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Yogis of the World, Unite! [Feb. 3rd, 2009|05:38 pm]
[mood |rushedrushed]
[music |Duran Duran, "A View to a Kill"]

What we have been seeing for the last thirty years or so, those huge music halls where the music can never be deafening enough, inevitably brings to mind those states of near trance, of loss of identity, a lack of differentiation, attempting to reach beyond signification. People live in the instant, feel penetrated by the music, the sheer amount of decibels is a sort of real violation of one's physical integrity, bodies mix in a diffuse sexual encounter, joints circulate--but that is not important. These are all things on which to lean, through which to return to a situation that seems to achieve a total meaning and at the same time precedes any articulated meaning. . . . [A]ttempts to do Oriental meditation are very much the same thing in indivuduals who despair in this depersonalized, privatized Western world.
--C. Castoriadis, "Psyche and Education," in Figures of the Thinkable (170-1)
In its original form, yoga was developed within Hinduism as a practice directed toward the attainment of Enlightenment; it thus involved a project of self-mastery, surrender to God, and world-withdrawl, directed toward the realization that the world is illusion, and that self and Other (atman and brahman) are ultimately the same. In other words, we can see the basic structure of stoicism, and we can roughly characterize yoga in its original form as a manifestation of what Hegel calls the Unhappy Consciousness. Note that this term need not imply that yoga is--or ever was--a morose or depressed practice; the yogic ideal of transcendence as the dissolution of self within the love of Krishna still amounts to the renounciation of the physical world in favor of an eternal, transcendent, perfect world of spirit. And the renounciation of the world as illusion or "sport" is still a stoic project, no matter how couched in the terms of love, joy, or kundalini.

Thus, in its original form, yoga was essentially an apolitical project--that is, essentially unconcerned with questions of social justice, democracy, economy, etc. This is not to say that yoga--or any apolitical lifestyle--has no political ramifications; quite the opposite! But, while we might characterize the effects of such a practice as politically regressive, we would have to call the project itself apolitical, and even antipolitical.

However, as yoga has migrated to--and gained in popularity within--the Western world, and most especially America, over the last few decades, two major "hybrid" strands of yoga have emerged. The first is what we might call "yoga as exercise routine"; that is, a yogic practice cut away from its metaphysical context, and offered to Westerners as yet another fitness program. This strand preserves the essentially apolitical nature of yoga, but in such a way that it no longer carries with it a message of asceticism. Indeed, within a First World capitalist economy, yoga's original ascetic practice would necessarily take on a politically critical character, and we can understand the "exercise routine" approach as a necessary step to maintain yoga's apolitical orientation. Furthermore, this strand of yoga is not limited to the "yoga light" classes offered at most gyms; the yoga classes we find at many yoga studios, which boil the Hindu philosophy down to empty, warmed-over hippie spiritual expressions ("love for the universe"; "finding your inner goddess"; etc.) are still largely of this kind. The spiritualism-light offered in such contexts is yet another manifestation of Western "apolitical" ideology; a response to modern alienation through regressive withdrawl into the Unhappy Consciousness, albeit in such a way that the capitalist economy of desire can still function.

The second--and more interesting--hybrid form of yoga to emerge, however, is somewhat different. Instead of simply divorcing yoga from any explicit metaphysics, there have been several attempts to essentially recreate yoga within a Western context. The result has tended to change yoga from a practice of world withdrawl into a practice of world engagement.

While not yet automatically of a political nature, many approaches of this type have to necessarily confront questions that lead by very short roads to explicitly political contexts. In particular, I think of such American-born yogic "schools" as Anusara (developed by John Friend) and Forrest Yoga (developed by Ana Forrest). Anusara, it seems to me, has a tendancy to fall back into bourgeois humanism, focusing on the "inherent goodness" of every individual and directing energy toward making the individual feel better about him/herself while turning a blind eye toward structural social problems of dominance and injustice. At its best, however, Anusara is able to call upon these same resources as critical tools of social justice; the philosophy underpinning Anusara is fundamentally not one of world-renounciation, and so the potential--however under-utilized in practice--to engage in more universally liberatory practice is there.

While equally ambiguous in its political orientation (the inheritance of all yogic practices), Forrest Yoga's philosophical focus is at least more politically explicit:
The pillars of Forrest Yoga are Breath, Strength, Integrity and Spirit. Our mission is to create in each of us a sense of freedom, a connection to our spirit and the courage to walk as our spirit dictates; thus, doing our part in "Mending the Hoop of the People". Forrest Yoga will teach you to Go Deeper, find your Truth and encourage you to take these gifts you have earned Beyond the Mat into the rest of your life.
The phrase "mending the hoop of the people"--a Lakota phrase referencing the decimation of the Lakota people culminating at the massacre at Wounded Knee--is an explicit reference to political struggle, the struggle of a dominated group (indeed the "hybrid" in this case seems to largely involve the crossing of the Hindu yoga tradition with Native American spiritualism, albeit filtered through its Anglo-American appropriation). But more importantly, the Forrest Yoga focus on yoga as therapy raises ineluctably political issues.

As Castoriadis explains in "Psychoanalysis: Its Situation and Limits," the very notion of therapy--when it is not strictly biological, at least (and perhaps even then?)--must involve a political stance. If by "therapy" we have a strictly biological (/medical) interpretation in mind, then Forrest Yoga simply falls back into the "yoga as exercise routine" category, or rather a specialized subcategory of the same: "yoga as physical therapy." As soon as yoga therapy is not directed solely at physical well-being, however, Forrest Yoga must confront questions of a normative picture of human mental, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. For, as Castoriadis writes, "the meaning of therapy is either of the following: somebody is deviating from some kind of norm and has to be 'set straight', or somebody is suffering and asks insistently for relief" (193). Dewey and Freire both have the same questions in mind when they (in different ways) discuss the two possible orientations of education: education (and therapy) can either change the individual to better conform to socio-historic circumstances, or activate the individual to change his or her circumstances. Therapy must either produce individuals who are happy submitting to the conditions of modern capitalist society, or free individuals capable of taking action. This is why Castoriadis groups psychoanalysis, pedagogy, and politics together (Freud's "three impossible occupations"); and Forrest Yoga could thus certainly aspire to this sort of program.

The political orientation of Forrest Yoga would seem to turn around the interpretation of a few key phrases: "a sense of freedom," "mending the hoop," and action "beyond the mat, into the rest of your life." This is why Forrest Yoga strikes me as ineluctably political, for this "sense of freedom" can only be created in one of two ways: either by convincing people that they are already free (returning practitioners to the bourgeois juridical ideology of the free, equal participant in the market), or by developing critical subjects who can act to secure their own real freedom by struggling for the freedom of all; the "hoop" can be "mended" ideologically (bourgeois humanism that turns a blind eye to class struggle), or politically (the struggle for social justice); action can be carried beyond the mat in the sense of the 'yogi' returning to his/her place within the established order, or it can be carried beyond the mat in the struggle for universal liberation.

I see no indication in any of Ana Forrest's published writings as to which of these two interpretations she has in mind. Indeed, this in itself is telling, I suppose; the tradition of yoga carries with it a certain tendency toward passivity, stoicism, and submission. To leave the critical, liberatory potential of Forrest Yoga implicit is largely to slip back into the tradition of apolitical submission. But--as with the best of all of the Western hybrid yogas--this critical potential is there all the same. Socialisme ou Barbarie, yogis? The choice is up to you.