Carol Horton was curious about yoga. “As a social scientist,” she says, “I was drawn to such questions as: Where did yoga come from, historically? Why has it grown so popular? At the same time, as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I wanted to know: What is it about yoga that makes it so much more than exercise for so many people? It’s easy to glibly state that yoga is a mind-body-spirit practice. But what does that really mean?”
For Horton, a yoga teacher, this mind-body connection grew into an “integrated process of yoga research and practice, focusing on the psychological and spiritual dimensions of contemporary yoga, as well as its social and historical development.”
The result? Her new book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. Horton spoke with Our Town about yoga’s past and present and why the discipline's commercialization isn’t necessarily a bad development.
OT What do you now believe is the connection between modern and ancient yoga?
CH Yoga as we know it today is only about 130 years old. It developed in India during the late 19th-early 20th centuries thanks to the leadership of a series of visionary Indian gurus. These teachers transformed yoga from a rigorous ascetic practice suitable for only a small number of adepts into a widely accessible means of building physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Modern yoga synthesized elements of ancient Indian tradition with modern values of democracy and science. Consequently, it retains some connection to ancient yoga. This is particularly true when you get into the deeper dimensions of yoga, which, then as now, are dedicated to realizing freedom and transformation.
OT How can one practice remain so beneficial and strike a societal chord over such a long span of time?
CH Translated, the word “yoga” means “to yoke,” or join together. Just as farmers yoke horse to plow to cultivate their field, yoga teaches us how to harness body to mind in ways that enliven our spirit.The precise set of yoga methods used to do this, however, varies tremendously across time and space. This is inevitable, as yoga, like any tradition, must evolve in concert with the structure and culture of different societies. As yoga changes, however, it stays the same in that it remains a collection of tools for working with our bodies and minds in ways that facilitate profound learning, growth, and ultimately transformation.
OT Your book’s theme is ‘paradox.’ Explain.
CH Yoga today is paradoxical. It incorporates many ideas and practices that logically don’t belong together. In our society, yoga is both as a fitness fad and a spiritual practice. It’s used to sell expensive designer sweat pants and transmit non-material values. Its popularity is fueled by our cult of the “body beautiful.” But countless people fall in love with it because it allows them to experience their bodies from the inside out for the first time ever. How can such seemingly antithetical elements combine to form this one thing called “yoga”? [But] yoga has always involved paradox. For example, the term “Hatha” (as in “Hatha yoga,” which technically means any method focused on physical postures) is an amalgam of the words “ha,” which means “sun,” and “tha,” or which means “moon.” “Hatha” connotes the integration of solar and lunar forces, along with what were traditionally considered to be their attendant pairs of opposites: masculine/feminine, light/dark, reason/intuition, etc. Traditionally, the practice of yoga was understood as integrating such dualisms without dissolving them. I believe that contemporary yoga occupies an oddly parallel position today.
OT You write that yoga created altered states of consciousness for you. Can you explain that a little?
CH When I first started yoga, I simply thought of it as stretching, and had no clue it could be anything more. I was fortunate, however, to have teachers who emphasized synching movement, attention, and breath. Eventually, I started having some very intense experiences on the mat. For example, one time I was flooded with a PTSD-like flashback of an emergency surgery I’d had – except that rather than feeling upset by this memory, I relived it feeling centered and calm. Another time I had a really vivid visualization of the internal energy fields of my body while lying still with my eyes closed at the end of class.Today, I’m used to having forgotten memories resurface, confused emotions crystallize, and new insights emerge in the course of my yoga practice. I believe that as we learn to work with our minds as well as our bodies – training our attention as well as our physical skills – we start accessing different dimensions of consciousness. I don’t see this as some far out, woo woo thing. Rather, I think that yoga (as well as similar disciplines) gives us the tools to work with our minds in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise know are possible.
OT How does your writing practice relate to your yoga practice?
CH When my writing flows, I feel like I’m accessing some dimension of my mind that I’m normally not in contact with. I find new ideas emerging that I didn’t know I had. Or I’ll write down ideas that I thought were important only to find they’re not. Writing is a dynamic, creative, and in some ways even mysterious process. The mental state I access through yoga feels similar in many ways. There’s that same sense of openness, synch, creativity, and flow. There are also important differences, however. While writing, I basically forget about my body and focus on some emerging mental formation. In yoga, I actively explore my body and focus on opening up to the full experience of the moment.
OT One might argue that any form of exercise that helps one achieve a flow state can deepen one’s consciousness and affect one on a spiritual level. Why is yoga particularly effective?
CH Yoga poses, or asanas, are designed to stretch, strengthen, and open our bodies in exceptionally holistic ways. A good yoga class includes twists, forward folds, backbends, side bends, and inversions. It enables us to access our bodies in ways that progressively create more internal spaciousness, unwinding the tensions and contractions that keep us tight and constricted. Of course, one could accomplish something similar through gymnastics. The difference is that the physical process of yoga is (or at least, should be) integrated with a mental process. Over time, we learn to focus our attention and slow down the constant onslaught of thoughts, gradually opening up to a state of awareness that’s beyond words. Yoga also teaches us to work systematically with our breathing. This has scientifically measurable effects on the nervous system. It also has more subtle, immeasurable effects on how we experience our bodies, minds, and the connections between them. Finally, yoga is part of an endlessly rich and fascinating tradition. You could study the history of yoga and explore the various methods it encompasses the rest of your life.
OT Yoga, according to your book, becomes most interesting and valuable because of its relevance as exercise, pain management tool, spiritual practice and stress-reducer. What does it mean for one discipline to be a means to such varied ends?
CH The fact that yoga can be used in so many different ways shows that it’s a powerful, yet flexible and subtle tool for working with the innate capacities of our bodies and minds. It’s not that “yoga” has all these different capabilities. Rather, we, as human beings, have them. We simply need to learn how to work with our bodies and minds in ways that generate health, manage pain, reduce stress, and connect spiritually. Yoga is one particularly effective tool for tapping these innate abilities.
OT You write that attempts to divorce a pure, ancient yoga from a corrupt western incarnation are misguided. Why?
CH Within in North American yoga culture, there’s a tendency to assume that the deeper aspects of yoga somehow remain purely Indian in essence. Correspondingly, problems such as excessive commercialization or reducing yoga to a workout routine are blamed exclusively on the West. This imagined pure/corrupt split rests on a romanticized vision of the “mystic East” that is, ironically, part of the historical legacy of Western colonialism. Modern yoga originated through a creative process of East-West synthesis. Although it was developed in India, important Western influences were incorporated from the start. Although modern yoga emerged in concert with a larger anti-colonial movement, its founding leaders were nonetheless committed to integrating what they saw as the best of Indian and Western cultures. By imagining yoga as an unchanging tradition that is either “purely” Indian or hopelessly corrupt, we render this important and inspiring history invisible. More problematically, locating the deeper dimensions of yoga in a simplistic vision of “spiritual India” that’s self-contained in a purified bubble outside of history both reflects and reinforces a deep lack of faith in our own experience. We need to connect with the spiritual dimensions of life in our own place and time. The endless sky over Chicago is no more or less sacred than it is anywhere else.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.