Yoga, Myth, Magic, and the Suspension of Disbelief
What is there in life except one’s ideas,
Good air, good friend, what is there in life?
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”
For a couple decades now, yoga has had me in its thrall, and yet I am of two minds about the mystical—or magical—element of yoga practice.
In what I will call my “waking life,” or my life outside of the yoga classes I attend and teach, I do not believe there is, for instance, a light inside me that I can brighten at will. I do not believe I have an aura, let alone one that extends nine feet around me in every direction. Or that reaching my arms up and pointing my thumbs toward each other while exhaling rapidly for three minutes, or even three hundred minutes, will do anything to enhance this electromagnetic field. I also don’t believe that you will find a soul or chakra tucked behind my heart or spleen or any other organ. Nor do I believe literally in prana nor in the 72,000 nadis, or energy channels, through which it is said to course, nor in the five vayus (winds) said to circulate it.
I do not believe there is a time of day or night that is optimal for practicing yoga because of shifting planetary energy. I do not believe that practicing 108 sun salutations is of any particular benefit to the world. I do not believe that by thinking positive thoughts, I will attract positive things, though I sorely wish that thoughts alone were so efficacious. If I concede that some of us are more like wind, some of us more like fire, some more like mud, it is with the caveat that some of us are also more like grass, some more like stone, and some more like piano concertos.
And yet, in what I think of as the “dream life” of a yoga class, sometimes my workaday skepticism goes wherever my workaday tension went. It’s as if the tripwires in my brain—the ones that poppycock usually sets off—are disarmed. When I am on my mat, I don’t blink at these assertions. And when I am teaching, sometimes I even slide into speaking this language. I let myself believe, or at least let myself believe I believe, the claims I find most comforting, inspiring, and poetic. In this dream life, they serve to briefly make the world a more vivid place, one teeming with possibility, one where I have a good deal of control over my well-being and over the events that transpire in my life and around me.
In what I think of as the “dream life” of a yoga class, sometimes my workaday skepticism goes wherever my workaday tension went.
My relationship to some of yoga’s more unsubstantiated—and unsubstantiable—claims is complex. I’m teaching a writing class this semester in which we analyze arguments and assess the reliability of sources, and in the process, I’m recognizing anew that some of the things we say—I say—in yoga don’t hold up well to such scrutiny. And yet, I crave the numinous and recognize the worth of a story and the power in a dream.
After all, in the very first stories I loved, there was always another, invisible world close by, a world just behind the visible world. A tornado strikes, a rabbit hole is discovered, a wardrobe opens, and all of a sudden, we’re in a magical realm, where supernatural forces are controlled by potions, snaps of the fingers, clicks of the heels. If we—or the protagonists that serve as our alter egos—go to these worlds believing ourselves weaklings, in them we often discover that we are stronger than we knew.
Of course, even as a child, I knew those fantastic stories were inventions. But I let myself sink into their dreams. And had I not been able to suspend disbelief long enough to be swept away, long enough to learn their lessons about the value of home, about the madness of the world, about heroic self-sacrifice, I would have been sorely deprived of some majesty. A strange magic still adheres to tornadoes and rabbit holes, despite what I know to be true, and I admit that I did some lingering, in my childhood, in a large and camphorous attic wardrobe, that I ran my fingers across the cedar backing behind my mother’s ’70s dresses and waited for something to open.
Magic in Yoga Class
Yoga’s fabulous claims were part of what attracted me to it shortly after college. I was suddenly in an adult world that seemed to me unmagnificent. I maneuvered through a crowded concrete city and days so tightly scheduled their hours might as well have been designated by ropes.
But in my first yoga classes, I felt the sparks of some forgotten fire. In a studio so much larger than any of the small slots I was usually allotted, slithering and crawling animals were invoked in an old language I didn’t speak. I was told to repeat movements, breaths, or sounds a specific number of times by unnaturally flexible men and women who led incantatory chants and willed my third eye to open. At the end of class, these teachers told the shy girl that I was, with wizardly assurance, that were I to devote myself to meditation, my kundalini would rise, and I would discover a power within me that I didn’t know I had.
Twenty years into this practice, I’ve never felt my kundalini rise. (I’ve listened to anecdotes of those who have with jealousy or distrust, depending on my mood and my distance from a yoga studio.) I have, however, at my teachers’ behest, stared at my own feet in legs up the wall pose and seen faint light shimmering around them. Arms upraised, I have felt the springiness of some elastic heat in the air between my thumbs.
