Why I don’t Chant, Part 2: Tradition and Self Authority
Last week I published an article titled “Why I don’t Chant”, in which I explained some of the reasons that I don’t use the Ashtanga opening and closing mantras in my classes or in my personal practice.
As expected, I received mixed feedback on the article. Some people expressed that it resonated with them deeply, while others felt that by omitting the chant I was failing to do proper justice to the tradition.
I’m happy for the constructive criticism I received. It has stimulated further reflection and this article will serve to address some of the issues that people brought up. It will also address the implications of these issues for the greater spheres of spirituality, ecology and human social evolution.
The first thing I’d like point out is that my article was titled “Why I don’t Chant”.
The article was not titled “Why you shouldn’t chant” or “Why everyone should stop chanting” or “Why chanting is bad for you”.
Human psychology is very interesting. Objective introspection is a contradiction in terms as we can only experience the world and ourselves subjectively. Science was created as a method to measure objective data which is quantifiable and publicly observable. Introspection cannot produce this kind of data and introspective conclusions are therefore only relevant and true for the one making the observations.
The point of my article was to explain my own subjective reality and reasons that I personally do not find benefit in chanting. I did not suggest that my reasons were an objective description of a universal truth and that everyone else should also stop chanting.
Many of my students do chant quietly on their mats before and after their practice. I don’t try to stop them, or advise them that they should not do so. I feel like I create an environment where it is an entirely personal choice to chant or not to chant, and either choice is accepted in the room.
Recently, I also started giving people the option to chant at the beginning of the Friday led class. When everyone stands in Samasthiti, I give a few verbal instructions to guide the students into a more embodied state of awareness where they might feel the sensations connected to the elements of mula bandha which arise from the central axis of the body being well aligned with the field of gravity. I then tell them they can either chant quietly to themselves or simply spend another minute tuning in to their own inner world of the sensation created through the tuning of their alignment with the earth. I think most students feel quite satisfied to be able to do whatever feels right for them. Once I see that everyone who is chanting is finished, I begin counting the vinyasa of Surya Namaskar A.
So, I am certainly not trying to change the tradition. I’m not going to knock on Sharath’s office door next time I am in Mysore and discuss that I feel he should remove the chanting from the teaching. I simply adapt the tradition so that it can remain consistent with what I have discovered to be true for myself in my introspective explorations.
I usually choose to write about topics that I have been asked about frequently by curious students and peers or topics that I feel are important but generally not discussed openly or authentically in the greater yoga community. The general theme of my writings and my teachings is to encourage practitioners to reflect more deeply on their own internal experience, and to let that be their guide, rather than basing their decisions of what to do on dogma or deference to authority.
If the desire to chant arises spontaneously from one’s own internal sensation based understanding, then it will surely be empowering and good. However, if one is chanting simply because they have been told to, or to conjure up an imagined feeling of devotion (which was not already present) to an abstract entity or concept, then I feel it will take them out of relationship with themselves and cause them to give their power away.
Interestingly, most of the people who understood my message clearly were those who are either not currently immersed deeply in the Ashtanga tradition, or those who are immersed in the tradition, but who remain somewhat aloof or independent of the group mindset.
Even though I did not suggest that everyone should stop chanting, or that chanting is inherently bad, some people felt that I was doing just that, and their objections seemed to come from an attachment to a group mindset. This again reminds me of the cult mindset I mentioned in the original article, where deference to authority takes precedence over and is given more validity than an individual’s internal experience. It is actually direct evidence to support the point I was trying to make in the article.
The main concerns people had with my article were that I was either A) altering or B) being disrespectful towards the tradition, or that I was claiming a level of authority that trumps the generally accepted authorities of tradition and scripture.
I believe that all the arguments against my article can be neatly summarized as fitting into the issue of “deference to authority”.
For me, “deference to authority” is never an acceptable way to explain why something should be a certain way. By definition, it causes one to give one’s power away and reduces one’s sense of self trust and self confidence in decision making.
Authorities are necessary in life. If we want to learn about something, and don’t have the capacity to find the answer for ourselves, we need to consult somebody that we presume has more knowledge and experience than ourselves on the given subject matter.
For me, the teaching of that authority figure only has validity and meaning to change my own personal understanding and experience if I can experience that teaching to be real at the sensation based level in my own body and nervous system.
