Did we wait too long to ask questions?

yoga philosophy Dec 03, 2020
Julie Martin - Brahmani Yoga

Part 2 of my series on judgment, shame and lack of self-worth in the yoga world I examine how the West’s embracing of the yoga practices was initially met without question and how this led to not only vast misconceptions, but added fuel to our judgment and often open shaming of those who did try to question, especially in the “guru”-based traditions.

Read part 1 here  

This post was originally published on March 26, 2019


Did We Wait Too Long to Ask Questions?


"Belief has simultaneously taken mankind from ignorance to enlightenment and through dogma and orthodoxy kept us in the dark. Should all those who call themselves scientists consider: Is it the responsibility of all members of the human race to question everything?"
(Barry Turner, University of Lincoln, on ResearchGate)


To question everything would probably create a lot of anxiety and be rather exhausting for certain. However, without asking questions we really wouldn’t be where we are as a society. Development of humanity has relied on taking risks, searching for new ways of doing things, finding more solutions to problems like disease and economic failures, and expanding our ability to communicate. I wouldn’t be writing this blog at this moment if it weren’t for the fact that several people in different modes of technology (from hardware to software and interconnectivity) posed some simple questions about how the world communicates.


And yet, there is comfort in sticking with the status quo. Most of society has a tendency to prefer dogma, rules and regulations. Examination of any established system and, more importantly, examination of ourselves can be tricky and create self-doubt, especially if we don’t have a support network that asks similar questions. Of course, we don’t want pure anarchy reigning in the world, but why have we been so hesitant to ask important questions in the realm of yoga?


This is the area I’m covering in this part of the series, because our lack of questioning has allowed us to be misled, confused and often injured physically and emotionally in the name of yoga. In a society that has embraced a fast-paced change in the world of technology and exposure to evolving methodologies in all areas of modern life, curiosity of what is possible has fuelled our progress. However, it appears that we have accepted teachings and lineages of Eastern philosophies and, more significantly, their practices, and consumed them as if they held the latest elixir of life with little questioning. But why didn’t we pause and ask if there might be some poison in the Kool-Aid?



Asking Questions Makes Us Feel Foolish and Unintelligent

Think about being in school. Even when we’re encouraged to ask questions there, we often feel inadequate. Our fear that everyone else in the room must know the answers or that our question will be dismissed as irrelevant, prevents us from just being plain curious. It is rare that we grow up in an environment encouraging us to remain curious. School and church alike propose rules that must be adhered to and not questioned. Our parents’ regular “Because I said so” reply can also be the killer of inquisitiveness.


 When looking at the big picture of our introduction of yoga – specifically asana practices becoming widespread in the 1990s – I’ve often referred to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It is much easier to be swept up into the belief in (or of) some idea, concept or methodology when you see others happily following suit. Even more fuel is added to the flames when we see images of famous or influential people subscribing to the same belief. My life changed a lot when, back in the late 90s, I was teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, usually 5–12 students per class, twice a week. And then Sting and Madonna, in separate interviews, extolled the benefits of Ashtanga, explaining that’s how they looked so good. Immediately I went from teaching just my small dedicated group to people lining up to get a place in class, with gyms and recreation centers begging for me to teach classes. This was before there were any dedicated yoga studios. In retrospect I don’t recall anyone ever asking me the specifics or the science of the practice. No one ever said “Do you really think I should be doing Padmasana (full lotus)?” And of course, in my own ignorance, having not asked questions myself of this practice, I would have lead people to believe that, in time, all the poses would become accessible. I truly wish I could return to 25 years ago and apologize to many students for my own lack of questioning.


"In the 60s, Eastern philosophy and the mysticism that went with it was such an antidote to modern controlled society that it was often accepted without question."


Part of the problem was that the word “yoga” wasn’t necessarily new in modern vernacular and that the previous wave of yoga popularity had only positive connotations. In the 60s, Eastern philosophy and the mysticism that went with it was such an antidote to modern controlled society that it was often accepted without question. It appeared to be this magical antithesis to conservative and limiting belief systems that were stifling creativity and curiosity in the West. The hippie era embraced a lot of what was given in these new-found philosophies and practices without much questioning. It was a breath of fresh air in the face of conformity and the “peace, love and harmony” movement of the time embraced an “anything goes” attitude.


