This September, I gave my first academic paper at the BASR conference. Here’s an edited version, this time with all the pictures:
Wild Things and Fallen Angels: epistemology and ontology in transnational yoga
My name is Theo Wildcroft. My doctoral research area is the relationship between physical practice, animate bodies and systems of religious authority and transmission. Or as my supervisors put it: “Pagans doing yoga in fields”.
I have been a yoga practitioner for well over a decade, and a yoga teacher for almost as long. Crossing the emic-etic boundary gifts my research project with a number of methodological and philosophical challenges, but it also affords me certain privileges. Therefore, although my own fieldwork is barely begun, I can share today an autoethnographic fragment of the recent, rapid evolution of ‘Modern Postural Yoga’ (De Michelis 2007).
I will reference the rise and fall of gurus; the patriarchal legacy of colonialism; neoliberal adventures into Tantric philosophy, and the conflicting and evolving aims of physical practice. I will show how the detail of postural practice can reveal much wider cultural trends; and tell a story that in the academic arena, is largely untold.
Although the word ‘yoga’ covers a vast diversity of practice, philosophy and belief (Remski 2012),for many of the 2.5 million or more practitioners of yoga in Britain alone (Singleton and Byrne 2008: 1); whatever their intention and level of dedication, the heart of their lived experience of yoga, is asana, which we can define as: bodies moving, bodies breathing; bodies finding stillness, meaning, and somatic expression.
We call asana ‘postural’ or ‘physical’ practice, but in fact, pranayama, mudra, mantra, bhakti, seva and the various forms of yoga nidra and meditation are all practices experienced by bodies.
This regular routine of self-conscious and somatically aware, ritualised, physical animation within specific, modern subcultures of practice that are linked to shared, if diverse beliefs, and engaged in complex relationships with the mythologies and ontologies of the Indian sub-continent; this is at the heart of what De Michelis first called Modern Postural Yoga (De Michelis 2007).
The generative tension between the psycho-physical, ethical and ritual aims of yoga leads us into common, but unresolved academic debates on definitions of religious practice. With some notable exceptions and ongoing investigations (Alter 2005; Hasselle-Newcombe 2005; De Michelis 2008; Singleton and Byrne 2008; Beckerlegge 2011; Singleton and Goldberg (eds.) 2013; Birch 2015),
most academic studies of yoga have confined themselves to:
- Textual analysis of
- Historical sources as defined by
- Prominent, charismatic gurus within
- Mainstream, orthopraxic lineages
Yet in the forms of post- or non- traditional yoga I am researching, ethics, relationship and authority; notions of the self, axiology, ontology and epistemology are all under consideration. This is undoubtedly lived religious practice.
Meanwhile, the yoga that I have lived – the post traditional, rapidly evolving, diverse, syncretic yoga culture of Scaravelli and Shadow yoga and Womb yoga and Dru yoga and Shakti Dance and a hundred other styles, schools and loose affiliations, is largely defined only by its perceived distance from or dilution of the roots of ‘traditional’ yoga, and traditional guru-shishya transmission (Liberman 2008; Burger 2006).
Yet as we now know, there is much evidence that contradicts claims of a traditional physical yoga practice to return to (Singleton 2010). Mark Singleton’s thesis is that, at the turn of the 20th Century in India, we find the originators of modern postural yoga engaged in a project to sanitise and reclaim hatha yoga from its ‘decadent’, contortionist associations and create a new yoga, drawing from such diverse sources as the YMCA, Nature Cure, therapeutic gymnastics, callisthenics and body building (Singleton 2010). The very notion of that which came to be called ‘Classical Yoga’ is itself, “in many respects a cultural production of modernity” (Singleton 2008: 78).
The practices thus recovered or discovered, depending on who you interview, were wedded to claims of ancient Hindu authenticity in order to build yoga into a program of physical culture in the service of the Indian independence movement. From them would flower, fully formed, the international schools of Ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda yoga that continue to dominate both cultural and scholarly conceptions of what yoga looks like to this day.
And now it seems that medieval physical practices might prove to be much more diverse than transnational practitioners and scholars realise. Singleton, Birch and Mallinson are among a team now documenting key hatha sources once thought to be lost; and through them, an unknown number of medieval asanas, pranayamas and other practices may yet be rediscovered (Birch 2015).
What Modern Postural Yoga may have most in common with its medieval ancestry is its as yet undocumented diversity. But as constructing a comprehensive typology of physical practice is beyond the scope of my doctoral project, my focus now is transmission – how the shape of the body in practice changes to reflect not only its source, but its evolving meaning, and the relationships of authority within which it is shared.