I went to practice with Sharath last year because he has more experience in the Ashtanga practice than I do, and I assumed that he would therefore have something to teach me. I was right. While I was there, I dutifully did everything he asked me to do, without hesitation or argument. There was nothing he asked me to do that was not consistent with my own internal understanding of what was beneficial for me. So, it was very easy for me to accept his teaching, and this is why I had a positive experience. This is also why I will continue to return to Sharath for as long as the situation remains this way.
The real problem occurs when the teaching of an authority figure or concept is inconsistent with one’s own sensation based experience. When this occurs, one has two choices A) reject the teaching of the authority, and honour one’s own sensation based experience or B) accept the teaching of the authority and reject – literally block or repress – one’s own internal sensation based experience.
If “spiritual”, or any kind of understanding involves deepening the knowledge of the self, I think it should be ultra clear that option B can only take us in the opposite direction of this kind of understanding.
I have often noted that communities of people in which spiritual practices or ideals are very prominent and a defining feature of the group, tend to exhibit greater delusion and less knowledge of the self than so called “regular” or “worldly” people. It is quite common for those who place a lot of importance on spirituality to maintain a rigid subscription to the teachings of their leaders or ideal concepts and to have little or no awareness of the actual effect this is having on their own bodies and minds. There is often great self harm involved. Taken to the extreme, the Jonestown mass suicide of 1978 is one possible result of this kind of self deception and giving away one’s power to an external authority, while ignoring or repressing one’s internal sensation based understanding.
We don’t need to look at the most shocking and newsworthy stories to find examples of this. It is happening all the time, everywhere, and often in the name of spirituality.
For example, in some forms of Vipassana meditation the essence of the practice is to develop increasing levels awareness of all the sensations that are experienced in the body, while at the same time cultivating an ability to remain non-reactive towards these sensations. During retreats, meditators sit for long hours every day, for many days in a row, often working with great discomfort in the body and attempting to cultivate non reaction to that discomfort. I have noted that among those who sit these kinds of retreats frequently over many years, many practitioners eventually develop very debilitating bodily pain and joint and tissue damage which paradoxically prevents them from being able to sit comfortably at all later in life.
It is interesting that a practice which brings one into a very intimate awareness of the sensation based reality of the body can still involve an obstinate rejection of the clear signals of impending damage that the body is giving, due to deference to the over riding authority of the ideology.
Another example, which can be found in the Ashtanga world and in many spiritual circles, is the common belief that eating less is better for you. Whether it is because eating less will make it easier to squeeze into some of those difficult asanas, or because eating less reduces one’s attachment to the illusion of the material world, or that one can extract their vitality from “prana” instead of physical food, or whatever the intellectual justification, many practitioners attempt to apply this belief in their lives.
It is not uncommon for students in my classes to complain about feeling light headed, dizzy, fatigued, etc. at some point in their practice. When this happens, my first question to them is whether they ate a good dinner the night before. When the answer is “no” or “not really”, I probe further and ask them why not. The response is often something along the lines of “well, I am trying to eat less” or “I usually don’t eat after 2 pm”. I then ask them if they feel hungry or tired. The answer is often “yes”.
It really amazes me that one defers to the authority of a concept of “I am supposed to eat less”, while denying their own sensation based experiences of hunger and weakness. One is literally giving one’s power to a concept, and completely denying the authority or even the reality of what one’s organic body is clearly asking for. There can be no greater ignorance than this, and to me this is the exact opposite of knowing the self.
In the above example, the authority concept of “we should eat less” might be relatively easy to reject and let go of, once the student is redirected to feel the reality of one’s bodily experience of hunger, malnutrition or fatigue. However, it can be much more difficult to let go of the grip of increasingly mythical or abstract authority figures and concepts that hold more sway over the general yoga and spiritual community. Examples of these authorities are figures and concepts such as: “Ramamohan Brahmachari”, “Patanjali”, “Buddha”, “The Tradition”, “Krsna”, “Samadhi”, “Liberation”, “Purity” and so on…..
How often do we hear someone’s idea being validated by claiming that “The Buddha said….”, or “Krsna said…”, or “Purity means this….”, or “The tradition is…..” It’s almost a reflex for most people to accept the answer and stop the inquiry at that point, regardless of whether it corroborates with their internal experience or not.
One commentator on my article asked why I felt my views had more authority than say, Krsna’s in the Bhagavad Gita. When I probed a bit further, the commentator suggested that it would seem reasonable to defer to an authority that is considered realized in the field I am exploring, until I become realized myself (my paraphrasing).