Growing up in a Vedanta-based church in Hollywood that attracted loads of hippies (my parents were not hippies at all by the way, just invested in the philosophy), I was surrounded by adults discussing the philosophies and meditation from a young age. In hindsight, it is quite interesting to look back on this culture of yoga that I grew up in – a culture without much talk of asana – as later on I began to question the whys of precisely the asana practices. Back in the 60s and 70s, what was being presented as the liberating factor in yoga was almost solely meditation and an attitude of peace, compassion and introspection. Asana in itself never seemed to have a great pull, although there were plenty of people practicing or probably dabbling in various forms – mostly Sivananda style at the time. My father had a subscription to the original Yoga Journal and still has stacks of them in the garage. Back then, the magazine contained very few photos or articles about asana. Instead, its pages were mostly filled with macrobiotic recipes, Eastern wisdom essays, notes on meditation and ads for vitamin supplements.


Perhaps (and this is only my observation) asana didn’t become as popular as meditation back then because in the 60s we hadn’t quite delved into the excitement of exercising and staying physically “fit”. That didn’t really happen until the 70s, coinciding with the widespread information on cardiovascular health and the onset of the running/jogging craze.


By the 80s, the hippie mentality had to take a back seat to materialism, greed, shoulder pads and big hair. This is when exercise became about creating your “body beautiful” and sadly we hadn’t shaken off that idea by the time the “asana revolution” came around in the late 90s. Maybe our initial attraction to the asana practices still held the appeal of creating a beautiful strong body, but overlaid with the word yoga allowed us to identify it with something ancient and mystical – as if the lingering beliefs from the 60s alleviated the need to question it.



How Does Lack of Questioning Create Judgment and Shame?

Yoga philosophy itself doesn’t glide along in a linear structure. Time and information are often circular and for those of you who have spent any time in India know it is a culture that thrives on chaos. Of course, there is a method to the madness, but the point we need to bear in mind is that in India, whether in the yoga realm or in a taxi, if you ask a question, you’re unlikely to get a straight answer. And yet, much like in many theologies, you don't question your spiritual master in Hindu culture.

 Respect for elders, teachers and gurus alike is paramount to their hierarchy and means that you never disagree (out loud at least) with any of the above. It is easy for those with authority to shame those who question and even those who hesitate to answer a question in the expected “proper” way. While living in India myself I noticed early on that the young man who came to work on my garden and help around the house couldn’t ever say the phrase “I don’t know.” This led to a lot of misunderstanding in the beginning, until I realized that there was a fear of being shamed and ultimately fired if he answered me with a question, especially one that would show uncertainty, which prevented him from being honest with me. It was always more comfortable for him to answer “yes,” regardless of whether he understood or not, as his culture had raised him to never question his elders and certainly not an employer.

India as a culture is pretty seeped in shame. The family construct is of utmost importance. You don’t really have personal successes or failures; you either make your family proud or you dishonor them. This overlaps into almost every area of Indian culture and the yoga world there is no different.

As we look at how adopting yogic lineages that have been translated through a shame-based society via a Guru who you are not allowed to question, we get a better glimpse of how we ended up with “yogic shaming.”



 The Asana Revolution of the 90s

 As the young yoga community that emerged in the early 90s, small and unquestioning, we followed pretty blindly without knowing that our teachers were also following blindly. Many went to India, especially Pune or Mysore, to meet the masters themselves and were swept up into the frenzy that becomes disciple-based guru worship. Students assumed they were being led into something ancient and foolproof.


Westerners returned calling the teachers “guruji’ and speaking of “how things are done in Mysore or Pune”. Again without question and of course everyone else in earshot became enthralled. A new attitude emerged in these small yoga circles: those who have been to Mysore or Pune are superior to those who have not. It became apparent very early on that if you wanted to be “in” as an “Ashtangi” you had to go to Mysore and practice only what guruji taught (in his limited English I might add). Sounds like the beginning of a cult, right? Slowly this guru/disciple-based relationship was being seen as more valuable or authentic. From my perspective, this was perpetuated by the practitioners themselves and not necessarily Pattabhi Jois.


