First thing in the morning, I like to do some stretches. Two of these stretches are known by my yoga-practising human as ‘upward dog’ and ‘downward dog’. Sometimes she does them too, so I do them back to mirror her, as it seems polite.
She wants me to end up doing this with her. But that’s not happening any time soon. Humans!
Using dog stretches in yoga seems like a kind of appropriation – humans are using dog stretches and adapting or appropriating them to their own human ends, such as getting a particular kind of exercise. I’m totally fine with that, and glad that the humans do at least give us credit for the stretches by giving them such good names.
Having lots of friends who’re either Religious Studies scholars or religious practitoners, I’m aware that not all appropriation is that uncontroversial. In fact, yoga is one of the appropriated practices that’s most debated. That’s to do with the difference between historical yoga in the East, and how yoga is represented and used today. Yoga has its origins in very diverse ancient Hindu practices, much of those unrecognisable as what we call yoga today, which were aimed at the reshaping of human consciousness towards some higher goal. But what we now know as 'yoga' in the West came out of nineteenth century attempts to adapt Indian practices to American and European healing movements. So the postural yoga we know today took ancient practices and continued the idea that humans can control and train the mind-body complex, but gave these practices a new purpose: health, beauty and wellbeing.
Today, postural yoga is practised in the West as a health and fitness routine independent of any religious worldview – in fact many people are keen to emphasise that, for them, it’s a physical exercise rather than related to spirituality. That said, other yoga practitioners do see it as spiritual – for example, by regarding it as a universal, eastern-inspired form of spirituality. Some people even adapt it to their own religious tradition, as in the case of Christian yoga, where the yoga is adapted to include exercises designed to strengthen the person’s relationship with Jesus. So people in the West relate yoga to religion and spirituality in different ways: by severing its link to religion or spirituality altogether; by seeing it as a form of spirituality but not religion; by adapting it to a religion other than the one it developed in.
Why would anyone be upset about any of this?
Part of the issue is simply the fact that yoga is misrepresented when people point to common practices in the West and attribute them to ancient India, as though the repurposing for health and fitness and other alterations hadn’t taken place or aren’t important. Much the same is true of other appropriated practices: Native American spirituality, mindfulness, Shamanism, reiki and so on. This misrepresentation seems particularly problematic when the leaders from the cultures doing the appropriating and the misrepresenting are the ones who in the past have harmed the people who are being appropriated – for example, through colonialism – and who continue to hold a dominant position over them. A related problem concerns the fact that these appropriated practices bring in big bucks – and it’s the appropriators, rather than the appropriated, who are getting the lion’s share. Seen in this light, we can begin to see why a Hindu or a Native American might be less than thrilled when presented with a barely-recognisable form of yoga repurposed for fitness and sold at an expensive gym by Europeans, or Native American dreamcatchers sold on high street markets by and to the white people whose society has systematically disadvantaged Native Americans. A final point of contention is that these misrepresentations are often infused with ‘noble savage’ racism: the idea that people in India or Native Americans are set apart from civilisation and so impart particular spiritual insight. This of course is a kind of racism it’s particularly hard to see, because it *looks* like one’s saying something nice about the people – that they’re especially spiritual and uncorrupted or whatever.
Is there a good way to do yoga in the West?
It’s worth saying at this point that there are lots of positive things about contemporary Western yoga. It undoubtedly contributes to many peoples' wellbeing. Many of the people who teach it do so because they want to pass something that’s helped them onto others. Many people are also motivated by ideas that, whether authentically ancient Indian or not, are reacting against unsatisfactory aspects of dominant Western thought. For example, the emphasis on being ‘holistic’ provides an alternative to the ideas that people are purely physical and mechanistic, or else that they can be carved into ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ components. So I don’t think we should lose yoga altogether. But we might want to think about how we can practice it in a more humble, respectful, and religiously or culturally informed way.
The human thinker Edward Said has had good things to say about the social and political issues surrounding how people in the West relate to 'Eastern' culture. You can read him here: Said.
Earlier this week I was talking to my friend Christoph on my Facebook group. We agreed that there was a need for more dogs in human philosophy.
I don't believe in grumbling without doing something about it, so this week I went to the Leeds Centre for Philosophy of Religion seminar. Both of my humans came along too. In fact one of them gave a talk about the human philosopher and theologian Herbert McCabe. Apparently it was based on this paper. (I've encountered a copy of this paper before. It tasted nice).
I was in the slides:
This was the best bit of the talk.
The reason I was in the slides is that McCabe explains his approach to the question whether God exists by talking about a dog called Fido. Many philosophers think that the question whether God exists is a bit like asking whether squirrels exist. You weigh up bits of evidence in favour (you can smell squirrels in the woods) and against (if there were squirrels, I would have caught them), and you make up your mind one way or another.