We can follow the shape and rhythm of transmission within the history of a single yoga posture. Here is a photo of ‘Vasisthasana’ from Iyengar’s seminal book: ‘Light on Yoga’.
Within Iyengar yoga, mind seeks rational control of body in the service of spiritual advancement or enlightenment; but equally in the hopes of social advancement by the individual practitioner according to his (and later her) rightful place within civic society.
As far as can be seen from current scholarship, this is the earliest example of this body shape associated with this posture or asana name; which refers to a number of Vedic sages. Here’s how the most well-known yoga reference site in the world describes it today:
“Vasistha = literally means “most excellent, best, richest. Vasistha is the name of several well-known sages in the yoga tradition. There’s a Vasistha numbered among the seven lords of creation and a Vasistha who’s author of a number of Vedic hymns. He’s also said to be the owner of the fabulous “cow of plenty,” which grants his every wish and accounts for his infinite wealth.” (‘Side Plank Pose’ 2014)
“Firm the scapulas and sacrum against the back torso. Strengthen the thighs, and press through the heels toward the floor. Align your entire body into one long diagonal line from the heels to the crown.” (‘Side Plank Pose’ 2014)
Note the complex precision of the instructions, how a masculinised upper body shape is privileged, and the way the whole pose embodies strength, firm purpose, clean lines and the rational control of matter.
[As an aside, here on the right is my friend and colleague Christine Wright modelling the posture for me. When she first came into the pose that morning, it was more expressive; there was more of a backbend; more leaning back into a touch of surrender. I asked her “Can you do it a little more…Iyengar…?” and she straightened up her alignment and immediately set her jaw firmly.]
Early modern postural yoga featured an aesthetic that promoted an image of strong, healthy Indian manhood. Within yoga culture, full Vasisthasana is an aspirational posture that results in an experience of strength and clarity. Yet as Yoga Journal says, “The full version of Vasisthasana, as taught by BKS Iyengar, with the top leg raised perpendicular to the floor,
is beyond the capacity of most beginners.” (‘Side Plank Pose’ 2014)
Because of the difficulty of stabilising the hips whilst lifting the top leg, when learning Vasisthasana, the body often falls backward. I’ll come back to this fact, because in this relatively unexamined gap between teaching and learning a posture, Wild Things are born.
John Friend was one of B.K.S. Iyengar’s most famous students. After a number of years as a senior Iyengar yoga teacher, he became a devotee of Chidvilasananda, the Siddha Yoga guru, and then founded Anusara yoga in 1997. It rapidly became “the most widely consumed, tantra-inspired postural yoga system in the world” (Jain 2012: 4).
Anusara yoga aims at precision and evolution towards a perceived ‘optimal blueprint’ for body, mind and spirit, which are seen as inseparable manifestations of the universal divine. In this way, a neo-liberal, politically and philosophically naïve interpretation of karmic theory expressed as the power of self-will, alignment with a divine grand plan, and positive thinking conflated physical dedication with spiritual devotion.
The promised result was a natural outflowing of individualised expressions of joy that practitioners knew as ‘shri’. The culture that surrounded and narrated Anusara practice was an intoxicating bricolage of obscure scripture, neo-Tantric interpretations of classical yogic texts, celebrity bhakti singers and festival culture.
The subculture’s own oral history relates that when Anusara practitioners kept ‘falling out’ of Vasisthasana, they discovered something entirely new (to them, at least). This posture happens off centre and outside the usual physical borders of the practice. It is diverse in its expression, highly gymnastic, and supported by clear and precise instruction.
It became known as ‘Wild Thing’, a name redolent of both rock and roll rebellion, and natural expression. And Christine and I can assure you – it feels as wild as its name.
Here’s Anusara teacher Amy Ippoliti in 2011 discussing Wild Thing with a mixture of precision, celebration, and devotion. Feel free to follow along:
“From Down Dog, come into Vasisthasana on your right side. Step your left foot behind you, keep your right leg straight, and push your hips up away from the floor. Scoop your tailbone and use your legs to keep lifting your hips. Curl your head back, lift your left side body, and keep your left upper arm moving toward your shoulder socket. Extend your left arm over your head and curve into a rapturous backbend. Have fun. Be wild. Taste your freedom.” (Ippoliti 2011)
In February 2012, scandal struck, and largely destroyed the Anusara community and lineage. Although the accusations levelled against John Friend were much milder than those that continue to beset the legacy of many of his own teachers, evidence of questionable financial practices, sexual relations with several married female employees, and equally questionable drug practices was enough justification for many to voice their growing unease with the Anusara method.
