The Culture War: Responding to a Homo/Transphobic Yogi

I recently encountered my first socially conservative yogi. It was in the context of one of those notorious Facebook debates, where people feel comfortable showing more fangs than perhaps they would in person, casting more stones because the sympathetic experience of the human face is absent. While I wasn’t the one debating, in this instance, it nonetheless struck me deeply and has had me reeling with angst ever since.

Reading the comments of one whom many would consider a walking oxymoron (conservative yogi?) came on the heals of my recent conversation with Michael Stone for the CHITHEADS podcast. Both figures offer examples of interpreting the philosophical teachings of the East from within a constellation of socio-political concerns — even if, to most of us, Mr. Stone’s observations would appear “right” set alongside the belligerent hate-ravings of a socially conservative “yogi”.

[Check out Michael Stone’s interview, if you haven’t]

I’m going to include the entirety of this gun lover’s comments below, just for the sake of their provocative, blood-boiling effect. I’ll respond to each comment in turn with my thoughts, organized according to no particular logic.

Be warned that you will likely feel profoundly bristled, if not completely fuming with rage.

Jeremy’s first “insights” were a response (or better, reaction) to a respectable conversation being had in the group “Yogis on Facebook” regarding mindful speech in the context of a yoga class in order to avoid stimulating dormant traumas. The conversation partly took the form of defending verbal choices that would respect the experiences of transgender students.

Jeremy: Yoga philosophy does NOT support this liberal crap of PC transgender language. If you choose to do that it’s fine but yoga is about defibrillating our pranic imbalances, not catering to them and preserving them. All sexual issues are related to clogging of the main nadis in the spine and a destroyed mooladhara chakra from Past life negative karmas.

First of all, who doesn’t love the word “defibrillating”? My first thought, upon reading this, was how I must first find out what this word means and then find any excuse to use it in future writings. So I looked it up, and guess what? A defibrillator is the name for that device that electrocutes someone when their heart has stopped to bring them back to the land of the living. It appears Jeremy is prescribing something like electroshock therapy for our pranic imbalances. Sounds funny (read: scary), no? But actually, upon reading the rest of his comments, it’s quite possible this is exactly the kind of strategy someone like Jeremy would support.

And, pardon the vulgarity, but “destroyed muladhara chakra” can’t help but stir, for me, quite unpleasant images of a blown butt hole. But I guess for the homophobic (homophobia = fear of being gay), that would be the big fear, wouldn’t it?

Jeremy: I’m sick of my tradition being contaminated by liberalism.

Sophie: It might be a useful exercise for you to reflect on your belief that the tradition of yoga belongs to any one.

The idea, first, that there is one yoga tradition that stands to be “contaminated” by anything is an essentializing of yoga in a way that betrays a complete lack of knowledge of the various lineage streams that have permeated and cross-pollinated each other to get the hodgepodge of a yoga world we have today.

Yoga has never been pure and singular. Even the word yoga, as it is found throughout the ancient literature, is encountered with a multitude of meanings – some that resonate with the spiritual practices we associate today with the word, and some altogether mundane (in, for example, yoking a horse to its carriage).

And then there’s the spirit of Sophie’s great remark. “My” tradition? What species of ignorant attachment forces one to speak about ownership of something so ancient and multifarious in its expression? It appears vairagya, non-attachment, is not a virtue or a practice found in “his” tradition, even though it is certainly to be found in the texts he will later cite as part of “his” lineage.

Attachment to any idea about something leads to fear (a form of suffering) that such ideas could be “contaminated” by something like the evil liberal agenda. But why be afraid? Presumably he has his own Texan community (that’s not a slur; he actually lives in Texas) that appeals to the same narrowly socially conservative interpretations that he does. Why isn’t that enough for him?

All yoga has ever been is various pockets of interpretation based on the contextual experience of their practitioners. So either Jeremy thinks that liberals and their homo ideas are going to slip through the back door of his yoga temple in the night and sprinkle glitter and “Yasss, queens!” into his holy water, or he has made the mistake that so many dogmatic religious thinkers make: that his denomination is “right” and another is “wrong”. “We have the universal truth right here, and it’s reflected in our rituals and practices that have been handed down directly from God himself.”

