The lineage of modern yoga is complex and confusing, even for the savviest of students. Add to this that the word yoga is often used as a vague umbrella term for a wide variety of schools within Hinduism and Buddhism and practices deriving from these traditions: meditation, asana, energetic practices, sexual practices, and so on. Many of these practices find their origin in the Vedic period, thousands of years ago. With yoga’s contemporary resurgence and the interest these practices have generated, a ‘new wave’ of the thinker-philosopher-activist has emerged. While still being well steeped and grounded in the ‘classical’ philosophies, they nonetheless advocate for strong adaptations and reappropriations of the ancient texts so as to ensure their relevance for a modern practitioner. Riding the crest of this ‘new wave’ are Michael Stone and Matthew Remski.
Friends in “real life”, these two have become some of the most prolific and influential young yogic and dharmic writers/minds of our time. Both are activists, ardently passionate about issues of social justice, inequality and global warming. Most recently, they have collaborated on a book together, Family Wakes Us Up, which is inspired by their mutual newfound fatherhood.
Remski is the author of eight books - a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He is also an ayurvedic consultant, a certified yoga therapist and meditator who has sat and moved with teachers from the Tibetan Buddhist, Kripalu, Ashtanga, and Iyengar traditions. Perhaps his most influential book is threads of yoga: a remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with commentary and reverie. About this work, scholar Mark Singleton (author of Yoga Body) writes: “I don’t know of any reading of the yoga sutras as wildly creative, as impassioned and as earnest as this. It engages Patanjali and the reader in an urgent, electrified conversation that weaves philosophy, symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis and cultural history. There’s a kind of delight and freshness in this book that is very rare in writing on yoga, and especially rare in writing on the yoga sutras. This is a Patanjali for postmoderns, less a translation than a startlingly relevant report on our current condition, through the prism of this ancient text.” This powerful advocation expresses well the fresh innovation of Remski’s contribution to sutra study.
Michael Stone, as his website bio describes (a bio ironically written by Remski himself), “illuminates the ancient teachings and practices of Vipassana meditation, yoga and Mahayana Buddhism for a postmillennial age. [...] His work manifests the fusion of committed spiritual practice and social action.” He is a teacher, yogi, psychotherapist and author who also founded the Center of Gravity in Toronto (one of the largest Buddhist communities in Canada) and has written six books, aired countless podcasts on themes ranging from the Yoga Sutras to Buddhist stories and guided meditations. He has spoken and taught in the international yoga community for years now, and last year he even spoke at a Ted Conference.
When studying the Yoga Sutras, it is important to recognize that the text was born in a specific historical context. It is really a treatise on learning how to and accomplishing the complete separation of purusa (consciousness/awareness) from prakriti (matter/nature). The yogi journeys through the first three padas (or books) of the sutras, finally arriving at the last, the fourth book, the Kaivalya Pada. In this section, Patanjali calls for the practitioner to move toward complete isolation. There is little confusion with regards to where the practitioner is headed; kaivalya itself means “transcendent solitude”. This result or goal of the practice strikes a religious note, as it seems analogous to the familiar religious seeking of a transcendent God or a heaven beyond the material world. This differs from modern notions of “spirituality”, where the goal is highly variable (is it love? relationship? service?).
As a book from the Iron Age, as Remski describes it, it comes packed with ‘Iron Age’ ideas. Culturally, it is an ascetic text. Asceticism asks us not to dirty or tarnish ourselves by making contact with others. An ascetic renounces, removing himself from the entanglements of society so that his meditation remains unaffected. In fact, the implication to “purify” goes so deep throughout the text that there is a clear suggestion for the practitioner to distance him/herself from from his/her own body - as dictated by the practices of saucha (purity or cleanliness) and brahmacharya (celibacy). The person is not to give in to carnal desires, which in turn aids in creating distance from the bodily attachments. Eventually the disentanglement from the material world, prakriti, becomes so thorough that the practitioner attains samadhi, or enlightenment.
According to Stone, this obsession with samadhi, in short, can be considered another form of addiction. It focuses on realizing a certain outcome as opposed to focusing on how we are responding to the experience at hand. According to Stone, the goal should be the desire to open up a space for deeper feeling, regardless of the outcome.