But, as soon as I stepped out of yoga class, the spell always broke: I knew what I saw or felt was not anything supernatural. I am fully aware of placebos and the power of suggestion. If you walk subjects to a dummy machine and tell them it emanates a healing electrical current, how many of them will say they feel something? How many of them will say it “felt amazing”? 
It is hard to say which gives me more pleasure: a brief sense of energy moving around me, or the satisfaction that arises from knowing I will not be taken in, at least not entirely, at least not for long, by an illusion.
I am not the only one who is half in love with facts and half in love with fancies. Yoga’s nature is split between the methodical and, if not the mad, at least the fantastic. Patanjali and Iyengar, for instance, remind me of two determined explorers who tromp out into the forest with pencil and paper, timepieces, and sensible lunches on a quest to catch sunlight in a paper bag.
This duality is at play in the Yoga Sutras, an undated text of uncertain authorship. Patanjali (there may have been one Patanjali or several; the Sutras, for all we know, could be notes written by his students) tells us reasonably in 1:35, “The concentration on subtle sense perceptions can cause steadiness of mind.” But look at 3:25: “By samyama [a combination of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi that creates a meditative absorption] on the strength of elephants … their strength is obtained.” To this, Sri Swami Satchidananda, in his 1978 commentary on the text, abandons his heretofore commonsense and avuncular advice and adds: “If you do samyama on the Rock of Gibraltar, you will become real rocky,” so that if you stand on a scale, “The balance will immediately burst.”
In 3:40, Patanjali tells us, “By mastery over the udana nerve current, one accomplishes levitation over water, swamps, thorns, etc. and can leave the body at will,” and Satchidananda again evinces unguarded enthusiasm: “Oh boy! Do you want to become invisible? … So, if by samyama on my own body, I disconnect the light that would affect your retina … you won’t see any form.” Oh boy, indeed. Where am I? I have wandered into a strange land where such magical claims—instead of being tempered, explained, or dismissed—are validated.
Since the sutras are numbered, it is easy to assume that they proceed logically, step by step. But some steps are high as walls. Instruction as to how to master the udana current cannot be found in sutra 3:39 or anywhere else. Someone might as well have written, “Step 1: Put on your wings of wire and feathers. Step 2: Climb up onto your roof. Step 3: Fly.” One step, or fifty, is missing here, even with the numerical order doing its best to conceal the disjunctures between the possible and the impossible.
Iyengar’s Light on Yoga is another familiar text that embodies yoga’s duality, darting between the empirical and the theoretical, between practicality and magic, though Iyengar’s focus is on postures rather than powers.
Just as simple and infeasible poses intermingle within his taxonomy, so the inarguable and the unbelievable jostle. Who wouldn’t agree that utthita hasta padangusthasana “makes the leg muscles powerful and the balance gives one steadiness and poise”? But is sarvangasana really “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages … a panacea for the most common ailments”? Iyengar goes on to list shoulderstand’s beneficial effects on the thyroid, parathyroid, circulation, headaches, colds, ulcers, abdominal pain, shortness of temper, nervous breakdowns, epilepsy, low vitality, and anemia. Then he adds, “It is no overstatement to say that if a person regularly practices sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace, and he will feel the joy of life.”
Iyengar, like Patanjali, makes extraordinary assertion after extraordinary assertion, without supplying extraordinary—or any—evidence. Light on Yoga is frequently called the Yoga Bible, perhaps not only because of its comprehensiveness but also because of articles of faith like these, which we are meant to accept ipse dixit, on Iyengar’s authority alone.
Just as these texts demonstrate a fusion of real and unreal, my feelings about them are fissioned. Some of the time, I want to throw these books over my shoulder: Don’t the fictions invalidate what may be factual in them? If the doctor gave us some pills, then went on to tell us about the elves he sees in his garden, wouldn’t we look twice at the bottle in our hands?
Just as these texts demonstrate a fusion of real and unreal, my feelings about them are fissioned.
And yet when teachers use the words of Patanjali and Iyengar as touchstones, I find myself redoubling my commitment to the task at hand. If you tell me as I meditate on the elephant that if I keep it up I will soon manifest elephantine strength, or if you tell me as I hold shoulderstand that soon my mind will be at peace and I will feel the joy of life, I immediately find myself trying harder, my enthusiasm outpacing my skepticism. Why not? What if?
And when I walk out of the yoga studio, is it my imagination, or are my legs as sturdy as a pachyderm’s? Is it my imagination, or is my mind at peace? Could I even be smiling?
