Saturday, January 14, 2012
American Yoga: A Perspective
This New Year's Eve, I was brought by a friend to a "kirtan" held in a local studio, its last event before closing. I found this a bit sad, as I'd been to the studio quite a few times, though not recently and always enjoyed its particular urban ambience - in the basement of what used to be a Maxwell House coffee warehouse in downtown Nashville next to the railroad. Let me say that I enjoyed the experience and got quite a lot out of it - it being my experience that one gets from such things depends a lot on what one brings to them. It helped being in the company of a friend who just recently (relatively speaking) discovered her own inner darkness, by way of surviving trauma, and became much richer and deeper for it. Once inner darkness is discovered, it either becomes a cancer and eventually kills you, or if properly cultivated (and with the necessary aptitude, luck and training) can become the inner shining Black Diamond of which I've spoken previously. In my friend, the dark shines brightly, though manifesting through layers of much lighter brightness. I can't really speak to the other people who attended the event; I'm sure some of them are persons of some realization and others are not, as occurs in any unregulated gathering.
It was nice, genuinely, to have something to do on New Year's Eve, a holiday I always hated (like the Fourth of July), even when I enjoyed drinking, a lot - it's amateur night for first-time drunk drivers and an excuse for every childish pashu to unleash his inner Dennis the Menace, loudly and late. In recent years I've fled the city, when I could, to avoid the idiotic merrymaking. It was somehow satisfying that I spent this one a scant ten blocks from the Riverfront, where Lynryd Skynyrd was playing and had promised to delight the audience with a fifteen-minute version of "Free Bird" at midnight (and I'm not making this up!). I've been listening to a lot of Indian music the last year or two, mostly Ravi Shankar, so I enjoyed the music, although a bit disappointed that it consisted of Western arrangements of Indian chants and hymns, including some Vedic, in Western scales and with guitars in standard tuning. Gotta love the tabla though! The first group to perform was in fact delightful, with some very nice harmonies. The second though - and I know I'm projecting - seemed to me to be a nice picture of what's wrong with American yoga, although the lead singer was a dyed blonde who lives in India. To wit:
I started doing Yoga in 2000, mostly because, as I completed the ascendant arc of a cycle after some dissipation and a car wreck with injuries, I wanted to stretch my hamstrings. Like a lot of us who grew up with gym class and forced group sports as exercise models, especially the males, I'd never gotten into the habit of adequate stretching and my body core strength wasn't adequate to the strength of my limbs, so I was in a typical imbalance. The Yoga I was doing began at the YMCA, the object of much vitriol in prior early blogs, and toward which my feelings have not altered, though I still go, for the same reasons. It was purely what the West calls Hatha Yoga - yoga of the body only. As evolved, it's good for what it is, stretching and strengthening, and a good counter to jogging, weight-lifting, football, whatever. Interestingly enough, I discovered recently that the term 'hatha', from Sanskrit, has to do with violence, force, a striking, or a man stricken with despair - which gives us a faint echo of where the practice originated, in the ascetic schools of Hinduism. In fact, the Y, twelve years ago when I took my first Yoga class, had only recently allowed the classes to be called Yoga - seeing it, accurately, as the intrusion of a foreign religious practice into their smug corporate Christianity. Those preachers are right, you know - Yoga practitioners are acting against Christianity, and more power to them in that regard - they would have been burned as heretics in earlier times. Although the Yoga found today in every class retains almost exclusively the physical, and it is indeed when American Yoga meander into ersatz Hindu spirituality that it manifests the most syrupy, revolting, 'puppies and kittens' aspect of that vast philosophy. Of course so do some authentic Hindu's. I guess the bottom line is that the Sunflower School of divinity is not to my taste, nor do I find it likely to be helpful except maybe for pre-school girls.
Having researched 'kirtan' just a bit, it is a practice of chanting, call-and-response style, adopted from the Hindu - notably in Vaishnava schools - and in some Buddhism. Notably, I don't see any indication of it in Shaivism, though Hindus are a very large and diverse lot, and I'm sure it's in there somewhere. What I found profoundly comical was the evocation of Kali and Durga in musical stylings that led the performers into medleys with classic rock tunes (folk versions of course) and even 'Imagine', that most irreligious and misunderstood of all the hit masterpieces of our modern age. I may see a bit of Goth in Siva and even a little Tiny Tim, but almost no Peter, Paul and Mary. The lead singer of the second performance apparently has an Indian husband and fosters seventeen Indian children. I'll leave that one lie, and my opinion that mass charity to populations like that of modern India makes a bad problem worse, for another time.
Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening, during a fifteen-minute meditation that was unfortunately interrupted every few minutes by the meanderings of the 'onstage' muse, I was channeling great currents of dark energy and flame up through the earth into the basement study, blasting the event with masses of fire and skulls, where Kali danced in delight. 'Fresh meat!' she cried.
To tell the truth, I find that the almost all of the Americans I know - hell, almost all of the people I know - have grown up and been irrevocably formed by modern deteriorated (yes, even of that vile seed!) Christianity and its sectarian manifestations - Capitalism, Consumerism, Marxism, Scientism and most especially, Humanism - in such a way as to lack understanding of the power, truth and value of Darkness. This is so incredibly stupid in the Kali Yuga that I cannot, in the face of such ignorance and profound unawareness, hold any hope for the human species in its present form. In the evolutionary sense, if any life on earth is possible after the human cataclysm, I can only hope that it diverges in some way so intense as to avoid the present murk. For myself, I find that the horizontal aspect of existence is a lost cause, and only in a vertical sense -by "moving" "above" the realm of space/time with one's awareness, does the possibilty of meaningful life manifest.
Having said all this, I'm planning on doing a Yoga class tomorrow - it's a great physical exercise which becomes a mental and even spiritual one as I, as I get closer to the end than the beginning of my lifespan, find my intent contrasting with my abilities, and it does really flush out the toxins! I had originally in this writing intended to point out the similarity of American Yoga to American Zen, in their assumption of the names of traditional practices and their assignment to them of forms which could only have originated in America. They are both Reconstructions; American Yoga is no more the Yoga of the Yoga Sutras nor of the authentic (and appropriate, for this devolved Age!) practice of Tantrism, nor is American Zen the Zen of Dogen - than the Society of Creative Anachronism is a faithful portrait of medieval Europe. I have various friends who are enactors of both Civil War and WWII battles; I find that their faith is more genuine, for being conscious imitators, actors and admirers, rather than deluded practitioners of modernized and degraded faiths.
By all means, people, do your Zen and do your Yoga. The Yoga is good for your body and the Zen is not. Learning to sit still, the very starting premise for these old traditions, is in itself a challenge for most of what passes for humankind these days. I was disgusted and amused that so many of the audience members at the kirtan could not even sit on the floor comfortably without props for any length of time - and the ability to sit without the products of manufacture would seem to me to be a minimum requirement to call oneself even a human-like animal! But I digress.
I wish to indicate no ill will toward those led down the paths of Zen and Yoga - I myself have been both and survived. And please, if you are a practitioner of either of these paths who think that you have discovered within them the elements I find missing, please let me know where and when! I would lvoe to see their hidden mysteries manifest in these times. I merely find itself that within those paths, as they are, there is such misunderstanding, such good-natured and altruistic ignorance, that only those who are both endowed and fortunate can get through them to what lies behind. Seek the darkness, friend.