Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

you and meme

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Twenty weeks ago, I started this blog with the following aim:

...in order for the ideas that have been kicking around in my head to have any real impact on the world, I need a way of connecting them with other thinkers. I would love for this to become a conversation about how we can all make the most of the fact that our minds enact ambitions, emotions, and ideas through and with our bodies, rather than in spite of them or without regard for them.

Gathering my thoughts and reflections about the body-mind on a weekly basis has contributed more to my general happiness and well-being than almost anything else I’ve ever done in my life. As such, I have every intention of continuing this project indefinitely. Yet I am also beginning to realise that the last twenty weeks have served as a fun-filled primer for something bigger—something which I expect will soon take on an even more exciting and luminous life. 

I feel truly fortunate that I have had the time and the wherewithal to engage my own mind in conversation with luminaries who are long dead as well as those who are alive, kicking, and contributing their own new ideas in their specialised lines of enquiry on a regular basis. I feel grateful to have connected via Twitter and email—and, on the rare occasion, in 3D—with some of my intellectual heroes of the 21st century, and to have received words of encouragement from them on the research I have been doing in the last couple of years. Just as important has been the range of responses I have received from my peers and friends in the yoga community, as well as people who consider themselves neither yogis nor academics. It feels awfully wonderful, of course, to know that there are people who agree with my ideas. I have also been heartened and thrilled by the positive words I have received from people who might not have expected that reading about some young yogi’s take on old philosophical notions and current neuroscientific research trends might have an impact on their perspective in real life.

I also genuinely thrive on learning new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at things, and I am at a place in my life where I welcome constructive criticism as a way of expanding my horizons. Some comments have helped me to understand that the style and presentation of the writing on this site is often more “academic” than most of the material people might be accustomed to reading in their free time. And in a way, I love the idea that this blog challenges folks and gives them a chance to exercise their minds in what might be a novel fashion. 

But I am also aware of the traps that this kind of approach risks presenting. I recognise that, for a yoga blog, the writing I do might have a tendency to be a bit “unspiritual,” in the sense that I don’t fill my paragraphs with the kinds of inspirational quotes and words of encouragement that people tend to attach to Instagram photos of yoga poses. I’m certainly not saying that I feel there is anything wrong with having Instagram feeds like this; I have observed that a large number of people genuinely do find such things inspiring and worthwhile. And I understand that images and words like that might have a more immediate impact on somebody scrolling through social media than reading a 2500 word essay every week might do. I also understand that the academic style of writing I often employ might possibly create the impression that I tend to live from a heady place. There is, after all, such a thing as being overly analytical. But I would argue that there is also such a thing as being overly spiritual. I think Charles Bukowski summed up the predicament rather beautifully in this little blurb (upon which I stumbled this week, rather ironically, on a friend’s Instagram feed):

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Bukowski’s pithy words resonate soundly with where life has lead me. I have seen many people succumb to the temptation to lose their spirits, their minds, or both, and the upshot is invariably frustrating or heartbreaking. After having made, at various points in my life, serious progress toward each of these kinds of losses, my current recovery phase has brought me to the conclusion that I would much rather keep both my spirit and my mind. And the only place I know to keep them is in my body.

I have argued in the past that, if someone is looking for something permanent with which to identify themselves, the body is not a fantastic candidate. The body is a process just like everything else, and its solidity is only illusory. Yet we know of nothing that is fully stable; furthermore, as far as logic has taken me, both spirit and mind are intrinsically wrapped up in the processes of the body just as much as the living body is wrapped up in spirit and mind. In order to access all three, the most reliable entry point is the body at this very moment. While we cannot depend on any degree of physical reliability over a larger chunk of time, using the mind to reach through the body in the present moment seems to me, on an individual level at least, the easiest way to access the spirit. And my personal assessment is that the story of yoga’s evolution bears out this very same embodied conclusion.

In a fantastically resourceful book called The Roots of Yoga, James Mallinson and Mark Singleton—both lecturers on my masters degree course at SOAS—present a compendium of illuminating chunks of yoga-related texts. They use sources from the Rigveda, which was composed around 1500 BCE, through the Upanishads and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, right up to early Western observational accounts of practising yogis during the time of the British rule of India. As I have argued before, and as I will do more thoroughly in my upcoming book Embodied: A New Philosophy of Yoga, a close look at the history of yoga makes clear to me that nobody has ever agreed about what yoga is. Whether explicitly or obliquely, teachers and sages in various yoga lineages throughout the ages have made a constant point of disparaging each other’s interpretations of the process and aims of the practice. This serves as a clear indication to me that anyone’s current claims that they know “real” or “authentic” yoga simply has no basis in light of the fact that the idea of yoga is something that has continually evolved since people began to conceive and practice it. In fact, as Singleton argues in another book, it is probably much more accurate to regard the modern word “yoga”—as used to denote the familiar forms of postural practice—as a homonym for the the systems espoused by Patañjali or the Hathapradīpikā, rather than as the same word with the same definition.

That being said, my curiosity has driven me to attempt to identify some element of what we call “yoga” which has always been present throughout all the stages of yoga’s evolution. I discussed one such element in a previous post—the fact that all forms of yoga seem to call for some level of focused attention. The other thing that I have noticed that all yoga texts throughout the ages invariably insist upon is the requirement of a teacher. I find this both fascinating and accurate, but not because, as many of the texts and many teachers themselves claim, yoga gurus have some form of exclusive spiritual authority. In fact, I believe that the reason a teacher is necessary is both more practical and interesting.

