Thursday, 12 September 2019

Post-Lineage Yoga & Dandelions

What dandelions have to teach us about 'post-lineage yoga'.


By THEODORA WILDCROFT
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Figure 1: A dandelion (Taraxacum species): flowering plant growing with young ferns.
Watercolour. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY


In the course of researching my PhD into alternative yoga subcultures in Britain, I needed to create a new term to describe the community relationships I was seeing in my fieldwork. That term, post-lineage yoga, has much wider usefulness for talking about the ways in which yoga practices have been shared through time and across the world. As a result, the label ‘post-lineage yoga’ is used more and more in contemporary yoga media, but there’s been a great deal of confusion about what exactly it means.

The problem with describing a previously-unresearched phenomenon like post-lineage yoga is that, to begin with, it’s very complicated. It takes months to hone the picture that fieldwork is showing into a clear and accessible concept that others can understand. Now that I’ve published my PhD thesis (Wildcroft 2018), I’m working hard on a book or two, and getting out and about, talking to yoga communities, describing my research and what it might mean. These recent efforts at disseminating my research are making it easier to describe post-lineage yoga in ways yoga teachers and practitioners can understand. So I’m grateful to The Luminescent for letting me share with you a simplified version of ‘post-lineage yoga in a (betel) nutshell’.1

Hopefully this post will clarify the term for those of you that have been hearing it a lot, and for others, it might tempt you to read the whole thesis, which you can find on an open access server at this link: http://oro.open.ac.uk/59125/.

One of the first academics to describe what is modern about modern yoga, Elizabeth De Michelis (2007), gave us a term to describe the yoga that is most visible in mainstream culture: modern postural yoga. Whilst terms such as this one are useful, they of course don’t fit all cases. Any new categorisation is also a generalisation. And when one describes a cultural shift, it does not mean necessarily that one approves of it. Almost all evolutions in cultural practice will have positives and negatives. De Michelis wasn’t saying that all yoga fits her typology neatly, nor that any kind of yoga is ‘better’ than another. But we’re still using the term ‘modern postural yoga’ because understanding when contemporary practice does and does not fit this definition still leads to us understanding more about what unites and divides practitioners of yoga.

Academics often say that typologies are ‘good to think with’. Post-lineage yoga has been good for me to think with for the past few years, and increasingly, other scholars and yoga teachers are finding it good to think with also. You might decide that post-lineage yoga isn’t a way of working that you approve of. But it’s probably still helpful to think about and recognise what its key features are. In fact, when most yoga teachers listen to the real definition, they recognise themselves at least a little in what they hear.
Post-lineage, as its name suggests, is a change not in the content of yoga, but in how it is shared. What it does not mean is anti-lineage, or non-lineage, and it certainly doesn’t mean anti-tradition.  Briefly put, post-lineage yoga is a description of the authority processes that govern the teaching of yoga—how you decide what you’re sharing with others is authentic and safe, and how it relates to the teaching of yoga in the past, and the teaching of yoga around the world.
Post-lineage yoga describes a shift that many yoga teachers and practitioners go through—they might start out only learning from one teacher, and never questioning their authority. But at some point, many look beyond the lineage teachings to expand their understanding of how yoga works in practice. They might or might not maintain a strong respect for their original teachers, but they might read books from other lineages, or be fascinated by the latest neuroscience research, or share a practice with peers or go to workshops with other teachers.

So why is thinking about the term post-lineage yoga important? Partly it’s a way of recognising the contribution of saṅghas (communities), as well as guru-śiṣya (teacher-student) relationships, to the sharing of yoga. But the last couple of decades have also seen many aspects of authority in yoga communities come under scrutiny. Whether it’s new evidence challenging the health claims in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Broad 2012), or the uncovering of abuse by apparently enlightened teachers (Remski 2019), or new historical evidence concerning the development of āsana practice (Birch 2013, Mallinson and Singleton 2017), many yoga practitioners now feel they need more than established yoga hierarchies to justify how they practice and teach.

Post-lineage networks support and correct the vertical hierarchies of yoga knowledge with peer-negotiated knowledge. That’s a complicated sentence, so here’s my favourite way of explaining it.

We often talk about the ‘roots of yoga’, and we commonly visualise the various schools of yoga like branches on a tree, with each practitioner connected in a long line back to the roots. But in order to draw on those roots, each individual depends completely on the integrity and absolute knowledge of every person between them and the ground. If the established structures of authority in yoga start to be questioned for some reason, any of those branches could break. There is not a lot of resilience in the system overall.

A lot of plants have a very different root structure, and happily, there are theories of learning that have already noticed this. A lesser known ‘branch’ of research focuses on ‘rhizomatic’ learning (Howard 2013; Lionel and Le Grange 2011). Dandelions are rhizomes. Each dandelion might not look as impressive as a tree, but together, the roots of dandelions form a web, sharing resources underground. As any gardener will tell you, the awesome and infuriating thing about dandelions is that they can survive being chopped down, because they grow back from even the tiniest bit of root. So individual dandelions might not be impressive, but together, they are very resilient, and adapt to almost any change, and any part of their network being broken.

