The System of Yoga

Looking back from where I was in December 2009 to now, December 2010, I’m pretty astonished at what a difference a year makes. I have friends who seem to have been in school forever, and there’s a common joke that they’re Professional Grad Students. If being in school forever earns you the title Professional Grad Student, then, I’ll study forever and be a Professional Yoga Student.

In that studying path, this year I finished my 500-hour teacher training in May, and towards the end of the program, my teacher Kathryn Payne had us read an article that shook up everything in my system concerning yoga. It was an interview of yoga teacher Dona Holleman by film director Diana Eichner, taken from the book Eyes of Innocence.

Yoga is a Man-Made Structure

The interview starts out with Diana asking Dona: “Why do you think that human beings need to create systems that explain the world?”

What a way to warm up, right? These women were not messing around, they jumped right into the deep end. As our (Teacher Training) class read the interview out loud, paragraph by paragraph, question by question, and answer by answer, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. Dona seemed to be saying that yoga is just another system, a man-made structure.

How could it be? Dona Holleman is a long time yoga teacher. She dedicated her whole life to it. She clearly believes in it, and I believe in her. I believe in Yoga. What does it mean if a senior teacher that I respect is saying this: “Any time you have a word you have a system, whether the system is an orthodox religion or philosophy or yoga. The moment you have the word ‘yoga’, you have again a box within the box.”?

My world literally fell sideway. But, yoga is a not a system. It can’t be! Yoga gets you out of the system. It gets you out of the Matrix, right?

Yoga is again an egg within the totality of the universe that says: if you do this then you have a certain result, like all the religions, all the philosophies. It is a system, which was meant to help people to get out of the system, let us say. Paradoxically enough all religions and philosophies are systems to help people to jump out of the systems into this mystical experience, but it is a paradox that simply does not work because the system, including yoga, has to do with language, with chronological time, with psychological time.

There is no way to go from a linear, psychological and chronological time pathway into a state of mind where there is no time, no future. It is an either/or situation. You can use a system like yoga to become healthy, to have a better quality of life. It can have a lot of nice side effects. But to use yoga as a system of reaching a state where time has no longer any meaning is not possible.”

No way. No. Way. No. Freaking. Way! I protested in my mind. This woman is wrong, wrong, and more wrong. I don’t care if she’s my teacher’s teacher. Yoga lets you reach samadhi. Bliss. And if not bliss, then maybe a sense of timelessness, spacelessness, or satori. I know it! I’ve experienced it!

Needless to say, the whole interview was very challenging to read and absorb. Dona confronts things that I thought were true or sacred. It didn’t sit well with me, but I hung on to the handouts Kathryn gave us. Time came and went, and before long, class was over, and then the training was over.

But Then Again, So is Everything Else

Spring became Summer, and Summer into Fall, and here we are in the Winter. You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing in this blog as frequently as before. My job has been consuming a lot of my time, and I continue to teach yoga and take workshops and study Sanskrit. Something’s gotta give, and writing time has been reduced. I’ve also stopped engaging so much in the cyberspace Yoga world. I stopped reading blogs and comments and tweets so much.

During that time, I became more engaged in my other world of Technology and Software Interaction Design. I read books and blogs, I go to conferences, I debate, I tweet. I go to dinner with people in the field. We laugh, we bitch, we support one another. It’s just like what I’d do in the Yoga world, really, the topic is just different, but the activities are the same.

One day, while reading comments online about the merits of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, and that of Google’s, Android, and thinking of the debate in Yoga about this style versus that style, I thought of Dona’s interview.

Oh my god, I thought. Everything *is* a system. My mind was once again, twisted and turned sideway.

Because I oscillate in different social and professional circles, this has turned out to be my testing ground. I dismissed Dona’s idea the first time around, but this time, I’m going to put it to the test. With the idea that it’s all some kind of structure human beings make up to explain and to function in this world, I went about my business.

It is a man-made structure and within that man-made structure we function. This is OK; we need to make a man-made world. We need to have a house, we need to have a car to drive to the office, we need to eat, we also need certain ideas, certain beliefs.

The problem starts when we create this man-made structure and then we are trapped in it. We forget that there is a whole universe beyond the structure, that the structure is only a very thin film superimposed on the vastness out there and that this film is only for practical purposes. We get trapped in it.

I began to take mental notes of where my trappings are; when I get sucked into a discussion about Design methods, for example. I’m very passionate about it, and when I’m not mindful, I end up so rigid, so stuck in my belief. Or, the other day, when I was reading a reading Carol Horton’s post about a new book, Yoga 2.0, I found myself getting worked up over the premise of the book, that we don’t derive any juice from books like the Yoga Sutras. “Ok, that might be so if we only read the English interpretation, but if we read the Sanskrit and really think about it.” I thought in my little mind. I was waging a war with people I had only heard fleeting mentions of in a blog. How absurd is that?

The Way Out

So if I’ve come to accept that everything is a system, everything is a box, is there any hope of going beyond it?

Dona gives me some hope that it’s possible:

The only way to stop this fragmentation is by attention, by awareness, to be aware of the whole process of compartmentalization, of fragmentation. This does not mean that we have to get ride of the fragmentation. We need the man-made world function as people, but the problem begins when we get caught in it to the point that we believe deeply in it.

It is OK to be an American but if you take the word ‘American’and the concept ‘American’ as a real thing, not as a phantom, arbitrary thing, then it becomes a problem.¬†Therefore the crux of the matter is to learn to be in two places at the same time: on the one hand to function and live as an American in America in a man-made world, but on the other hand to also be perfectly aware that is is a phantom situation, not a real one, and so we do not get caught. We use it, we function it in, but we do not get caught.

When I read this, I immediately think of what Shinzen Young said in The Science of Enlightenment, that we need to be amphibians, we need to be able to function on dry land as well as on water. Similarly, Tias Little, during his last visit to Seattle mentioned that what we do is just techniques. At some point, the techniques no longer serve us and we have to be aware to not hang on to the techniques dogmatically.

Dona continued saying that this idea is not new, it’s not revolutionary, it’s that it has only been around on a small scale. “The interesting thing in our time is that we now have the possibility to make this awareness mainstream.”.

Well, now, there’s a message of hope for what at first seemed like a cynical and skeptical idea. I have to admit, that I did get a little stirred by that simple sentence. And, from the woman who said that it’s not possible to use yoga to reach a state where time has no meaning, came this:

Therefore if you can suspend everything for a moment you might get a glimpse of the fact that there is something out there that we will never understand. That in itself is the revolution, it is the mystical experience in itself.

A glimpse, that is all, she followed up. That’s enough to keep me studying and practicing for a while longer. And so, with 2010 coming to a close, I’ll say that reading these thoughts from Dona is the most valuable lesson I received this year.

"We create these fantasylands in order to make our world but we should never lose sight of the fact that it is like going to Disney Land. It is fun but you have to be aware that it is pretense and not take it too seriously."

"We create these fantasylands in order to make our world but we should never lose sight of the fact that it is like going to Disney Land. It is fun but you have to be aware that it is pretense and not take it too seriously."