Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yoga, another male bastion


The great Swami Swaroopananda took questions from his acolytes in the temple at noon. There were four questions, which ranged from "What is love?" to "What should I do about the distress my family feels about the spiritual path I have taken?" In response, the swami issued long ruminations with many citations from yogic scriptures. In answer to a question about whether it was possible to follow more than one spiritual path simultaneously, he answered (in part): "If you're looking for water, don't dig many shallow holes. Dig deep into one."

One of the delights of being in this world is the culture of oral history. It seems that all who knew Swami Sivananda or Swami Vishnu-devenanda, Swaroopananda's predecessors, are giant name droppers who love to recount anecdotes of some charming thing or another that one or the other of the swamis did or said. Partly this is a pissing contest to establish the recounter's proximity to the great men and partly old party gossip. Swami Vishnu-devenanda, for example, according to Swami Swaroopananda, had a little problem with his mother. Even after he became a renowned swami, his mother continued to infantilize him by asking whether he'd had enough to eat or shouldn't he wear a jacket in the cold. She was quite a formidable woman, who later became a swami herself, and Swami Vishnu-devananda decided that the only way to deal with her was to practice detachment. He did so by severing his filial connection with her. She was terribly wounded by his treatment. Noticing this, Swami Sivananda, who was Vishnu-devananda's teacher, instructed him to treat her with the simple human kindness he would any stranger. Somewhat warily, Vishnu-devananda began to show his mother the love and compassion he showed everyone else in the world, and the alienation was resolved.

In the afternoon, the rains began again and nearly drowned out a special asana class on headstands. Unlike yesterday, today I did not fall asleep during the workshop. I learned, among other things, two benefits of the headstand: it allows the old blood that has collected at the bottom of the heart to be freed by gravity and get recirculated, and similarly it allows the ancient wastes that have collected in the bottom of your intestines to shake loose and get eliminated. Rather than making the headstand seem appealing, all that loosening of crud made it seem a little disgusting.

I asked Arjuna how asana practice fit into Indian culture, since I couldn't quite picture the Indian masses standing on their heads (with the ladies' saris flopped down over their faces), and he said that originally yoga was a secret northern Indian cult with an exclusively male membership. But when yoga was exported to the West in the 1940s and '50s, it spread fastest among women. Only recently has it been imported back into India from the West.

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