Furthermore, Remski is confounded that this book has become the centerpiece for our yoga culture today. He is surprised that we have chosen to offer it such unwavering devotion, when the proposal is so extreme, almost fanatical in its asceticism. This sentiment, however, doesn’t deaden his fascination and excitement with the sutras; after all, he wrote a whole remix on it and spent years mulling over fifteen different translations. When all is said and done, the book is still completely compelling and masterful, as it speaks to alleviating psychological patterns we get embedded in and offers an effective toolbox of strategies to address these patterns. It also manages to explain, in great detail, the precision of our attention and the nuance of our internal states.
Despite the problems that Remski and Stone find with the original philosophy of the Yoga Sutras, it has an innate pulse that continues to appeal to us and command a certain authority. Generally, it hasn’t seemed to have encountered much trouble fitting into our modern practice. For example, if the extreme asceticism of the sutras is ever mentioned, it is usually discarded or justified in a way that suits our social milieu.
However, Stone and Remski argue that it isn't simply a matter of settling on an interpretation that works for us. The study of the text must move deeper into a place of transcultural and transhistorical translation. They point out that asceticism is dated and doesn’t serve us anymore, while in ancient cultures, asceticism was very much the accepted path. Even in India today, it is a path that is not entirely uncommon.
One of the reasons we might revere the sutras so fully is that we do still value the spiritual promises of isolation, expressed today in our desire to go on retreat. Stone and Remski both argue that this desire to run is really a desire to escape our current life as we know it. Many people translate the word yoga as ‘yoking’, but Stone translates it as ‘intimacy’. So yoga, for Stone, becomes the practice of recognizing the intimacy in and with all things. Both Remski and Stone speak to our culture’s need to move toward community, social justice and the health of our planet.
We also crave support, through our practice and its philosophy, in householding and raising our families. The boom of farmer's markets isn’t simply about grocery shopping; it’s about relationships - to the farmer, to animals, to the land, etc. Yet there’s nothing in our current seminal text, the sutras, that addresses these householder concerns, because it’s a renunciant text.
Both men address the issue of learning how to ‘do’ yoga, not just ‘talk’ about it and ‘study’ it. Practice. What does it mean to practice, and what is the benefit of having a practice? If you go to India today, it is easy to become saddened by the exorbitant amount of garbage everywhere. Pulling oneself away from the material world is not a great solution, when the earth is being trashed. Maybe looking for a God up above, in what Stone refers to as vertical transcendence is not helpful. Maybe we need fresh practices for the fresh problems of a modern world. Maybe what we need is what Stone calls deep materialism, through which we begin to love and care for all the things we have so much that we take care of them - our homes, the people around us, our surroundings. As Stone says, “Fish and lakes need our actions, not our abstractions.” Perhaps the most divine communion is not in leaving, in going on retreat and running away from the world, but in actually staying put, diving into relationship with each other, in what he calls horizontal transcendence. Maybe looking to the divine above denies the truth of what has been in front of us all along.
Considering the sutras through these lenses illuminates the fact that spiritual practices are, in fact, political practices. They cannot be separated. In a yoga culture that is obsessed with feeling good, we chase that good feeling all the way to the end of our savasana. We profess happiness on our instagram posts, ad nauseam. But what happens when we get home from the retreat and feel suddenly depressed, because the sweetness of the trip and the community have left a vacuum where before there seemed to be fullness? Stone holds that it is a mistake to build a practice centered purely on the good things. It rejects a whole spectrum of experience and perpetuates our attachment to outcomes. When we leave space for the sadness, frustration, anger, and all the things we traditionally would have tried to escape, we leave an opening for what Buddhists call “the taste that turns things around”. The taste that turns things around is that moment that gives you the ability or perspective to view yourself differently. It happens very rarely. In silence, we see that regardless of how we feel, everything is ok. We are ok.
Spiritual practice gets redesigned and reimagined in every culture. Perhaps, for us enlightenment is awakening to what is here, not just a way to fortify our disjointed belief systems. Patanjali talks a lot about dukha (suffering). Suffering makes us hungry; it drives us to consume to fill the hole in our hearts. Realizing there is no hole is a way of finding enlightenment here and now. Seeing what actually is allays the suffering. Then we can take action and change the old stories to new stories.
This way of practicing teaches you to serve others from the truthful place of where you actually are, not where you think you should be, or where you want to be. It is the bodhisattva vow. You get to the door of enlightenment and turn around to see that you are leaving everyone behind - so you turn around to bring them with you.