As I have previously mentioned, I did not claim any objective authority on any kind of universal truth in my article. I claim authority only over my own subjective experience.
For me, Krsna is a mythical godlike character who possesses a conceptual quality of perfection/realization/enlightenment in a storybook written over 2000 years ago by another possibly mythical human being who was attributed to have superhuman qualities. That book was passed along orally for some time (we’ve all played the game of whisper something in someone’s ear, pass it around the circle, and see what the message ends up being at the end), and interpreted and reinterpreted, often with conflicting viewpoints.
I find it interesting to even consider that the words of an imaginary non-human character in an ancient and orally transmitted book of fiction, written by an author about whose life there are no verifiable details, could possibly have more authority than that which has been tried and tested by me in the framework of my own body and mind.
While there is much that I don’t find beneficial about Iyengar Yoga and its long term effects on the human psyche (as evidenced by common traits I observe in many of its long term practitioners and teachers), and I find much of Mr. Iyengar’s writings to contain arrogance, I do deeply appreciate that he was one of the first and most well known yoga teachers to publicly question the deference to some of these authority figures and concepts.
It interests me that so many intelligent people are ready to believe that Krishnamacharya spent 7 years living in a cave halfway up Mt. Kailash with an ascetic named Ramamohan Brahmachari and his family. Anyone who has ever spent more than a day or two hanging out at very high altitudes in the mountains without the support of the facilities from a human community will quickly confirm that that this is simply not physically possible. The conditions they existed in would have included extremely cold temperatures that would kill an exposed person within a couple of hours, no access to any form of food or firewood for warmth, etc. It is claimed that they not only survived, but thrived and developed a very advanced physical yoga practice for 7 years in these conditions.
Not only that, but also consider that Krishnamacharya claims to have walked to this place from Varanasi. Anyone who has tried walking even a comparatively short journey across one or two Himalayan mountain ranges will realize that it is highly unlikely that an unequipped person with no mountaineering experience would have any hope of completing such an arduous journey on foot. I once read an article in which the author calculated the distance Krishnamacharya would have walked, and then the length of time it would have taken him to walk that. Even with a generously high and consistent walking speed, the time necessary to walk there and back would have been more than half his 7 year sojourn – and that is assuming he walked continuously, even through the long Himalayan winters in which the conditions would have completely prohibited any kind of travel.
I was quite happy when I read (and unfortunately I forget exactly where, so I cannot reference it) a statement by Mr. Iyengar claiming that the whole story is BS and that Krishnamacharya actually learned yoga from a sadhu who lived just outside of Varanasi. This seems much more reasonable and likely to me.
It is also important to note that for me this does not devalue the yoga even slightly. I experience the benefits of the yoga in my own body and being, and where the yoga actually originated has absolutely no bearing on that. The authenticity of the yoga comes from the authority of what I experience in my own body with it – not from the authority of the date, time and place of it’s origin or who did or didn’t practice it in the past.
Another way that deference to authority often manifests and trumps over the reality of our inner experience is in the line of thinking that goes something like:
“Because our ancestors/teachers did things a certain way, we must continue to do things in the exact same way. End of inquiry.”
An example of this, which was also used in a critique of my article is: “Sharath Jois, Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya all chanted before and after their classes, and therefore so should we.” End of inquiry.
This way of thinking is one of the main reasons there are still so many human rights violations in many parts of the world, and it is likely the biggest inhibitor to human social evolution. Thank goodness there have been some people who decided that the way that their family, ancestors, teachers and culture did things did not feel right for them and so they changed it. Otherwise, it would be very bad news for all women, people with different coloured skin, dalits, homosexuals, and anyone else who unfortunately falls into various categories that are not part of the dominant ruling class/caste/sex/religion, etc. Of course, it is still bad news for many of these people in many places, but at least there are places where some social evolution has taken place due to forward thinking individuals who were not afraid to make some personal changes that were not in line with what their ancestors and teachers did.
Without these kinds of changes, all of the non-dominant class/caste/gender/religion/etc. members would still be treated like slaves and subject to horrific atrocities. The places in the world where this is still happening also tend to be places where very strict adherences to cultural tradition are the norm.
The same argument could be made for the fate of the planet earth itself. As one of countless examples, look at what is being done to the Ganges River in the name of religious and spiritual tradition. So much of the toxic pollution in the river comes from religious and spiritual rites and rituals. People refuse to change the ways these rites and rituals are performed due to a fear of the consequences of departing from the techniques of their tradition and culture.
