- WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT YOGA -
This article is concerned with the way we talk when we talk about Yoga, and more importantly, when we teach Yoga. In order to give the reader ideas about the issues involved, we will use the work of a contemporary science fiction author to shed light on the challenges faced. The idea is not so much to give recipes or formulations, though some will surface, but to make the practitioner aware that binding choices are made (consciously or not) the moment we decide to talk or behave a certain way.
I recently read the excellent short story "The story of your life" by science-fiction writer Ted Chiang. I cannot recommend enough the work of this incredible writer: the story is available here if you click on the author's picture. There is a chance I am infringing on copyrights: Ted or Ted's representative people, if you read this for one reason or another, I am using this one story as a teaser for the rest of the exceptional production of Ted Chiang.
Hopefully you are fine with this. We'll go back to that and there are spoilers below, but part of the plot has to do with the way language is used and what it implies for people who use the written or spoken word as a form of communication. In particular, the author subscribes to linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which contends that the structure of a language affects the speaker's cognition and/or world view. As of today, this paradigm is partly accepted, by some. My personal opinion is that not only at the level of the language, but also within the language in the way we address ourselves and others, the way we derive meaning from symbols (whether sounds or signs) conditions entirely the way we experience the world, what we expect of it, and how we can influence it.
So for the practical part of the article, after a little excursion in linguistics and science-fiction, we will mention some of the things the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has led to, before suggesting ways to speak Yoga or meditation that can greatly facilitate the experience of the practitioner. In particular, one concept that most practitioners have trouble wrapping their head around is how to give instructions without embedded paradoxes (this is abstract so here is an example -> we can sometimes hear a budding meditation teacher say : "empty your mind, don't think of anything". This instruction is a contradiction in itself, a full-fledged paradox, and shows a lack of understanding).
"the story of your life": what if exposure to a different language forever changed your perception of space and time...
Ted Chiang is a technical writer who earns a living by writing documentation for programmers. Sounds sexy right? In addition, he writes short stories in science-fiction (only 16 pieces of short fiction, mind you), and might very well be the best science-fiction writer today. This does not go unrecognized, since he has won many prestigious awards (Hugos and Nebulas) that many need to wait for a lifetime.
Now as a science-fiction ex-aficionado, I was more than delighted to discover Mr Chiang. Yet, whether you like science-fiction or not (and truly most science-fiction writers don't qualify for any literary achievement), you should read Ted Chiang stories because they are nothing less than good literature. Meticulously conceived, challenging on almost every level, intellectual/cerebral in the right way, crafted with rhythm and energy, emotionally moving, twisted endings and remarkable in their clarity of thought, none of the stories so far will let you down. "The story of your life" has already been adapted as Arrival, a Hollywood directed film by Dennis Villeneuve (Incendies, Sicario, amongst others...).
In 'Story of your life', Dr. Louise Banks is a linguist employed by the military to understand a race of radially symmetrical aliens hence referred to as 'heptapods'. The Heptapods have two different forms of language: Heptapod A, the spoken language, and Heptapod B,the written language. This second language is central to the plot, as we gradually understand that this language implies from the speaker to realize they belong to a deterministic Universe where free will is exercised by not affecting the outcome of events. As Dr Louise Banks progresses in her mastery of heptapod B, her perception of time and life in general is profoundly affected: in trying to learn the language, the way she perceives reality is changing, and she starts remembering the future (yes, remembering...).
I am not going to dwell on this much longer, but in a short few pages, Ted Chiang packs in a story of alien-earthlings contact, explores the nature of free will, time, maths, linguistics relativity where language shapes reality, all within an all too human story of grief with a last paragraph resolution to make your head spin.
linguistic relativity, artificial languages and writing systems, sapir-whorf.
It has been a recurring theme on this website that the way we talk or communicate about reality comes with an implicit subtext that we might or might not be aware of. Another strong idea also is that all language choices made when communicating can be either appropriate and conducive to the best results in a certain context, or on the contrary impede progress and cloud issues. In "This is water", we saw how David Foster Wallace suggests a way to (re)frame one's experience in order to make it easier to naturally connect with a sense of gratefulness. In "In the beginning was the word", we saw - among other things - how more and more knowledge solely relies on symbols to be transmitted nowadays, and how important their choice is.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that there are certain thoughts of an individual in one language that cannot be understood by those who live in another language. In other words, the way people think is strongly affected by their native language. The most vigorous attacks to this idea have come from the camp of Universal Grammar (UG), mainly followers of Noam Chomsky. They believe that the form language takes on top of our innate and already present (hypotheses of UG) structures of meaning is irrelevant.
There is one appealing aspect of subscribing to the Sapir-Whorf idea: if the choice of symbols that we use to describe reality and the way we combine them together to derive meaning is not neutral, then why not turn the problem on its head, and THINK about the best way to communicate certain ideas. There are two levels at which we could do this:
- At the level of the language for example, we can think of creative ways to use lexicon and grammatical constructs. One such project is E-prime for example, where the use of the verb "to be" is excluded from the English language. Alfred Korzybski, the founder of the discipline of general semantics, thought that the improper use of the verb "to be" could lead to confused thought, action and even fascism. As an auxiliary ("I am going there") and in many other uses, "to be" is fairly innocuous. Used with identity or predication, "to be" becomes an open door to abuse and judgement: "He is a Jew", "My girlfriend is a cheater", "you are a failure"...