McCabe thinks that asking whether God exists is different to this. He thinks the question is best understood as being about whether it is sensible to ask why there is something rather than nothing at all. The word 'God' picks out whatever answers this question (assuming it is a good question to ask) and, according to McCabe, we cannot know what that is. The nature of God is hidden from us in this life. I like hiding too.
Whatever you make of this, I expect you'll like the way he introduces the idea:
Supposing you ask 'How come Fido?' You may be asking whether his father is Rover or whether it was that promiscuous mongrel down the lane. In such a case the answer is satisfactorily given by naming Fido's parents. At this level no more need be said; the question is fully answered at this level....
And we can go on from the level of biochemistry, to that of physics and all the time we are asking more penetrating questions concerning Fido and each time we go further in our questioning we are seeing Fido in a wider and wider context...
Now our ultimate radical question is not how come Fido exists as this dog instead of that, or how come Fido exists as a dog rather than a giraffe, or exists as living instead of inanimate, but how come Fido exists instead of nothing" (God Matters, pp. 3-5)
I think I'd like to meet this Fido. But I'd prefer to meet some squirrels even more.
When one of my human friends comes through the front door, I like to greet them with a ritual.
Basically, the ritual involves walking in-between and all the way through the human’s legs three or four times, stopping to have my back patted on the way, and wagging my tail to tell them I’m pleased to see them. I do much the same first thing in the morning, when they come into my kitchen to make coffee.
Does performing a ritual mean I’m religious, or at least doing religion when I do this?
Perhaps an observer would say ‘no’, since there’s no evidence of belief in God here (I have no intention of telling you whether I actually believe in God).
But I think this presupposes religion is a certain kind of thing – and this is a presupposition that emerged from a very particular Protestant Christian, early modern, and colonial, context. Because of the Protestant reaction against Catholic ritual, interiority (an individual’s relationship to God) got prioritised over the more communal and practical aspects of Christianity. Because of the early modern nation states, Christian religion was relegated to the private sphere – allowed primarily as a sort of holy hobby – so that being Protestant or Catholic wouldn’t get in the way of political affiliations and relationships. And because of colonialism, this privatised, individualised and belief-centred view of Christianity was imposed on other examples of what looked like similar kinds of thing – in other words, on to other religions. And so, religions became associated with things to do with what an individual believes – someone belongs to religion x if they believe a certain set of things, usually though not always about supernatural entities.
The problem with this is that not all religions seem to be this kind of thing at all. Buddhism is often cited as example of a religion without belief in God (Buddhists are regarded as religious as they have other beliefs instead). But many religions seem to be much more about practices than beliefs. Judaism is one example of a religion that’s more like this. I’ve recently read a book by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg about his dog, where he discusses another human-and-dog ritual – one that involves a game of hide and seek and hunting for bits of food. As Rabbi Wittenberg relates, his dog Mitzpah:
‘knows when it’s Passover, the festival towards which, in accordance with the biblical injunction to eat no leavened foods, we rigorously remove all bread, biscuits, cereals, pasta and flour-based products from the house. He especially enjoys the ritual of ‘searching for the leaven’, the ancient custom of checking that the house is truly free of all proscribed products. The practice is to search the home by the light of a candle at dusk on the night before Passover for any remaining undiscovered crusts and crumbs. To ensure that the activity is taken seriously, a small bit of bread is consumed in each room prior to the search. In our family, the women generally do the hiding and the men the looking; Mitzpah, who counts among the latter, offers his team a considerable advantage since he frequently sniffs out the hidden pieces well before his humans find them.’
I like the sound of that ritual – and I want to know why doing a ritual like that should count less in terms of making one religious than having a particular set of beliefs.
The idea that non-human animals might be religious has support among some human scholars. For example, James Harrrod gives a ‘non-anthropocentric, trans-species definition of religion’, arguing that chimps experience and express things we would define as religion and spirituality if we saw them among humans – for example, celebratory actions indicative of awe, wonder or fascination when seeing sunsets, waterfalls or fires, and announcements of births and deaths.
Awe and wonder are not the only contenders for a definition of religion that would include non-human animals. As Volker Sommer points out, some groups of chimps eat ants but not termites, while other groups of chimps eat termites and not ants. Both have equal nutritional value – so why don’t both groups eat both? Perhaps eating ants (or termites) for each group is just ‘something that isn’t done here’, a bit like a food taboo in a human society. Might something like a food taboo be what it means to be religious, or to do religion?
I’ve really enjoyed talking to the human Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey about these things, and some of the really good ideas here are his. You can find out more about them here.
I also loved Rabbi Wittenberg’s stories about his dogs, which you can find in his book Things my dog has taught me about being a better human (2017).
Mental walkies with Lola,