Wild Yoga

yoga and thought from Theo Wildcroft

Post-lineage yoga

listing unsung yoga teachers on a boardIt’s a funny business, a PhD in the Humanities and Social Sciences. At least here in Europe, the heart and soul and centre of the process is the production of one thesis, by a single mind. That thesis will be 100,000 words long – that’s nearly 300 pages – and contained within must be ‘a substantial contribution to original knowledge’ in order to be approved. In creating that thesis, there’s more reading of original research by other academics than you can imagine, figuring out what’s known, what’s been speculated upon, what’s been investigated and discussed already. I have over a thousand articles and books on the ‘already read’ shelf of my digital library.

Besides that, of course, there’s a total, long term immersion in the field of study, spent asking a lot of questions of my research population, slowly figuring out together the traces of common themes, the flows of power and history, and trying to separate correlation from causation, or what causes what, and what just happens to flow side by side.

Little by little, if you’re lucky, a unique and precious thing comes into view. And to stop you getting distracted by the dozens of fascinating smaller things you figure out, and to keep you on track with that single substantial idea you’re looking for, there are colleagues to talk to, and conferences to go to. Above all, if you’re lucky, there’s a supervision team constantly asking you the really difficult questions. And that’s been my journey so far.

group crawling at SantosaWhen I started, I started with the sure and certain knowledge that the yoga that I was familiar with did not look the same as the yoga that everyone talked about. Everyone seemed to separate tradition and lineage on one side, and commercial exploitation on the other, and the closer you were to the first, the better things were. All around me were yoga teachers who didn’t really fit in either camp, and other teachers that seemed to fit in both. Commercial yoga just doesn’t separate from lineage so neatly when you know that Swami Sivananda first had the genius idea to offer spiritual initiation by postal order. Or when schools like Jivamukti and Anusara refer to ancient texts as support for neoliberal ideas of abundance, whilst claiming long lines of their own lineages to justify their new patented methods of practice.

At the same time, everywhere I looked, the accepted foundations for yoga practice were under assault. The history of yoga was being rewritten. The science behind yoga turned out to be a lot less substantial than we knew. And high-profile teacher after high-profile teacher was dethroned through scandals of one kind or another. It was, and continues to be, a hard time for a yoga teacher, but a very interesting one to be a yoga academic. I couldn’t even see the whole picture to begin with, and it was obviously too big a puzzle for me to solve alone.

A PhD thesis in contrast is small, in-depth, and meticulously researched. And my supervisors’ first job therefore was to help me draw appropriate boundaries around the object I wanted to study. In my case, that means a small but coherent group of yoga teachers and bhakti musicians, who are unlike any others. They come together every year in a series of small summer events across the South West of the UK, and figure out together what they think yoga is for them. The rest of the time, they share that practice in their home communities. Few of them are well-known. Most of them are very highly respected by those that know them. Some are strongly connected to a lineage, others combine allegiances to multiple styles, and still more have rejected lineage systems entirely. Out of such diversity, from this highly individual practice, they have made a sustainable, coherent, and supportive community. In my thesis, there’s lots to say about how individual innovation and the group culture work together, and what the risks and rewards of this way of working are. There’s lots of detail about what the practice looks like, and what the culture looks like. This culture is unique, but telling its story is not the only substantial contribution of my thesis.

During those long supervision conversations, my advisors were confused about how this community could be coherent when its relations to lineage were so varied. It took me just over a year to figure it out. Regardless of how these yoga teachers felt about their own teachers, they had moved beyond a place where lineage was the sole source of authority. They might be Ashtanga teachers who did a little Yin yoga on the side. They might be ex-Iyengar teachers who read a lot of new scientific research on anatomy. They might be the kind of rebels who got thrown out of a Satyananda teacher training for asking difficult questions. They also included bhakti lineages who would serve anywhere and anyone, so long as the event helped everyone find their own way to a place of peace.

When you asked them what kind of yoga they taught, they mostly shrugged and said it wasn’t important. They had moved beyond a single line of authority, but they weren’t out on their own, listening only to an ‘inner’ source of wisdom, or setting up new yoga orthodoxies and empires. They found their authority by checking in with each other. They weren’t anti-lineage at all. They were post-lineage. They were a community of knowledge, not a hierarchy. They were what is called a ‘community of practice’ by the scholar Etienne Wenger. And that’s it.

