Sacred vs. Profane: The Smackdown! (Or YFSP Reads Yoga PhD, Part One)

The Pasupati Seal, via IndiaNetZone

The Pasupati Seal, via IndiaNetZone

Leaving certain fundamental questions asked but unanswered creates a space of openness and mystery that’s much more valuable than any box that absolutist directives and determinations might provide. (Yoga PhD, p. 32)

Allright, y’all. Here we go. I’m an online book club virgin, so let’s take it a little slow.

I wanted to kick off this conversation with the above quote because it highlights what makes this book interesting to me. It is, at its heart, a search for answers that is comfortable remaining incomplete. It’s not an attempt to create more seemingly solid answers. This is important, because, let’s be real, there’s enough of that kind of, “I/we have the answer…” attitude out there in the yoga world. Which would be fine if this practice were like math and 1+1 equaled 2, and someone really did have the answer. But they don’t. And, I think, the multiplicity of competing certainties is really confusing a lot of us.

So, let’s start by considering what is a basic premise of Carol Horton‘s book: that there is validity in both traditionalist and non-traditionalist approaches to understanding the practice of yoga, and all the viewpoints in between. I think I did a good job of making that sound like a really common sense idea, but it’s actually controversial. The yogis out there who teach that yoga is 5,000 years old and has been passed down through a web of lineages are really committed to that idea. And, it seems like they feel like they have something to lose if it turns out not to be true. My question is: what is it that yoga might lose by being severed from this history? Why isn’t it okay that we actually don’t know whether the figure on the Pasupati seal is Shiva or a proto-Shiva or a shaman? How does this affect the validity of contemporary yoga practice?

I ask these questions from the point of view of a person who believes, based on scholarly research, that modern hatha yoga was basically invented at the turn of the last century, but who is also part of an established yoga lineage. I did my first yoga teacher training at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville. It was in my studies at the ashram that I was first introduced to the idea that what we think of as contemporary asana might have actually been co-opted from European gymnastics manuals. I was taught this by a swami from within the lineage. Basically, he taught us trainees that we don’t have any substantial proof about where asana practice comes from, and that we should do some research before we start making claims, as teachers, about the history of yoga.

In other words, the idea that you can both take inspiration from ancient philosophical texts (Patanjali) and also question the roots of the practice has never seemed antithetical to me. I learned in subsequent trainings with other teachers (and by reading Yoga Journal and the like) that this kind of casually postmodern attitude is not the norm. Horton addresses this issue by pointing out that the benefits we reap from the practice are, in fact, a hybridization:

…any attempt to divorce what’s imagined to be a ‘pure’ form of Indian yoga from its ‘corrupt’ Western counterpart is misguided-at least when it comes to the modern form of postural practice we’re so familiar with today. If such moves usually represent a well-intentioned attempt to tap into the heart of the practice, trying to separate the ‘pure’ from the ‘impure’ misses what’s most compelling about contemporary yoga. There is no reason to denounce the fact that it’s an East-West synthesis designed to yoke the traditional power of yoga to the needs of the modern world (p. 12, my emphasis).

Yes! So, then, why is it that we/they/you are so extraordinarily opposed to allowing yoga to be the beautiful hybrid that it is? Why can’t we all just get along?

I think Horton starts to explore this question when she says, “Contemporary yoga embodies a strange but simultaneously generative mix of the sacred and the profane”  (15).

Uh-oh, it’s the sacred vs. the profane, again. I can tell you from my days as a student in Columbia’s Anthropology department that that old can of worms is really something you don’t want to mess with. Without going into any obscure theoretical ideas, let’s just look at the word sacred. I’m not going into its etymology here because I don’t have a subscription to the OED and I don’t know which other sources to trust, but think about it. Sacred things are things worth making sacrifices for. And I’m not just talking about sacrificing small amounts of comfort or money. Some things are so sacred that you might be willing to part with, say, your firstborn son.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac via Paying Attention to the Sky

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac via Paying Attention to the Sky

Here’s the thing. I want to buy into the idea that yogis who are committed to the ancient roots of yoga really and truly consider yoga sacred. I want to, but I feel resistant. I’m not saying that lycra is incompatible with the sacred, but seriously? I’ll put on the table that I don’t buy into the idea of a division between the scared and the profane, anyways. I think there’s a dynamic relationship between these two concepts that makes them inseparable. But if you are a person that does believe in that binary opposition, then please explain to me how yoga can be undeniably sacred and also a word screen printed on your tee shirt. With a bunch of hearts and rainbows.