It would take a much longer article to get into all the reasons why that’s a load of malarkey, but I trust the readers understand the shifting nature of reality and how certain practices are transferable to a modern context and some are not.

Practices are the tools; not the thing itself. If everything changes (Buddhists) and Prakrti is illusory (Samkhya), then anything that appears, including sometimes the practices themselves, have an expiration date. What works now is not what worked in a radically different cultural climate 3000 years ago.

But Jeremy has more to say (thank goodness)…

Jeremy: It might be a useful exercise for modern yogis to read an original yogic scripture like “Yoga Vasishtha” “Hatha yoga Pradipika,” or “shakti sadhana.” All of them talk about male/female energy and overcoming lust to attain enlightenment, NOT promoting sexual sin and confusion which will perpetuate hellish reincarnations. ALL the most powerful yogis carried weapons at all times including lord shiva and lord Vishnu’s incarnations. Those strong men would have beat up the hipsters and whiny transgenders of today and teach them the yogic techniques to get straight and mentally strong.

See, this is why I love working on a project that is dedicated to excavating these teachings in a rigorous yet accessible way, because it was only last week that I interviewed the scholar Christopher Tompkins for CHITHEADS, whose research has found that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is in fact NOT an original Hatha yoga text. Actually, not anything in it is original, Thompkins says, and the reason we think so is because for so long the HYP was the oldest thing our Western eyes had seen translated. There’s actually a considerable amount of manuscripts to be translated and research to be done, not the least of which is uncovering the actual sequence of hatha practices that were not included in the HYP (but can be found in earlier texts, recently uncovered by Thompkins), because the HYP was never intended to be authoritative and was written in a way that assumed prior knowledge of the older texts. Therefore, Jeremy citing HYP as an “original scripture” is just wrong.

[Thompkins goes into a lot of detail about this in the interview, so be sure to give it a listen when it airs next week.]

But besides the intellectual satisfaction I get pointing out the errors of fanatics, note how his comments are completely saturated with Judeo-Christian jargon. “Lust”, “sin”, and “hellish” are certainly interesting to bring up as terms that help elucidate yogic teachings, given that Jeremy is preaching from the Bible Belt.  It becomes more and more clear that Jeremy speaks to us from the position of an evangelical Christian yoga.

And the comment about the weapons of “men” deities (nevermind the women ones) beating up whiny hipsters? First of all, anyone worth their spit knows that these weapons are often symbolic tools targeted at the demons of ego and ignorance. The idea that Vishnu would literally use his mace to beat up a hipster is a humorous image, but hardly reflects a layered and sophisticated understanding of the symbolism of Hindu iconography.

But, of course, Jeremy’s ignorance (something that one of those weapons might actually be interested in thwarting) is further revealed about Hindu symbolism by this article that my brilliant boyfriend, Jimmy, threw into the mix.

Jimmy: Hindu Deities and the Third SexThere’s a third gender in Vedic culture. It’s honored and revered. See link above.

Jeremy: I was raised in a yoga tradition and almost became a pandit. I don’t need a YouTube lecture to teach me about male/female energy. Anyone using the Persian word “Hindu” meaning obedient slave does not know my tradition.

JimmyTake a look at the history of the deities and lilas of “your tradition”.

If Jeremy had checked out that very long, in-depth, well-researched article, he would doubtless have had a hard time swallowing what he found there, which is a wide-ranging look at the fascinating presence of a “third sex” (homosexual, hermaphrodite, transgender) in the literature and lilas of the Hindu pantheon. Contrary to Jeremy’s sentiments, these expressions are spoken of without any sense or implication that such genders and sexualities are unusual. In fact, they are referenced in such a normalized and celebratory tone to betray a quite different attitude when they were written (a religious ritual for cross-dressers?!) than the one of our contemporary culture war.

And of course, Many of us don’t even need to read that article to recall Shiva’s form as Ardhanarishvara, which is perhaps the most famous illustration of a hermaphrodite we have in cultural history.

