Luke Jordan

A Few Thoughts on Yoga and Disillusionment



“No Guru, no method, no teacher

Just you and I and nature

And the Father

In the garden”

Van Morrison


“…I don’t believe in Buddha

I don’t believe in Mantra

I don’t believe in Gita

I don’t believe in Yoga…

I just believe in me…”

John Lennon


Yoga has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. In fact so much so that it is hard for me to conceive of where I would be now had I not ever gone to that first class and done that first sun salutation. It has infiltrated everything I do and have done. My travel, the people I’ve met, the food I eat, the money I’ve earned, the hours I sleep and the books I have read have (to a great extent) revolved around this one fairly (to an outsider’s perspective) bizarre activity. It has given me so much and will, I imagine, continue to do so.

Like any relationship, however, there have been many changes in our years together. I look back at my youthful enthusiasm. Fueled by an unquestionable (unquestioned) belief, driven by earnest inquiry coupled with a smattering of hidden egoic ambition, there was hardly a thing that would stop me from being there, sweat-drenched on the mat, day after day, working to push through to the present.

I was a full believer in the fairytale land of Indian spirituality. One of my first yoga books, Autobiography of a Yogi, goes from one chapter in which a person levitates to another in which a person can produce any scent at will, to another in which a dead master re-materialises, so on and so forth.

It was, perhaps, in my hope for a something-more-than-this, that I accepted it all as plausible and created a reasoned world-view in which such things could and did happen. I became a believer, ironic considering how I had sneered at the idiocy of the Christian myths and those who believed in them. A virgin birth? Come on! Water into wine? You’ve got to be kidding me! Levitating, rematerialised dead guru…. hmmm, maybe!

I wanted something magical to believe in and I sought out inroads into this magic world. I swapped the prison of the mundane for one of fantasy. Eventually, yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, in particular, became the canvas on which I projected these fantasies of spiritual flight. It had everything. An enigmatic Guru, a fierce discipline rooted in thousands-of-years-old mythological scriptures, rumours of magic powers (siddhis) that could accrue from dedicated practise, etc.. All beliefs supported by a community of like-minded individuals.

Eventually, following that initial fervent belief, there were periods of doubt and disillusionment were I lost faith in the practise, its teachers and its underlying mythologies. For this too I am grateful for it has brought me, instead, to a reliance and faith in myself.

I love the word disillusionment. It signals to me nothing other than growing up. A dispelling (dis) of the illusions that we hold both about ourselves and about others. It is, I imagine, fundamental to any so-called yoga/awakening process whatever the discipline, whatever the form.

Often we prefer the fantasy over an uncomfortable reality. We are supported in doing so. All industries are built on the creation and maintenance of the fantasy that our lives will be better if we buy whatever it is they are selling us. The spiritual industry is no exception.

Nowadays the spiritual economy is huge and its sales reps, the various Gurus, teachers and their minions, peddle their products swathed in soft-focused light from the sacred and holy sites, orchestral music and ancient reverberated mantras amplifying the profundity of the spiritual platitudes being offered for our salvation. Image is everything, but it is nothing but the sheen of spirituality.

I remember the first time arriving in India. The chaos, the cacophony, the dirt, the filth, the poverty. All at odds with the romanticised notions of ‘Spiritual India’ I had seen on the TV, read in the books, lived in my mind. This is not what I thought I was buying! Don’t get me wrong. I love India, this place of extremes where the ‘holiest’ of cities is also the one most covered in shit.

There is a saying by Chuang Tzu – ‘when the eye is unobstructed – the result is seeing, when the ear is unobstructed – the result is hearing, when the mind is unobstructed – the result is truth’. The process of yoga is, according to the philosophy, the process of unobstructing, removing obstacles. The irony is that the PR business of spirituality (like any other) purposefully obfuscates our view to sell us our favourite fantasy (which it has most likely also seeded in our mind). The very thing that is there for our liberation shepherds us like sheep(ple) into enclosures of belief.

And so it is I find myself in the paradoxical world of Ashtanga Yoga. It has been a long time since I have been a ‘believer’. I have watched silently from the sidelines as the hierophantic hierarchy has fed the willing increasingly incredulous streams of belief to be swallowed and regurgitated in order to instill unquestioning and unswerving belief and dedication to ‘The Practice’.

