Domestic Abuse and Everyday Self-Realization (or YFSP Reads Yoga PhD, Part 2)


via Body Process

via Body Process

 It’s ironic that a practice originally dedicated to transcending the self has become a prime vehicle of everyday self-realization. It’s also true, however, that there are ways in which these two projects, while substantively antithetical, share parallel ambitions for transformation and produce experiences with a profound, if distant, resonance. (Yoga PhD, p. 96)

*Trigger warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of domestic abuse.*

I feel like Carol Horton is a prime example of what can happen when a smart, but unwitting, fitness enthusiast falls into yoga. She transforms her physical experiences into psycho-spiritual experiences and skillfully navigates Jungian and Reichian territory to translate on-the-mat epiphanies into evidence of yoga’s sympathy with and for contemporary psychology. She even makes karma seem like an accessible idea to non-believers in reincarnation, all while self-consciously acknowledging that she is freely borrowing from different, and perhaps unwilling, traditions. She is a postmodernist par excellence, and I find myself nodding in agreement with her constantly.

In addition, I find her combination of vulnerable self-disclosure and academic rigor so unbelievably likable that it actually pains me to criticize her. So I won’t.

No, seriously. I find all her arguments totally credible. I do, however, think her own self-awareness creates something of a blind spot in terms of recognizing the potential problems of giving physical vitality and a lot of “me” time to a perhaps less thoughtful, perhaps more psychologically damaged, “everyman.”

So, then, here’s my reading question for the week: what happens when modern yogis aren’t Carol Horton? That is, what happens when the people who fall into yoga aren’t self-conscious, or vulnerable, or able to acknowledge possible mistakes or philosophical misalignments? What happens when people don’t get transformed by the process, but instead get physically stronger and increasingly self-obsessed and self-righteous?

I want to believe in the inherent beauty of modern yoga’s hybridization. But the reality is that the preponderance of yoga as fitness and self-exploration sometimes goes wrong.

I’m going to tell a story now.

I have this friend. She is beautiful and talented. An academic and artist. She had this boyfriend. Also an artist. He did yoga six days a week at a fancy studio in a Southern suburb where it was frowned upon to discuss yoga as a spiritual path. OM and banal east-meets-west platitudes were as deep as it got. I watched his muscles get bigger slowly over the years and his movements become more refined. His ego seemed to do the same.

One night we were out, and they were having problems. Maybe they had even broken up, but she was around and so was he. They fought. He spit on her. I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe that people really do that to each other.

People also do worse.

Two days later I met her at a bar. She was covered in bruises and bite marks, talking so fast that I could barely keep up. They had met the night before to talk and something had gone wrong. Something that ended with her face being repeatedly slammed against concrete.

She raged and cried and I listened and all I could think was, “But he’s a yogi.”

So, how is it that someone who spends six days a week on the mat self-realizing can beat the shit out of another human being?

via Abuzeedo

I am not trying to insinuate that yoga should be able to heal all ills. But I actually do think that our beautiful postmodern yoga hybrid can be a terribly dangerous thing that we need to take responsibility for.

If you take an individual with an inflated ego and make their muscles strong and beautiful and limber and encourage them to acknowledge themselves and the contribution they are supposedly making to the world by just showing up on their mat and they have a lot of anger and don’t have a lot of self-awareness and they don’t have the tools to deal with these things and they don’t know where to get them and all the yoga teacher says is “breathe” and “trust yourself” then what happens in the moment that they want to punch someone in the face?

They just breathe. And trust themselves.

So, while I love Horton’s exegesis of yoga’s developing history and her contagious love of its destabilization of tradition, I have some reservations about whether it’s uniformly okay to borrow this already postcolonialized product and subtract all the ethics from it. To be fair, Horton does discuss the value of the yoga sutras and yoga philosophy in an asana class setting. But, the impression I get is that they aren’t necessary additives, that the realizations will come as a natural result of the asana practice alone. (This is, also, perhaps, me misreading Horton to account for what I perceive as the dominant position of modern marketplace yoga culture.)

As a yoga teacher, I feel like it is my responsibility to at least allude to yoga’s cultural, historical, and spiritual contexts, even if I can’t fully represent them in all their complexity. I think it is my responsibility to get to know my students. I think that ethics are part of the practice. If they aren’t, and the students that come to us are damaged or dangerous, then what? Then we, the yoga teachers, might become part of the problem.

Horton says:

…yoga is psychologically healing because it integrates parts of ourselves that we commonly experience as separate: mind and body, reason and intuition, the conscious and unconscious minds – and, ultimately, our everyday sense of self with a deeper level of awareness…(p. 62)

Yes. Yoga can and should do that. But what if whatever pop-up yoga shop we’re practicing in doesn’t facilitate that kind of experience? Or worse, actively discourages introspective integration? I know that I will be accused of being overly dramatic by insinuating that any yoga studio might discourage self-realization, but let’s be for real. The problem with postmodern yoga in the marketplace is that it encourages you to stop thinking and start buying.

Yoga in modern practice, then, isn’t just the glorious intermingling of disparate practices. It’s also a potentially dangerous commodity fetish, and one that, I think, becomes more dangerous the more sanitized and neutral it becomes.