JeremyAgain…I was raised in the yoga tradition. Stop trying to liberalize and gayify them to support your ahankara.

“Gayify?” This would be offensive if it didn’t invoke images of a hilarious rebranding of the tired old “gay agenda” diatribe – this time with gays in pink tutus wielding rainbow wands, prancing around casting spells of gayification on the wholesome, unsuspecting traditions of yesteryear

(Also, I just wonder: did Jeremy fight the autocorrect to “gratify” like I did when trying to invent the word “gayify”?)

Jimmyātmaupamyena sarvatra samaṁ paśhyati yo ’rjuna
sukhaṁ vā yadi vā duḥkhaṁ sa yogī paramo mataḥ.
“I regard them to be perfect yogis who see the true equality of all living beings and respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were their own.”
Jeremy, I’m just not seeing how your hate speech expresses love of God or sama darshana.

Amen, boyfriend.

But let’s get serious for a moment. My point here, besides deflecting the hate of narrow-mindedness through sarcasm, is to meditate for a moment on the situation that is obviously evidenced here: that these texts alone do not necessarily hold the power to lift us out of our own alliances – alliances that are embedded in a socio-cultural milieu. We might hope that someone would encounter the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita and arrive at a deeper love and acceptance for all beings and expressions of life, but, in fact, many will only see what they want to see. We are always in danger of reading and experiencing anything – book, article or spiritual teaching – through the lens of our own socialization.

For Jeremy, he sees his own political agenda reflected in the teachings of yoga. While I might trust that he’s completely wrong, I’m forced to consider, for myself: what am I bringing to the table that is inhibiting my own relationship with these teachings? What am I projecting into the texts that was never intended? Is it even possible to see a spiritual text without bias, without agenda? And if it isn’t possible to see a text without import, then how is there hope of dissolving the boundaries embedded in our own socialized ways of viewing the world?

Perhaps the teaching here, at least for me, is to never allow myself to rest on the assurance of any interpretation. And certainly if an interpretation is causing me to alienate and villify a segment of the population, to consider them “diseased”, then it’s time to look at the teachings with new and different eyes. I’m only in this game of yoga and philosophy because I’m seeking a life lived with love, and if my attachment to the interpretation of a teaching is standing in the way of love, I’d happily throw out any book, no matter how sacred or canonical.

Jeremy: Krishna did NOT teach Arjuna that being gay was a virtue, that killing babies was ahimsa, OR to drop his bow and arrow in the face of the Kauravas. Do not use the Bhagavad Gita to defend your ego and lust.

Jeremy’s interpretation, as we’ve discovered, is the lens of the social conservative. Notice the three staples of that alliance housed in the above:

  1. Homophobia
  2. Anti-abortion
  3. Militarization

Jimmy: BG 6.30. Krishna says “he who perceives me EVERYWHERE and in ALL THINGS.” That’s definitive.

Jimmy: I hope this group won’t tolerate this kind of hate in the future.

Jeremy: Telling someone with leukemia that they need chemo is not “hate.” Telling someone with depression they need yoga and medication is not “hate.” Telling sexually ill people they need yoga therapy and mantra is not “hate.” That’s just what modern weak-minded people hide behind to avoid swadhyaya and to start the long slow process of self-transformation.

I mean, we’ve heard the old ignorance that homosexuality is a mental illness before. Jeremy seems to be clinging to the research of a 1950s America, which would make me angry if I didn’t feel sorry for a person who has clearly lost the plot on pretty much everything.

But, to end on a light note, the idea that I could be “cured” of my gayness through “yoga therapy and mantra” is absolutely going to be the premise for an episode of the yoga web series that I plan on making some day.

Alex Auder, would you star in it with me as my yoga therapist? What’s the Sanskrit mantra for “take away my gay”?

JimmyYou’ve got to be kidding me if you’re equating homosexuality or being transgendered with leukemia. Your credibility, what was left of it, just went flying out the window.

On the contrary, boyfriend, my guess is his credibility was never there to begin with.