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The Yoga Sutras and The Red Violin: a review of David Gordon White’s New Book

The Yoga Sutras and The Red Violin

Canadian director François Girard’s 1998 film “The Red Violin” tells the fable of a miraculous instrument, crafted by one Nicolo Bussotti (a character modeled on Antonio Stradivari) that passes through the hands of several virtuosi over four centuries and three continents. Its rapturous tone beguiles generations of listeners. Several of its players die in ecstasy while playing it. Don McKellar’s chronologically labyrinthine plot sweeps the violin towards a fateful auction in the present day, concealing to the very end the source of the violin’s deadly mystique. Spoiler alert: We learn in the final minutes that the blessing and curse of the instrument is apparently soaked into the very grain of its soundboard. Bussotti had been crafting the violin for his unborn child. As he’s finishing the final sanding, he is summoned home to find that his wife has died in labour along with the baby. In abject grief, he bleeds her corpse to create a final vermillion varnish for the instrument, before going mad. The violin’s power is rooted in this single terrible, revelatory night: so say these storytellers, who in uncovering the mystery play the taut strings of our yearning for an essence we dream we could rescue from the vrittis of history.

Now here’s a true story about old things. This past spring, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of double-blind test of old and new violins, performed at the Auditorium Coeur de Ville in Vincennes, Paris. Ten elite soloists compared the sound qualities of twelve instruments – six by 18th-century luthiers and six by contemporary makers. The soloists clearly preferred new instruments over old, and were unable to reliably distinguish their ages. These were the types of performers who might pursue a red violin to the ends of the earth. But the test proved that a violin’s age or reputation does not create its tone. Playing it does.

In a wildly entertaining tour-de-force of deconstructive research, David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography (Princeton University Press, released today), is an extended meditation on the red violin of modern Yoga, along with its most famous players. The Sutras have an uncertain beginning in the hands of a forgotten master. Countless pandits, commentators and dilettantes have played and brokered them, each according to their period and training. The Sutras have travelled the world on scrolls, folios, and now through pixels. They’ve been copied, miscopied, translated, mistranslated, silenced and silent for generations, appropriated and stolen, dressed up for show and stripped down for parts. They have born silent witness to the passage of kings, religions, and philosophical and scientific paradigms. Everyone who touches them claims possession over their essence – the blood in the varnish. But no one can agree upon what that essence is. And like the ten soloists puzzling in their welder’s goggles over equally beautiful instruments in a Paris concert hall, we are compelled to ask in the end: what do origins and authenticity mean, and why does it matter?

I won’t attempt to interrogate the breadth of White’s scholarship in this review, because I’m so not qualified – there are very few who are. But with notes and a bibliography so voluminous PUP opted to store them online, I’ll assume that he’s covered the available sources. Some may claim that an oral tradition for holding the essence and historical continuity of the Yoga Sutras eludes White’s reach, because it would only be accessible to initiated adepts, but I’ll deal with that below. I’ll focus in equal parts on the contours of his data, and what they may mean to the contemporary practitioner. I’ll begin with a synopsis of the sutra “biography”, give a list of idols that this history hollows out, wonder aloud what White actually feels about the “blood in the varnish”, and conclude with a few notions of what this deconstruction frees us up to do.

What are the Yoga Sutras, and how did they get here, according to White? Titled either as we know them, or as a part of a larger work called the Yoga Shastra (228), the 195 aphorisms are compiled in “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” (10, 230) from as many as six sources (35) within a several century range straddling the Common Era by an editor who may or may not be a commentator on Panini’s grammar or the serpent-boy lauded in the Shiva temple of Chidambram (37). Whether he was a scholar or a god impacts the reception of the Sutras as smriti or sruti (written or revealed), which in turn would shed light on whether they were ever chanted or not. (40) The text has often been thought to utilize the “older” vocabulary of Samkhya metaphysics, but it’s becoming clearer that the two systems are chicken-and-egged (23), with the further complication that the sutra’s first commentator, Vyasa – who may have been a) Patanjali himself (226-234), b) a contemporary of the composition or c) could have written several centuries later to subvert the supposedly “more original” Buddhist message of the text (41) – unduly emphasized Samkhya terms such as “prakriti” and “purusha” (11), perhaps to the neglect of the more repeated Buddhist terms like “shunya”. Of course, “Vyasa” is a recurrent nom de plumethroughout Indian literature, so there’s also that.