Far from being a set of pure principles that is somehow encoded in stone, I have come to understand yoga more as an incredibly successful meme. Most of us have become familiar with the word “meme” as something which refers specifically to things like jokes which circulate via pictures of Ryan Gosling

or Gordon Ramsay.

Yet when Richard Dawkins first coined the term four decades ago, he did so as a way of explaining any phenomenon which behaves and evolves in literally exactly the same way as a gene. Daniel Dennett astutely sums up the requirements for anything with the potential to evolve:

  1. variation: a continuing abundance of different elements 
  2. heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves 
  3. differential “fitness”: the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element (whatever it is that makes it different from other elements) and features of the environment in which it persists.

These requirements for evolution occur perhaps most obviously in a biological framework, but molecules, genetic information, and cells are not necessary for this same process to unfold. Internet memes, just like all memes, are ideas which replicate in precisely the same manner that genes do. Yet rather than using DNA, memes replicate via other minds. The most successful memes, just like the most successful genes, are the ones that are able to replicate most proficiently and pervasively. And the successful spreading of memes depends on their ability to  adapt, with variety, to their environments over the course of time. The life cycle of internet memes is usually relatively short-lived. This is because, as entertaining as they may be, they are missing a vital element that is common to both the most successful genes and the longest-lasting memes: the body.

In all of its iterations throughout time, yoga has managed to adapt so successfully to the cultural context that it has made itself appear as though it emerged from the DNA of the culture itself. Yet what makes the story of yoga a bit more special than that of an internet meme—or even that of most other spiritual ideologies—is that yoga has succeeded not only in embedding itself into the mental and ideological worldview and belief structure of its practitioners and theorists; it has alsomade itself into one of the most fascinating and successful memes in the world by integrating itself into the human body, with ever-increasing frequency, variation, and triumph. 

This is precisely where the role of the teacher comes in. The human body-mind is the most fertile breeding ground for memes as well as genes. Dennett sums up the process of meme replication with the slogan

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.” 

In a similar vein, we might consider the idea that a teacher is just yoga’s way of making more yoga. The yoga texts’ persistent requirement of the physical presence of a learned teacher in order to achieve success has ensured that yogic ideas have always been able to fasten themselves to and evolve along with a vessel of unparalleled sophistication, intelligence, and replicatory potential: the human body-mind. And while the texts of yoga, from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to Yoga Journal to this very blog, have done their part to literally spread the word, the success of yoga has always depended on an in-person exchange of information rather than mere disembodied ideological discourse.

I recognise that those of you who tend to spend most of your time with me on this blog rather than in person might have a difficult time comprehending this, but these days I tend to spend far more time in my body than I do in my thoughts. Strangely enough, the enjoyment I currently derive from simply being in my body did not come about as a direct result of the fifteen years of regular postural yoga that I have practised—I have reached this new relationship with myself by developing a deeper appreciation of philosophical inquiry about the interface between mind and body.

e.e. cummings

e.e. cummings

I have spoken at length in past posts, à la Lisa Feldman Barrett, about the relationship between conceptual granularity and emotional intelligence: the more specific our concepts about what we are feeling emotionally can become, the more of an awareness we can gain about what we are feeling. This leads us to be able to understand and have compassion for both ourselves and others. In a nearly identical vein, I have been finding that the more specific my concepts about the nature of embodied experience have become, the more fully I have been able to feel into my own physical presence. As I have been enjoying more and more intellectual awareness of all of the processes my body-mind undergoes in each moment, I have also become more curious about them. As my ideas about my body have become more granular, my moments themselves have become more granular as well. This has led me to the sensation that I am experiencing a greater number of moments each day, and that each of these moments is richer and richer as I grow more and more curious. This is all a result of a process that Richard Shusterman, philosopher and founder of the field of Somaesthetics calls Thinking Through the Body

Yet as I began to realise fully as I was teaching my first Embodied Meditation workshop in Berlin this past weekend, the new yogic concepts which have begun to come to life in my own body-mind seem to have a powerful desire to replicate in a way that they can only do in the context of sharing a physical space with other human beings. Words are powerful, and can be beautiful and inspiring; nevertheless, like all of the texts that have ever been written on the subject of yoga, I consider the written words that I share in order to create clearer concepts more as a platform upon which to share these ideas in a more visceral way. Seeing how my workshop’s participants responded physically, in real time, enabled me to see that these ideas might now have a chance to spread, via their bodies, and take on new, ever-richer lives of their own. 

So here’s how we might make the conversation a bit more multi-dimensional: now that I am nearly finished writing my book, I am looking to take my show on the road and share it with other breathing beings. If you find the ideas that you read about in this blog interesting and you might like to help me book a date to share them in person—or if you just want an opportunity to lodge your complaints about all of the weaknesses of my theories in an in-person spectacle of public humiliation—please reach out to me and let’s arrange something. Until that happens, I do hope that you have an opportunity to invite some of the ideas into your own body, on your own yoga mat, on your own meditation cushion, or in simple activities throughout your day. 

Every moment you get a chance, take your mind into your body. That’s where you’ll find your spirit.

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empowerment, tolerance, and blame