Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Woo in "Western" Yoga and Buddhism

Carol Horton has a new post on her blog Think Body Electric concerning woo and yoga communities. It has a lot of thought provoking stuff in it, as she seeks to - in my opinion - come to a more balanced attitude about ideas and practices that might fall into the "New Agey" category.

I would like to take up the following comment, that comes after some discussion about abusive yoga gurus and manipulative, control based yoga communities that seem heavily reliant on woo. Carol writes:

I strongly believe that it would be helpful if the yoga community developed a much more active connection to relevant dimensions of Western psychology. This has already happened in the convert Buddhist community, where excellent work connecting meditation and psychotherapy has been going on for decades. In the yoga community, however, there’s much more of a default toward New Age thinking. Generally speaking, I think this is a problem.

When I first read this paragraph, I had a pretty strong reaction. Why? Because I believe the marriage of western psychology with Buddhist teachings in North America has been the penultimate double-edged sword. On the one hand, there have been books like Harvey Aronson's Buddhist Practice on Western Ground, which have offered practitioners a wonderful window into exploring the connections, as well as great differences, between psychological theories and Buddhist teachings. And certainly, for those coming from psychologically damaged backgrounds who have entered Buddhist communities or taken up Buddhist practices, having an emphasis on the psychological element of Buddha's teachings has often meant the difference between sanity and insanity. Probably even life and death for some folks.

However, there is another side of the coin. It's quite easy to find teachers, books, and entire Buddhists communities that have reduced the dharma to primarily or solely about the psychological and emotional dimensions of life. Amongst this subsection of Western convert Buddhists, teachings that are vast and subtle, and which contain layer and layer of pointers, get shunted into what amounts to a self-improvement project in Buddhist clothes. While everything in the dharma points to the extremely fluid and limited life span of emotional reactions, this is where the bulk of time is spent amongst these folks, fixating on every last tinge of anger, fear, and sadness, as if in doing so, perhaps one day they might become the "perfect" human animal, able to exude some peaceful calmness, not influenced by anything in their past (especially their childhoods) under all conditions.

Furthermore, because psychology and Western convert Buddhism have been so cozy, it is has attracted a lot of psychologists, including active therapists who have risen to the ranks of teachers. And unfortunately, this had led to some troubling blurring between spiritual practice and therapy, between Buddhist teacher and therapist. The exchanges between Brad Warner and Barry Magrid during a recent dharma talk at Ordinary Mind Zendo constitute a weird example of this dynamic in action. But on a more mundane level, you have all those students who struggle to not treat their interactions in the sangha with others, especially the head teacher, as a form of therapy.

All of this is to say that I think merging western psychology with any spiritual practice is best done with great care.

And when it comes to the North American yoga community and it's "woo problems," I'd argue that this more so due to the continual efforts to divorce the spiritual teachings and philosophy of yoga from the physical practices. As well as the failure to integrate meditation, and the other subtle practices, into the physical work (asanas) in such a manner that it brings people the foundational ground upon which to unfold their lives on. Too many people want to drink Yoga Lite - something heavy on body work, and less filling on everything else. And they'll defend that almost to the death if necessary, never mind that non-attachment is at the core of everything yoga.

In some ways, the sweaty, physical asana classes peppered with happy sounding phrases and self improvement cliches is the yoga community's version of the Western convert Buddhist self-improvement project. Both offer an opportunity for better health, less destructive thinking, and more grounded behavior. All nice benefits, and certainly not something to dismiss. But at the same time, neither of these approaches are focusing on the profoundly vast awakening teachings at the core of both Buddhism and yoga.

Reducing the woo in yoga communities comes when there is an increasing focus on the whole works of yogic practice and thought. It comes when teachers, students, studio owners and yogic writers stop offering placating sugars, and start offering holistic, well-balanced meals. That can include servings of intelligently considered psychology, but must be more than just using psychological theories as the missing "healthy vitamin" to an otherwise fast-food like practice diet.


Carol Horton said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. Incredibly intelligent and insightful as usual. Shared on my FB Page, hope that's OK.

Nathan said...

Share away! Thanks.

Marcella said...

Hey Nathan - do you know you look and read like Leonard Hofstadter?

Nathan said...

Ha! I had to look him up. I've never seen the show, but it actually sounds like something I'd watch.

Benjamin Riggs said...

Hello Nathan,
I work with Elephant Journal. We are looking for some new Buddhist writers. If you are interested please send me an e-mail and let me know.