Spoiler alert 2: White wryly concludes the sleuthwork of the “origins” question this way:

“[W]e can be certain of a number of things: that the book you have been reading is the reception history of a work that may or may not be titled the Yoga Sutra; that the author of that work may or may not have been named Patanjali; and that that work may or may not have been the subject of an original and separate commentary by a person probably not named Vyasa.” (234)

So the first readings that survive for us are riddled with mystery and misreading. We’re off to the races, though the course is unmarked.

The text is then commented upon by everyone, it seems, except practicing yogis. (5) A certain Shankara, who may be the precocious 9th-century theologian or a post 14th-century writer (41), Hinduizes the arguably atheistic aphorisms by positioning the text’s “Ishvara” as the cosmic creator. Vacaspati (“Talk-Meister”) Mishra, 950CE, the despot Bhoja in the 11th century, and finally the Qualified Nondualist Vijnanabhikshu in the 16th century each throw down strong commentarial tracks. (42-45)

But the text’s shine is starting to dull. In the parallel literature of the Puranas through to the 14th century, Yoga is mentioned, but the Sutras are largely ignored, and Patanjali is absent from the lineage lists (46), signifying his gradual isolation from a practice and literary culture increasingly concerned with “Vedic” authenticity. White relates: “we can see that by the twelfth century, Patanjali’s system had been caught in a pincer movement… rejected by orthodox Brahmins for being beyond the pale of the Vedas and by the burgeoning ranks of Hindu devotees of gods like Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva for being non-devotional.” (52) Vijnanabhikshu’s commentary would constitute the last interest paid to the book until the period of the British Raj.

Did the Sutras go underground at that point? Were they kept alive in Himalayan caves, chanted from chest to chest? In response to the Desikachar family’s shifting hagiographical claims (more below) that T. M. Krishnamacharya inherited an ancient chanting practice for the Sutras (208), White has this to offer:

“There is no explicit record, in either the commentarial tradition itself or in the sacred or secular literature of the past two thousand years, of adherents of the Yoga school memorizing, chanting, or claiming an oral transmission for their traditions.” (80)

Full disclosure: this stings me personally a bit, as I spent some time in my own exploration of the Sutras riffing on the implications of what I assumed to be its oral culture milieu. My intention was to accentuate the intimacy and indeterminacy of the Sutras-as-conversation. But I didn’t need to rely on this particular fiction, which I’d inherited by osmosis from the Desikachar literature and also from sitting occasionally with a Toronto-based pandit who taught Patanjali as if he were echoing the ages. It turns out that Derrida was write: text can be just as indeterminate as speech, especially as far as the Sutras go.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on this historical lacuna for a moment and what it might mean to practitioners today. An essential (and essentialist) story in the marketing of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) holds that Patanjali’s text is carried by a continuous flame through the ages, never snuffed out, but often hidden in such ways as to increase its radiance – as in the “Shangri-La” of the Himalayas, “the pristine haunt of authentic sages in whose entranced minds all of India’s ancient wisdom had survived intact.” (99) White points out that this particular construction of authenticity, perennial to Indian lore, was shrewdly plucked and packaged for modern broadcast and consumption by the certifiable fraudulence of Madame Blavatsky and her gaggle of “polyglot clackers” who claimed direct contact with “Himalayan Masters” over the “magnetosphere” of Tibet, and through them channeled and churned out several very odd distortions of the Sutras as ignominy chased them all the way to India itself. (103-115)

It’s worth remembering that several prominent MPY lineages — one is tempted to say “brands” – continue to be rooted in this story, on exquisite display here as Pandit Rajmani Tiganuit leads the camera through a tour of the Himalayan Institute’s new Sri Vidya shrine in Khajuraho.

The temple, which is actually far south of the snowy peaks for which the Institute is named, is sparsely decorated. A lonely portrait of Tiganuit’s teacher, Swami Rama hangs in a room above an artificial cave containing a rock “that once existed in Tibet” that Rama’s teachers going back “thousands of years” have sat upon to meditate, according to Tiganuit. Front and centre in what appears to be the shrine’s atrium are the Sutras, printed in bold Devanagri, mounted in four large picture frames, one for each pada I imagine. They are tablets worthy of Cecil B. DeMille.

