The thing about being out on extended sick leave and not being confined to my death bed or anything equally dramatic is that I have a great deal of time to think. I mull things around in my skull and the only real way I find any clarity in the process is when I write it down. That’s why I think of this blog as ‘therapy’ instead of merely hubris.
Now I’m still working at sorting out my notes from last week’s classes on Chapter One of the Yoga Sutras and one of the texts I’ve been using to help me has been Bernard Bouanchaud’s The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. One of the things I really like about the book is that he poses several questions at the start of the discussion for each aphorism that designed to help us integrate these studies into our daily life.
This week I’m still working with Sutra 1.1 — Now is set forth authoritative teaching on yoga. One of the questions Bernard Bouanchaud posits is “Can I openly question the text in a way that does not cast doubt on it?”
Got to admit – that one is rattling around in my head pretty hard today. The first thing I had to ask is “What the heck is wrong with doubt?” Now, to be perfectly fair, Bouanchaud wrote the book in French and it was translated into English by Rosemary Desneux, so all of this might be one of those weird English/French miscommunications that this country has raised to an art form.
But again, assuming that the translation is correct, I can only ask “What’s wrong with doubt?” My question comes right to the heart of what I’ve loved most about yoga since Day One. Yoga is both experimental and experiential. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that a lot of people find a place inside yoga for an expression of their faith in God or Universal Consciousness or whatever term they find most appropriate to describe that. It’s pretty much impossible to spend a week discussing Chapter one without the whole Bhakti path entering into the conversation on occasion.
That said, belief in any form of higher power isn’t necessary to ‘get’ yoga. It works whether I believe in it or not. In fact, it worked for me just fine before I ever heard the word Bhakti or Patanjali or anything else. It’s what I love about it.
Yoga works because it works. I know this because I’ve experienced it in my body. I do my practice and my body feels better. My mind is clearer. I’m less restless and agitated. When I don’t do my practice, my back feels stiff and I’m less comfortable in my body. My head’s muddled. There are no faith issues here. It’s analysis of experimental data, albeit in a statistical universe where n=1. I’ll admit, every study has its design flaws.
Later on in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali makes some pretty extraordinary claims concerning the ‘fruit of practice”. Frankly, I have my doubts with the willingness to be proven wrong but harking back to the wisdom of Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Doubt is not a synonym for disrespect and maybe this is where the translation falls apart. I think doubt is healthy in yoga. I think it keeps us rooted in reality. I think that when we as a community decide that doubt is inappropriate, we open doors that are best left shut.
Yoga stands up to scrutiny and disbelief. It can take on all comers in the testing department. I think doubt serves to keep us honest. Certainly for me, it keeps my head firmly out of the realm of fantasy and imagination. It makes me more exacting about my observations and more incisive about my analysis about the validity of these studies. So I think I’ll keep my doubt, and my feet on the mat, and see where it takes me. It’s been an informative journey thus far.
Namaste and thanks for reading,