The Agony of Yoga

By Centre of Yoga Studies|October 12, 2021|Uncategorized|0 comments

Event details: SOAS CYS summer school, 2021

This post written by: Varun Aiyer

We asked a couple of students on our summer school to write a few reflections provoked by their time studying with us. This is one of two pieces in response.

The present times, to my mind, demand from practitioners, researchers, scholars, seekers of every field of work- study, if at all their inner persons exercise the will to do so, to engage with the social, political, economic, hierarchical, environmental travails of these times. The engagement with Yoga from any standpoint, I would submit, is no exception to this. The Summer School hosted by Centre of Yoga Studies {SOAS} scaffolds this precise demand by addressing wide arrays of matters that Yoga faces. While on the one hand the findings of the Hatha Yoga Project {in the quest of which I arrived for the program} are transparently shared, on the other hand participants find the possibility to turn their gazes towards perspectives in the history of Yoga, as also material that helps kindle the cycles of reflection and revisiting that one very much needs within the psycho- somatic matrix that is Yoga. One saw within oneself and in conversations with co- participants, the urge that the course material makes for participants to think critically. I would attribute this beckoning as the primary nature of the course, its great strength. I place here before the reader, a few more thoughts.

In the words that follow, I hope to earnestly write, speak from a depth of feeling that does not intend to be deprecatory merely for the sake of the performance of disproval, but instead attempts launching into a critical manner- of- looking at ‘realities on the ground’, so to speak. I hope for these words, humbly but surely, to be read beyond academia and therefore I have set myself the task also to refrain from using, referring to, citing, consuming information as data points upon which to ideate theory but to remind myself of the living, breathing, moving, changing nature of human beings with whom I share a daily living space. Akin probably to what the Empiricists initially meant, I hope to rely on the sensory, tactile, lived experience of having spent all of my daily life in the land that has come to be known, arguable amply, as India. I hope not to offer conclusive, umbrellalike solutions but instead to share observations that point in particular directions. I hope to agonize, to question, to share.

Why does Yoga matter to India? The obverse: Why does India matter to Yoga?

The first observation I offer is- As I erase and rewrite my thoughts multiple times over this piece of written sharing, multitudes of farmers across the northern provinces of the Indian country have, for over a year now, protested farming laws that are seen by them as detrimental to their survival. I think through these words also around the time of the birthday of the widely celebrated ‘Father’ of this modern ‘Indian’ ‘nation’, M. K. Gandhi. I type simultaneously too as the Minister of Road Transport and Highway Authorities of the ‘Indian’ subcontinent announces that very soon all vehicles in India would have to install horns that make sounds of ‘Indian’ musical instruments, ‘Indian’ music. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having announced an award of nine lakh homes to residents of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh under the New Urban India’s Prime Minster Housing Scheme has set the awardees a ‘homework’ of lighting eighteen lakh {two per home} lamps on the day of diwAli celebrations. In another part of the country, Tamilnadu, the Chief Minister of State, M. K. Stalin, has written to his counterparts in twelve states. He writes that the National Eligibility- cum- entrance Test {NEET} that gauges the merit of students applying for admission to all courses in Western Medicine in every corner of the country at the undergraduate level, is fundamentally unconstitutional, against the federal philosophy that distributes powers in educational decision- making to state- run institutions. There is a striking common feature that runs through these pieces of news, as with umpteen such scenario-s in this part of the world.

The Greeks seem to have had an apt word to describe the point- of confluence, so to speak, that these scenarios grapple with: ‘agon’, meaning ‘contest’, conflict{s} over which the agonizing parties tussle in order only to morph themselves into the redefinitions that the agonies offer. A bit of reading about these happenings will show that in all of these and more such scenarios the point of contestation is the notion of a modern India retaining its connections with a past- ancient, medieval, premodern and modern- with the cloistered hope that the agony somehow helps the multiply diverse ‘Indian-ness-es’ manifest into material reality. Much like the Nigerian critical cultural theorist Biodun Jeyifo points out in his work In the Wake of Colonialism and Modernity, in this present India too, from the multilaterally privileged, neoliberal anglophiliac at one end of the spectrum to the millennially oppressed Bahujan & Dalit population at the other end alongside every other category of ‘Indian’ between them, there is evidence for the various intersecting colonialities of caste, economic class and social hierarchy that shape the self- decolonizing modernity that India is at present.

