Wow, it’s been a busy time. Work has been particularly consuming, being an unwelcome presence in what are usually very entertaining dreams that give me respite from the deadlines and endless to-do lists scribbled on various bits of paper scattered over my desk. When that happens I know I need a break, so I jetted off to Amsterdam to see close friend for four lovely days. It gave me everything I needed: the joy of connecting with a friend, fabulous food to titillate my taste buds (oh the cheese!) and a chance to switch off my adrenal glands and bask in the calm that is the very pretty city of Amsterdam.
Along with scribbles on paper on my desk, I have a list of ever-increasing electronic scribbles on my iPhone, bits and pieces that have drifted into my mind that I’d like to blog about at some point. Coming back and writing after a hiatus is always more difficult somehow… what to start writing about first? All my plans were shelved when I read Iain Grysak’s latest post (the second of two posts) about why he doesn’t chant in his practice – I’ll start here. Interestingly, it’s about something much bigger than the chant.
A consistent theme if not on this blog but definitely in my mind is about the world of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and all that makes it up: the sequences of ever more challenging poses; the mythology of its beginnings; its lineage which goes back either a hundred years or 2,000 years, depending on who you ask, but is carried on today by Sharath; and its many, many practitioners and devotees. What I am constantly aware of is how this world, and many others within the yoga and other worlds, operates as a cult, driven by a basic and very deep human need to belong and to feel safe. I have a feeling this will turn into several posts as this topic is way too huge for one post, but the reason Iain’s post resonated with me so much is because it is a subject that has always been very close to my heart – it challenges the idea of dogma, that we engage in certain behaviours, tasks or rituals because the authority figure within the particular CULTure we are a part of, has deemed that we do.
A slight caveat here before I go on. Much as Iain articulately explains in his post, I also want to say that this is by no means meant as a character assassination of Sharath, Pattabhi Jois or any that came before. Cults are co-created (mostly unconsciously) by both their leaders and their followers. Both are co-dependent on each other for their existence. I have done a week’s practice with Sharath once before in London many years ago and nothing more so my experience of him is miniscule, and my experience of Pattabhi Jois is, well, there is no experience. What I do have experience of, however, are the followers, the practitioners… from being a practitioner myself and being interested in how my own relationship with the practice has developed over time, from knowing and practicing with lots of other Ashtangis, and from teaching many of said practitioners.
I am endlessly fascinated by what I see in many Ashtanga practitioners – the adherence to rules far beyond the count of the practice: what day you have off, what series should be practiced on what day, the following of moon days, the studying of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, and yes, the chanting (“because that is what is done before and after the practice”). As Iain says in his post, there is a danger of the dogma resulting in a deference to authority – the more the authority is deferred to, the greater the disconnect from ourselves, with each individual’s own internal experience being dismissed in favour of a higher power. Coupled with the fact that we live in a time where technology is increasingly disconnecting us from our inner felt sense of ourselves, this worries me. The practice which so many say is a tool to develop self awareness, is one that can potentially dull it because the need to feel secure and protected and part of something can exacerbate this disconnect, resulting in people denying their own individual experience and autonomy.
A parallel example can be found in ‘addicts’ who are part of the Fellowship (AA, NA, CA, etc) and who follow the philosophy of the 12 Steps – a set of dogma which essentially says that you are ‘powerless against the disease of addiction’, that a person cannot control their addiction, and that a ‘power’ greater than themselves will ‘restore them to sanity’. I see time and again how the dogma of the 12 Steps begins to obscure the person’s own felt sense of themselves… what if they start to feel happier in their lives and fancy a drink? Cue the person’s ingrained and internalized oppressive thoughts (“but I’m an addict, and I’ll always be an addict”) and the voices of those around them in their community that they may choose to speak to (“one drink is all it’ll take”). The dogma of the philosophy has overwritten the person’s own thoughts, resulting in them not trusting their own instincts. I’m happy to say that I’ve met many people along the way who have, through developing a strong connection to themselves which they have been able to trust (very much what my substance misuse work is about), now drink socially without becoming an alcohol-riddled drunk stumbling round the streets drinking super strength lager, pestering passersby for some change.
Just to hammer the point home, I just this afternoon read a review of a film out in the cinema where the screening of the film was followed by a Q&A with the director. One of the questions he was asked was: “Can you explain to us what we should take from this film?”. He apparently replied (with a grin): “Sorry madam, I do not explain a movie at the end of a screening. Some get it and some just don’t”. Get what you get from the film, not what you think you should get.
Another huge thread that runs through my drug and alcohol work is teaching people to develop critical thinking, to question the world around them and to question themselves, their behaviour, their thought patterns. Through this process a stronger connection to oneself is created, one that respects the inherent autonomy within us all. Questioning the status quo is healthy, it is how things change, it is how we have evolved and will evolve. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’ll quote part of Iain’s post to finish:
“I encourage everyone to examine the teachings of their traditions and of their authority figures and concepts through the lens of their own internal sensory experience. If it is consistent, all is well. If there are inconsistencies, remove them. All knowledge, all understanding, all tradition is transient and should be in constant evolution. We are all responsible to contribute to this evolution in a positive way.”