Beyond ‘Scampi’: Q & A with Dan K, Part 2

Returning to my dialogue with Dan K, here are Dan’s next questions and comments:

“… when did the classical text become divine? I took it to heart when David Life proclaimed to hundreds of yogis at the Catholic Monastery in DC that yoga is not a religion.”

I’ve heard David say that on several occasions. Now let’s contrast his statement with this one from the Jivamukti Yoga book, which he co-authored with Sharon Gannon:

“To serve and get closer to God is the only reason to practice or teach yoga. Without the desire for God, asana is meaningless exercise. Without devotion, Yoga cannot be attained.”

This appears to be a contradiction. I suggest we resolve it by making a distinction between two ideas: religion and religious experience. Religion generally refers to a particular form of faith in a divine power. Religious experience refers to the apprehension of a divine power by direct perception. Yoga reconciles the apparent contradiction by facilitating the latter without requiring the former.

The original texts of yoga philosophy have a theistic component. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali clearly indicate a divine power – Ishvara – who is in a unique category of being, untouched by mental impressions or reactions to actions, free from ignorance, ego, attachment and aversion, who is all knowing and unaffected by time. According to Patanjali, surrender to this unique being is the ultimate practice of yoga. This concept is given even greater emphasis in the Bhagavad-gita. Since these are the two seminal works of literature concerning yoga, it’s difficult to deny the relationship of yoga to religious experience unless one disregards them, as Ms Nardini prefers to do. But if we let the tradition speak for itself we understand that the classical texts have always been divine insofar as they direct us to union with the Supreme Divinity and are considered to be, directly or indirectly, of divine origin: shabda brahman – God in the form of sound.

(Dan) “But once you suggest that all yogis must follow the classical text in accordance with its fixed system, you’re elevating this practice to something instilling tremendous discomfort in me and others. I don’t share the view that there’s only one kind of yoga.”

Neither do I. Saying that the classical texts indicate a fixed system of yoga is not the same as saying that there is only one kind of yoga; the system itself facilitates a wide spectrum of yoga practices that can be tailored to fit the needs of each individual.

Traditional commentators describe the system of yoga as being like a ladder. Every rung has different attributes and qualities and the rungs are placed at different levels on the ladder. My friend and Ashtanga yogi extraordinaire, Kaustubha Das, maps it out in a very simple and reasonable way: in ascending order, yoga as a physical exercise, as a refined physical exercise, as a mental exercise, as a spiritual practice, and as a spiritual experience. Each level requires a different qualification on the part of the practitioner and offers different benefits accordingly. Hence, everyone can practice yoga and there’s an optimal form of yoga for everyone. There’s no exclusive ‘one-size-fits-all’ yoga practice. The system is both fixed and flexible and encourages us to get to the top of the yoga ladder in the way that works for us.

And that brings us back to my primary objection to Ms Nardini’s logic, which has nothing to do with varieties of yoga practice and their respective benefits. It’s directed at the idea that everyone’s yoga practice – or yoga lifestyle – must be considered as being on the same “spiritual” level as anyone else’s: I think this is artificial, illogical, and is certainly not supported in the classical literature. Rather, it’s ego-based, placing emphasis on everyone being able to feel good about themselves rather than fidelity to a standard measure of spiritual progress. The classical texts provide that standard measure in the same way that a map helps us see where we are relative to our destination.

To put it another way, I would no more disregard yoga scripture as an objective reference than I would disregard the Constitution when arguing a case in a court of law. And the commentaries are the equivalent of precedent; how have the great sages (Supreme Court Justices) interpreted the scripture (the Constitution)? Unless I’m missing something, lawyers don’t form legal arguments based on their subjective ideas of right and wrong; they form them by referring to the Constitution – a fixed but flexible document – and precedent – the interpretation of that document by those with an advanced practice. It’s no different for a yoga teacher.

Compassionate acceptance is not the same as artificial equality. I’m as opposed to egocentric judgmentalism as anyone (especially when I see it in myself!). But rejecting a yoga version of Affirmative Action for omnivores does not mean that anyone should be discouraged from practicing yoga. On the contrary, everyone should be encouraged to practice yoga. And classical yoga literature provides us with an objective point of reference to, as Catherine Ghosh so eloquently put it, “engage yoga’s own dynamic nature, which does not limit it to ancient forms, but rather, preserves the essence of such ancient practices while broadening their lure to modern audiences.”

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