Should I take a loan and renovate the studio, or should I wait, Mrs. Bank Person?”).
One thing that has always characterised me, and probably will always characterise me is that I’m quite anti-authoritarian. This is something that manifests politically, socially, and spiritually. I’m not attracted to being told what to do, or why doing, or not doing, something is helpful for me specifically, and things like that. I don’t like being controlled. While I realise that we are, more or less, controlled to some extent, and I have no problem abiding by things like paying taxes (death and taxes, you know – life’s two certainties), when it comes to things that I have the ability to administer some kind of self-control over, like how I live my life, I balk at the idea of someone telling me what to do. Rather, I loathe this. I have realised that in order to work with people and not be that dick, I need to put this attitude on the back-burner sometimes – I’m not a sociopath, after all – however, after several periods of trying my best to be the “subject”, listen, and try to heed the suggestions of others, often when they’re not asked for or welcome, I’ve realised that this not only going against my own nature, this advice is often downright wrong, especially when the individual offering the “insight” doesn’t know me, my background, etc. This is, probably, primarily why the “guru” thing that I posted about earlier has absolutely zero appeal to me. When I say I’m anti-authoritarian, this is often met with, “Well, it’s probably because you want to be the authority.” Again, someone projecting their perceived, and assumed notion of my character on me. I dislike being an authority almost as much as I dislike authority. People should be given room to come to their own conclusions, and find their own ways. While many individuals don’t see themselves as such, and/or perhaps look to a collective or an authority for advice (and to be sure, there is nothing wrong with that – it’s just not for me), some measure of self-reflection, self-study and self-governing is necessary. Do we, the outsiders, really know what is best for other people, spiritually speaking? In my opinion, you’re arrogant if you think so, beyond reasonable doubt.
Svādhyāya, as a personal practice, at least for me, has opened up insights that I’m not sure I would have realised in the same manner, otherwise. I think some means of self-reflection is fruitful also when being offered advice, etc., as well. Even an anti-authoritarian, such as myself, can see the benefit of taking advice from others, spiritual, personal, or otherwise, in some cases, and perhaps surprisingly, I’m not a proponent of the “tune everyone with negative opinions out” attitude, either. Sometimes we need something to bring ourselves down to earth, sometimes the bank lady has better advice on what loan options are best for you. Spiritually? Well… “You need to do a in order to reach b,” seems a bit ridiculous. How can someone else determine that with absolute, calculated, scientific certainty? The illusion of the spiritual authority strikes again. I’ve applied this means of reflection to such things, especially with respect to the “supramundane”. If, after some measure of reflection, the thing is not useful, I let it go. If it can’t serve me in my path, it’s not worth it. Perhaps that seems self-centered, but when one isn’t following a major religion, with rules, guidelines, and traditions, I suppose the entire pursuit is self-centered.
2011/12/27 § 12 Comments
Since I’m going to be teaching quite a bit more regularly in the next coming weeks, I’ve started preparing a bit for my classes ahead of time, because I’m both a chronic procrastinator, and someone who dislikes being unprepared (what a great combination that is!), and I don’t want to say anything ridiculous. One of the ways I’ve best found to prepare, and avoid saying stupid things, is to write notes clarifying what I want to say, and reading them out loud, which probably sounds like overkill, but its helpful.
Yoga teachers say a lot of ridiculous things. Trust me.
I was scared of going to anusara classes for awhile, because after the first class, the teacher said both, “flower your buttocks”, and “let your anus blossom”. I’m still not 100% sure what either instruction ,means, but they both horrify me, and sound like something from a really bad porn film, rather than a yoga class. Try not laughing when someone tells you, in a really happy voice, to “let your anus blossom”. I dare you. As you can probably, correctly, assume, I’m not really a “flowery, rainbow, hearts and sun-rays”, kind of person…
Despite all the preparation, I sometimes use silly instructions when I teach, too, like “find your breath”, and “return to your breath”, as if you lost it in the first place. I guess the nice thing about Swedish is that for some reason, ridiculous instructions sound even more ridiculous than they do in English, so you don’t often hear them. About 80% of the time I go to an English-language class, I have a hard time holding back my laughter. Some of my favourite, ridiculous instructions over the years have been:
– “flower your buttocks”
– “let your anus blossom”
– “melt your heart”
– “brighten your chest/heart”
– “shine your collarbones”
– “imagine your thighbones are rainbows, spiraling outwards”
– “puff your kidneys”
– something about “blossoming your perineum”
They are a lot of flowers blooming around the asshole-area…
I mean, fuck, its no wonder some people head to the hills when they find out you’re a yoga teacher. The problem with those instructions are they’re ridiculous, and they’re not clear. I can’t even say, with 100% certainty, what the teacher is asking for. I can assume, but I don’t know for sure. “Melt your heart” usually means to draw your shoulderblades together, but I’ve heard it so many times in contexts where its impossible to draw your shoulderblades together, I’m not even sure if the teacher knows what they’re instructing…
How many people find these kinds of instructions useful? Surely someone must if they’re so prevalent. I never went back to the teacher who told me to “flower my buttocks”, mostly because when I pay to go to a yoga class, I want to, clearly, know what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to assume the same thing for my students – the clearer I am in projecting what I want them to do, the more likely they are to come to my next class. Am I wrong in that assumption?
If I ever start talking in terms of flowery metaphors, or applying verbs that don’t clearly project what a body part is supposed to do, can someone please, please shake me?