To be honest, I’m not sure how much of a believer in all the Ashtanga myths I ever really was. Instead I hopefully hedged my bets that maybe, just perhaps, they might be true. That through my enigmatic Guru liberation (or at least spiritual power) might be attained, that I might accrue siddhis from advanced asana practise, that this yoga was a many thousand year old discipline descended from an ancient sage whose text we have been deprived of by hungry ants. In any case, it made a good story.

Often what we want to be true and what is true are two very different things. The video footage and testimony of students (not to mention the rumours and murmurings when he was alive) have made it clear in my mind that Ashtanga’s enigmatic ‘Guru’, Pattabhi Jois, was at times abusive in his ‘adjustments’ and relations with students, which has resulted for some in long-lasting psychological trauma. This appears not to have been a one-off phenomena or something that happened only a few times but was persistent and happened over many years and was known as being ‘a problem’ among those closest to him and those most senior within the community.

The only voices I have noticed speaking up (though I try to avoid too much social media, particularly relating to yoga) have been from those outside the community (perhaps carrying negative intent), from those already ostracized by the community, or from those on the community’s fringes. Some senior Ashtanga teachers (I mean those who were around in the 1980s and 1990s) seem to have confirmed these revelations but for the most part there has been a deafening silence.

I understand the difficulties involved with addressing this issue. I understand that this puts the community, particularly those who are most invested in it, in a difficult position… but here we have it, an uncomfortable reality juxtaposed with the spiritual fantasy that has surrounded and perpetuated the Ashtanga ‘tradition’. If we want yoga, if we want the truth, if we want to see, surely we must unobstruct our vision, we must look at what reality presents. There is still, I think, a baby somewhere there in the bathwater.

I wonder if those who steer the direction of the Ashtanga Yoga ship will do something other than simply ‘manage’ this inconvenient truth through business-as-usual in the wish not to rock the boat. I wonder if they will continue to mythologise and gurify its captains past and present or if they can refrain from the further spinning of spiritual webs of deceit which will serve only to fuel the fantasies of the next generation of seeker/consumers.

Through the processes of disillusionment I have often wondered, ‘Am I alone in questioning? Am I wrong to question, to think the way I do? Disloyal? Do I need to be ‘a believer’ to ‘do yoga’, to ‘teach’ yoga? These questions have gone hand in hand with a fear that I will be found out, that I will no longer be accepted by the group, that people will talk bad, that they will know I’m not a ‘yogi’. But now the truth is out, I am a yoga thought-criminal!

Yoga, however, has got nothing to do with loyalty. It is not disloyal to question, it is not disloyal to say things as you see them. Yoga’s loyalty, if it is to anything, is to unveiling of the truth, to the peeling away of illusion, belief and fantasy. Unfortunately these are the very things that keep businesses of yoga afloat in the seas of spiritual commerce. I don’t think there are any easy solutions here for those whose perceived job it is to salvage and protect the tarnished reputation of Ashtanga Yoga per se, but for the rest of us there is no doubt an invaluable opportunity to go within and deepen our inquiry.

For me, despite all the doubt and disillusionment, despite the revelations, despite looking behind the veil at the end of the yellow brick road, the practise of Ashtanga Yoga is still a gift in my life, one I am very grateful to have been given. It survives now, however, without belief. While I respectfully remember my teachers, it exists for me without a Guru, for the only Guru is that awake intelligence that is the very life within me. It is something that I am on my own with now. While it has a definite method, it is not a method that aims for me any longer at the achievement of some kind of fantastic spiritual goal. It exists as a daily ritual of tuning in, a game of discipline, a support for my (apparent) choice to live life a certain way.

I can see myself growing old practicing yoga, watching the body change, slow down and eventually decay. I wouldn’t want it any other way. It is not the font of eternal youth that the slick advertising would have you believe but an aid to treasure the process of life and its seasons which come and ultimately go. It is not a means to become other-than-human but an inquiry to uncover the humanness that is there. Sometimes there is nectar, sometimes there is poison. Sometimes that which seems to be one is actually the other.

Questions of belief for me have nothing to do with yoga. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the yoga that can be believed in is not the real yoga. Yoga is beyond belief. It is, like life, just what it is. A breath, a movement, a momentary sensation, a fleeting insight, sometimes recalled, sometimes forgotten. A passing away into silence…