As the camera pans over the tablets, Tiganuit weaves a now-common pastiche of sentiments inspired by the Sutras, yet seeming to have nothing to do with them:

The shrine is unique in the sense that we don’t have a statue of a particular God or Goddess, but… the body of knowledge that continues to provide guidance and direction to mankind. That body of knowledge itself is at the core of the shrine. This is the epitome of what we teach, what we believe in. The shrine is a living example of the message of the sages, that we must create a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern science, between East and West, and we must remove the gap that exists between different cultures and civilizations, and we must learn to build a bridge between our worldly lives and our spiritual lives. And that is why here, we have Yoga Sutra of Patanjali…

It appears that the tablets have full view of the newly constructed yajna pit that anchors the courtyard in polished concrete and tile. Lest we think that picking apart the knots of cultural exchange and appropriation in MPY will be in any way easy, here we see a reconstructed Patanjali meet a revisioned Vedism in a temple built by a transnational Yoga corporation, dedicated to an evangelizing Swami specializing in Hatha siddhis who was chased back to India by an impending State of Pennsylvania lawsuit involving allegations of sexual predation.

Rajmani Tiganuit bowing before the Yoga Sutras.

The tour of the Khajuraho shrine is a perfect figure for White’s background summation the MPY melting pot:

“Over the past century, [Swami] Vivekananda’s legacy [of creative bricolage] has prevailed in the yoga subculture, where teachers continue to confuse Yoga philosophy with Puranic, Hatha, and Tantric doctrines; to present western metaphysical and scientistic concepts in Indian trappings; to identify Yoga as a healing tradition; to assert the scientific foundations of Yoga; and to present Raja as the highest form of Yoga.” (142)

I digress here because whatever “satya” meant to Patanjali, for us it must in part mean this: history is complex, and we can stunt each other psychically by pretending otherwise. Confabulation erects the hollowest authority, inevitably eroding what it seeks to bolster. Truthfulness requires confessing that no one possesses the truth, or special access to it, and that we must take responsibility for our creative additions to the river of discourse, without passing them off as the blessings of perfected souls no one can see. Myths can encourage and console, but we can pay dearly for them with our integrity.

As a further aside, I’d say that satya in the practice of MPY additionally requires a careful study of the facts of colonialism (and as Richard Freeman reportedly said of Pattabhi Jois’ attitude – “reverse colonialism”), the drives of orientalism both romantic and appropriative, reductionist mystification, reductionist commodification, and plain old human folly.

Following the three-century “Yoga desert” (52) that White sifts through for a thread that might connect Vijnanabhikshu to the present era, his story rolls into the oak paneled studies of the early Orientalists — they used the named without shame — who were on contract to the British and French East India Companies to learn enough Sanskrit to construct a colonial law that didn’t seem too foreign. Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) collected thousands of shastras, of which only a tiny portion concern Yoga proper, and which seem to have been neglected by the traditional brahminical colleges of at least Benares at the time. This is reported by Colebrooke’s colleague William Ward, who estimated that only five or six students out of one hundred thousand were actively studying the shad darshanas. (72-3) This left Colebrooke in the dark when it came to getting educated help on his 1823 essay “On the Philosophy of the Hindus”, which nonetheless produced a passable rendering of Samkhya and Yoga metaphysics. By and large, he was quite sympathetic to Indian philosophy, although he was highly critical of the magical-ascetic “fanaticism” he detected in Patanjali. (65)

Early Indologists from abroad and India itself who were interested in Yoga would continue to be stymied by this lack of qualified support for their translation and commentarial efforts, so much so that every early aspiring translator, from James Ballantyne to Rajendral Mitra to the Arya Samaj founder Dayananda Saraswati – who wandered in search of Yogic help for nine years – complained that no one in India knew Yoga anymore. (73,112) White summarizes the mood:

“…[W]e may conclude that Colebrookes’ laconic, if not hostile, treatment of the Yoga Sutra undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that by his time, Patanjali’s system had become an empty signifier, with no formal or informal outlets of instruction in its teachings. It had become a moribund tradition, an object of universal indifference.” (80)

White had me at “empty signifier”, for to me satya these days also means reading the heritage of Yoga with all of the post-structuralist rigour we can muster. I only wondered once at White’s commitment here – in his discussion of the wonderful find of Bengali scholar Rajendral Mitra’s 1883 translation of the Sutras. Long out of print, with only a few extant copies available, White finds reading the microfilm a “revelation”(93), and offers Mitra’s elegant synopsis of the Sutras’ arguments in seventeen bullet points, introducing them with “One only wishes that Patanajali had presented his system in the same way, since it would have made the Yoga Sutra far more accessible.” (95)

