The Intersection of Yoga & Dogma
I hear a lot of conversation on the difference between being dogmatic and not dogmatic. This teacher or this shala or this lineage is dogmatic but this other one isn’t. It usually comes with a negative connotation such as, those teachers or that lineage doesn’t allow for individualization and consideration for a student’s injuries or body type, because it's dogmatic. I found myself questioning what they meant, what those claiming to experience it within ashtanga yoga were trying to communicate, and specifically how it’s expressed in the practice.
This has been the explanation of dogmatism that’s made the most sense to me. It all starts with a world view. We each have our own, ones that have been shaped by past experiences and influences. It’s ok to have a worldview, in a way it helps us navigate this world in a way that feels safe to us. But something I tend to forget is that for any world view taken on, there is always going to be something left out. There are too many possibilities & perspectives, how could we expect any one world view to consider them all? I still think it's ok to have a worldview that resonates with you, for navigating this life. But here’s the double edge sword of world views – when you come up against a person or experience that challenges your world view in some way you can either open to it, consider it and perhaps allow it to expand or shift your current world view in some way. Or you can resist this new perspective, hold on even tighter to Your World View in a way that doesn’t allow you to consider the other for even a moment. A story can be created to justify why your view makes sense and is right. Say you go with the first approach, perhaps you still like your world view more after you consider the other and that might even be ok because that’s not where the conflict arises from, it comes from the holding on tight. That holding on is what creates a narrow consciousness, one that forgets it’s a part of something bigger and that any one world view is going to be inherently limited. The more that happens, the tighter you hold on, that more your perspective looks more like tunnel vision, and you’ve become so set in your way of thinking on a particular subject that suddenly you’ve become dogmatic, although you probably don’t see it that way.
How does dogma play a role in yoga? I think mistakenly, sometimes traditional yoga is equated to being dogmatic; when tradition points to outdated and set in stone. I think on the contrary the tradition of yoga is to go into your own experience right now, not to self impose an experience that an ancient text is telling you to experience. The intention of yoga isn't to take a teacher's or lineages word for what your experience should be like. Rather the teachings of yoga are giving us a path to find the presence of mind to experience for ourselves and come out with first hand knowledge of ourselves. That process is open and receptive - not dogmatic. So how could traditional yoga teachings possibly be dogmatic? Where dogma and yoga intersect has to be something much more nuanced than simply writing off yoga as dogmatic when it's presented as traditional.
The teachings of yoga need to make enough space for the process and external form to look different from practitioner to practitioner. If we say a pose needs to look one way, why is that? Is it because without that factor there would be no yoga, or because we are coming from a dogmatic way of thinking? Does modifying the ashtanga sequence take away from the internal experience of yoga? What about if you start skipping or changing the postures? Is yoga still happening? I think these are questions that come up for many practitioners at some point in ashtanga, and it's important to explore these questions in our own practice. For example, why do I want to take out or change a posture? Is it because it's getting in the way of coming into the present moment or because deep down it's just uncomfortable. Asking these questions are part of the process, it's rich to have them, it’s not something we should pretend never crosses our mind. The teacher in the space should support that exploration, through any of the resulting external forms that exploration will take a student through. And it's an ongoing never ending process. You find a way of doing a posture that works for you today but then tomorrow you explore it again and maybe find a slightly different expression even if it's not noticeable on the outside.
There's nothing inherently dogmatic about the practice of ashtanga, that gets added on by us and by the culture of ‘being a part of a lineage’. We practice Ashtanga, but really we practice yoga. It’s proven useful to come up with a particular set of conditions for the practice of ashtanga yoga, for the purpose of structuring our practice, to give it shape. For example, you should practice primary series six days a week, rest once a week and on moon days. But it can be a slippery slope when those particular set of conditions become a way to separate Ashtanga from, or worse, to elevate it above other yoga ‘styles’. It's useful to be open to the possibility that the particular set of conditions for ashtanga yoga are leaving something out, they’re limiting in some way. It's not a reason to not follow them but to not hold on to them too tightly. I constantly ask myself - What is the essence of ashtanga yoga? What part of these conditions are vital and which are just culture? Despite not having a clear unchanging answer for this, the process of questioning this in itself I feel has allowed me a wider consciousness from which to practice and teach Ashtanga Yoga from.
