Part philosopher and part critic, Matthew Remski is a provocative, public, and trenchant voice in modern yoga. Exhibiting a poet’s proclivity for nuance and discovery, his What Are We Actually Doing In Asana (WAWADIA) project is a deep dive into the complexities facing teachers and yoga students today—examining topics as diverse and related as the psychological causes of injury and naive devotion to gurus.
Remski is now taking his project to a new level in his forthcoming book, Shadows and Light on Yoga, which follows the stories of a dozen renowned teachers who reclaimed the original promise of yoga by rejecting the culture’s patriarchs.
I spoke to him recently to find out what led him to the yogic path, and how we as practitioners can stay true to our highest intentions in a culture of rampant materialism and constant change.
You've said that yoga vastly improved your life. In what ways? How has the asana practice changed for you over time—as you've gotten older and had children?
I believe that I suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression from my mid-20s—when I had a series of idiopathic seizures—until I started practicing. Every strategy I had for defending myself against hopelessness—writing, meditating, studying Tibetan Buddhism—nothing had reconciled me with my flesh, from which I'd been so alienated for so long. The body was there for me, loving and supporting me all along. Asana helped me feel and accept this basic forgotten everyday reality.
I didn't know much about yoga until I got the unexpected chance, relatively late in life, to become a parent.
My two sons are in their bodies. Fantastically in their bodies. Owen is six months. He greets me with kundalini-jitterbug-shivers when we make eye contact. Jacob is just four and gets really still in my lap to ask me about death and where I will die. They will have moments of traumatic dissociation, of course. If I'm alive to help them, I'll be there to embrace, play catch, make soup. You fantasize your children won't be harmed or terrorized, just as you wish these things for yourself. But the day-by-day rhythm of things erodes the fantasy life and keeps you in the gentle relief of knowing you don't have to live your life for yourself anymore… I didn't know much about yoga until I got the unexpected chance, relatively late in life, to become a parent.
In WAWADIA, you talk about people needing more "intense physical sensations/experiences” now—a reality in the midst of the virtual. What has this meant for you personally, and what does it mean for the practice of yoga and teachers of yoga?
There's a long history of yogis courting pain to hack into the pleasure of altered states, then narrativized as advancements in the personality. Maybe they are. I did it by trying to achieve hanumanasana for two years and chronically injuring my hips. The pain of the posture was transporting, and worth it in my mind at the time because I associated the bodily shape with a psychological virtue. I wanted to have what my teacher had. But he was hypermobile! The pain spotlighted a relapse in my somatic identity: I was using it because I had learned to zone out in asana practice in the same way I'd learned to zone out while depressed. Pain was a reality principle. It pulled me out of dissociation. It also had the handy function of distracting me from the fact that my interpersonal life was messy. In dozens of WAWADIA interviews, I've heard many similar stories.
Is it possible to live in the real world of messaging, Facebook, and constant feeds, and still be able to slow down consistently? If so, then how?
You have to get square with silence, and I think for some that brings up the terror of death. You have to understand that a primary tactic of technofascism is speed. It's not just jangling you, it's hacking your capacity to feel. It's possible to slow down. I think a lot of people can do it. But they're only going to put out the effort for it to the extent that they loathe what speed has done to their hearts.
You encourage yoga teachers to seek psychotherapy to better understand their own needs and drives in the yoga room. How might you like to see yoga teacher trainings address this topic?
The basic mechanism of transference and countertransference is a crucial YTT study, because in an unregulated industry, charisma is a shiny and dangerous coin. The profound gifts of modern postural yoga are marred by cultic abuse and sociopathic teaching modes, all defended by a basic antipathy to "Western" psychology. But it has so much to offer. For the student, it comes down to asking: Do you want to do something with your body that someone is telling you to do because you're attracted to them for a hidden reason? Is this about self-inquiry? If so, it would be good to study the relationships that presume to teach it. I've got an in with the Yoga Alliance now—I'll be pushing them to add Hala Khouri and Denise Benitez to the 200-hour training syllabus. Not their work or classes, but they themselves (or any psychotherapist-yogi), so that trainings worldwide host them. For at least 15 hours.
You're also a poet. And in your yoga writing, you often walk a delicate line when discussing topical issues—leaning toward inquiry, rather than hard and fast answers. What suggestions do you have for seasoned asana practitioners who may no longer feel the radical therapeutic benefits they experienced when they were new to the practice? In other words, what do you do when yoga isn't therapeutic anymore?
I think you broaden your definition of yoga. Language is like movement. It opens pathways, but soon it loses its shine: It becomes rote, liturgical, staged, performative. The greatest poetry in the world ends up getting rattled off by bored priests paid to be bureaucrats instead of artists. Repetitive movement is the same: What begins as joy becomes bound into ritual and then boiled down into social control. You get a lot of bloody feet in pointe shoes, and busted shoulders from endless sun salutes. All because people think the form is more important than your life.
You can craft that energy into the best argument you've got for living and working enthusiastically amongst all this joy and trouble and absurdity. You can explore how embodiment might become a form of giving.
So if you've plateaued in asana practice, find new movements, make them up, and discover the difference again between discovery and neurotic discharge. And if you're basically healthy and young, you have the great good privilege of using movement and breath for more than regaining the vitality you will eventually lose again. You can craft that energy into the best argument you've got for living and working enthusiastically amongst all this joy and trouble and absurdity. You can explore how embodiment might become a form of giving.
I’m Canadian and Leonard Cohen just died. He has a line: “O “bless thee, continuous stutter, of the Word being made into Flesh.” In asana and writing, I try to stay in the stutter.