Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Other Side of Partner Yoga

“Partner Yoga” is a very popular feature of Modern Postural Yoga in which two people assist one another in executing postures, with an eye on the aesthetic side. This is often introduced and performed as a matter of seemingly harmless “fun.”

I want to make some comments about this approach based on years of having considered the available and expanding literature and on directly observing couples (in the generic sense of the word) performing postures conjointly.

While it could be argued that Yoga has not stopped developing, I believe that some recent innovations should be questioned. Partner Yoga is such a recent innovation. It may be ”fun,” but it is neither necessarily harmless nor in keeping with the original intent of Yoga. Some Partner Yoga enthusiasts have speculated that this method is part of Tantra and as such has been around for thousands of years. As someone who has researched traditional Yoga for several decades, I can honestly say that Partner Yoga is indeed a new concept, which entered the contemporary Yoga movement perhaps as late as 1979. Ganga White and Tracy Rich of White Lotus Yoga lay claim to being the inventors of this type of postural practice.

To speak bluntly, it would never have occurred to yogins to practice postures with someone’s assistance, never mind in order to have “fun.” Traditionally yogins have, by and large, been loners who preferred the forest or mountain cave, or the privacy of their hermitage over a village, town or noisy city, and they were eager to practice whatever postures they had adopted by themselves to ensure quiet and proper inwardness.

The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country's defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult.

The idea of “fun” is very much a product of modern culture, which places a premium on personal pleasure. The word “fun” did not exist before the 17th century, which was a time when aspiring empires colonized the world and imported luxury goods like tea and coffee, when the scientific revolution led to unbridled optimism and when—symbolic of the age—ice cream was invented.

The declared purpose of traditional Yoga is not pleasure but bliss or, more precisely, inner freedom. Its goal is spiritual liberation (moksha), which nowadays is either ignored or downplayed. But without spiritual FREEDOM, Yoga is not Yoga but, at best, a modern adaptation. As you know, movie “adaptations” of novels rarely match the quality of the original. In the case of Yoga, we have made something of a novel out of reality.

Now, I believe that Partner Yoga is a fictionalized account of the Kāma-Sūtra (main text on the erotic arts) rather than Yoga. It is not as harmless as many teachers maintain. If the partners in Partner Yoga are in a committed intimate relationship, and they practice in private, I have no objection other than: That's new-fangled stuff that does not foster the kind of inward-mindedness (pratyak-cetanā) that marks traditional Yoga. `With the emphasis being on “fun”—or pleasure—it cannot be. Fun throws one outside oneself. We must pay attention to the outside world in order to have fun. Also, if one has to be mindful of making our partner's postural performance safe, only the most advanced Yoga practitioner can stay focused on his or her own spiritual process.

If the partners in Partner Yoga are basically strangers, it seems inevitable that some of the postures would be diffused with sexual energy that invites the kind of behaviour that traditional Yoga practitioners seek carefully to avoid. In their advertising, some schools clearly play on this possibility to make their method more marketable. Partner Yoga is often presented as having a connection with Tantra, which makes the whole affair exciting rather than calming.

Those who argue that some of the partner postures are aesthetically beautiful should bear in mind that Yoga is primarily about the realization of spiritual freedom and not about any aesthetic value, though Yoga is not against aesthetics, as we know from the example of the great tenth-century Tantric master Abhinavagupta.

I have no delusion that Partner Yoga will continue as an aspect of Modern Postural Yoga for the reasons hinted at above (and others), but people need to know that it is a Western innovation and has never been part of traditional Yoga. Period.

Georg Feuerstein