This is as close as White comes, I think, to romancing the blood in the varnish. His praise of Mitra’s work almost seems to transcend an appreciation for sharp scholarship into an implicit belief that the Sutras do have a clear message that can be recovered by the sincere specialist. I can understand the impulse arising in someone sifting through as much bunk as White has had to, and feeling he has found a rare comrade-in-clarity in a figure like Mitra. But it raises the question, not so much for White as for the entire discipline: does the identification of something as “Patanjali Yoga” as a category of study, and the seeking out of the best and rarest sources for that category, naturally beguile a scholar into imagining implied essences, even as he or she is describing the thing-in-itself as a herd of cats? The Sutras are an unstable collection of verses compiled over centuries by nameless people in forgotten places and frozen into folios by the accidents of text production. Can we resist the desire to hunt the blood in the varnish?

Looping back to White’s introduction is a good way of introducing the truly modern era of Sutra-brokerage that accompanies the rise of MPY, beginning with the reconstructions of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902):

“In the wake of this long hiatus, the “recovery” that followed the text’s rediscovery was a tortured process, generating much sound and fury, often signifying nothing, as its many modern interpreters projected their fantasies, preconceptions, hopes, dreams, and personal agendas onto Pantanjali’s work in unprecendented ways. As a result, the Yoga Sutra has been something of a battered orphan for the better part of the last two centuries, often abused by well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning experts and dilettantes, mystics and pragmatists, reformers and reactionaries who have seized upon it as a source of political, intellectual, or symbolic capital.” (16-17)

Whatever category of expertise we assign to Vivekananda, he clearly seized the Sutras with one well-meaning and one opportunistic hand. Let it be known that the Swami hammered out his translation and commentary on the text, to be published in 1896 under the title of Raja Yoga, in less than six months, while living in New York, with no support from scholarly peers or practitioners. White has even combed through Vivekananda’s book-order receipts to discern whether he’d acquired any extant sutra commentaries, and found none. “[I]t appears that he did a great deal of free associating in his work, relying on his own extensive background knowledge of the Puranas, Indian philosophy…” to produce not a translation, but a “paraphrase”. (127) But the Swami didn’t stop there with his creativity. He freely injected his influences: Neo-Vedanta, the mesmeric backwash from his arm’s-length relationship to the Theosophists, Western scientism and the pseudo-scientific language of Western spiritualism. White:

“…[Raja Yoga] was, at bottom, a self-help book grounded in Western esotericism, but because it was the work of an Indian, its Western readership read it as an authentic work ofEastern philosophy, on the ‘Science of Yoga’… (125)

As an aside, MPY practitioners should know that positioning Yoga as “science”, as a focal point of Vivekananda’s presentation, carried with it the anti-colonialist goals of Indian-renaissance movements like the Brahmo Samaj, of which he was a central figure prior to meeting with Ramakrishna in 1884. Claiming Yoga as a science that can challenge Eurocentric “secularist” epistemology is now a more than a pro-Indian theme of cultural unification: it is a dominant note of contemporary Hindutva worldview, and global practitioners who sing it may be unconsciously allying themselves with a politics they would otherwise reject.

None of Vivekananda’s creative excesses trouble me. White makes clear that the remixing of Patanjali dates back to Vyasa (or Patanjali-as-Vyasa), and that the red violin has patiently borne everyone’s music and playing style. What is now intolerable, however, is the lack of transparency in the interpretive community. Almost nobody is transparent in the commentarial history. Shankara never explicitly mentions his Advaita agenda, Vijnanabhikshu does not confess his devotionalism. Colebrooke and the Orientalists were painfully unaware of their reductions. Hegel is out to Romantic lunch: “…the first,” writes White, “in a long line of dilettantes, both Western and Indian, who have interpreted the Yoga Sutraon the basis of little or no understanding as means to furthering their own agendas.” (91) In the present day, I’m only aware of Chip Hartranft and Edwin Bryant making their positions transparent as Buddhist and Vaisnava, respectively. “Geshe” Michael Roach, by contrast, doesn’t bother to reveal that his entire “translation” effort is a front for his New Age Neo-Buddhist ideology.

