Republished with author consent.
I first realized I had a yoga history problem back when I was pitching my ideas for what eventually becameYoga Ph.D. to literary agents. My book proposal had gotten some bites, which was exciting. But business-savvy agents weren’t necessarily taken with all of my yoga writer enthusiasms.
“Take all the history out,” one well-established agent instructed. “No one cares about yoga history. Put in more about celebrities, instead.”
I sat on the other end of the phone mulling over how best to respond when she delivered the coup de grace. “Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history,” she added in no uncertain terms.
Now I really felt knocked off balance. Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history? Is that true? I didn’t know and there was no way to find out, conclusively.
From a purely commercial standpoint, however, I believed that this woman knew what she was talking about. After all, she had successfully marketed a number of books on yoga and related topics. I hadn’t . . . and suspected that it wouldn’t be my forte, either.
So, I was faced an unpleasant decision. Take out the history, put in the celebrities, and land this agent? Or stay stubbornly independent – keeping the history, forgetting the celebrities – and lose potentially valuable support?
I chose the latter course, which was almost certainly foolish from a financial standpoint. Without question, however, it made writing the (subsequently non-agented) book more meaningful to me personally. I was interested in yoga history then, and remain so today. Yet in some ways, that interest continues to cause me problems.
Certain problems, of course, are not bad ones to have. For example, you might have the “problem” of desiring more spiritual fulfillment in your life. From a purely pedestrian perspective, this can be most inconvenient, and therefore a problem. From a bigger vantage point, however, it’s probably a very good thing
I believe that my yoga history problem is one of those (at least, most of the time I do). I find yoga history both compelling and vexing. Here’s why.
How to Sell History
I think it’s true that yoga history is never going to hit it big on the mass market. It seems way too abstract and removed from everyday life to matter to most people. I’ve observed, however, that certain takes on it can develop something of a cult following. And that’s another part of my yoga history problem: when people do get invested in it, it generally seems to be in ways that I don’t like.
Basically, the more yoga history is turned into a neatly packaged set of claims that supposedly offers “the answer” to the questions and difficulties of life, the more marketable it will be.
True, it may not reach as big a market as something like “yoga for weight loss.” But there’s always a substantial subset of people searching for a direct plugin to some mythic past. You know, back when the gods spoke directly to men (very rarely, it should be noted, to women). When the sages had it all figured out. When the timeless sacred texts were written. When the one true instruction manual for how to live life the right way was easily available.
In other words, if you can turn yoga history into some sort of pseudo-sacred commodity, it will be much easier to sell.
In Search of a “Usable Past”
I’m not making this critique to denigrate sacred texts or ancient knowledge. On the contrary, the more I know about yoga history, the more respect I have for the depth of spiritual, physical, psychological, and philosophical creativity and exploration it represents.
Nor is my rejection of prepackaged yoga history due to any lack of desire for what historians call a “usable past” that is, a set of historical referents that provides meaning, direction, and guidance for the present. Personally, I’d love to be able to connect my practice back to some sort of meaningful “yoga tradition.”
I am, however, hostile to anything that turns yoga history into a commodity. And I’ve seen that happen quite a bit.
Not too long ago, I listened to yet another popular yoga teacher spout off with perfect confidence about why his philosophy and method were perfectly aligned with “the” yoga tradition – and thus, of course, uniquely well-equipped to plug students back into the true fount of yogic wisdom.
Yet again, I looked on with a combination of irritation, resignation, and dismay as his claims were seemingly lapped up with relish by perhaps everyone present but me – although really, who’s to say? I can never tell what other people truly think in such situations because there’s never any real space provided for meaningful questions or discussion.
In these sorts of yoga lecture scenarios, it generally feels like it would be horribly rude, if not downright disruptive to break the frame of belief that’s just been so powerfully constructed. So I keep quiet – and suspect that at least some others do, too. There’s no way to know, because there’s never any open communication.
Part of my yoga history problem is that while I want a usable past, by and large I’ve found that popular yoga culture offers quite the opposite.
History as Creative Resource
The sort of neatly packaged yoga history that claims to deliver all the right answers if you’ll just buy it without question is the opposite of what I want – and believe we need. This is true for two reasons. First, it’s just factually wrong. Even a beginning-level knowledge of yoga history will reveal its enormous complexity and diversity. Any claims to have the “one right answer” represent ideology or religion, not history.
Second, it’s disempowering to be spoon-fed simplistic ideologies, whether yogic or otherwise. We grow stronger by working our minds as well as our bodies. It may feel more soothing in the short-run to have someone hand you a list of “right answers” to memorize. Sooner or later, however, it will be become impossible to hold onto them without engaging in damaging amounts of denial.
I want to engage with yoga history in a way that’s creative, open-ended, and conducive to life-long learning. I want to be able to use it as a resource that offers ideas and inspiration. I want it to spark my imagination. I want to learn about yoga history in ways that challenge me to open my mind, just as asana challenges me to open my body.
Working with yoga history in this way is not necessarily easy. As I’ve intensified my study of it over the past few years, I’ve found myself veering between highs of feeling excited about new insights, and lows of feeling discomforted, alienated, or just plain confused.
Either way, the more I learn, the less I feel I know. The subject is too vast to be thoroughly explored unless perhaps it’s your full-time occupation for years, if not decades. After all, we’re not only talking about thousands of years of history, but multiple schools of philosophical ideas and spiritual beliefs (and more besides).
While this can feel overwhelming, it’s certainly not boring. And it’s enlivening to feel tapped into a well of learning that’s too deep to run dry.
On the other hand, another part of my yoga history problem is that whatever I think I know, I also feel that my knowledge will remain inadequate. This is humbling. And sometimes, I don’t like that.
The Problem of Freedom
Then there’s the problem of connecting the past to the present. As anyone who’s been following the discussion knows, the explosion of the “yoga industry” has created a very new terrain and caused much consternation. It can be hard to see how yoga today links back to yoga as it was 20 years ago – let alone, 2,000.
I feel, however, that if engaging with yoga history could be reframed as part of the ongoing journey of yoga practice, it could become newly relevant. Rather than being sold as a neatly packaged commodity, yoga history could be taught as an opportunity to engage with a vast kaleidoscope of alternative, but interconnected ideas and practices in flexible, creative ways. Ideally, yoga history could then be seen as a way of expanding the meaning and depth of the practice, both individually and culturally.
But back to my yoga history problem: I’m not so naïve as to think that this vision of yoga history will sell, either. Without even a pretense of providing the “right answers” to big life questions and difficulties, how marketable can it be? Not very.
Re-narrating yoga history in ways that emphasize its complexity and diversity, while empowering practitioners to ask their own questions, identify their own commitments, and generally think for themselves, however, does offer one thing that’s always been central to the yoga tradition: Freedom.
Of course, freedom itself is a problem. Buying into a prefabricated belief system can provide a seductive sense of security. Freedom is inherently insecure. Many of want security, but crave freedom. We practice yoga to give us the courage to be more free.
It’s a good problem to have (at least, most of the time, I think so . . . )