Tuesday, 25 August 2015

International Day of Yoga: INTERVIEWS (Part 2)

By JACQUELINE HARGREAVES





Following on from Part 1 of Interviews with Indologists and Scholars of Yoga, I have asked the same questions of two of the world's leading scholars of Modern Yoga, namely Dr. Elizabeth De Michelis and Dr. Mark Singleton. Their expertise in modern Indic religions provides a different perspective on the recent International Day of Yoga (IDY).


The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon has stated that:
By proclaiming 21 June as the International Day of Yoga, the General Assembly has recognised the holistic benefits of this timeless practice and its inherent compatibility with the principles and values of the United Nations.  
Yoga offers a simple, accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being. It promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share. And yoga does not discriminate; to varying degrees, all people can practice, regardless of their relative strength, age or ability.

           ELIZABETH DE MICHELIS            
Independant Scholar; Senior Manager, ModernYogaResearch.org

1. What is the significance of the UN proclaiming an International Day of Yoga to you as an academic?

[Elizabeth] It has given me food for thought. The fact that the proclamation has been supported so quickly and so easily by so many countries is an obvious acknowledgement of the worldwide popularity of (modern forms of) yoga. I also could not help noticing that the date chosen – the summer solistice - was the same as that of the ‘yoga days’ which have become popular over the last few years in the USA and beyond: I believe it was the Times Square Alliance in New York that started the trend in 2003, though I have not systematically researched this. 

And in relation to this, looking at the photos of these now internationally popular ‘yoga days’ over the last few years I acknowledge that what I had started off calling the (modern) ‘classroom format’ of yoga practice in my 1990s research work, while still very much alive and well, has by now spawned the (perhaps post-modern) ‘mass gathering format’. 

Some further reflection could perhaps be made by comparing and contrasting these events with other mass gathering or big group practice manifestation such as:
  • another periodic ‘yogic’ mass manifestation event, the Kumbha Mela. Or should that not be considered a ‘yogic event’? 
  • big gymastic nationalistic gathering or ‘social shows’ seen in recent and contemporary history at different locations.
  • public group practice such as is common in China for Tai Chi.
  • group ‘meditation-oriented’ practices such as those organised by MedMob in the USA and elsewhere, or the visually striking (and obviously carefully visually coreographed) ones organised in Thailand by the Dhammakaya movement.
Such topics could be stimulating for classroom discussion.

2. Do you think the idea of using Yoga as an "accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being" is valid?

[Elizabeth] Potentially, yes; in practice however it all depends how one goes about it!

3. Is the claim that Yoga "promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share" reasonable? If so, why?

[ElizabethPotentially, yes; in practice however it all depends how one goes about it!

4. Have either of these claims been reflected in history or have they only developed within the modern transnational Yoga movement?

[Elizabeth] As Mallinson and Birch have already stated, it may be argued that the first claim has a historical basis. The second is the result of modern ecological concerns and preoccupations, which are often assimilated into modern yoga representatives’ ideological elaborations.

5. The UN has also declared that its aim is to:
"Underscor[e] the fact that global health is a long-term development objective that requires closer international cooperation through the exchange of best practices aimed at building better individual lifestyles devoid of excesses of all kinds”
Do you think modern transnational Yoga may play a useful role toward achieving such an aim? If so, how?

[ElizabethPotentially, yes; in practice however it all depends how one goes about it!



           MARK SINGLETON            
Reseacher, SOAS, University of London 

1. What is the significance of the UN proclaiming an International Day of Yoga to you as an academic?

[Mark] For someone who has studied modern manifestations of yoga, this is significant in that it signals a new acceptance of yoga on a global scale. The discourses and concepts associated with yoga in Ban Ki-moon's address are also important in revealing a shared, and now truly international, vocabulary of yoga today.

2. Do you think the idea of using Yoga as an "accessible and inclusive means to promote physical and spiritual health and well-being" is valid?

[Mark] If there is general agreement about what these concepts mean, if the yoga that is being taught does in fact represent an accessible and inclusive means to attain them (i.e. the practice is open to all and does in fact produce the results as one understands them), and if one therefore considers that this is something worth striving for and promoting (an ideal), then one's idea about how yoga is to be used is, de facto, valid. However, the same might not be true of a yoga form that is, say, exclusive and inaccessible for most—perhaps requiring long, arduous training, or difficult initiations—or involves  practices in which one's physical body is neglected or harmed.