"It was about this time, probably the early 2000s, that I had to stick my head up above all the downward dogs in the room and literally say 'What the F&*k?'"


It was about this time, probably the early 2000s, that I had to stick my head up above all the downward dogs in the room and literally say “What the F&*k?” You see, I grew up in a guru/disciple-based church, with very modern Indian teachers/gurus who had everyone’s well-being at heart and believe me, what I was seeing evolve in the asana-only world (because it certainly began to have little semblance of balanced yoga practice) was mind-boggling to say the least.


What I observed initially in this situation was when students don’t quite understand what is being communicated, when the dialogue has a sense of mystery and is unexplained or vague, most people, wanting to have faith in something greater than themselves, will follow blindly for a certain period of time and fail to ask questions. When we’re learning something new that has no comparison in the outside world (as the yoga explosion had yet to happen) it is easier to fall under the spell of a person delivering the message or the methodology itself.


I’m not talking exclusively about the gurus in India. In fact, what became more unnerving were the westerners who came back from India and began behaving as if they were gurus and needed to be treated as such – including the dismissal of those who questioned them. Hundreds of egos grew massively, all within a practice whose ultimate goal is to transcend the ego. Sadly, or perhaps worryingly, this now happens regardless of whether a teacher has been to India or even has much experience in yoga. In fact, it is often based on how athletic or gymnastic their asana practice is. We are currently in the age of “the perfect handstand is the king of yoga.” I fear that Krishnamacharya himself, who was not without guilt for perpetuation shame on his students, may now be rolling over in his cremation ground.

This was the beginning of the “haves and have nots” – an early cultivation of the “us and them,” all within the yoga world, which I think we can all agree is astoundingly ironic.

What evolved next was, disturbingly, a lot of injuries. This was perpetuated by a complete lack of knowledge of how humans are designed to move. Of course, if we don’t ask questions, we don’t know. But with the onset of more injuries, in all realms of yoga from Iyengar style to acro yoga and everything in-between, it seemed so difficult for people to stand up to the systems they were being injured by.


Again the “don’t question the teacher” system held most students in an environment of fear of being shamed for blaming a teaching cue or worse, an adjustment. How often have we heard things like: “You weren’t breathing,” “This is an ancient practice and you just don’t understand it well enough,” “You weren’t using enough bandha.”


Because of the environment that rose up around the practices, even talking with your fellow students could lead to arguments or being shut down for questioning anything in the first place.

This is where it gets dangerous, because this is how cults are formed and there are many cult-like behaviors in different lineages of yoga that are incredibly popular. Cults operate out of fear. You question the status quo and you will be excommunicated. This is important to notice as in the next installment of this series I’ll be talking about the need to belong to a community and feel supported.



The History of Modern Asana Revealed - Research Puts a “Spanner in the Works” 

The bigger shift of questioning didn’t really happen until Mark Singleton published his book Yoga Body. His research uncovered answers to many questions that had been brushed aside in the name of tradition or orthodoxy to a system.


 When he presented his work about the nature of the modern asana we inherited, discovering much of what the average asana practitioner was doing had its roots in Western calisthenics, gymnastics, Indian wrestling and other non-yoga based systems, it upset many beholden to their lineages – often despite several injuries, both physically and emotionally. Mark’s book shed so much light on the history of modern asana practice you’d think that we would be able to drop some of the The Emperor’s New Clothes mentality. But of course, there are detractors.


Many of the methodologies have gone beyond lineage and for some reason stuck with some (what we now know are) odd and outdated anatomical practices and yet still, one can be shamed by asking the whys of a certain alignment cue or the idea that we should be stretching (please, we really need to stop stretching!). Let’s look at an example outside of the yoga world for comparison.


