A Materialist thinks about yoga
I've tried to read Darren Main's classic book, Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, several times. The parts I've read have been interesting, engaging, humorous, thoughtful. But each time I get distracted after about 20 pages. I'd really like to understand why, which is the origin of this post and, in many ways, of this whole blog. So let's dig in, and maybe by expressing my thoughts I'll be able to finish the book.
I can usually make it through the first chapter, even with its discussion of "Atman" (self, which Main translates as the "spark of the divine", (pg. 6)). Of course I don't believe in the divine, but I think that even a materialist can acknowledge that human beings are pretty amazing. The things we've created, the thoughts we've had, the books we've written and the art we've created. It's all pretty amazing. So although I don't believe in the divine, I can view Atman as a metaphor for the uniqueness and strangeness of humans. Each person is literally unique (we can't be made of the same "stuff"), and as far as our personal experience goes we are each unique. I added "as far as our personal experience goes" because there are compelling arguments from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and theoretical physicist Brian Greene, among others, that the universe is so vast, and the number possible worlds so enormous, that there is likely someone on another planet identical to me in every way except that his shirt does not say "Yoga Addict" but "Running Addict." But I'm willing to somewhat disingenuously pretend that we all have a "spark of the divine" in us without attributing that spark to a higher power (Julien Offray de La Mettrie, in "L'Homme Machine," wrote that "the soul is clearly an enlightened machine").
Chapter two is where I start to have my first big issues. This is when Main introduces maya: "Maya is the idea that our entire physical universe is an illusion - a figment of our collective and individual imaginations" (pg. 15). On the next page Main writes, "Maya is another one of those basic principles that make up the foundation of yoga. As long as we believe maya to be our ultimate reality, we are going to suffer. The reason for this is profoundly simple: everything in maya changes. Change is the characteristic that defines maya, so all things within it must take form and then pass back to dust....Yoga helps us to pierce through the illusion of maya by helping us to see the formlessness that lies behind the illusion."
What Main fails to see is that formlessness and change do not negate physicality and materialism. The teachings of yoga view maya as defined by change, and then leap to the conclusion that there must be something that doesn't change, something that persists and undergirds everything.
This argument reminds me of Carl Sagan's famous quote, "We are made of star-stuff" (The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective). As Sagan's quote suggests, we are part of a constantly changing material world; we are literally made of stuff expelled by the explosions of millions of stars; but that does not force one to conclude that there must be something beyond the stars. It's actually much easier to accept and understand materialism (and existence) when one understands that matter is never destroyed, only transformed. Science tells us that atoms don't cease to be, and various forces (gravity, dark matter, quanta) always exist.
If we turn to other religions, one of the most important tenets of Buddhism, one of the Four Noble Truths, is that attachment leads to suffering, and all is impermanent. Most Buddhists do not believe in god or spirit, but they do accept impermanence and constant change (and like Main's explanation of maya, they see attachment to permanence as the primary source of suffering).
Main had an experience, that for him, convinced him of the existence of "Spirit" beyond maya. During a particularly intense yoga experience, he found himself confronted with the material world:
"As I went deeper and deeper into the pose, the tree began to change form. It seemed to melt into its surroundings. There was no distinction between the tree and the grove or between the tree and the earth that sustained it. Then I felt my body changing and becoming one with the tree....The whole physical universe became fluid, and time and space lost all meaning for me. I knew in that moment that the tree was Spirit masquerading as a tree, and I was Spirit disguised as a human" (pg. 18). He concludes, "understanding maya doesn't make the physical a bad thing. It allows us to step back and appreciate its beauty without having it blind us to our true nature as the eternal Atman" (pg. 19).
So, what's a materialist to do with maya?
Interestingly, Main uses one of my favorite Einstein quotes to argue in favor of maya. For the last five years I've posted the following image to all of my social media accounts on Christmas Day:
Main uses this quote to argue that science has begun to recognize maya. I have no idea what Einstein intended in this quote (I'm only about 93% certain it is attributable to Einstein), but nothing about it advocates for the yoga concept of maya.
I share this on Christmas Day because this to me is the secular meaning of the holiday. How can humans be less selfish, less self-centered, more loving, more kind, more embracing of all of "creation"? Yes, we are all truly separate, individual, materially "unique" and distinct. But ultimately we are part of a "whole." We live on the same planet and rely on it to provide us with food, water, air; we live in a real, physical social network that only thrives when we have a view of the collective and move beyond the self and the selfish and ensure that all are cared for and nourished.
So for me, Atman is our ability to view ourselves as a member of a collective, and to view that collective as bigger than just our family, or our friends, or people who look like us or think like us. Maya represents the effort to cling to a selfish, self-centered, ego-driven view of the world. And I truly think yoga practice can help us tear down maya and see everyone and everything around us with a new perspective. As I continue to read through Main's book we'll get into some of the ways that yoga can be a valuable practice for atheists.
NOTE: There is a plausible scientific theory (that I barely understand) that argues that the universe is a hologram (I first learned about it in a funny, baffling book called The Black Hole War). Someone might try to use this as proof that the "universe" doesn't exist, thus supporting the concept of maya. However, everything about this theory is based on science, specifically string theory and quantum physics, and argues that the physical world is made of information, not necessarily energy and matter. But you'll note that it still argues for a physical world.
I participated in my first yoga class on July 22, 2019. I did a second class that week, five classes the next week, and since then I have done more yoga than any other workout. Yoga has become such a big part of my life: I'm a member of two different studios and exploring a third; I've setup my own home studio to practice during the COVID-19 pandemic; I buy yoga t-shirts; I read yoga websites; I follow yogis on social media. I fully intend to do yoga for the rest of my life.
I'm also an atheist and have been one for several decades. Yet strangely most of the spiritual aspects of yoga and the "yogi lifestyle" don't turn me off, and some even appeal to me.
As I learn more about yoga and do more research and study, I plan to use this space to jot down my thoughts. I tried to find some online resources on this topic and came up with a few articles but nothing really seemed to answer the questions I want to ask:
My first posts will be about Darren Main's classic book Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic.
Thanks for reading!
I'm really into yoga and also an atheist. These are just my random thoughts about yoga, materialism, spirituality and atheism.