It’s not surprising: the notion of engaging transparently from one’s positionalityis the contemporary innovation of feminism and cultural anthropology. But at this point I’d say Yoga interpreters are compelled to take it on as a new standard for engagement. Never again in either the soft or hard sciences (even labworkers must make full disclosure of their funding today) will any argument about anything be taken seriously if it is unaware of its positionality: its biases and limitations, its in-group or out-group status, its privilege. This self-reflexivity is not a postmodern fad. It is the very heart of intellectual honesty today.

Had these thoughts been clearer to me when working on my own remix of the Sutras, I would have incorporated them into my growing list of revisionist meanings for satya as well. Satya today can’t just mean telling the “truth” as you see it, but must include telling the deeper truth about what is at stake for you in speaking at all. No one can be fully transparent, meaning: we have an unconscious. And we must even be transparent about that. How can we hope to practice meditation if we ignore this?

Leaving Vivekananda, White strolls through the fascinating territory of Islamic commentaries on Patanjali (143-158), and a mini-history of the term “Ishvara” as a site of sectarian scuffles that will never be resolved (172-181). I’ll let you all dive into those sections of this required-reading book, and head into the home stretch with a list of the wrecked myths bobbing in the wake of White’s cutter:

The Yoga Sutras has no stable textual tradition and no stable oral tradition. There is no lineage of continuous respect for the document itself within Indian philosophical and religious discourse. It’s highly unlikely that the Himalayan preserve harbors a cabal of Patanjalian rishis. Vivekananda had no more access to the Sutras than the non-Indian Orientalists did, and far less than we do. But it’s with White’s penultimate chapter, “The Strange Case of T. M. Krishnamacharya” that the grit of human desire and grandiosity starts to really scratch the patina of the modern Yoga myth.

White’s choice to round up the biography of a text with the biography of a man is both a formal delight and an existential hint. We get to see how the life of the MPY founder is cloaked in as much indeterminacy as his allegedly favourite book is. We get to see that the confabulations we foist onto texts are the mirrors of what we foist onto people. He begins with a generalized collation of the five authorized biographies — “one is tempted to say hagiographies” — White politely interjects (197), four of which are written by his son T.K.V. Desikachar and grandson Kausthub, with the other penned by another long-term student, A.G. Mohan. Then, with the same dharana he applied to his initial assumptions about the Yoga Sutras (in the Preface, White confesses that he expected the text to be supported by an unbroken line of gurus [xv]), he meticulously shreds the Desikachar stories to bits. Chronological and thematic inaccuracies between the four family bios, written between 1982 and 2005, reveal Krishnamacharya as the inscrutable hero of a family creating its own Purana. They are certainly not to blame, for in addition to the grandfather’s shifting oral remembrances through the years, he left his family with only eleven written pages (198) of autobiographical notes for them to weave the best story they could, and perhaps, unconsciously, the best story they imagined the world needed to hear about the genesis of MPY.

Amidst the chaos of disagreeing dates, impossible meetings with pandits, and surprisingly scant evidence that Krishnamacharya was very knowledgable or enamoured of the Sutras at all (201-202), a pattern begins to emerge as the dates of the biographies progress. As the details of the grandfather’s knowledge and exploits are enriched, so is the centrality of the Yoga Sutras to his story and teaching. The importance of the book blossoms alongside the grandeur of the man.

Why is this so? White alludes to (211-212) something that I can confirm from my own contact with people who were committed to learning with the Desikachar family. I know that through the 1990s, chanting the Sutras was becoming a curricular mainstay of their growing international school, proving effective for group adhesion and for projecting the image of distinguished study, a living link to the past, and a mythical echo of Vedic orality. I remember buying lifelong Desikachar student Sonia Nelson’s beautiful tutorial on CD in about 2005 — it had been published in 2002 — and I spent many happy hours chanting along, contemplating the verses, and attuning myself to the fiction that I was doing some very ancient and authentic thing.

I imagine I was feeling only the faintest shadow that T.K.V. and Kausthub felt as they listened to the old man. White quotes the elder Desikachar, from 1998:

When I chanted with my father, I was bound to him and his teachings in a unique fashion, just as in his chanting he was once again linked to his own teacher — and so it stretches back through many centuries of teachers… In our tradition, when we chant, we unite with God, who gave us the language, the practice of Yoga, and the wisdom of the Vedas. (214)

How couldn’t the son and grandson write a myth coherent with the old man’s vision? They are writing about listening to their father sing to them. This means that there are much more important things than facts being exchanged. In his endnotes to Coming Through Slaughter, a 1976 novel about the virtuoso jazz saxophonist Buddy Bolden, Michael Ondaatje writes:

There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.

