Yesterday I watched the wonderful Grayson Perry’s latest documentary on Channel 4, Who Are You? I adore and respect his work, his perspective, his ability to make art accessible, his sheer grounded-ness, his love of people, and his understanding of and relationship to identity, which is at the very core of everything he does.
Grayson opens the programme by saying that the most beautiful and complex artwork we can make is our identity, and has previously described the concept of identity as a verb rather than a noun which I think is such a crucial and fascinating way to understand it. Again, to quote him: “our identity is something we perform over a lifetime. This idea that we are this static thing is an illusion. We are a series of bits of baggage but eventually they build up into this ongoing, lifelong artwork that is our individual identity, and we feel it, and we live it and we perform it”.
Identity is fluid, it can change and shift and evolve and grow like all living things because it IS a living thing. I work with many people who have taken on the self-pathologising identity of an ‘addict’ and with it a myriad of beliefs along the lines of “once an addict, always an addict” which just breaks my heart as it is so self-limiting and fixed and denies the ability to change. Indeed a lot of the work I do in substance misuse is very much about shifting identity.
Bringing this to yoga, I touched on the idea of the authenticity of the Ashtanga vinyasa tradition in my last post in relation to recent research suggesting that the practice may not actually be the several thousand year old practice it is often thought to be but instead is an amalgamation of indigenous yoga and modern European gymnastics. This idea massively shifted my own understanding of yoga as I was very much invested in the idea of Ashtanga being something that was largely unchanged for thousands of years, proudly telling people this whenever I was asked what type of yoga I did, most probably with an upturned nose and a slight sneer across my face. I see many practitioners having the same attitude, being invested in the idea of a lineage, of a guru, of the tradition being ‘authentic’, leading to it becoming a kind of sacred cow that can’t be criticized or changed or adapted to be made more relevant for the dominant cultures in which it is now taught. To do so is seen as an attack on the wisdom of the guru, leading to blind faith and an inherent trust in the system, sometimes to the extreme of some Ashtanga teachers not modifying or allowing for body conditioning outside of the practice as students must simply “practice and all is coming”. This is far too close to the practices of religion for my liking. Just have faith and everything will be OK. The individual becomes a passive recipient rather than an active participant in the process, power is again given up to something outside of oneself.
Mark Singleton’s hypothesis about the origins of yoga is just that – a hypothesis. Nonetheless, I believe it important to use it as an opportunity to reflect on our own interpretation of Ashtanga, and what it means to us. What does it teach us about our identity, our need to belong, to feel accepted, to be part of a tribe? And what are the possible down sides of this – elitism, exclusivity, losing our critical eye, an investment in the ego. The irony is that the hypothesis which shook the Ashtanga world (due to it threatening the status quo of that world) is a chance to practice the yogic discipline of svadhaya, or self study and self understanding, which I believe many people have lost sight of as a result of being conditioned to follow (and practice) blindly and not question. Even if Krishnamacharya did indeed incorporate gymnastics into the practice, I truly believe that it does not detract from his method and doesn’t make the practice any less spiritual. In actual fact it reinforces the idea of him being a true revolutionary and makes clear that something doesn’t have to be ‘ethnic’ or Eastern or religious or New Age to be spiritual.
This is a fascinating time and it feels as though we are experiencing the shifting of yogic tectonic plates beneath us leading to a new stage of evolution of Ashtanga which, like identity, must be nourished and allowed to have the space to grow and change. I still believe that the Ashtanga sequences are incredible sequences – I have never come across a set of sequences that systematically open the body up and create such physical (and hopefully mental) transformation as the Ashtanga sequences. What I am suggesting we question in this and my last post are our relationships to it.