Imagine I’m a runner and I love running, and I run everyday for years, but then after 10 or 15 years I notice pain in my knees or my back. First I’ll investigate the reasons for the pain – perhaps I look into the way I run, my shoes or the surface that I’m running on. I’ll consult other runners and eventually, if the pain persists, I’ll talk to some doctors, osteopaths or the like and see if they can give insight to the issues. Ultimately, if nothing changes, I’m still in pain and perhaps after discovering I’ve got a torn meniscus, I’ll probably quit running. And most likely this quitting won’t cause me much distress and while I might not see my running buddies that often anymore, I’ll find a new exercise program that doesn’t put additional stress on my knee. I may become a swimmer or go to the gym or do a multitude of other things. But if during this period of transition, someone kept telling me “keep running, it will get better, you’ll see the results with more practice” or “Keep running and all is coming,” I might think they were crazy and certainly wouldn’t put more power into their opinion over the health of my knee with a torn meniscus.


And yet, we see this all the time in the yoga world as “The methodology should not be questioned, only the practitioner should be questioned.” We are told “It is you who hasn’t practiced correctly and that is why you have hurt yourself.” I’ve seen teachers so often drop responsibility for an injury and walk away. Phrases like “You didn’t have your bandha’s engaged” or “You haven’t practiced long enough, you need more work on XYZ” are totally irresponsible, uneducated and fuel students to feel stupid, unworthy and like they have failed. I see other students in the same room at the same time, just looking away, pretending it didn’t happen and being complicit in their silence. Also, if its an injury that has happened over time with the wear and tear of constant stretching on body parts that don’t really need it (how flexible do we really need to be for god’s sake?), then others in the community begin to recommend body workers, osteopaths, chiropractors and more in the desire to help the body “cope” with continuing the practice. The insanity of this is outrageous. Why can’t anyone just say “Stop doing asana for a while, or forever, try Tai Chi, or Qi Gong or something more integrated.” I know why, because I say this exact sentence to many people when I see they are struggling to maintain a physical practice that no longer serves them: they are afraid that they have failed. “If I give up, I’ve failed.” And this is shameful, because the very system that attracted them in the first place and perhaps even healed them of other ailments, and that has become their community will not fess up to the fact that it may not have been designed for a western body and certainly not with women in mind, not to mention that it was never designated as a long-term practice in its limited form.


"The worst thing is that many injuries have nothing to do with practices being based on long-term lineages, but more that modern alignment, based on old school anatomical beliefs (more belief systems!) work against the body instead of working with the natural movement that we are designed for."



The Practice Is Not in the Asana, It’s in the Awareness

Everything evolves and needs to evolve, and yet we can be made to fear change, because to begin the process of change we need to be vulnerable, ask questions (mostly of ourselves) and often go against the grain of common belief systems within the structure of a practice. We don’t even need to be looking for a revolution, merely a justification for why we end up doing or believing what we are practicing.

We need to ask questions with healthy skepticism. We also must trust ourselves, our bodies and our intuition. What is the yoga practice about if not connecting to the deeper sense of self? We often hear that we are our own best gurus and yet we often doubt that – we doubt the inherent intelligence of the body. We doubt the soft voice that says “less, please.” We doubt what feels right in fear of possibly being wrong, and worse even, of possibly being called out for it.

 When we are really practicing yoga (not just asana, but all the aspects of yoga) we are drawing inwards. We are letting go of the chatter, inside and out. We are moving towards stillness in the mind to be an observer, to carry a practice of curiosity in daily life. Judgment is a trick of the ego. When our judgment is directed at ourselves, it creates shame. When judgment comes from an outside source, it is disempowering. Ultimately you own your journey – only you can provide the peace within to yourself. Your inherent “right and wrong” are so unique to you that only you can access those truths. A true teacher or guru opens the doors of inquisition within you, perhaps gives you a map, but should never tell you the outcome you should be able to find as the outcome will be different for everyone. As such, there is no ultimate right or wrong. We need to accept that and also understand that as we discover our own processes, our answers will change with time. What worked five years ago may no longer serve you today. It doesn’t make it wrong, it just means that truth is always changing and is only relevant in the present moment.


If you have experienced public shame within the yoga environment please share your story.


Check in with the next instalment in which I discuss the need for belonging and community and how that is beautiful when it works until it doesn’t, which results in imposter syndrome, fear of excommunication and a lack of self-worth.


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