White winds down the myth-busting by trying fruitlessly to reconcile the various bits of lore regarding Krishnamacharya’s relationship to his “trans-Himalayan Yoga master” (198) Ramamohana Brahmacari. To start, the biographers say Brahmacari was in Tibet, but the grandfather himself puts him in Nepal. White then shows that in order for biographers to allow for this student-teacher relationship to flourish within any workable timeline, they had to propose a non-sensical walking-route for the grandfather that would have forced him to cover hundreds of miles over the “most rugged terrain in the world” (220) in order to squeeze out a few months of contact with the teacher over the claimed seven-year apprenticeship (221) in which he was instructed in 700 asanas. (208) And there are other unlikelihoods. In about four and a half pages, White calls into grave question the central prop of Krishnamacharya’s authority: the story of his access to “the last authentic yogi on the planet.” (212)

Throughout his analysis, White manages to avoid disparaging the integrity of the family biographers or diminishing Krishnamacharya’s profound contributions to MPY. But he does end his chapter, curiously, with a paragraph that begins: “Here it is useful to compare these reconstructions of Krishnmacharya’s life with that of Hariharananda Aranya, his elder by twenty years.” (223) White relates Aranya’s seemingly more stable biography, along with his publishing record, which shows granular familiarity with the Sutras. White ends his chapter on Krishnamacharya by praising Aranya for being an “authentic scholar-practitioner.” (224) This seems to be about the classiest way of calling bullshit a generous scholar could possibly manage.

After this whole journey — textual, literal, and imagined — what is left of theYoga Sutras and the men who have brokered them? I’m reminded of the opening to Lynn Hejinian’s book of poetry called My Life: “A pause, a rose, something on paper.” I’m reminded of the end of the Diamond Sutra. The Buddha says: “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.” In our homes we have dried flowers and old photographs. We have notes from lectures taken years ago about books written millennia ago. We have paperbacks on dusty shelves that may never be read again. We have impulses, intuitions, sparks of insight — all of them hurtling into the past — and we work with these.

Despite the politics, posturing, and showmanship, these dried leaves are all we have ever had, and working with them in the humility of uncertainty offers a peculiar grace. White’s account, for all of its swashbuckling, is also a quiet work of second-order religiosity. There is a certain austere nobility in pursuing the trace, in suspecting that something has gone missing forever, or that an ideal perhaps never existed. Creativity arises as the best response to the metaphysics of disenchantment.

It’s good to be relieved of the burden of thinking there’s something we’re not living up to. Amidst the Yoga scholarship of David White, Mark Singleton, Norman Sjoman, Elizabeth De Michelis, and so many others, there are no Yoga metanarratives left standing. Ultimately this means we also cannot doubt the value of our own participation in the ongoing creation of whatever Yoga is or will be. We might even use White’s work to reclaim the un-self-reflexive patterns of past commentators as permission to transparently create. This might free us to read Hatha literature through psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and the Gita through Marxist theory. Would these readings be substantially different from earlier misreadings or politicizations of the Sutras?

What is Yoga now? Not a tradition that the contemporary global practitioner can point to, unless we want to continue to glorify fictions or prop up charismatics. Yoga is more like an approach or attitude, a periodic response to cultural and psychic stress. It’s an interdisciplinary, open-eyed response to whatever is given. Yoga takes the categories of ethics, breath, movement and contemplation and breaks down the barriers between them. It generalizes an efficient approach to creative and resilient living. “Yoga shows up” as my friend Michael Stone likes to say, “wherever the dominant paradigm is failing.”

How does it show up? Maybe like a red violin at a high-priced auction, a university rummage sale, or abandoned on the luggage carousel at the airport. You can tell any story you want about it, but it will remain silent until you play, cultivating sincerity and detachment as you practice for a long time, using whatever skill you bring. A sign that you’re really playing it might be that you don’t care who made it, or how old it is, but you’re aware of and grateful for the countless actions, random and purposeful, that brought it your way.

This essay originally appeared on

Image by Barry Silver, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

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