Different Responses to the Magical in Yoga
Where do you practice or teach? What kind of yoga do you do? We suss things out, we yogis, each of us trying to read just how much the other believes to determine our compatibility. And perhaps as teachers, some of us ask our students questions so that we can adjust our classes—roll in or out the candles, the incense, the gongs, the chanting—based on what we guess about the analytical or spiritual bent of our students’ minds.
While there is no pleasing everyone, I believe, at least in my waking life, that we would be on firmer ground if we remembered to couch our most magical imagery as metaphor (“it’s as if ...”) or claim (“Some might say ...”/“Ancient yogis believed ...”). For instance, we could invite our students to imagine an aura around them unfurling nine feet in all directions, instead of declaring that this aura is there. We could mention various energetic philosophies and their different beauties without asserting the objective truth of any one of them. With such careful language, we might be able to introduce elements that occasion our students’ wonder and inspire their investigations without claiming specialized knowledge of what is unknown and unknowable.
After all, aren’t there other astonishments in yoga, moments of near magic that can be known and felt, which deserve our attention? I do believe that through our work to mobilize the physical body, we increase our perceived well-being and decrease our stress. I believe we do this, not through a complicated energetic interface, but through our work of strengthening and aligning ourselves, which allows our bodies to function optimally, making it easier for us to breathe, to digest, for our nerve impulses to run along their tracks. I believe in the heartening feeling of connection that comes from breathing and moving in time with other bodies. I believe that by bringing self-awareness and compassion to our actions and thoughts in the course of a yoga practice, we open the door to sustaining those qualities in our interactions with the world, potentially leading to large changes in our lives. I certainly believe that by bringing our attention to micromovements, yoga opens new worlds of possibility: If it turns out that I can tick my big toes toward each other slightly, what else will it turn out I am capable of doing?
I also believe that by thinking positive thoughts or by setting an intention, we lay the groundwork for the planning and effort it will take to bring what we desire into being. And I believe that, given the right suggestion while relaxing, we might feel as heavy as the Rock of Gibraltar. We might even feel that, as our tension slackens, we lose a clear sense of our bodies in space: our limits seem less precise, our sizes less certain, almost as if we’re disappearing.
I believe in the strange way the minutes bend like spoons according to the difficulty of our poses. I believe that when a teacher calls attention to our forgotten back foot in a pose, it might seem as though she is calling our back foot back into existence. And I believe that elongating our exhalations has a charmlike power to relax us. By acknowledging and encouraging moments like these, it seems to me that we will accomplish a lifting of the ceiling while remaining on steady ground.
But, of course, on steady ground isn’t always where we want to remain. Sometimes, we’ve had enough of this earth, its predictability and limitations. The regularity of its spin, its rocky facts, and its net of time don’t suit every dream. Sometimes, what we want is to levitate.
Yoga As Healing Ritual
Ted Kaptchuk, founder and director of The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard Medical School, has delved into the common ground between healing encounters ranging from Navajo healing ceremonies to acupuncture to doctors’ appointments, opening the door to seriously considering ritual as an important aspect of the healing process. Even in science-based Western medicine, research has found that the ritual of treatment is important in a drug’s efficacy.
The value of invoking the unknown is itself unknown and may depend on who we are, what we need, or the mood we’re in on a given day.
Some identifying markers of ritual, according to Stanley Tambiah, are “an ordering or procedure that structures [events], a sense of collective or communal enactment that is purposive (devoted to the achievement of a particular objective), and an awareness that they are different from ‘ordinary’ everyday events.” Yoga is replete with special words, symbols, and props that differentiate what happens in class from ordinary life. I wonder if yoga’s extraordinary claims and supernatural cosmology are a vital part of its ritual, too, serving to enhance its ability to heal a range of physical and emotional ailments and contributing to the sense of ease so many of us feel after practice.
I’m willing to believe that yoga’s scientifically measurable success may depend at least in part on its invocation of magic. Stripped of all mention of the mystical, of the unverified and unverifiable, would yoga be as effective a ritual? The value of invoking the unknown is itself unknown and may depend on who we are, what we need, or the mood we’re in on a given day. Some of us may need to be snapped back into the rigors of wakefulness, a state where we can hone our viveka, our skill at discernment, our ability to tell the real from the unreal. Some of us, especially when we feel pinned in on all sides by a rough reality, may need to be encouraged to dream and to trust—at least for the length of a yoga class—in our armor of intention and light.
1. Schwitzgebel RK, Traugott M. Initial note on the placebo effect of machines. Behav Sci. 1968;13:267-73. [PMID: 5663895]
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>