Monday, June 11, 2007

Yoga and the mystery of the Universe

I seem to run into this topic no matter how hard I try to escape it. Yoga, the great Indian export. Some stuff that really works, and a lot of rubbish around it which just cheapens the message.

Yoga, or specifically hatha yoga is a bunch of stretches, and balance exercises. Very nice if you want to stay fit without using much equipment, in your own home, or without exerting your body too much. I completely like this, can identify with it, and hope that more people do this. Some yoga postures are quite challenging, and one needs balance more than strength to do them right. Nothing more fun than taking a yoga class, and have a person in the back of the class lose his balance and fall loudly. This yoga I enjoy, this yoga I recommend.

Then there is all the mind and soul kind of yoga that I don't get. My yoga teacher would sometimes do a little of this towards the end of the class. She would put on some music involving running water (or birds chirping). Then she would read from a script, about the one-ness of the Universe, about the great flow of energy through our hearts, about capturing the energy in the palm of your hand, and about increasing one's conciousness. It was always about these nebulous concepts of conciousness, of great inner peace, of feeling one with the creator. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.

I have no problem with doing the stretches, since I found it genuinely useful. After a month or two of practice, I could do postures with comfort. That was nice. But this mind and soul business never did anything for me. There wasn't a single instance when I was in a tight spot, and her "one-ness with creator" speech came to the rescue. For starters, I wasn't sure how to achieve this elusive one-ness. And when do I know it is done? It wasn't like the postures at all, where you could tell you are doing the postures well. The great flow of energy was missing in me when I started, and I guess it was still missing when I left. I didn't ask the teacher to find out how much energy I had managed to capture in palms of my hand, or how much more I could expect to capture at the end of the course. There is a direct parallel between this and the Chinese martial arts. The physical part of the training is very valid, and there is a marked improvement in agility and strength when learning martial arts. And then there is the whole drama with chi: the life force. There is so much hype about chi, about how you can knock someone cold by throwing a ball of chi at them. Not every martial art stresses this chi (or ki) angle. As a complete outsider to Oriental martial arts, I think chi is a bunch of hooey, and I would like to be proven wrong.

Invariably, I open my big mouth at inappropriate moments, and there is usually a heated discussion about this whole mind and soul business. The most common retort I get is that I am too inexperienced to get this whole thing. Too stupid to understand these deep concepts, and what is worse, there is no place I can learn this from! Perhaps one day I'll see it all.

So I don't have this knowledge, and nobody can teach this to me. How do all the others get it? Meditating? Tried that, and found it mildly useful. But didn't come across any one-ness or flow of energy. Yoga? The postures are good, but they didn't teach me any one-ness.

I think this stuff might come across as very profound, but it cheapens the real utility of yoga. If the mind and soul stuff is central to yoga, then someone should come up with real answers, and not this touchy feely stuff that nobody can teach you, nobody can measure, and nobody can learn. If this is not central to yoga, then it should be taught as a separate entity, for people who are looking for a belief-system in addition to their fitness routine.

Eventually, I find the mind and soul stuff to be an impediment to really learning yoga well. I would like to spend time to get the postures right, but if I consult a teacher, they'll feed me this assorted blend of mysticism that doesn't interest me. Further, a strong belief in this mysticism makes me nervous, and doubt the knowledge of the teacher. It is like trying to learn arithmetic from a person who forces his choice of diet on you at every lesson. He might be right about the diet, but it just gets in the way. I've learnt many things from people holding different political, religious and dietary views, and it would have been impossible if they required me to subscribe to their entire thinking before they taught me something.

It is entirely possible that I'm a child, screaming my head off about something I don't know. It is also entirely possible that I'm yelling about an Emperor who is walking around with no clothes.