Defining the crisis of authority in yoga was possible for me, because this is a well-understood phenomenon in the study of religion. Theorists such as Malory Nye have been talking about ‘post-religion’ and ‘religioning as a verb not a noun’ for years. ‘Post-lineage yoga’ owes a debt to that concept, and the debates about ‘post-Christianity’ in the latter part of the 20th Century too. Good scholarship builds on, and openly honours, the foundations that other peer-reviewed scholars have built. I must honour also the university faculty of the Open University that routinely takes a chance on non-traditional research ideas and non-traditional research students like myself. I have great academic allies all over Europe in particular.

Defining post-lineage yoga as a response to the crisis in authority structures in yoga was also possible for me, because I have a background in the study of informal and community learning, gained during a Masters’ degree at De Montfort University. I learnt more about education and liberation in my first weeks there than I could dream of in an equally demanding undergrad degree many years before at the University of Cambridge. It took me a long time to get here, but along the way, I have had great people helping me build the foundations for this project.

All this to say that there are probably very, very few people whose academic history and context could allow them to look at this small, chaotic picture of a single, semi-nomadic group of yoga teachers from all lineages and none, and see a recognisable, describable phenomenon. Two phenomena, in fact: the specific yoga culture in the South West of the UK, and the cultural mechanisms of exchange that they were using to respond to changes in authority for the practice.

Let me say that again, as simply as I can for you:

1: My thesis describes a specific community of very unusual yoga teachers and their friends, centred on the South West of the UK, with uniquely interesting features.

2: My thesis sets out my term ‘post-lineage yoga’ to help to describe how that community holds together. Post-lineage does not mean anti-lineage. It can be commercial or traditional, radical or neoliberal, but it is rarely strict or branded. It just shifts the authority for deciding good yoga practice away from the absolute power of previous masters, to small community groups of teachers. The term therefore might be of wider usefulness.

It doesn’t sound like a revolution, and perhaps it’s not. My thesis is about post-lineage yoga as a specific cultural phenomenon. But as it nears completion, I am aware that people are speculating about PLY as a wider process. The online yoga culture wars are, and yet are not, about lineage, because they are about who has the authority to decide the future of yoga. It’s important to remember that my task is just to describe something that no-one has noticed before, not write a manifesto in praise of its existence. No-one accuses geologists of being apologists for volcanic eruptions.

I’m truly gratified that there’s interest in the concept of post-lineage yoga. I know that the community I have been researching has been talking about it a lot, and finding it useful. When other yoga teachers think about how it might apply to them, it helps me start to test whether this idea has wider importance beyond my research. In the process I’ve been approached and invited into some really interesting conversations with new yoga friends around the world. Yoga Alliance and the British Wheel of Yoga have both been in touch. Teachers like Peter Blackaby, J Brown and Diane Bruni have started to explore the term post-lineage yoga in talking about their own work. I’ve had no end of fruitful exchanges with people like Matthew Remski about what this might mean for a better transnational conversation about yoga.

But it’s also attracted a whole load of trolling, partly because the company I’m keeping have trolls and they tend to be catching. It is all a bit odd. Although the term ‘post-lineage yoga’ has been used quietly here and there by one or two people for a couple of years now, as soon as anyone knew Yoga Alliance had been in touch with me, some truly horrible and deliberate lies started to come out. I was suddenly told that I made the term ‘post-lineage yoga’ up a couple of months ago to justify white supremacy, but also that Yoga Alliance made up the term to justify yoga world domination. I was told that I had stolen the term from at least two other people who I’ve never even spoken to, but also the term is one lots of people have used forever, whilst simultaneously being brand new. People are using it with a dozen different meanings, and behind all that, all of those contradictory accusations and attributions are actually being made by the same, small group of people.

I don’t have a lot to say about that. I’m still figuring out what it means. I’m asking myself who it serves to keep a billion dollar industry and marketing platform and billions of underpaid, content-producing yoga teachers indelibly linked as one coherent entity in your minds. I’m wondering who it serves to muddy the waters in this debate before it has even gone public. Above all, I’m thinking about social media and attention and outrage as currency and reach, and a lot of other things that are way outside of the scope of my thesis and will have to wait. Those things aren’t part of my research conversation. They’re just interesting data if I manage to get funding for more research.

I have other priorities first. In the end, there are two groups of people I answer to: my academic community, and the people I’m researching. With their help and overwhelming support, I’m about to publish a thesis that we’re all pretty excited about. It might not change the world, but it will further our understanding of how yoga culture is changing in the UK, and why. If that has relevance for a wider audience, that’s great. I’m really happy to be involved in good conversations about that at any time. But I really don’t have the time or energy to engage with people who aren’t acting in good faith.

My priority has to be publishing the thesis. With luck and a fair wind, in about a year from now, it will be a book that you can read, filled with the story of a community that will make many of you smile. And I’d love to hear what you think about it. If I can have a little space to finish it first.