You can explore within your practice, draw outside the lines and still practice ashtanga yoga but is the devotion still there? Is the intention to sit with whatever arises there? Are you connected to the movement of prana? Or at least making the effort to. The useful thing about ashtanga, I think, is that the sequence doesn’t change much, apart from the small adjustments you might make in response to what's present for you at any moment. It gives us something constant to hold the rest of our stuff up against. It's harder to hide from yourself. When you do make those adjustments to your practice,, discrimination is important - is the form of your practice supporting your unique process of yoga or is there something else guiding it like laziness, external validation, dogmatic thinking? I think the fine line of dogmatism in ashtanga yoga lies here. Is it the teacher, the lineage or you acting as the source of confinement in the practice, and therefore taking you further from yoga?
Dogmatism has no doubt existed in me more than once. It almost seems human nature to hold on to a world view because it feels safe to think we’ve got this mysterious world figured out. When someone challenges us or makes us uncomfortable, it’s easier to hold on to our perspective than admitting that maybe we don’t have it all figured out. Part of my journey has included being ok that i'll never have it all figured out, finding the beauty in that. It has allowed me to have a worldview but also let go of it when I need to place reality above my personal agendas. Of course, I’m not always successful, so I keep practicing.
I’ve experienced dogmatism being expressed outwardly in the way we hold onto our labels for others, such as good teacher, too strict teacher, strong practitioner, a practitioner who's not really practicing yoga etc. It can be expressed by patterns of thoughts, by the way our world view is organized within us and how that dictates our words, actions and relationships to others or yoga lineages. It can be anytime we think we have something figured out and avoid everything that might disprove it. How productive are our labels for each other?
Say we start the practice of yoga for physical reasons. So we have this idea that the sole purpose of practicing ashtanga yoga is to be more fit and look better. So from that perspective we push our bodies to work harder and end up injured and now add in the story that Ashtanga Yoga creates injury. It might seem easier than realizing we didn't have this practice all figured out after all, and our limited idea shaped our approach to the practice and therefore what we got back from it. It's not an easy process, many of us come into the practice with ideas and expectations, it's human nature to. And the practice asks us to put that way of thinking to the side because it's that way of thinking that will get in the way of the practice really working its magic. It shows up in mental, emotional, physical discomforts and ultimately we need to dive in and move through it.
We all have that posture in the ashtanga sequence we come up against we don’t like. For me, one of these was shoulder stand. It's uncomfortable, my neck always feels stuck, it's hard to breathe and it just brings up insecurities for me. The way most of the other practitioners were practicing it in the room I felt was just not accessible for my body. And if I’m being honest for a long time I would find any reason to skip it, because the practice is too strict and doesn’t make space for my needs so I was justified in taking out the posture sometimes… is what I would tell myself. In a way I was throwing out the sequence and blaming it on being too dogmatic. And then I realized, the reason to practice shoulder stand everyday wasn’t because the lineage said to and when you do it, it should look the same on everyone, but rather I should practice shoulder stand everyday to sit with the discomfort it brings up, just like we should sit with the discomfort that comes up when our world view is changed. Shoulder stand doesn’t start with the outward expression of it, it starts with the inward understanding of it. It doesn’t need to look like the version I was seeing in other practitioners, it needed to look like the version that works in my body so that I have a space to sit in the unique discomfort that the posture brings up for me. Furthermore, It’s a moment in the practice to settle the nervous system and move inwards at the end of the practice to integrate all the work I had put in during the asana practice. Looking at the practice from the limited perspective of making an external shape, was leading me to a conclusion that the practice was dogmatic, where really, I was the dogmatic one for missing out on all the other ways of looking at shoulder stand.
In this example, my thinking was dogmatic and that obscured the power of this practice from me. But it's also possible a teacher can have a moment of thinking dogmatically with a student and limit their exploration of yoga. To know if a practice, teacher or lineage is dogmatic I think It's important to be clear where its coming from so we can accurately recognize the source – the lineage, teacher, me. It makes a difference and if we are clear we can avoid missing something that would actually be useful along our path of growth.
