“Silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation.” ~ Rumi
Richard Rosen’s “YOGA FAQ: Almost Everything You Need to Know About Yoga – from Asana to Yama” is a portal. Through Rosen’s modern lens we traverse the history and evolution of yoga from its ancient spiritual practice to its contemporary incarnation primarily as asana. Mister Rosen is a much better Sanskritist then he realizes and his sense of wonder – as well as his realism/skepticism – is refreshing, compelling and infectious.
This is the ideal book for all 200-hour yoga teacher training students and it will inspire them to go down sundry rabbit holes to discover for themselves how yoga can help them tame their egos and/or “merge with the godhead,” as Eliade called it.
I studied the history of yoga in the graduate program of the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB in 1998-1999. My advisor was David Gordon White and I studied with Mircea Eliade’s colleague Ninian Smart just before he passed. I relied heavily on Georg Feuerstein’s “The Yoga Tradition” when I traced all of the references to yoga in the principal upanishads. Since then I have continuously been surprised (aghast, really) by the schism between the academic understanding of yoga and what capitalist opportunists have sculpted yoga into. Before “YOGA FAQ” the best bridges between academic and popular yoga were Mark Singleton’s “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” and Ganga White’s “Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice.” But now Richard Rosen has offered the perfect text to accompany all students who want to understand what yoga is and what yoga isn’t.
“YOGA FAQ” carefully weighs the essential texts and compares them with how yoga has evolved in America since Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893, through Krishnamacharya down through the Iyengar lineage and Rosen’s own practice in the 1980s, which culminated in founding a yoga studio with Rodney Yee.
Much of the book is devoted to answering the typical questions of yoga students; however, I greatly appreciated the research that Rosen did and more specifically his point of view. Rosen exercises healthy amounts of doubt, sarcasm and humor to help readers sink their teeth into Vedanta, the yamas and niyamas, the subtle body vs. the gross body, mudras, bandhas, how pranayama relates to yoga, and then (my personal interest) the evolution of asanas.
I once heard Rod Stryker say that nobody under 40 years old should be allowed to teach yoga. Although Rosen directly addresses much of the misinformation that has made its way into the plethora of highly lucrative teacher trainings that have flooded the market with Instagram-ready scantily-clothed yoga teachers, a separate compendium of modern yoga bullshit, lies and hypocrisies seems like fair game thanks to “YOGA FAQ.” It appears from social media that taming an ego is even more challenging than taming a shrew.
Rosen specifically states that his interpretations and aggregations are not the final word and that readers are free to disagree with his hermeneutics so I shall accept that invitation herein: Vedanta is extremely simple to comprehend if one understands certain paradoxes. The individual Atman is really at one with the universal Brahman but this is obfuscated by maya, which is everything that we perceive through our senses and compile in our minds. Meditation and yoga were designed as tools to help us transcend maya so that we can taste the nectar of Brahman, temporarily “merge with the godhead.” Since Descartes and Kant, we have the subject/object distinction; Kierkegaard (and even before him really) brought to light the either/or distinction which makes many phenomena appear paradoxical – however, light exists as a particle AND a wave at the same time. There are certain paradoxes that are difficult for people to wrap their heads around: that if you are thinking in present time “I’m meditating… I’m merging with the godhead” then you are obviously not doing either because the divine is paralinguistic (beyond any language) and if you really “merged” with the godhead then the subject/object distinction would collapse and there would be no “I” from which to report. So yoga makes perfect sense from the Vedantin perspective if you accept that Brahman is the infinite everything and subsumes maya. Rosen mentions Indians using the medicine called soma to expedite their journeys to the divine; the modern equivalent in the yoga community is ayahuasca, employed as rocket fuel to blow out the subject/object distinction (which is really a fallacy or illusion anyway).
One mountain, many paths.
So while there remains some philosophical work to be done to understand yoga, “YOGA FAQ” is the perfect text for curious yoga students – particularly those partaking in yoga teacher training programs – who yearn for a more comprehensive understanding of the history and evolution of yoga.