According to learning theory this means that when knowledge is embodied by a whole group of people, and when the knowledge needs to adapt to circumstance and be resilient to change, it tends to form networks that look more like a horizontal web than a vertical tree. In this metaphor, each practitioner, each teacher shares as much as possible with others, across boundaries of lineage and school, nationality and intention. That way, even though an individual teacher or a particular practice might be ethically compromised, or just ill-adapted to new cultural conditions, each practitioner can draw from many sources, and calibrate their practice as it evolves with everyone else. As such, Yoga as a flow of cultural practice through time, survives in the network as a whole.

To do this most effectively, the network must also be as democratic as possible, and each person in the network should be encouraged to play an active part in the sharing and production of knowledge about the human condition. It works less well when students cannot question or adapt the teachings that they learn. That is why post-lineage communities are often found in trauma-sensitive and accessible yoga, because these are types of yoga that encourage resilience and self-reliance in each student, and also because they celebrate the benefits of diversity, in practice and in humanity.

Hopefully some of you have already realised that this is a very simplified picture. There is much more to my thesis. In particular, like previous traditions, post-lineage yoga is marked by power and oppression, and differences of access. However, in a post-lineage network, the depth of each person’s practice might not correlate completely to how long they spend in a single school. My research suggests that many post-lineage practitioners have a deep and abiding attachment to the practice and aims of yoga. Their roots may be as deep as they are wide. For many, it was this commitment that got them through a crisis of faith in a particular teaching or teacher, and allowed them to find new ways to practice. For others, new knowledge from outside their lineage allows them to keep updating the practices they love, and to share their own teacher’s wisdom with a wider audience.

Post-lineage yoga seems to be at its most resilient when it recognises the value in both horizontal and vertical knowledge, that is, a yoga culture that honours both precedent and, what Etienne Wenger called, ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1999). Post-lineage yoga is incompatible with any doctrinal view that claims that only one way of practicing can ever be valid and that methods should not be mixed between schools. These ways of teaching form mini-networks that remain isolated from others—perhaps like a series of trees in pots rather than trees in a forest. Such views aren’t necessarily wrong, they just might not be sufficiently resilient to weather a crisis.

Returning to the natural metaphors then, it’s satisfying to note that each tree in a forest is not a self-sufficient island. In fact, a tree is connected by a vast, invisible network of horizontal fibres called mycelium, which carries resources and information from one tree to another (Stamets 2005). The oak might look like the most impressive tree in the wood, but without the friendly fungi that connect it to every birch, beech and hazel, it wouldn’t thrive as well.

If there’s one recommendation that comes out of my research, it is that if we want contemporary yoga practice to continue to thrive, and adapt, and survive the shock-waves of change, we might do well to pay attention to the health of our humble connections between yoga teachers, as well as to the bureaucratic and pedagogical hierarchies that are so much more visible.

Maybe that looks a lot less like more training and more rules, and a lot more like hanging out at conferences, and festivals instead. If you want me to come and hang out and facilitate that conversation, get in touch. More and more post-lineage yoga practitioners are finding it helpful to talk with me not just about trees and dandelions, but starlings and geese, borders and osmosis, consent and contact too. More on that later.



NOTES

1 Read this: https://www.wildyoga.co.uk/2018/05/on-betel-nuts/ for an explanation of why I’m fascinated by betel nuts.



BIBLIOGRAPHY


Birch, J. 2013 (Published 2018). “Proliferation of Āsana-s in Late Mediaeval Yoga Texts” in Baier, K. Maas, P. & Preisendanz, K. (eds.). Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Vienna: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Broad, W. J. 2012. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. Bath: Simon & Schuster.

De Michelis, E. 2007. “A Preliminary  Survey of Modern Yoga Studies” in Asian Medicine, 3: 1-19.

Howard, R. G. 2013. “Vernacular Authority: Critically Engaging ‘Tradition’” in Blank, T. & Howard, R. G. (Eds.), Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Lionel, L. & Leonard Le Grange. 2011. “Sustainability and Higher Education: From arborescent to rhizomatic thinking” in Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43: 742-54.

Mallinson, J. & Singleton M. 2017. Roots of Yoga. London: Penguin Books.

Remski, M. 2019. Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. Kentucky, USA: Embodied Wisdom Publishing.

Stamets, P. 2005. Mycelium Running: how mushrooms can help save the world. Berkley, Calif: Ten Speed Airlift.

Wenger, E. 1999. “Community” in Wenger, E. (Ed.), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wildcroft, T. 2018. Patterns of Authority and Practice Relationships in ‘Post-lineage Yoga.’ UK: Open University. Retrieved from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/59125/.


About the Author


Theodora Wildcroft PhD is a researcher investigating the democratization and evolution of physical practice as it moves beyond yoga lineages. Her first peer-reviewed article was the co-written ‘Sacrifices at the altar of self-transformation’ with Alison Robertson, and she has a chapter in the forthcoming Routledge Guide to Performance Philosophy. She is the Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Body and Religion and an active member of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Her monograph Post-lineage Yoga: from guru to #metoo is currently in production. A yoga teacher herself with over a decade of experience, she also blogs, appears on podcasts, on panels and conferences and writes numerous other articles on yoga, on social justice, on hope, and on untold stories. Theo consults with a number of major yoga organisations, and she teaches workshops across Europe and North America.


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Citation: 

Wildcroft, Theodora. 2019. “Post-lineage Yoga & Dandelions: What dandelions have to teach us about ‘post-lineage yoga’.” in The Luminescent, 12 September, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.theluminescent.org/2019/09/post-lineage-yoga-dandelions.html.



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