Matthew Remski is not the first to assert that Patanjali’s view of the flesh as “repulsive devolution of consciousness” flies in the face of the current yoga zeitgeist – but he is the first audacious enough to “remix” The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (the closest thing to a canonical text we have in yoga) into a “manifesto for a changing tradition.”
Interweaving ancient wisdom, philosophy, psychology and evolutionary science with personal commentary and reverie, he spins this approximately 4000 year old ascetic manual on the study and practice of yoga into a post-modern celebration of the flesh.
Sacrilegious? Perhaps. But as Remski points out, Patanjali’s methodology for disconnecting Purusa [consciousness ] from Prakriti (the chains of the body and material world) no longer fits with our current understanding of yoga as “union” – of joining/binding these dualities together.
The Yoga Sutra-s consist of 196 threads (aphorisms or sayings) divided into four parts, and Threads of Yoga is Remski’s “experimental translation” of these threads. Remski reminds us the Sutra-s were believed to have been distilled by Patanjali from the sayings of renunciates “ who at the dawn of urbanization fled their families and social roles to tiny forest ashrams, where, with great austerity, the attempted to tame the unruly and desirous flesh towards their goal of transcendent epiphany.”
But, as Threads of Yoga makes abundantly clear, this philosophy no longer has a place in a newly evolving yoga myths –one in which the flesh is no longer viewed as an obstacle “to the recovery of self-knowledge”- but it’s very source.
And it is this new modus-operandi which Remski so boldly attempts to put into words. He undertakes the weighty task of giving voice to a new yogic paradigm, one in which “The simplest techniques of breathing, spinal elongation, and joint fluidity have given countless flesh-alienated post moderns a renewed sense of vitality, purpose, grounding and connection.”
In this new ethos “consciousness” is not abstract, but “an embodied aspect of human experience”. In modern yoga, Remski writes “we are given a physical culture which rewrites the meaning of the flesh from inside out.”
“As media technology, and hyper-urbanization abstract us from bodily experience, the reach of modern postural yoga has pulled our tissues into the daylight.” We have discovered that the “Flesh is anything but inert or unintelligent. Flesh feels, emotes, surges towards its goals, and even thinks.”
Remski rejects the asceticism at the heart of the sutra-s because, as he sees it, “our suffering is not the result of our connection with the world, our experience of disconnection is suffering. ” And here is the moral crux of it: “ if the pleasure of muscle-skeletal alignment and warmed circulation does not somehow sweeten our interpersonal relationships, lend resilient courage to daily life, and inspire us towards social and ecological justice, we know were missing something. Through modern postural yoga we have remembered that our flesh innately wants to rejoice, connect and serve – and that it does not lie.”
Now isn’t that the truth? Hasn’t Remski hit the nail on the head? I think so. He certainly articulates my evolving yoga ethos.
So why, Remski asks us, has interest in the “ broader literature of yoga paled in the shadow of Paranjali’s austere monolith”? Why do quotations from the Sutra-s “ flash through yoga teacher training manuals and across social media, and under the e-mail signature lines of professional practitioner-teachers?” Does our continued reverence of Patanjali’s text “conceal a hidden wish to console our complex interpersonal suffering through social withdrawal and meditative narcissism? ” …”Do we meditate with Patanjali because empathy is difficult and love is painful?”
Patanjali’s path was lonely to a fault, “encouraging disassociation from place, things and people: hardly what is needed in a culture of disembodied hyper-individualism wrecking havoc on the environment.” The word love is never once mentioned in the sutra-s but Remski reminds us, it is only through compassionate relationship and empathy (not disassociation) that we have a hope of healing the planet or ourselves. Thus Remski revises Patanjali’s original sutra about Sauca (purity) “Seek that purity which leads to disgust for one’s own body and for contact with others” into “Ecology allows you to honor your flesh and the flesh of others.”
Threads of Yoga, Remski makes clear, is a remix of the sutra-s- not a direct translation. The purpose of a ‘remix’ is to “collect the raw beats of the past and brands them, transparently with the pulse of the present”… “My central goal is to “ bring the yoga sutra-s back into relationship with us as yogis, creative readers and closet philosophers”…”In my opinion, grappling with both its fits and its weaknesses will help contemporary yoga practice grow and evolve as a living culture.”
And in answer to the question as to why he chose to rely on the original at all (instead of creating his own brand new philosophy) he responds “I rely on the original because it has been a touchstone of my individuation process”…“I’m enthralled by the old text itself, and it’s aura, by dozens of previous translations and commentaries, fragments of oral tradition I have heard through the years, a thousand conversations with colleagues and strangers, vast cultural and historical divides, the new forests of contemporary psychology and neuroscience, and the strange, luminous fruit of my own practice.”
So I applaud Remski’s audacity. He replaces Patanjali’s outmoded ideal of disembodied transcendence with a new vision of sacred embodiment – and he manages to do so without throwing the baby out the bathwater. He writes, “Patanjali-s relentless focus upon the structural problems of consciousness remains the root yoga concern, and this unwavering gaze will continue to inspire generations” …“but it is Patanjali’s close and precise attention that I wish to translate here, while leaving his metaphysics and asceticism behind”.
By using the sutra’s as a touchstone Remki starkly illustrates just how far modern yoga has strayed from its parent traditions, and he offers us an alternative speculation within a far different social philosophical context . “A context in which renunciate withdrawal will not heal our interpersonal pain nor speak to our social diseases. A context in which we desperately need to be reminded of our embodiment, and grounded in ecological awareness. A context in which the magic of bodily pleasure that got us practicing in the first place becomes the basis for reaching out with love into the world that made us, has always held us, and which we never wish to leave.’”
Threads of Yoga seeks to “re-locate the mystical in the material” and in this project I think he succeeds. Because in the end what I enjoyed most about Remski’s book was not the visionary thinking or critical analysis but his poetic reveries on the nature of “embodiment” itself. Consider this translation from Part Three of the Sutra-s, The Book of Wonders:
“The freed flesh pulses through the facets of beauty, grace and glowing strength. When you see how the sense organs work, weave you together and commit you to the world, they become gateways of pleasure. These gateways can also encourage the exploration of internal worlds at the speed of light.”
And for Remski this is Samadhi – the transcendent moment – made meaningful by everyday immanence.
“You begin to lengthen a muscle. At the first pulse of pleasure it takes the remains and lengthens itself. Your breath seeps into a forgotten place. A limb straightens. A network of unseen contractions disengages. Flesh and thought soften to neutral. Thought pauses its forward rush, and flesh reverses it retreat….this is the only life you know, and it fills you to overflowing. You live your life, yoga happens to you.”