Due to a lack of forward thinking and fear or laziness to evaluate, understand and change the unhealthy and destructive habits of our ancestors, we carry on in the same way they did, and the few people who are willing to think forward need to battle against the tough opposition of the status quo – and they usually lose.
So, I find it discouraging when someone who is ready to make even minor changes, on a personal level based on a subjective internal experience, to the way things are traditionally done in a spiritual practice is said to be disrespectful towards the tradition. If this is the case, what hope is there for the greater issues facing humanity as described above?
There is little doubt that we as humans need to evolve socially. If there is any real hope for the future of our species and our planet, we need to do it very quickly. The old systems of tradition and deference to authority are not serving us – otherwise we would not be in the mess that we are in. Tightening up the traditions and adhering more to authority is not likely to be the solution either. This may have “worked” for a younger human species, when there were much fewer of us and we were much less technologically equipped, but things have changed now and there is no turning back. We need to think forward, and my own view of the way forward is that we need to “grow up” as a species and stop acting like children who need to have an authority figure or concept telling us what to do and how to be in our lives. The writings of Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in The Guru Papers and The Passionate Mind Revisited explore this concept with great clarity. I consider these writings to be some of most lucid and inspiring ideas that exist today and I consider them to be much more relevant to our current human condition than the ancient scriptures which most people defer to. I highly recommend them to all open minded practitioners of any tradition.
My personal view is that becoming more attuned to our internal sensation based experience, and making our decisions based on that is the way our spiritual practices can help us to become more authentically aware of the greater social and environmental issues facing our species today. If this happens, our practices will aid us in moving forward as a species. If our spiritual practices remain based on conceptual authoritarian ideals, then I feel we have little hope to make the rapid changes in social evolution that are necessary for our survival.
I’m not suggesting we abandon tradition altogether. I place deep importance and respect in tradition and lineage. Anyone who knows me personally or has practiced with me as a student will quickly vouch for this. My classes, my practice space and my life are full of reverence. We all need a solid ground to stand on and healthy roots, if we are to grow in a healthy way. If we are attuned to our internal sensation based experience, we will know what is healthy and good to preserve in our tradition, and we will know what we need to change about it on a personal level. In this way, tradition stays healthy and evolves organically, as it is adapted to suit the health and well being and unique needs of each individual member of the tradition. When many members make similar changes, the tradition will slowly shift over time and it will evolve to suit the changing needs of humanity and the planet earth.
My understanding of the concept of bandha is to balance opposing qualities. This can manifest physically, energetically, psychologically and socially. Just as we need to balance stability and strength with flexibility and mobility in asana practice, we need to do the same with respect to our attitudes towards worldviews and traditions. To remain rooted and faithful in a tradition and yet to also be stimulated to grow and evolve beyond the limitations or inconsistencies of the tradition with our own internally generated personal value system is another aspect of this balancing act.
As an example, I was born into a family of meat eaters and taught to eat meat. I was born into a tradition and lineage that says meat consumption is essential for human health and well being. This was the general consensus of my culture. When I reached an age where I could analyze things based on my own experience, I found that meat eating did not feel right for me. So, I became vegetarian. My parents and culture also taught me things that remain good and healthy for me and I have preserved those habits. I continue to evolve as an individual member of my culture, and as other members of my culture start to make similar choices, the culture evolves also.
To continue with the dietary example – The Hatha Yoga Pradipika and many of the hatha yoga texts, as well as Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois, have all advocated drinking copious amounts of cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is considered to be sacred and pure in Indian culture and humans who drink it are supposed to reap the benefits of this sattvic purity. I consumed cow’s milk for many years after becoming vegetarian. I believed the teachings of ayurveda which said that fresh cow’s milk is good for my pitta-vata constitution. After many years of struggling with serious gastrointestinal illness, an open minded internal medicine specialist suggested I get tested for food sensitivities. It turned out that my immunoglobulin was reacting off the chart strongly to all milk products.
So, I became vegan, even though that was an “alteration” of the traditional teachings of Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya, the sacred hatha yoga scriptures and ayurveda. My health improved dramatically after doing this. I remain vegan to this day and would never consider going back to milk.
