Control and Chaos, Safety vs Freedom

There is a lot in the above article, but I hope you will take the time to read it all. It is well worth it, and I agree with most, if not all, of what is said. 

One thing that stood out for me is the tension between control and chaos and safety vs. freedom. I think this tension is inherent to life and is worth looking at, exploring, and questioning.

I have personally seen and heard about the autocratic use of control used by yoga teachers justified in the name of ‘safety’ pretty much from the day I started yoga. The idea is that yelling, touching without consent, screaming, asking students not to question what you say, blocking students from leaving a hot room, shaming students, and even hitting them is all justifiable in the name of ‘safety’ or because it is ‘for their good.’ But is this true? 

Often when a student questions why doing a pose in a certain way is “wrong,” the teacher replies with, “because it’s not safe.” And that is the end of the conversation. Most students assume they cannot understand the complexity of what ‘safety’ means in that context, and they could be right. And yet, the truth is often the teacher does not understand these complexities either. The only real reason the teacher thinks he knows it’s unsafe is that he has been told the same thing by an ‘expert’ who was also not questioned. 

When I raised these questions recently on a yoga teacher’s message board, I got some pushback and a lot of silence. No one was able to answer the question, how much control is justifiable in the name of ‘safety,’ why, and what is and is not safe. These may seem like they should be self-evident, but they only look this way if we do not examine them more closely. Just because a “yoga guru” tells me something is not safe or is safe does not make it so. Where is the evidence? Where is the proof? Where are the statistics? 

I am not saying that we should ignore anything that does not come with statistics attached to it, but I think we should ask what the evidence is? Is it the guru’s own experience alone? That’s okay but, people are different, so maybe the experience of the guru will be different from my own? A real guru knows this, but a false one tries to insist it be done his way. Even if the guru has followers willing to vouch for the effectiveness of a specific technique, there are always outliers. Again, a good teacher knows this and does not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. But our human need for control, to be right, to seem like we know more than we do often leads us to try to do just that. 

Some of you have heard me speak of the ‘monkey experiment’ in class. In this experiment, several monkeys were placed in a cage in which an electric shock could be administered. There is a ladder in the middle of the cage that leads up to a bunch of bananas. When one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the bananas, all the other monkeys on the ground would get an electric shock. It did not take long for the monkeys to figure out the correlation and start to beat up any monkey that tried to get the bananas. Once none of the monkeys would go after the bananas, one of the monkeys would be taken out, and a new monkey would be put into the cage in its place. The new monkey, not knowing what was going on, would start to climb the ladder to get the bananas, and all the monkeys would jump on it and beat it up. Gradually all the monkeys were switched out till none of the monkeys had ever been shocked. And yet they continued to beat up the new monkeys without knowing why. They had just all learned through socialization that if one of them starts to climb the ladder, you jump on them and beat them up.

I see modern humans in this story. I see it in the way yoga is taught, and I see it in our society at large. So much of our guilt, shame, blame, the dos and the don’ts we teach and use to judge one another are things that at one time may have been essential social information for a society to survive. However, now we are beating one another up, and we don’t know why except everyone else is doing it.

In my experience, some of the ideas that are put forth in yoga as ‘proper alignment’ are less safe than the natural modifications students make when doing the pose ‘wrong.’ Additionally, while the ‘proper alignment’ may keep specific individuals safe, it may be harmful to other individuals. Diet does not affect all individuals in the same way. Drugs do not affect all individuals in the same way. Exercise does not affect all individuals in the same way. Why should yoga postures?

So what is safety? Does it exist? And if it does, what kinds of behavior should we allow, and what should we give up to make sure the ones we love, and we are ‘safe?’ What is the proper balance between control and chaos, safety, and freedom? One answer may be found in the Zen tradition. In Zen, there is a saying. “If you want to control your cow, give them a large field.” 

Jai Bhagwan!

-Douglas Johnson E-RYT 500, YACEP

Sounds of Summer - A Yoga Retreat

July 19th-21st