Switching spectacles, seeing anew

Twenty-twenty may have left us with wounds that are hard to shrug off. Twenty-twenty hardened the shells of our lives but may have opened up online and global connections. We have a new wealth of recorded resources but less opportunity to reflect together in person. As we turn more or less gracefully to 2021 it seems online learning is here for sometime longer. I wanted to curate some of these resources and foster opportunities to talk and learn together. To this end, I proposed a course to Yogacampus (‘yoga studies seminar: critically thinking through issues in contemporary yoga’). I’m happy to have this opportunity here to explain my thinking behind this course.

Reflecting on yoga’s history and its present manifestation is a yogic practice

This may appear a bold statement, perhaps too bold for those for whom it is enough to move and to sit. My thirst for theory, history and philosophy of yoga is inspired by the urge to scratch below the surface. What are the ideas and worldviews that frame practices, often far from explicit? What are the ideologies within which different practices are suspended? Practice on its own is not enough: yes, it helps ease the existential crisis of being in the world, of relating to others—but it risks a rigidity of viewpoint, a superiority of technique. Without reflecting on how we got here, on yoga’s past, purpose, and future, on cultural shifts and political agendas, the unwitting naivety of practice alone can harden into fundamentalisms. Fundamentalisms such as my yoga really is better than your yoga, or, my flexibility grants me access to wisdom and morality superior to my fellow practitioners. Isn’t it incredible that there is actually a whole history behind the moral superiority of movement?

Reflecting, or tarka, is a yogic practice

Tarka means to reflect, to think, to doubt, to inquire, to reason. Many textual sources from the premodern Indian tradition list six limbs of yoga, such as the Maitrī Upaniṣad. Skipping two of the eight limbs of yoga that concern ethics, yama and niyama, and āsana or posture, familiar to many students of yoga from Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, six-limbed paths of yoga often include tarka. This is not necessarily an end in itself but a means to yoga. I see a tight fit between this ancient imperative to reflect and more contemporary ideas of critical theory that argue there is no neutral view, no view from nowhere. Instead, we must consider our positionality, where we see from, the ground we stand up on. Before we can still the mind or embody the power of yoga (definitions of the purpose of yoga given by Patañjali) can we evaluate the preconceptions that we bring with us, try on different points of view, assess right view and wrong view—whether there can be no-view? Critical self-reflexivity enables us to avoid essentialising and appropriating.

Shifting viewpoints exposes hidden prejudices

Yoga theory as method is switching spectacles, seeing anew, borrowing different lenses. We start to see things differently. We start to stop identifying with certain ways of seeing as intrinsically tied to our identity. We enable the possibility of spiralling towards more nuanced understandings. Reflecting on different preconceptions and ideologies (that’s what opinions are) doesn’t entail a collapse into relativity, where every articulation of every view is equally valid. But it insists on the value of diversity and allows philosophy to become therapy. The possibility of the cessation of viewpoint requires the exposure of the point from which the view is taken. It seems to me that historically yoga is technique, rather than ideology, and in its historical manifestations has exhibited a playfulness towards metaphysics.

Thinking together, playing together

If I were going to be bold, I’d go further. Because actually, I don’t just think reflecting on history and philosophy is a yogic practice, as if it were somehow optional. I think there is an imperative to peel back the layers of this thing that we love. One of my Sanskrit teachers always says that Sanskrit is better as a team sport. I think she means that we think better when we think together. At the heart of yoga is līlā or play. In dialogue with one another we can play with ideas, dress-up in different spectacles, learn together.


Ruth Westoby is a doctoral researcher in yoga and an Ashtanga practitioner. Ruth offers lectures, workshops and contributes to teacher training courses. Ruth is researching for a doctoral thesis on ‘Bodies in Haṭhayoga: Gender, Materiality and Power’ at SOAS under the supervision of James Mallinson and is on the steering committee for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies.

Ruth collaborated with the Haṭha Yoga Project’s ‘embodied philology’, interpreting postures from an 18th-century text teaching a precursor of modern yoga, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, featured in the SOAS exhibition Embodied Liberation and forthcoming as a film. See www.enigmatic.yoga for workshops, writing and film.

Ruth is offering a six-week course through Yogacampus, ‘Yoga Studies Seminar: Critically thinking through issues in Contemporary Yoga’ from 5 February 2021. The early bird discount and application for bursaries ends 5 January 2021.