Daniel Simpson’s book ‘The Truth of Yoga’ is a refreshingly readable history of yoga, which concludes in this way:
‘Yoga helps us to see from a different perspective. How we interpret what we learn is up to us. It seems unhelpful to follow a script, trying to be a ‘good yogi,’ whether one from the Iron Age or more recently. Whatever we do, unless it comes from the heart, it projects another story about who we are.
Regardless, we might need new stories to hold things together. The converging challenges of the twenty-first century – from environmental meltdown to social instability – seem significantly different from those that inspired the earliest yogis, although human psychology has changed very little. If our aim is to live in the world, and to do what we can to alleviate suffering, does an ancient philosophy based on renouncing require a new framework? A more communal model could nurture compassion, facilitating action based on transcendental insights. Or it might just remind us of ways to be kinder.
Whatever our priorities, one thing seems clear. Unless we tune out completely, the mind spins illusions. And if stories are shaping our lives, why not choose nice ones?’ (Simpson, p.200-201)
One central issue that has come up in the debates around accessibility, inclusivity and activism in yoga spaces and communities is the issue of spiritual bypassing, in which we avoid actively addressing such matters because we claim our practice means we ought not involve ourselves in such mentally agitating and worldly disputes. A disdain for politics in general has also plagued many yoga communities and led to some naivety around such matters. It is interesting that the text we hold as central to our yoga journey Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (on a classical Saṁkhya reading) is a text that reinforces, in book four in particular, our retreat from being active in the world. It arguably supports this apolitical position. Of course most of us conveniently stop reading at book two, which presents the yama and niyama as the basis for practising being a good, yogic, sattvic or clear minded individual. However, Patanjali goes on to suggest that through practising the eight limbs we not only learn meditation and explore transcendental states of consciousness, but through doing so we clear out our karmashya (storehouse of karma) and form contrary thoughts to prior negative samskara (subliminal imprints). In doing so we gradually find freedom in kaivalyam (a state of liberating isolation).
Simpson jokes that ‘Renouncing the world to avoid rebirth is not a popular reason for starting yoga’ (Simpson, p.197) So, given that we intend to live in the world, what is a more suitable framework for our philosophical discussions? He highlights the issues that arise when we ‘[…] selectively borrow from ancient teachings. Translating whatever seems useful in ways that make sense of them. Admitting this is what we are doing removes the pretense that our reinterpretations are faithful renditions’ (Simpson, p.198). So maybe we begin to be more explicit with students and peers about why we turn to books one and two of the sutra and apply them to our lives more than books three and four. Likewise, we might discuss why book four might not be relevant at all to many of our yogic aspirations and this is not just ok, but is more fitting for the world we find ourselves in.
Does this mean we can’t experience samadhi (deep meditative absorption) states? No, we can still do that, but maybe as Simpson suggests what arises from our deep meditations are not deepening states that draw us further away from our lives so that we retreat from our loved ones and from the chaos of the world. Instead maybe we come to what Simpson refers to as ‘transcendental insights’. What if through cultivating silence, stillness and peace in the mind a better sense of how to live in our own skins, with families, communities, with the planet and in the chaos will arise. When the meditation is over and we return to our householder existences, what can we do to help? Let’s hope we are able to find our own ways to affect positive changes in our lives and that we can find a way of doing yoga and meditation practices that support this rather than sit in tension with it. Can we seek parinama (transformation) not just in ourselves, but also in our communities, societies and for the planet which so desperately needs it. Oṁ Śāntiḥ Śāntiḥ Śāntiḥ