That’s really a question. Discuss.

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. Douglas Brooks
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for an illuminating and worthwhile piece. There is no evidence that the Indus Valley seal is a proto-Shiva: at this point this is received scholarship rooted in historical evidence. (See Hiltebeitel, Jamison and Witzel, for reputable scholarship on the matter.) As for sacred and profane, it is the unfortunate legacy of Eliade’s thinking about these issues that continues to muddle the waters of a better understanding. For Eliade, as for Otto before him, the sacred functions as phenomenon that accrues to places and things by virtue of a sense of power or presence. Nonsense. Sacred is—as you rightly point out—a feature of relationships that require the dynamics of comparison. Things become “sacred” by how we define those relationships, primarily through such devices as means of access/restrictions, permission/prohibition. Here, not there; this, not that; now, not then. When these distinctions are made entirely by human convention we see sacred/profane in action. To juxtapose the views of Eliade, see Jonathan Z. Smith who helps mightily in making these distinctions useful.

  2. Carol Horton
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tracey – Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I love that you picked up on the “sacred and profane” language, and that Douglass Brooks accurately spotted it as Eliade-inspired – at least in a literary sense. In terms of theory, I’m what’s called an “inductive” social scientist: that is, I develop theories based on what I see as empirical evidence (messy as it may be), rather than developing theories abstractly and then seeing how the world fits into them.

    From that perspective, I’d say that it’s simply true that American yoga practitioners commonly experience both the sacred and the profane in the course of any sort of at least semi-serious practice. By “sacred,” I really mean nothing more (or less) than an expansive state of consciousness that experientially plugs us into something that’s positive, arresting, meaningful, and beyond words. Of course, people can and do have such experiences without yoga as well. But, for me, and I would suspect many others, yoga is the best practical means we have to access such experiences on a semi-regular basis.

    And of course, the profane is everywhere in the yoga world – not much need to prove that point, I think! 🙂

    Culturally, however, it’s strange to use such words and concepts. Most people would not be comfortable, I suspect, saying that they sought any sort of “sacred” experience through yoga, even to themselves. I feel that a lot of us are culturally whipsawed between a religious-type sensibility (where the sacred is firmly located in some sort of doctrinal system) and a super-vague, New Age-y “it’s all good” mushiness that resists thinking too much because it might rock the much-desired boat of feeling safe, and good (hard to come by for many if not most of us today).

    So . . . yoga culture exhibits the same tendencies of the larger culture in coping with the uncertainties of postmodern life – alternatively locking into doctrines (e.g., my practice is in fact 5,000 years old; I’m part of a sacred lineage even if you’re not) and refusing to exercise discernment or commit to anything (“it’s all good!”).

    You’re quite right in pointing out that my perspective on this alternatively emphasizes the value of opening up important questions and living with the discomfort of knowing that even your best answers are necessarily incomplete and on some level uncertain. That is not, however, ever going to be a popular path . . . that’s OK, and not a barrier to connecting on other issues that are also important in the yoga world.

  3. Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    “My question is: what is it that yoga might lose by being severed from this history? ” Gravitas, perhaps. It seems that adding years and years of history and lineage to yoga somehow makes it more believable. It’s sort of like genealogy: for some reason, digging through dusty old deed records to find out that great-great-great grandpa sailed over from Cork, Ireland makes a family more “real.”

    • Marcy
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      I paused at the double entendre and apropos use of your word ‘gravitas’ given the overall discussion around here about ‘fallen yoga celebrities,’ (my husband years ago coined ‘gurulebrity’), ‘the disgraced guru,’ the manipulative charismatic leader. . . . Q: “What is it that yoga might lose by being severed from this history?” A: ‘gravitas,’ it seems, for many people, which is cognate with the Sanskrit word ‘guru.’ See “Gotta Getta Guru” for further definition.

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