- One step above, we could think of creating a language from scratch:
- Following in the footsteps of authors like J.R.R Tolkien or Georges Martin, there are conlangs (constructed or artificial language) projects out there: they are meant to help us think and express ourselves in novel ways. Esperanto, Klingon, AllNoun, Solresol, and may be more importantly Lojban. Lojban is an elaborate constructed language that was designed to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Lojban is designed to remove as many restrictions as possible on creative and clear thought and communication. To this end, its grammar is based on propositional logic, and it has a culturally neutral vocabulary that was algorithmically derived from the 6 human languages with the most speakers. Learn it here...
- If Lojban comes with a writing system as well, it is very similar to what we know. A genius idea of "Story of your life" is that the writing system of a language could also 'almost' be a language in itself, as in the case of Heptapod B in the short novel. In real life, others have tackled the idea of 'drawing' as a language, long after eastern ideograms. One such example is the Ouwi project, where the written component of this constructed language is a corresponding 2D non-linear writing system with the following characteristics:
- Corresponds to the phonetics
- Includes reconnections/loops both possible and meaningful (don't ask me what this is supposed to mean)
- Functional as an extended punctuation for layout and expression of ideas in linear writing systems (look above)
- At least partially analogous to computer algos instructions
- At least partially analogous to mathematical concepts
- looks beautiful (thank you)
We could go on and on on this topic. Really the point here is to make the reader aware of the way they use language: in particular the next section has a practical ambition, and all the theory so far only serves the purpose of giving tools to the speaker so that we elevate ourselves from narrower points of views.
yoga talk: finding your voice and speaking from the heart
In this last section, we are going to sensitize the practitioner to the issue of instructions and better ways to give them, in light of the ideas developed above. The main message to bring home is that the way we express ourselves comes with many implications regarding our world view.
A world view is a mental model of reality. A framework of ideas & attitudes about the world, ourselves, and life, a comprehensive system of beliefs, which hopefully answers a wide range of questions about reality in a cohesive and coherent manner.
Very often, even if we like Yoga, our worldview might be at odds with the worldview entertained by the Tradition, whether we are aware of it or not. This can show up in instructions: it is not necessarily a bad thing, but as usual, making informed choices about why we do things remains a better proposition than not knowing.
Below, a first set of principles to be aware of, so as to jumpstart the process of reviewing Yoga talk:
You vs We
In Yoga, the teacher is a student, and the student is a teacher. Eventually all is one, and if one takes the function of guide, or instructor, or guru, it is a temporary thing, bound to change and evolve. The teacher is only a little further on an infinite path of evolution, and since that path is infinite, however further the teacher is is nothing compared with the infinity of the path.
We address the students as We, meaning us teachers include ourselves in the set of learners. If it is me the teacher , transmitting, vs them the students, ignorant, then I encourage disempowerment and dependent behaviors. If I teach from an elevated pedestal, I strengthen my use of the YOU/Me, by making myself even more special through non verbal communication. Most of the abuses in the field come from groups allowing those structures to emerge.
Replace You by We and make it a habit.
ego strengthening formulations vs connecting to prana/chi
There is a contradiction between the way Yoga is re-appropriated by western culture, in the context of a cultural grid with hard benefits that will allow one to fulfill the goals of the Zeitgeist: be number one, make it individually american dream style, beat the competition etc... So very often, people will deliver instructions with an implicit subtext of productivity, efficiency, functional goal attainment which is exactly what yoga is not in the first place.
An eager young teacher wants to associate a practice with a benefit so that the person who pays for the service knows why they pay: "If you deepen YOUR breathing, this will allow YOU to get more relaxed and centered, and will allow YOU to make better decisions". True perhaps, but again this says a lot about the teacher.
More appropriate could be: "Let us observe our natural breath, and cycle after cycle, may be notice how it changes... May be it slows down, may be it deepens... We do this gently, taking our times. And as we come back to this natural breath, we can make a mental note of how it feels inside".
Using less imperative statements ("do this, do that"), allowing for the possibility of things to be different from what we think we know, putting the responsibility to explore, be curious, enjoy back on the practitioner rather than prescribe what they should do so that they get the result advertised in the book or teacher training... is a little more difficult initially and will lose you students who want to be mothered or fathered or gurutized. It is worth it for Yoga.
"Make your mind empty of all thoughts".
I have heard this from teachers. In addition to promoting schizophrenia in the student, this type of instructions shows such a misunderstanding of what is dealt with that it is worrisome. Who is the You emptying the mind and who is the you observing that the mind is empty, how can we actively create nothingness with volition, what will happen to this YOU doing the work of emptying once the emptying is done etc...etc...
An instruction like "Relax your muscles and get deeper in the posture" is as weak.
Again, the worldview of Yoga is that All is One and we want to (re)connect with a force and an intelligence which is out there and knows better than our individual selves. Part of the path is to trust this to happen, to connect with a type of faith and to surrender. So very often we can't point at this something we don't know, but as a teacher, come back down with the student and explore together what may happen.
"Settling down in a comfortable seated posture, we are going to let our awareness fall on the bridge of the nose, and feel the air coming in and out of the nostrils". If we play with this, the thoughts will gradually and naturally dissolve. It might or might not happen, now or in 25 years, but it can't be prescribed.
There's plenty more of course, and this is not a course. The object of the articles here is really to expand one's horizons and give tools to better appreciate what we do as sharers (with others) of the Path. Happy practicing and teaching,