Tracey Duncan is the founder and editor of Yoga for Smart People, at least until someone offers to take these duties off her hands. She studied Anthropology at Columbia, Creative Writing at Louisiana State University, Massage at Educated Hands, and Yoga at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville and Swan River.
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  1. piersmooreede
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    This is a lovely piece. It’s touching such a raw nerve for me, because this was the reason I fled the shala for many years, eager to avoid an atmosphere which was coming to feel like a battleground of some of the strongest egos I’d ever encountered. What it highlights for me is the urgent need for students of yoga to find real teachers. Not teachers of asana, beautifully flexible and only some of whom with even an interest in the true practice, but a real teacher: someone anchored in the non-dual state, someone who can burst some bubbles without cruelty, somehow who is there to nurture you through all those painful stages of development with absolute strength and compassion, right until the moment when the ego itself bursts wide open. These individuals being somewhat rare, a basic code of ethics seems like a good first base.

  2. dishelleful
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Asana creates a very fertile ground…be careful what you plant into it.

    (I do hope that your friend finds help and support and healing through her friends, family and community for the abuse she experienced. My heart goes out to her.)

    As for your discussion question: the modern hybrid of Western Yoga has been diluted and sanitized, much to it’s detriment. No mention of the moral and ethical foundations of this ancient philosophy for the average studio owner/teacher, lest they scare away a potential income source! No – just a good, sweaty workout to peppy music, plus a few affirmations shouted out every once and a while, along with some arm balances or inversions to keep up the “fun” vibe of the “shala” and let’s call it “Yoga!” Forget the yamas and the niyamas – let’s just dilute all of the Spirituality – Ishvara/True Self/Higher Consciousness – God – and Sanskrit from the practice, too, while we are at it, too. Because we need students to sign up for more classes.

    All for a buck.

    So, yes, Tracey, I agree: this is the dominant position of modern marketplace yoga. I’ve seen it in my little hometown that boasts more than 6 yoga studios, (not to mention the yoga being taught in the fitness centers.) Only two of these studios are actually teaching Yoga philosophy to their students in addition to asana; the rest are all just teaching inspirational exercise.

    There’s a reason asana is the third limb….and an even bigger reason that there’s only three Yoga Sutras out of 196 focus on it: they are not that important in the context of Yoga or a spiritual practice. They are tools that lead toward something greater.

    I love asana practice. I love how it feels. And, I love teaching asana to students; it’s definitely the best first introduction to this spiritual philosophy for most humans, and it’s a joy to see people grown in mind, body and spirit when they’ve done it consistently and enthusiastically for a long time.

    But, Asana without the other limbs (most especially, pranayama and meditation) leads to what a very great Yoga teacher, Tim Miller, calls the “Baby Huey” syndrome in students. (Baby Huey was, for those who were born a bit too late, this giant, physically destructive, and very stupid duck. See the wiki here:

    for a good description. Sound familiar?)

    And, this is the kind of students that are potentially being created – and celebrated – with this cherry-picked, derivative and spiritually and ethically sanitized post-modern, Westernized yoga. I won’t even capitalize it, because what is being taught in most studios in America today is not Yoga. It’s just exercise.

    After over 20 years of practice, and more than a decade of teaching, I feel that what is most important to teach my students is not just asana, but to give them the means to become conscious, awake and aware human beings – to become aware of the nature and existence of their True Self. I began unabashedly teaching this way 5 years ago, using a variety of texts, ancient and less ancient, to illustrate and educate my students (and also as part of my own growth as a spiritual human being.) I lost the students who were there for “just a workout.” And, I’m good with that. The ones that continue to study with me do so because they are there for more than just a workout – and it’s more fulfilling for me to teach this way, too.

    But, it’s not for everyone, I get it and I’m good with that. I don’t expect to rake in the big bucks with what I do. And, I’m good with that, too.

    As for a “code of ethics” piersmooreede, it’s a fine idea, but, well, don’t they exist already within the Yamas and the Niyamas? We needn’t reinvent the wheel – or dilute them to make them more palatable. (That’s what’s caused these problems with Western yoga in the first place.) For example, Anusara had it’s own “Code of Ethics” when it was riding high and becoming the most popular form of yoga being taught in America. And, as we all know, that didn’t work out too well.

  3. redmoonyoga
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    within my original teacher training, the central tenet was our own exploration of the yamas and niyamas. so for instance, we spent months focusing on ahimsa and how that played out in our personal experiences in the practices. what does being “empty of force” actually mean in trikonasana, in ujjayi, in metta practice? what, if anything, does “not stealing” mean when we settle in supta baddha konasana?…you get the idea.

    for me this was a potent springboard for starting to establish deep (embodied) understanding of the centrality of ethics within yoga. all us trainees were required to engage with the yamas and niyamas from the perspective of felt experience, as opposed to as philosophy tacked onto the accessible, sexy bits of yoga. we were required to consider what happens when we come up against a difficult concept such as brahmacharya. do we chuck it out as irrelevant to us postmoderns? do we try to co-opt it to fit our existing worldview? do we debase ourselves before it and accept it unquestioningly? and how do these choices manifest in the body, the breath, the quality of heartmind we are able to bring to bear on our practice and teaching?

    i can’t say that this emphasis on ethics has necessarily formed moral, sensitive teachers; but i am certainly proud to work with several members of my little yoga community on this basis. and i would hope all aspiring teachers – particularly any of the many setting up teacher training programmes – read donna farhi’s book “teaching yoga” as it is one of the very few books calling for a direct implementation of a code of ethics within individual studios (come on, yoga alliance; surely this should be your territory! much more important than offering discounted “yoga” clothes!)

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