I’d also invite all consumers of milk who feel that it is imbibed with qualities of purity and sattva, to spend a day on an average Indian dairy farm, or a dairy farm in any country – and to see how pure or sattvic they feel inside themselves at a sensation based level, after experiencing the daily reality for these cows. The human species’ relationship with cows has changed much over the hundreds of years that have passed since the sattvic effect of cow’s milk was noted by those who wrote the texts. Due to this, the nature of the milk has changed, and the way the human body processes that milk it has also changed. How many people have bothered to check in at a sensation based level to see if the effects of drinking cow’s milk are actually healthy and sattvic for them, and if the general recommendations made hundreds of years ago are still relevant for them as individuals today?
My decision to stop eating meat doesn’t make me disrespectful to my family and Canadian culture. My decision to stop consuming milk doesn’t make me a heretic to the teachings of the hatha yoga scriptures, ayurveda, Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois. Neither does my decision to not chant at the beginning of my yoga practice. I have simply adapted and evolved the teachings to suit my own understanding and experience. I have made the traditions work consistently with what I feel and experience inside.
All lineages and traditions evolve. Sharath Jois does some things very differently from how his grandfather did them. I personally feel the changes he has made are all for the better, even though some people are outspoken about how Mysore is no longer what it was. I feel that Sharath has taken the best of what he was taught and kept it, and he has changed that which could be made better, based on his own experience of the practice and of teaching thousands of students.
Pattabhi Jois changed what Krishnamacharya taught him. Krishnamacharya was likely a massive innovator who personally created a lot of what he taught himself. The following statement is purely conjectural – but I feel that Ramamohan Brahmachari is likely a fictional character, created to imbibe Krishnamacharya’s innovations with history and divinity – and hence more authenticity in the eyes of the general population he was attempting to popularize his yoga with.
My friend Sebastien Arcand-Tourigny summarized the the obvious fallacy of their being any one unaltered tradition in the Krishnamacharya lineage of yoga well in the following statement:
Reflecting on the lineage of Krishnamacharya, we come to realize that most of his well known students publicly establish their trustworthiness by stating their decades-long studies with him. Furthermore, Desikachar, Jois, Mohan, Ramaswami, and Sribhashyam all claim to teach exactly what they learned from him and that “nothing has been changed”. Sribhashyam (his third son) goes even to the extent that no change ever happened for thousands of years in the transmission!
A comparative analysis of the respective style of each of these teachers shows obvious similarities but also a lot of—even contradictory—variations in the forms of asanas, asanas performance, sequences management, adaptation to each individual, emphasis on certain aspects of yoga (including what/when/if to chant), and general aesthetic feel—differences that becomes unbearably obvious for anyone trained in only one of these styles.
This fact has been noticed many times and often explained away by phrases like “he taught differently to each person” or “what he taught changed over time”. Looking at Krishnamacharya’s own writing and documented practice and comparing it to those of his students shows already major differences. He even said himself that the teachings he was imparted by his teacher was only a subset of what the later knew. Also, the investigation of the evolution of the teachings of most of these teachers (notably Jois) shows that many things have actually changed over time.
Obviously all these claims of “no change” are internally and mutually incompatibles. The transmission gives the impression to be at best partial, even corrupted! Clearly, someone must be lying—or all of them!
Lets say that we give them the benefit of the doubt. Then, what is transmitted in this lineage that has ‘not changed’ but still allows for changes? If it is not the form, what is the essence of this transmission and how is it possible to know who has authority to decide how and what to transmit, “alter the lineage teachings “, “omit … part of the practice”, and still be considered in the lineage?
I encourage everyone to examine the teachings of their traditions and of their authority figures and concepts through the lens of their own internal sensory experience. If it is consistent, all is well. If there are inconsistencies, remove them. All knowledge, all understanding, all tradition is transient and should be in constant evolution. We are all responsible to contribute to this evolution in a positive way. We are all responsible for the fate of our species and of the planet.
I love it when someone or something helps my own understanding, habit patterns and practice to evolve. In fact, you could say this is my main purpose in life – to continue to evolve and refine my experience of life to its maximum potential.
I no longer believe in the authoritarian concept of an enlightenment/liberation/realization that I am constantly falling short of, yet some mythical figures have somehow attained. I only see a journey, not a final destination. That journey for me is about continuing to make my own inner experience as consistent as possible with my evolving understanding of the world I exist in.
There is no such thing as a pure ideal that we unenlightened humans are hopelessly deviating from. There was no garden of eden, and no apple. The concept of a pure ideal is simply an opiate at best, to placate and pacify our fears about the nature of reality – and at worst it is a means to subjugate, control and manipulate people. The sooner we can let go of such a useless concept, the sooner we can move forward as individuals and as a collective species.
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