Ideas, notions, perspectives, multiple knowledge histories and histories of erasures in Yogic practices spell the perfect case as an example of this decolonizing chapter. In almost a Sartrian manner, the theses, anti- theses and syntheses of a number of questions rise hand- in- hand: Why Yoga? Whose Yoga? Which Yoga? Yoga of which time?

There is a second observation I offer-

Journeying along the roads of India, within metropolises and between villagetowns alike, one cannot help notice another striking feature. Often times, alongside a Range Rover vehicle of some bespoke brand, with heavily- tinted windows, costing half a crore ‘Indian’ rupees, there also travels a lighter four- wheeler that usually costs a few tens of lakhs in ‘Indian’ currency. Alongside such a vehicle travels another four- wheeler lighter still than the previous, many other two- wheeler motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, autorickshaws, bicycles even that cost a thousand Indian rupees. The air that meets the vehicles open to the sky mixes and melds with the carbon soot and monoxide emitted by the co- travelers. The effect of this ingested air, however, causes different somatic interventions on each inhabitant of the ‘Indian’ road– an effect characterized only by the social politics of their caste- class- social identity and the entitlements that consciously sometimes and subliminally sometimes, accompany this identity. Were one to conduct a Feynman- like thought experiment on these roads, to ask what kind of Yoga each person would engage with, for what reason their engagement with a certain form/ style/ grammar of Yoga exists and to what end each person practices the Yoga they practice, the ‘agon’- y of this land starts to reveal itself. The deeply embedded tensions and sub- tensions that resort to specific associations of each person with each Yoga of each kind show themselves: religious, spiritual, textual, disciplinary, community- based, lineage- based, moneyed, hobbyist, therapeutic, and so on. The list shall seem endless. The social politics carried and manifested by the bodies that practice these Yoga-s is an obvious result of the millennial accruement of entitlements and oppressions at both the obvious ends of this extraordinarily wide spectrum– accrued body politics that almost lend each form of Yoga a mind of its own, a brand each for every such Yoga- mind.

When one begins to scratch this surface, one imagines, wonders about these Yoga-s:

What is the nature of dialogue that the entitled Yoga would have with the Yoga that is religious?
What would the practitioner of Yoga with a back pain due to clinically diagnosed spondylitis aggravated by long, well- paying IT office hours say to the practitioner of Yoga with an ache in the lower spine that arises from riding the thousand- rupee bicycle everyday nearly for thirty years to travel to a space of manual labour work choicelessly?
What kind of conversation about itself would the proud Yoga of the Sanskrit scholar in the ‘humble’, smaller four- wheeler or scooter have about the textual sources that were denied to the person who cannot yet dream of reading signboards on public transport buses, having been generationally engaged in the ‘cleansing’ of the roads of ‘India’ so that vehicular traffic moves smoothly, cosmetically?
In what manner, through what relationship, will the visiting traveler from the West to India share words in Yogic wisdom and history with the Bahujan ‘Indian’ whose ancestors were branded and slaughtered as pagan, non- binary, uncivilized?
Will such conversations ever take place? If ever they do, who shall initiate?
Why? When? To what end?

I ask these questions not in rhetoric, but despite rhetoric and beyond it, making the suggestion and positing even that in order for a sensitive approach to Yoga-s that find it possible to converse with each other, dialogue with each other, decolonization must need find its various registers of action. It must do so lest it falls prey to privileged revisionist tendencies on the one hand and a yet more privileged, distant, textual eugenics on the other.

Circling round, it becomes important to ask:
Which ‘India’-s? Whose ‘India’-s? Why Yoga-s? Which Yoga-s? Whose Yoga-s?

Share this Post:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>