Free will and yoga catchphrases
By Patricia Tillman
If you look closely, you will see that yoga—and by yoga, I decidedly mean modern, popular, exoteric yoga in the West—plays host to two apparently incompatible modern philosophies. These pop philosophies can be found side-by-side in the same yoga-themed self-help book, or even in the same yoga class. They are often expressed in sound-bite, slogan form that lends itself to being quoted on Facebook.
Pop yoga philosophy number one: ACCEPTANCE
Just be, man. Stop trying so hard and just swim with the stream. Appreciate what is and let go of trying to change things. Stop and smell the roses. It’s your striving that’s causing you suffering. You’re exactly where you need to be. You’re already perfect. Let go and surrender (not necessarily to a supreme being because whoa, dogmatic, man).
Pop yoga philosophy number two: EMPOWERMENT!
You can achieve anything you put your mind to! Take control of your life! New year, new you! Empower yourself! Change and transform! Don’t give up, eyes on the prize! Step outside your comfort zone and live your dreams! Manifest it!
So which is it?
And don’t try to weasel out of the question by saying that the two philosophies are yin and yang, because that doesn’t really explain how a person should achieve some semblance of balance between the two and at the same time avoid being a melting, lackadaisical neo-hippie on the one hand and a nervously pulsating type-A on the other. Besides, unless you’re actually in a yin yoga class, these two philosophies are not presented as dark-and-light polarities, but just thrown out into the new age mishmash for you to interpret on your own. It’s confusing.
Do we, or do we not, have control of our own lives? Is happiness to be found by making peace with the inexorable, inescapable nature of reality as it is, or by taking up arms and fighting like a tiny David against the devouring Goliath of our age, and maybe, just maybe, managing to eke out a tiny fragment of change in our lifetimes? Can it be both? Is the notion of our own agency illusory?
Since I study history when I’m not practicing yoga, I’ve accumulated a lot of evidence for both sides of the argument. The main drawback to the empowerment school of thought is that it can lead to a “blame the victim” mentality: if you’re supposed to be self-actualized, then if something bad happens to you—or things don’t work as you had planned—it’s entirely your own fault. You were too passive; you didn’t try hard enough, or want it hard enough.
In reality, history is full of examples of good, decent people whose lives were either thrown into chaos or outright ended by forces beyond their control, and which few could even have predicted. Would we blame the victims of history for their sufferings?
One argument against the “acceptance” school of thought is that history is also filled with examples of individuals—often frail in body but uncrushable in spirit—who, in fact, dared to stand up to that century’s various totalitarian governments, which were tailor-made to erase the individual. Their striving did cause them pain—often literal, excruciating physical pain—but their voices were heard, and they made an impact on history.
So is free will an illusion or not?
Oh, you thought I was going to have an answer? LOL. This is a question which has occupied philosophers and theologians of far greater competence than me for centuries. But I do know that if we want to come anywhere close to answering this, we will have to (gasp!) step outside the “bubble” of yoga and read, study history, take up philosophy (or whatever else floats your boat) and experience the fluctuations of life. We’ll have to think through the philosophical implications of yoga slogans, instead of simply repeating them because they sound catchy.
Form your own opinion, and not just the pop-yoga party line, because whoa, dogmatic, man.
About Patricia Tillman
Trish Tillman is a graduate student of history, adjunct professor, yogi and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu player in the Washington, D.C. metro area. On the (Jiu Jitsu) mat, she goes by the very un-yogi-like nickname of “Hateful Trish.” Her dissertation research would probably be going much faster if she didn’t find everything in the world so interesting.