“the unwillingness of this so-called minority to accept the sage-on-the-stage as the focal point for yoga’s idealistic projections any longer signals to me that the childhood of yoga in the west is officially over. And that its future is exactly what these rebellious teenagers are asking for: a movement led by the people, for the people and of the people.” (Poole 2012)
When a physical practice is both the embodiment of a philosophical worldview, and the experience of its proprioceptive and interoceptive rewards, can a practice survive the ontological rift inherent in this kind of loss of faith?
As some sections of the wider yoga community have begun to challenge the epistemology and axiology that supports international yoga culture and practice, more thoughtful and radical voices are emerging, such as Be Scofield’s ‘Decolonizing Yoga’, Melanie Klein and Dianne Bondy of the ‘Yoga and Body Image Coalition’, and independent researchers, such as Matthew Remski and Carol Horton.
In 2014, Remski turned his attention to the most iconic asana of Anusara, in a blog post titled ‘“Wild Thing” Pose: Impossible, Injurious, Poignant’. After discussions with anatomy specialists, he writes:
“it offers the impossible promise of simultaneous bliss and physical health. […] And it cannot help but to damage the health and functionality of shoulder joints.” (Remski 2014b)
Hatha yoga practices have always involved radical attempts to transform the individual through strong or even non-dual associations between flesh and spirit; action and being. But the conception of yoga practice as inherently therapeutic is entirely modern – a medieval epistemology of invulnerability reframed by the originators of modern postural yoga; that is only recently being interrogated by careful, scientific study.
I was taught that with proper alignment, yoga practice cannot result in injury. I still hear claims repeated by teachers for which I know there is, at best, anecdotal evidence. The undocumented diversity of most modern practice combines with the unsubstantiated nature of truth claims made in oral transmission to render any detailed research into health benefits and injuries within modern postural yoga extremely challenging.
Meanwhile, most ex-Anusara teachers that I know personally, have stopped teaching Wild Thing. But many of us still practice it. As Remski says:
“We want our naturalness restored. We want to be Wild Things in this suburban conference center, in this urban boutique studio” (Remski 2014b)
In the last few years, I have noticed a number of new asanas or body shapes being shared across the informal, post-traditional yoga knowledge network, within the kind of dynamic physical culture of which Anusara yoga is still a minor part. These postures often retain that sense of exuberance and off-the-mat asynchrony so beloved of the peak experiences of Wild Thing devotees.
Here is one that takes the practitioner even deeper into the extreme gymnastics of 21st century vinyasa (Budig 2010; Hudelson 2015; Remski 2015a).
The second pose is often called Fallen Triangle, although I know it by the same name as the first one: the poignant ‘Fallen Angel’.
On social and mainstream yoga media, debates around the risks and purpose of different asanas moves on: most recently into a discussion of whether the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of postures – shoulderstand and headstand – are worth a minor risk of stroke. Meanwhile, the boundaries of vinyasa practice are pushed ever more by elite yogic superstars such as Kino MacGregor [seen here below].
However the practice evolves, however we negotiate its value and understand its history, those of us invested in modern postural yoga will continue to adapt. What brings us back to the mat on a ritual, daily basis, is more than, other than, and sometimes in spite of, any perceived benefits to health or, indeed, posture.
If the story of modern postural yoga is told only through a historiography of its ashrams, texts and gurus; and if the only research into contemporary practice is into health benefits and injury rates, this will shed little light on the real aims of long-term, ritual practitioners that endlessly navigate the boundaries of pain and pleasure, body and awareness, movement and stillness, freedom and discipline; forming deeply personalised meanings around the troubled concept of human wellbeing.
The diversity and authenticity of yoga’s religious roots, and the validity and safety of its physical claims and methods, are of evident importance. But De Michelis’ seminal typology of modern yoga (2008) was never designed to adequately cover the whole spectrum of colonial and neo-colonial, neo-liberal and radical, patriarchal and feminist, militaristic and primal, individualised and communal attitudes that inform modern interpretations and justifications for yogic physical practice.
It certainly cannot begin to address the diverse and divergent sources for transnational yogic philosophy, which may not only reference Vedic and Tantric concepts, but at the very least Sikh, Jain, Christian, Theosophist, animist, and pagan ones as well.
From Vedic saints to Wild Things and Fallen Angels, for some sections of modern yoga culture, the yoga mat has been a place for what Orsi calls the “making and unmaking of worlds” (Orsi 2003: 172). From Iyengar to Ippoliti, the physical practice forms a hard core of experience in which to explore the sacred, transcendent and immanent, the nature of being and the edges of self and will.
What they – we – sacrifice on the altar of the yoga mat are the products of the bodily self: breath, heat and sweat; even health and wellbeing. What is in play is a seemingly eternal human religious tension, between the numinous and cessative; the manifest and the liberatory; between the desire to experience the untamed glory of wild things; and the hubris of fallen angels.
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