Luke Jordan

Yoga: A warning

Yoga: A warning.

 

Vande gurunam caranaravinde

Sandarshita svatma sukhava bodhe

Nishreyase jangalikayamane

Samsara Halahala Mohashantyai

 

Abahu purushakaram

Shanka cakrasi dharinam

Sahasra shirasam shvetam

Pranamami Patanjalim

 

I remember, as a beginning student, feeling proud of myself for remembering the exotic sounds of these Sanskrit syllables, which seemed (in my imagination) to open a doorway to some parallel ancient time. I didn’t give much thought to their meaning or depth. I added the mantra to my repertoire, like a new item of spiritual clothing and chanted it religiously before my postural yoga practise, affirming my allegiance (and sense of belonging) to my chosen yoga brand. As I began to delve deeper into the yoga philosophy I discovered radical ideas that called into question the very idea of my ‘self’. Where I had thought yoga was a form of self-betterment that might solve all my problems, I began to find out that instead yoga sought my demise!

In the literature on yoga, particularly postural yoga, I didn’t find much corroboration of what I was discovering in the philosophical realm. Mostly I found a further marketing of the dream of yoga. Perhaps the PR advisers found the idea of death-through-yoga somehow not sexy enough. Better to stick to the tried-and-tested nice asana in tight leggings! The idea of the yoga dream goes something like this – if you do x you will get y. It might be the perfect ‘yoga butt’, or spiritual enlightenment but no matter what it is, sacred or profane, it is something you can have to consume and make your own. You get to make it out alive. A slicker, sexier, new and improved version of yourself.

However, the yoga philosophy is far more radical than this typical carrot-on-a-stick sales technique. Like a dangerous medicine, the small print warns of the death of the buyer. Hidden in plain sight, the heart of the mantra so many chant every day before their Ashtanga Yoga practise gives the same warning. Beware, it says, enter the brave. ‘Your’ life may never be the same again.

 

It begins innocuously enough with a bow (vande), which is a good thing! A rare act of humility. While our egos might like to take credit for our yoga practise and our ability to perform all kinds of yogic feats (to be posted on one’s chosen social media platform – or better yet, all of them) we begin by acknowledging that our yoga is in fact a gift. It is a gift given to us through our teachers, our teacher’s teachers and our teacher’s teacher’s teachers, ad infinitum. We bow in gratitude to for the gift we are about to receive. But, hold on, what is this gift, what have we got ourselves into?

The mystery and allure of yoga entices us on like a beckoning finger. We don’t even know yet what is in store. We think it is about the body, we think it is about being more flexible. Nope. Some might think it is about self-development or solving our problems. Again, not. Yoga is the ego’s trojan horse. It looks inviting enough. Yes please, I’ll have some of that! Like the poor Trojans though the ego in its attempt to consume the gift of yoga will (hopefully) find itself undermined, usurped, defeated. What looks so inviting on the outside, with its nice spiritual packaging, lotus flowers and the like, is, in fact, deadly.

Many who come to yoga have already tried looking for happiness out there in the world. We have sought it in the things the world has to offer – job, money, car, spouse, children, chocolate cake, drink and drugs. We think maybe doing the odd yoga class or two will do the trick to relieve us of our perpetual misery. Before we know it we’re hooked, hooked in trying, irony of ironies, to find our happiness in getting our legs behind our head (or whatever) in the name of ‘yoga’. In our physical yoga we think we are getting something. And to begin with we may well be. We have at the same time, however, welcomed in the trojan yoga which, like a malignant virus, will eat us up from the inside. Yoga is a losing game. Like a spiritual slot machine it gives a little something in the beginning and as you continue to play it takes it all back and more.

Like greedy kids in a candy store we think that if we follow the teacher and his teachings we can have the happiness that comes from the ‘insight of pure being’. Eventually even happiness isn’t good enough for us. We want everlasting bliss. Enlightenment. We want our cake and we want to eat it. So we follow that Pied Piper guru, whistling his tune as if it was our own. Little do we know where he is leading us or who he really is. Little do we know that it’s either the ‘me’ or the cake. You can’t have one and the other. As one modern teacher said, ‘If you have the choice between enlightenment and a million dollars choose the million dollars. At least somebody will be there to enjoy it.’

The warning is there! The teacher and the teachings are like the ‘jungle physician’. This is not a doctor who will treat your symptoms, make you feel good, fix your little woes (although at first he may pretend to). This physician of the jungle, this yoga, is, rather, like a shaman who will shake you to your core. In healing the underlying causes of your sickness he leads you down the rabbit hole never to return the same. Everything you hold so dear is at risk. Are you willing to let go? How much do you want to wake up? By the time you get the chance to ask these questions you have probably already ventured too far.

Strong is the medicine needed to remove this poison of conditioned existence (halahala). An allopathic doctor can continue to relieve your symptoms, can make you comfortable, functioning in your sickness, your drudgery. The shaman and his medicine, whether the methods are slow or quick, subtle or dramatic, seeks to remove the sickness root and branch. And that sickness is you. Not the you who you truly are but the mis-identified you, the ‘you’ that you think you are, the narcissistic self-image that seeks approval, confirmation, attention, and manipulates the world in order to get what it wants. It thought that it could use yoga to the same end. It thought wrong.

Before you know it, there is no turning back. Something inside us has awoken and leads us through yoga’s shamanism to our own undoing… As one great yogic jungle physician puts it, ‘Your head is already in the tiger’s mouth’. We now await only the snap of the jaws.

And then a mystical vision…

We stand before a man, well, not quite a man. You look slowly up from his feet at his massive form. Behold! He has four arms. He brandishes a sword, blows the conch shell like battle is about to commence. Ominously enough he holds a discus – famous in the Indian lore for separating people’s heads from their bodies. Is yours to be next? You continue looking upwards. You cover your eyes at the sight of his ‘head’. In its place, above his shoulders, like some crazed psychedelic vision, writhe a thousand (Indian euphemism for infinite) snakeheads. This Lord of Yoga, this guru of gurus, Patanjali, displays his true form. A comforting vision? One to send your children off to sleep with? I think not. By now it is too late. You are in too deep. As you bow again, this time as much in mortal fear as anything else, the discus is released and so are you…