Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Release! 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice

I am pleased to announce that the yoga book I wrote an essay for is now out! Here is the skinny.

21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice
Edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey

Yoga may be rooted in ancient India, but it’s morphed into something new in North America today.

Precisely what that might be, however, is difficult to say. Yoga is taught everywhere from spas to prisons, and for everything from weight loss to spiritual transcendence. With its chameleon-like ability to adapt equally well to advertising, athletics, and ashrams, contemporary yoga is a fascinating phenomenon that invites investigation.

Written by experienced practitioners who are also teachers, therapists, activists, scholars, studio owners, and interfaith ministers, 21st Century Yoga is one of the first books to provide a multi-faceted examination of yoga as it actually exists in the U.S. and Canada today.

Given my background in both Zen and yoga, I chose to write about both of them.
Entitled "Bifurcated Spiritualities: Examining Mind/Body Splits in the North American Yoga and Zen Communities," the essay aims to consider ways in which fixations on the body play out for many yoga practitioners, with a corresponding mind fixation amongst many Zen practitioners. Another significant theme is the role of gender, and gender stereotypes, in both communities. And the ways in which all of this demonstrates the commonplace separation so many of us have with the planet takes up the bulk of the last third of the essay. Here is a teaser to introduce you to the flavor of the essay.

Since I have a fair amount of experience in Iyengar-based practice, I will consider his approach a little more closely. In Light on Life, Iyengar writes “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or has a weak body.” He goes on to explain that this “true meditation” isn’t just “sitting quietly:” it is a practice that leads us to “wisdom and awareness.” One of the ways Iyengar attempts to get around what appears to be a separation of practices is to repeatedly speak of how meditation is contained within all the other limbs of practice, including asana. Indeed, recognizing the interconnectedness of all the yogic limbs is a large part of the reason he has put so much precision and intensity into teaching asana over the years.

Many students, however, simply can’t experience that interconnectedness within the context of an asana-focused class. They are too busy taking in verbal cues, moving their bodies, and responding to physical adjustments. Furthermore, the entire way in which the practice is often framed – as being about exercise, health, or even wellness – adds another blockage. Even as someone who has long studied the spiritual teachings of yoga, my own experience in the classroom tends to be mixed. Sometimes, everything will settle enough to allow my mind to focus on the present. But other times, I am either trying to figure out what is being taught, or my mind is lost in thinking.

Like the other essays in the volume, mine is well researched, weaves in personal practice experience, and is the product of multiple revisions. In addition, the final section of my essay includes introductions to several "Mind/Body Bridge Practices" I have learned and practiced over the past decade.

I invite you all to go to our website, check out the rest of the material about the book, order a copy, and then send the link to your friends and family.


Robyn said...

Congratulations Nathan!

This morning I was walking to the yoga studio for my morning practice and listening to a dharma talk by my teacher on my little MP3 player...he was talking about a koan from the Shobogenzo. It suddenly occurred to me that yoga has not really undergone the kind of profound examination and transformation that Buddhism has since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Of course the Dharma can not change or be destroyed, but the way it is taught was radically transformed in China and then again in Japan and in Tibet and in Southeast Asia. I think that it is in this way that Buddhism has stayed so alive and relevant. This isn't to say that it would not be true if no one cared about it, but that all these ways of teaching the Dharma have kept Buddhism from becoming irrelevant to contemporary minds.

I don't see a similar thing with yoga as a true spiritual practice that includes all eight limbs.

The reason I say this is because, even as we speak of something called "yoga" these days, we really mostly mean asana. I honestly do not know of many people in North America (at least) who are truly on the yogic path. Sure everybody and their brother have taken a "yoga" class but maybe this is causing more harm than good!

The truth is that if we insist on teaching yoga as what it really is - a method of directing the mind towards single pointedness (and ultimately beyond), our classes will not be full. They won't be full because such an undertaking is incredibly difficult and requires enormous patience - two things that are most definitely not encouraged in our current culture. It is the same reason why our Zen center attracts a lovely crowd of first-timers each Sunday and about 95% of them never come back.

Is it so terrible to be content with that fact - that most people simply are not ready to take up such a practice? Why do we need to encourage what is already way overblown in our culture - the body obsession and instant gratification - by offering this most watered down version of yoga? As my (Zen) teacher recently said, it is like you walk into the best bakery in the world and ask for a Twinkie.

I think if we can be content with just a handful of students who truly want to know and explore what yoga can be, then that might be enough.

Whew! Long comment!! Maybe I should read the book, eh?

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn,

I think you'd really enjoy the book. Lots of questions like yours are being posed and considered.

There's definitely something to your point about yoga not having evolved nearly as much as Buddhism has. It was primarily an upper class, male endeavor until perhaps 150 years ago or so. There seems to be some evidence of more diversity than that image suggests, but not a whole lot. And the massive amount of movement across countries and continents Buddhism has taken over the past few thousand years just isn't the case for eight limbed yoga.

I also think that given the lack of "depth" in North American yoga circles, we really don't have a good grasp on the history and diversity of yoga teaching and practice in India, or anywhere else it might have spread to. There hasn't been a pile of academics and dedicated practitioners running around translating every last thing they can find on the subject, nor has there been much of a general push from everyday yoga students to get more sources, more perspectives, and a better sense of the story of yoga as it developed in, and continues today, in yoga. It's not that none of this exists in North America- we have some good yoga presses and publications. But I just don't see the kinds of research and study like what's being produced in Buddhist communities across the spectrum.

And that was one hope for our book. That it help spark more research and discussion. I've already been asked if the book takes on race, racism, and related issues, which I think could be an entire volume on it's own - the ways race in North America frames the yoga being offered, excludes, exoticizes, etc. In addition, I was considering writing an essay about capitalism and yoga - something that still needs a lot more attention and which you allude to in concerns about class attendance.

Anonymous said...

congrats! <3

Anonymous said...

For one who sees no gains in material nature, even while perceiving it in abstract meditation, he has the super discrimination. He attained the continuous effortless linkage of the attention to higher reality which is described as knowing the mental-emotional clouds of energy which compel a person to perform according to nature’s way of acting for beneficial results.

Subsequently there is stoppage of the operation of the mental-emotional energy in terms of generation of cultural activities and their resulting afflictions.

Then, because of the removal of all mental darkness and psychological impurities, that which can be known through the mental-emotional energy, seems trivial in comparison to the unlimited knowledge available when separated from it.

Thus, the subtle material nature, having fulfilled its purpose, its progressive alterations end.

The process, of which moments are a counterpart, and which causes the alterations, comes to an end and is clearly perceived.

Separation of the spirit from the mental-emotional energy (kaivalyam), occurs when there is neutrality in respect to the influence of material nature, when the yogi’s psyche becomes devoid of the general aims of a human being. Thus at last, the spirit is established in its own form as the force empowering the mental-emotional energy.