Part of practicing from a non-dogmatic space is accepting that we don’t know everything. As yogis we are interested in connecting to the practice of yoga as it was intended, having a clear understanding of the process. And that takes a qualified, experienced teacher to communicate to us. Being further along the path than us they most likely see something we don’t; teachers play an important role in moving us into this wider consciousness of non-dogmatic thinking. Knowing when and how to trust a teacher can be tricky sometimes. The only thing you can do is relentlessly go after the truth and learn to trust yourself whether that means facing your own delusions or finding a new teacher.
We can only start with ourselves. There’s insight in looking at our way of perceiving rather than the external object that is being perceived. Instead of looking outwards and calling something or someone dogmatic, looking at the patterns of dogmatism we might be judging from. The point is, it’s not our job to judge others by labeling them for ourselves and others because really whatever label we give them is going to be limited… there’s so much we don’t see. Our job is to notice the source of our thoughts, words and actions. From that kind of space we can determine for ourselves, and not anyone else, whether a particular teacher or lineage will support our journey.
In the process of moving towards a deeper experience of yoga and therefore away from dogmatic tendencies, we are inevitably going to come across obstacles. But in order to recognize an obstacle as detrimental to your growth, you must first recognize limitations in yourself. See it clearly, how a limiting way of thinking causes you to act in the world. Know on a personal level what it looks like, what it feels like. It'll make navigating your unique path more clear when you do come up against obstacles; you'll have first hand experience for identifying a harmful, limiting pattern..
For me, I’m usually holding on the tightest to the things that if I were to let go of would mean facing an uncomfortable truth or letting go of something I’ve identified with for a long time. Who will I be if I stop telling myself a story I’ve been telling myself, a story I’ve convinced myself I’m committed to? This helps me understand better why being dogmatic can be a natural tendency – because it’s easier to ignore our shadows. It's comfortable, but it’s so limiting. That’s where we get stuck along our evolution towards better versions of ourselves – when we allow those natural tendencies to take control and avoid what is present in us right now, perhaps because it might contradict a world view we have. What emotion is it – pride, envy, jealousy, anger, hurt? Something is there underlying our thoughts, words and actions. And the ironic part is if we continue to ignore them, we continue to feed them. What's so interesting about this practice is the discomfort that certain postures bring up for us can teach our bodies and minds to sit with the discomfort of having our world view challenged. If you're comfortable in your practice, keep going.
We all fall into dogmatic ways of thinking at some moment or another. And the practice can be a tool for seeing that clearly, sitting with how our view of the world is oriented in a particular moment, and maybe at first just being aware. Acknowledging that a limited perspective presented as a discomfort is present can be enough sometimes, just seeing it clearly without adding a story to it. For example, a story about all the reasons why your way of practicing is better or why what a certain practice or teacher is asking us to do is wrong or narrow minded. It's possible we just aren’t seeing what lies on the other side of sitting with the discomfort this new perspective is bringing up for us. Yoga is designed to move us into a more open understanding of the world.
Whenever I’ve denied functioning from a place of dogmatic tendencies, it's only taken me further into precisely that pattern of behavior. Whereas the times I’ve been able to face the reality of my tendencies, is when I stopped fueling them and let them go. I was able to rebuild a pattern of being open and present to exist alongside the impermanent nature of everything.
To say that a lineage is dogmatic I think doesn’t give credit to the possibility of the expanding, curious, receptive quality of sincere teachers and practitioners carrying a lineage along generations. We might realize that trying to label something dogmatic or not dogmatic is really just a distraction from moving into our experience in each moment, because all those labels are doing is permanently describing something that is changing all time.
As a community, we should be committed to holding each other accountable for the sake of moving closer to reality as it is, to allow the practice to evolve and take shape as it needs to from practitioner to practitioner, and community to community. No one needs to be left out of this process, together we can make adjustments where necessary and face uncomfortable realities. Any teacher or practitioner can have a moment of thinking dogmatically but if they are serious yoga practitioners, they’ll be able to recognize those moments and find a wider consciousness to practice or teach from. We must all do the work of looking at our own tendencies towards dogmatism, or any harmful tendency for that matter; face them instead of allowing those patterns to go unnoticed and therefore be expressed outwards in our actions or perceptions of others. The practice should be a living breathing expression of that. In my opinion, only from this type of space can we be open to our own and others’ needs and create the space for the journey of yoga.