Reality, ideology and the perils of tribal longing
Reality, ideology & the perils of tribal longing by Debbie Farrar
I was recently invited to talk at the public Independent Yoga Network meeting that was set up to discuss the implications of the British Wheel of Yoga's move to pay Skills Active £20,000 so they can set up a National Occupational Standard for yoga teaching in the UK. On the surface, it seems sensible enough. Standards are surely a good thing? Everyone wants to raise standards don't they? Yes, they honestly do. Every single yoga teacher I have spoken to wants to raise standards. And I have spoken to a lot of them. They are all passionate about their craft and consider themselves to be actively striving to constantly improve their teaching. I don't doubt their sincerity at all.
Nor is there any reason to doubt it. Compared to other physical activities, yoga is pretty much as safe as you get. In the 12 years that the IYN has been going there has have been no insurance claims relating to yoga injuries at all. There's even an insurance guy at this meeting speaking out against the NOS too!
So what's wrong with setting a few standards? Well, its not so much the practice of yoga teachers setting their own standards that is the problem. That has been going on already for quite some time without much problem. Like thousands of years! OK, there's been a couple of incidents in the US. But there's always incidents over there. They always take things to extremes. I mean, look at their version of football.
What's wrong with Skills Active setting the standards is that Skills Active, by their own admission, know nothing about yoga. They are a corporation, set up by a government quango, to establish industry led standards. So these standards will serve the fitness industry, not yoga, by defining the bare minimum that the industry can get away with delivering whilst still calling what they deliver yoga. It will define the minimum in terms of philosophy, history, meditation, self enquiry and all those strange cleansing techniques and mudras and well, all the things that make yoga interesting, all the things that make yoga, well, yoga. And all yoga teachers know that its really difficult to teach a lot of that stuff in a gym setting, so do you think the industry are going to keep all that in their trainings? Remember, this is an industry led standard.
Skills Active are not even anything to do with the government anymore. The government quango that licensed Skills Active (UKCES) closed down in March to make way for the new apprenticeship scheme. All government funding was withdrawn from Skills Active, even their Sports England funding.
So why is the BWY NEC paying £20,000 for a yoga NOS, that the government have abandoned financially, ideologically and legislatively? A yoga NOS that will help the fitness industry steer the training of yoga teachers? I am seriously beginning to think they might have been misled.
Anyway. I obviously have opinions about the situation. You can read more about my opinions in Namaskaram the IYN's online magazine and on the Keep Yoga Free campaign website. So when I said I couldn't attend the London meeting because I am training yoga teachers that day, Ellen Lee, Chair of the IYN, invited me to write a letter for her to read out instead. Here it is. Apologies for the lack of titular imagination.
My NOS Letter
I am one of those yoga teachers who does not always teach what have recently been described as classical yoga asana. Classical asana do still happen in my teaching, but only when the bodies of those in front of me invite its spontaneous occurrence.
Nevertheless, for me there is no other word to describe what I practice & teach; but yoga.
The word yoga speaks to me of an inherent congruence with something. Not necessarily the postures, the practices, or the politics. But a congruence with something the word yoga represents that lies beyond the external. Or maybe I should say, that lies within?
There are many roads to that inner space which I call yoga. And no 2 roads are the same.
What I currently see happening to yoga, is that a certain member of the BWY NEC is trying to establish a super highway that everyone can use to access their inner space. But as far as I am concerned, as soon as the inner road is defined by someone other than the traveller, it stops being an inner road. And so the yoga ceases.
This individual on the BWY NEC is justifying this standardisation to the rest of the BWY by stating that he was voted in by a majority; despite only around a third of the BWY membership voting. He also says that everyone else on the BWY NEC agrees with him.
In my 46 years on this earth, I have never found any ideology I agree with 100%; despite my spending a great deal of that time studying the sciences, philosophies & theologies looking for one. Seeking the one true path. Indeed searching for ideological agreement has been a waste of my time & efforts. It only served to reaffirm my shadows, rather than allow me to explore them.
Searching for ideological sameness is either an unconscious attempt at the ideological domination of another; or allowing oneself to be ideologically dominated in exchange for the illusion of the fulfilment of an unmet need for tribe.
Not that there is anything wrong with what Godfrey Devereux calls "tribal longing". We do need others. But if we turn our tribal longing into a search for external validation that reaffirms our blind spots and biases; we create sameness and agreeability within that tribe. Sounds good? Sounds like a monoculture to me.
Consider the implications of a tribe where everyone is the same. Would it be functional? To make a functional tribe, we need people with different skills, different viewpoints, different methodologies and different ideologies. A rainforest.
Is it even desirous or healthy for us all to agree with the leader of our tribe? The story of the emperor & his new clothes springs to mind.
I welcome comments & invite dialogue from those with different views to me because, if I didn't, I might as well talk to myself.
I am guilty of often thinking that this might be the only way to get a sensible conversation.
However, the more one's engagement with people who's views differ from yours diminishes, the more you become an ideologue. This separates you from the world around you, & ultimately from objective reality. This is the opposite of asato ma sadgamaya.
The idea of total agreement with another individual is at best the validation of a fantasy of belonging to an agreeable tribe. But it could also be an unconscious, or conscious, attempt at the ideological domination of others.
The idea often expressed in social media that the whole of the BWY are authoritarian, or snooty, or 100% agreed with the idea of this NOS is fallacious. The BWY are made up of a wonderfully diverse selection of human beings. I am a BWY teacher & have been since 1999. I have also been a BWY DCT, foundation course tutor, regional training officer, county rep & editor of one of their magazines for 13 years. I am not in favour of the NOS; and I am not the only BWY member speaking against this move, although I am possibly the most vocal.
But the reason for this is that I am suspicious of the assertion of the BWY chair; that the BWY NEC is 100% behind the NOS. This assertion makes me wonder what is happening within the BWY. Why I am constantly being silenced as I attempt to speak out?
A wise man once said to me that if every member of a committee agrees with something, they are all wrong! I've been on enough committees, both within the BWY and as a secondary school teacher, to recognise that truth.
I welcome true diversity within the BWY. Not the diversity you can easily illustrate on the cover of a magazine, so that you can be seen to be embracing diversity. Diversity is not necessarily about how one looks externally; it cannot be measured by purely external means. It is not always concerned with easily identifiable & categorisable features. It also applies to the way the individual chooses to walk their inner path. That diversity can only be realised if that path is free from idealised & standardised notions & expectations.