Problems also arise when one has different ideas about the meaning of these concepts (e.g. the far from transparent term 'spiritual health'), and the characterisation of yoga as a means to attain them. Clearly, you will get different answers about validity according to the person doing the validating (or invalidating). Philologists and yoga historians might seek to answer this question by providing evidence for accessibility and inclusiveness in yoga texts, which may be seen to have a validating function with regard to the larger yoga tradition. But there are problems and limitations here. For example, such evidence might be beside the point for those for whom yoga traditions are irrelevant, or perhaps even pernicious, with regard to their personal or faith community's understanding of 'spiritual health'. For such people, being included in yoga might well be far from a 'valid idea'. Indeed, inclusion might even be experienced as wilful, unwelcome indoctrination, and thus as a kind of violence against one's own practices and beliefs, as has been the case in certain schools, for example. 

3. Is the claim that Yoga "promotes respect for one’s fellow human beings and for the planet we share" reasonable? If so, why?

[MarkThe ethical rules of yoga (yamas and niyamas) enjoin particular ways of acting towards others—don't be violent, speak and act truthfully, don't steal etc.—and in this sense they could be seen as promoting respect for one's fellow humans, as well as animals. However, this does not necessarily mean that all yogis respect their fellow human beings. Also, the notion of respect for the planet we share strikes me as a characteristically contemporary concern reflected in the environmental movement, humanist philosophy and a fairly recent widespread consciousness of global belonging. This is not the same as saying that yoga does not 'promote respect for the planet we share', although I'd be surprised to find such a formulation, framed in the same way, in a premodern yoga text. 

Perhaps I am missing the point here, though: the question asks whether and how this claim is reasonable. But reasonable in what sense? My answer so far implies that a statement about yoga is reasonable to the extent that the claim can be shown to have strong precedents in yoga's (textual) tradition. However, statements like this are a priori true if, in the yoga one is promoting, it is axiomatic that these are the kind of things that yoga does. That seems to be the case here, and therefore these claims can be seen to be reasonable, both in the sense of internally satisfying the definition of yoga being offered, and in the sense that these qualities of respect for others and the planet are commonly perceived to constitute 'reasonable' values—irrespective of textual evidence or its absence. The statement is, in other words, declarative of a particular version of yoga espoused and approved by the UN that promotes respect for humans and the shared planet. With regard to statements like this, conceivably contradictory statements from yoga historians (something like, say, 'through most of its history, yoga has not promoted respect for the planet we share') might be, once again, beside the point, if the point is what yoga can and should do, from the perspective of the shared values enshrined in the United Nations. 

Lastly, one might also wish to question in what sense we actually 'share' the planet, in an age of wildly unequal resource and wealth distribution, and the systemic exploitation of people for the profit of powerful elites. 

4. Have either of these claims been reflected in history or have they only developed within the modern transnational Yoga movement?

[MarkYes, these claims are reflected in history (with qualifications, such as those mentioned above). Yes, these are qualities that have also developed within some of yoga's recent, transnational history (with some spectacular exceptions). It's rarely a matter of either/or when comparing ancient and recent pasts, especially when the present draws on the past to construct its meaning and identity to the extent that yoga does.

It strikes me that Ban Ki-moon's emphasis on yoga as a timeless practice with inherent qualities puts his discourse on a different footing to one that would assume diachronic historical development within yoga. Also, it seems to me that, unlike the UN, modern transnational yoga isn't really a 'Yoga movement' at all in the sense of having a shared, declared charter or mission. Its history is far more varied, decentralised and tangled.

5. The UN has also declared that its aim is to:
"Underscor[e] the fact that global health is a long-term development objective that requires closer international cooperation through the exchange of best practices aimed at building better individual lifestyles devoid of excesses of all kinds”
Do you think modern transnational Yoga may play a useful role toward achieving such an aim? If so, how?

[MarkI imagine that many of the people who practice and study yoga in various ways today could contribute significantly to an international dialogue on best health practices: there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence for the health benefits of certain yoga practices, after all. However, that 'health' is achieved by avoiding 'excesses of all kinds' and that one's 'individual lifestyle' is better as a result is a complex proposition that requires further examination. I imagine William Blake would have something to say about such 'best practices', for example, especially perhaps with reference to Ban Ki-moon's notion of 'spiritual health'! One also wonders which parts of yoga would have to be excised or ignored under such a regime: presumably those which are judged not to contribute to yoga's 'holistic benefits'.


Edited 28 August, 2015: Mark Singleton's comments for questions 2 and 3.

          FURTHER INFORMATION          

The Luminescent:

International Day of Yoga: INTERVIEWS (Part 1)

UN International Day of Yoga: