Queerness, Identity Politics, and Patanjali’s Four Fold Remedy


June 2018. Pride Month, which as usual delivered deeply nutritious community connection, witnessing, and remembrance of the roots of gay liberation and vitalization for the work ahead, as well as reminded me of the uncomfortable edges where capitalist commodification of Pride has stolen meaning and purpose and replaced it with beer ads, and consumable plastic rainbow gear. This month has also brought the chaos and devastation of asylum seeking families being separated and imprisoned, bringing massive attention to the traumatic injustice and struggle of immigrant people, who often are fleeing violence caused by decades of toxic US policy and intervention. I wrote this essay a couple months ago for IYTT, and share it now with these things fresh and tender in my heart– It is a long piece; thanks for reading! Thoughts? Comment below ?

Sutra 1.33 maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punyaapunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

Both queerness and the path of yoga can create a deep illumination of what is often hidden in the dark. I’ve have been thinking lately about how queer theory and yoga philosophy complement each other in the way they conceptualize identity. Identity is important in our world; sometimes it is chosen and sometimes it is placed upon us; it can guarantee or exclude people from rights, safety, opportunity and acceptance, and it also relates deeply to our experience, perception, and ability to journey inward towards the Self. Making peace with identity can be a process of both reclamation, and letting go. I seek guidance and relevance to current affairs from the path of yoga laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and BKS Iyengar’s teachings.

This piece looks specifically at Patanjali’s Four Fold Remedy of maitri: courageous friendliness, karuna: compassion with action, mudhita joy in other’s success, and upeksa: equanimity with accountability. I’ll explore theses qualities as essential not only for overcoming the kleshas and obstacles to the inward journey towards truth and wholeness (laid out in sutra 1.30), but also as powerful practices for interacting with the world, and understanding identity. Internal and external liberation are inseparable and connected, and finding clues towards this end has inspired this piece. The exploration of this writing also serves as an act of personal compassion and integration, as I seek to make sense of my own fragmented self that is journeying towards wholeness, towards pure being-ness.

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

I’m not an academic, but I am interested in ideas that open up new internal space, and therefore new potentials for action. Although queer theory has many definitions, and indeed by definition resists definition, most arguments agree on a stance in opposition to identity being a ‘fixed’ thing. (‘Queer, A Graphic History’ is a really great, illustrated accessible book if you want to dig deeper on queer theory.) Yoga also shows identity to be impermanent. In Light on Life BKS Iyengar writes:

Savasana uses techniques of relaxation to cut the threads. The result of this is not, as in meditation, but a loss of identity. I do not say of false identity because in the world in which we function, these identities are real. Yet taking the long view, they are unreal. Even the fact of being male or female is an identity that can be put down. To relax is to cut tension. To cut tension is to bind the threads that bind us to identity.”

This idea that identity, can shift, evolve, and change, is valuable to explore in a society where fundamental rights and privileges are based on identity. In no way, however, am I diminishing the importance and power of ethnic and cultural identity, tradition, and heritage. Nor do I want to imply a singular best approach to exploring identity or social change. Rather, I hope to open up space for fresh ideas, reflection, intersectionality, and even conversation. Identity should be contemplated within the contextual fact that rights/benefits such as safety, acceptance, and access to power and money are withheld or granted based on identity.

Identity politics is the idea of fighting for/ giving rights on the basis of a fixed identity, such as essential gender or sexuality. The framing of these identities is so often a false duality (male/ female, heterosexual/homo, white/POC) that problematically centers one identity as ‘normal’ and more valuable and the other as, well, “other” which could mean invisible, exploitable, expendable, even illegal. Working for gain within this paradigm often prioritizes the agenda of those with the most privilege, and also retains false binaries. One example of this is how the gay rights movement has historically prioritized the needs of white cis men. On identity, queer author Meg-John Barker writes,

Not sure who to credit for this this illustration, but I think it’s pretty great.

“Queer theorists… might argue that it’s always a problem to ‘fix’ yourself – or others – as a certain kind of person, even if rights are gained on that basis. Fixing can lead to people feeling inflexible and unable to change, or being seen as only a part of themselves and not all that they are.”

If yoga is a process of integration, a journey from fragmentization towards wholeness, then fixed identities are indeed problematic. Patanjali also describes the danger of identification with what is ever changing, throughout the sutras, for example in 1.3 and 1.4. Iyengar’s commentary (with gender neutral pronouns):

When the waves of consciousness are still and silenced, they can no longer distort the true expression of the soul. Revealed in (their) own nature, the radiant seer abides in (their) own grandeur. …” “When the seer identifies with consciousness or with the objects seen, the seer unites with them and forgets (their) grandeur. The natural tendency of consciousness is to become involved with the object seen, draw the seer towards it, and move the seer to identify it with it… and makes the seer forget (their) own radiant awareness…”

So, identifying with the ever-changing (prakriti) , rather than the never changing (purushra) creates a dangerous form of avidya (ignorance). This ignorance is reflected in the English language, and how we describe emotions: in English we say, ‘I am angry’; in some Asian languages they would say, ‘I have anger.’

Understanding and making peace with identity, not just in the mind but in an integrated, embodied way, is a step towards freedom, both in the spiritual sense, and the social-political sense. One could visualize the way modern society is set up like two concentric circles: ‘normal’ and ‘other.’ On the center circle are things culturally rewarded and valued as “normal:” traditional gender roles, the nuclear family, thin able bodies, white culture and privilege, consumer capitalism, heterosexuality, masculinity, monogamy, essentialist idea of gender (biological sex = gender), Christianity, etc. On the outer circle, in the margin, are the marginalized identities: atypical gender roles, alternative models of family and romantic relationships such as intergenerational love, and polyamory: people with various sized bodies, disabilities/ different abilities, mixed race experience, indigenous peoples and POC identities, immigrants and undocumented peoples, a huge variety of sexualities, non binary gender and transgender, Muslim faith, etc.

Centered and Marginalized: what would you add to this circle?

While the inner circle is accepted and normal, the outer circle is often silenced, villainized, criminalized and at the same time exoticized, and mined for culture. The idea that marginalized folks should assimilate, change, or fix their identity in order to gain what the inner circle has not only fails to disrupt the problematic unequal power dynamic of current social order, but it also ignores the beautiful, evolutionary fact that those ways of being have unique and inherit value, wisdom, insight, and purpose, and in fact can shed precious new light, potentials and ways of being for humanity, including those within the inner circle. My experience of queer activism is that it asserts rights and privileges should be secured for people (and for that matter all living beings) irrespective of what aspects of the inner or outer circle they embody, and in fact, often brings to the forefront protections for the most marginalized. Perhaps this is because much of queer theory can be traced back to having roots in Black feminism, (thank you to Audre Lorde and bell hooks, and so many other black queer women) which were/are at the forefront of showing the problems of focus on a singular or fixed identity, and how people are identified, controlled, and policed based on essentialist prejudice.

This image created on Instagram by Emmanuel Garcia, Queer Latinx artist/organizer.

Queerness holds space for the liminal, that unknown, the in between.

Queer thought often listens for what voices have been silenced, looks to see what is unseen, critiques what is popularly accepted, seeks to discover what discourse is revealed in opposition to an idea that arises, challenges dualities, and reaches beyond the range of the familiar, assumed, and what has corporate sponsorship.

Ancient classical art form India shows communities of yogis and yoginis also living on the margins, on the fringes, out in the forrest in camps, away from the villages and towns. They lived outside the rules and regulations of caste, class, and interestingly, gender roles as well. These fierce, devoted aesthetics were feared, respected, and highly revered by both lay people and kings and queens, who would come out with offerings of support to get council and guidance from the wise yogis and yoginis, who through their practices were in touch with insight, wisdom, and grace. Senior Iyengar teacher Swati Chanchani gives wonderful slideshows displaying and describing these scenes in centuries old paintings.

Mughals Visit an Encampment of “Sadhus,” India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1635

Although many differences could be cited as well, I see a correlation between the ancient yogis and the edge of queer thought. I also know both yoga and queerness to invite courageous exploration of the unknown, which requires us to shed the known, such as past and obsolete definitions of identity, like snake skins, over and over. In Light on Life, while again discussing savasana, Guruji writes:

Savasana is about shedding, in the same way that…the snake sloughing off its skin to emerge glossy and resplendent in its renewed colors. We have many skins, sheaths, thoughts, prejudices, preconceptions, ideas, memories, and projects for the future. Savasana is a shedding of all these skins, to see how glossy and gorgeous, serene and aware is the beautiful rainbow-colored snake who lies within.”

 This shedding and revealing, critiquing and re-centering is all well and good, but it can be a difficult, even a terrifying experience of letting go of the familiar, especially when certain aspects of a person are rewarded for sticking to the status quo, while other aspects are cause for denial, trauma, and disdain. This fragmentization is one reason asana is a powerful place to start: asana practice gives us a concrete way to begin a process of real integration between the discordant parts of our being, starting with feeling our feet on the floor, from the periphery to the core. As Guruji writes,”Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel you are constantly trying to fit the broken pieces together.”

In response to struggles with identity, being neutral -not this or that- is a stance some people take in both yoga and in queer communities. But trying to be totally ‘identity neutral’ is tricky: we cannot be objective, and easily tend to define neutral as ‘normal’ based on the dominant aspect. For instance, as Julia Serano writes about eloquently, because we live in a misogynist culture that centers male-ness, one could perceive things associated with masculinity to be natural, the baseline, the norm, and things associated with femininity like colorful dress and makeup are invented, performative, or artificial, when in fact, these are all simply qualities of gender identity.  Even in queer communities, femme identity is often devalued, and pushed to the margins. Judith Butler suggests all gender is performed. The goal for me with identity isn’t to be void of it, but rather allow the forms of the human, worldly self, with all it’s rich historical context and complexity, to ebb and flow with a radical acceptance of what is vibrant and true in the now, with neither attachment (raga) or aversion (dvesha). A popular saying relates, ‘The only way out is through.” I am often reminded that others will experience, cherish, toil and find meaning in their own identities in ways that I may not understand, and that that is OK. Prashantji says of ego, “Don’t try to banish the ‘I’ instead, make the ‘I’ magnanimous.”

On top of all this, our contemporary culture in the form of (social) media, political power, etc uses acceptance by others as a powerful driving force. Combined with consumer capitalism, which thrives on the idea that we are all flawed and lacking, and therefore need to buy endless products, diet, work out, indulge, etc. to make ourselves ‘normal,’ along with emphasis on the individual (giving rise to neo-liberalism, which sources problems and solutions in individual responsibility rather than systems or collective action) we are often engaged in an intensely self-critical scrutiny.

Historically, those in power have benefited from people’s incongruence, attachment to identity, and need for externalized approval; people’s striving to maintain an acceptable identity as defined by the status quo creates a self regulation more powerful than any amount of external government surveillance could provide. Queer theorist Michel Foucalt criticized this deliberate system self-surveillance, and used the idea of a panopticon to describe modern society. 18th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon around the idea that “power should be visible and unverifiable,” a circular prison with a guard station at the center, looking at cells arranged all around the edge. Because the guard could be looking, the prisoners begin to watch themselves, self regulating there behavior.

We too self regulate through fear of ridicule and disapproval. Meg-John Barker writes, “This self monitoring results in a highly docile population with a strong commitment to conformity, which benefits the economy. …However we also get high levels of mental health problems, general unhappiness, and alienation.”

Trying to be ‘normal’ for approval also creates a sticky attachment to our individual identity. As I cited in my previous post on saucha, Tema Okun lists individualism as one of the main characteristics prevalent in white supremacy culture. She describes how individualism compromises peer accountability, fosters competition, leads to isolation, and creates a sense that people must solve problems all on their own. Ultimately, pathological individualism is the manifestation of the illusion of separation. It creates a vulnerability, rather than the comfort and connection we are so often seeking. Prashantji says ‘Not only evacuate but also flush out the individuality.”

As we clear out the false sense of self, in part by making peace with our human sense of self, the radiance and resilience of the Self can begin to illuminate our being. In sutra 1.30 and 1.31, Patanjali describes nine main obstacles to peace, ease, connection, and ultimately Self-realization that we humans have all probably experienced in various forms of intensity and duration. The obstacles are: disease, inertia, doubt, indecision, heedlessness, sluggishness, laziness, indiscipline, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding, as well as sorrow, despair, and unsteadiness in the body and irregularity of the breath. These obstacles, along with the five koshas, or afflictions (challenging forms of ignorance which run even deeper within our very being) make the path of yoga -and the path of life- a tricky voyage, full of struggles, disappointments, and pitfalls.

The work of undoing our attachment to identity directly stirs up these obstacles.

Avery in badhakonasana, shirt by Green Box Shop

What we cannot see, we cannot respond to, so naming these obstacles is of great help. Thank goodness Patanjali also gifts us with sutra 1.33 which presents four qualities to help navigate through the obstacles: the ‘Four Fold Remedy.’ Guruji translates Sutra 1.33: ‘Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.’ 

In Core of Yoga Sutras he describes these four qualities to correlate to the four chambers of the heart. He says Patanjali has dealt with the “four biological chambers of the heart as four facets of emotional intelligence.” He also references sutra 1.17 as describing the four lobes of the brain, which when in balance and co-ordinated, “there arises right synthesis, leading to correct judgement. From this …one experiences a state of bliss, nullifying the divisions of the brain and the feeling of “I.” As the feeling of “I” fades, a pure state of just ‘beingness’ is felt without any expression. He says of Sutras 1.17 and 1.33, that those two sutras opened his thoughts, “enabling me to understand the necessity for balance, harmony, and concord between the intellect of the head and the intelligence of the heart.”

This self-acceptance, harmony, balance, and concord – and congruently the state of undefinable “beingness” – is challenged not only by the obstacles described in 1.30 and 1.31, but by various aspects that manipulate those obstacles discussed earlier of the current cultural environment, and attachment to fixed identity. When awareness identifies with a false sense of self, it becomes enmeshed in the ever changing, prakriti, and looses the state of beingness. 

Just as with many aspects of yoga such as yama and niyama, the four fold remedy can be applied both the internally and the externally. We can most easily share with others that which we have integrated within ourselves, and so these qualities can be powerful aid to our inner being as we strive for freedom from the weight of fixed identity, the need for externalized approval, and false sense of self. They can become both powerful practices of self love, and a strengthening tonic for community building.

Maitri – friendliness,  and karuna – compassion directed towards the self can be an antidote for toxic judgment and self criticism, which usually serves not to improve, but to fix our identification with those qualities we resist. Constant self improvement can have an addictive quality, and is exploited in the modern yoga-fitness marketing industry. Heavy self judgment inevitably leaks onto those around us. Santosha, contentment, plays a role in this compassion and friendliness towards the self. It is possible and perhaps even necessary on the path of yoga to be strict, disciplined, and devoted in practice and at the same time, accepting and compassionate towards one’s efforts.

Importantly, however, Iyengar says “maitri is not nearly friendliness, but a feeling of oneness,” such as what a mother feels with her child. That type of friendliness “turns enemies into friends.” Compassion is also like a soothing balm to heal the frustration of having to choose between external acceptance, and internal integrity, a common struggle for anyone with marginalized identity. Directed outwards, karuna can become a potent form of activism. Guruji says, “karuna is not merely showing pity or compassion and shedding ears of despair at the misery (duhkha) of others. It is compassion coupled with devoted action to relieve the misery of the afflicted. The yogi uses all his resources – physical, mental, economic or moral to alleviate the pain and suffering of others…He denies the maxim of survival of the fittest, but makes the weak strong enough to survive. He becomes a shelter to one and all.” I find this passage a very powerful explanation of compassion, especially in considering the ways I have privilege.  This denial of competition and action based compassion runs against much of the individualistic and classist ideas US culture is built on. Iyengar writes in Light on Life, “Life itself seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight. The Universe did not create Life in the hope that the failure of the majority would underline the success of the few.”

Mudita, which is joy or delight in the good work of others, and someone else’s  success, is another aspect of the four fold remedy. This is another way yoga helps weed out competition, individualism, and envy from our being. Competition is a core value of patriarchy, and therefore is baked into how we learn, work, play, and even practice yoga. Competition is a dangerous distraction in yoga whether we place ourselves above or below; it builds a sticky web of ego, and directly feeds the obstacles to awareness, freedom and the inward journey. Competition amongst peers such as other yoga teachers is tricky as well, it can be hard to see someone else take flight as I struggle to get off the ground, although I’ve had plenty of times where I’m the one taking off, and that perspective has its own pitfalls. Guruji says, “Through mudita, the yogi saves himself from much heart-burning by not showing anger, hatred or jealousy for another who has reached the desired goal which he himself has failed to achieve.” This wisdom is a good reminder for anyone scrolling through yoga pictures on Instagram. Another beautiful reminder, Geeta says,

“Knowledge is always something that is universal. It is not meant for one person. It is not individual, but every individual contributes. When knowledge goes in the right direction and ignorance is removed it takes all of us in the same direction.”

I like the feeling that I am a small but valuable part of a great global community carrying the torch of Iyengar Yoga into the future, that each of us involved is doing our piece, practice by practice, including me.

Transforming frustration into inspiration is a skill, an aspect of tapas, burning zeal. I appreciate that joy and gladness are given as qualities we can cultivate, things that can be practiced. A similar concept called compersion exists in polyamory, which means a feeling of happiness about ones partner having fun with a different lover or lovers. We often get more approval for expressing suffering, so it can be a bold thing to express joy, in the face of all the suffering. When we allow ourselves to receive, to unfold, to feel joy, we allow those around us to feel their joy, too. 

When people are in a place of privilege, that often means being in the limelight of approval and adoration. When in the limelight, it’s easy to imagine it’s deserved, and not about privilege. When those stuck in the bottom have a moment to shine, there can be a backlash that is rooted in ignorance; an ugly grasping (aparigraha) that can take violent forms of blame, jealousy, and ultimately, violence. Part of dismantling privilege is uplifting marginalized voices into the limelight, making space, dissolving competition.

Abhjata, BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, teaching at the 2016 Iyengar Yoga Convention.. I’m in that crowd somewhere…! ?

Gladness is form of gratitude, the opposite of entitlement. Mudita is an antidote for jealousy.

Finally, upeksha, indifference to pleasure and pain, to virtue or vice, is a form of equanimity, and one that requires good boundaries. If we get wrapped up in someone’s judgement or reaction to our identity, and we think it’s about us rather than their own fears projected onto us, it can create much internal disturbance. We can even internalize those judgements, and often at a louder volume. Having clear boundaries to protect the integrity and tender growing process within is part of cultivating resilience. Standing poses can help to create a sense of inner stability which assists in sensing and communicating boundaries. Pleasure and pain are often connected to identity and approval, so remaining grounded in a sense of self beyond how we identify in the moment can help us weather the waves of prakriti. We can begin to associate with the ocean, not only the waves. Iyengar writes of upeksa “It is not merely a feeling of disdain or contempt for the person who has fallen into vice (apunya) or one of indifference or superiority towards him. It is a searching self-examination to see how how far one is responsible for the state into which the unfortunate one has fallen and the attempt thereafter for put him on the right path.”

This clearing of superiority is important when interacting with people who have different identities than our own, and especially if those have been marginalized or scapegoated identities. Here is a practice that turns blame and judgement into social responsibility. Guruji says of sutra 1.33, “This mental adjustment builds social as well as individual health…This approach to life keeps the mind of the sadhaka serene and pure.”

Painting by Avery Kalapa, 2012

Coming back to the circle of centered vs marginalized, I stand with one foot planted in each area. Most of us have intersecting parts of our being, some privileged, unconscious, and approved of, and some saddled with internalized shame, disapproval, and the burdens of oppression. Aspects of my identity has shifted over the years as I’ve lived across various regions of the gender spectrum, struggled through two hard earned coming out processes to assert a gay identity, only to partner with a trans masculine love who many people assume is a cis male; we often are read as a straight couple, despite our relationship and lived experience being rich with queer, feminist experience. This challenges me and also, keeps my mind fresh. Identity changes. There is also learning to see and decontructing whiteness, the motherhood process, and of course, aging. I keep evolving, and through it all yoga practice has been a true source of clarity, nurturing, and strength.

As I surrender to the process of changing and becoming, over and over, I’m exploring being settled despite identity not being a fixed unchanging thing, which allows the dance of head and heart to find moments of balance, and the being-ness to surface. Identity is important: to feel at home and at peace in our own skin is a step towards the inward journey, skin to soul. To have a queer/ yogic sense of identity, as something fluid, changing, intersectional and dynamic, allows us to relate to others and ourselves from a framework of wholeness in the following ways. We can see and honor our own or someone else’s struggle, but not define them or imprison them in that struggle. We can connect directly with a person without discounting, erasing, and/or only seeing a person as their identity and obscuring their whole beingness; for example, “I don’t see race,” or “he’s cool, except sometimes he says things that are really gay.” While identity is an important aspect of our lived human experience, to know it to be part of the ‘ever changing’ — prakriti and not the ‘never changing’ purusha can thankfully help us explore, connect, relate, and fully live across continuums of how we are defined, who we are, and how we move through the world. A final Guruji quote:

“Yoga releases the creative potential of life…The light that yoga sheds on life is something special. It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.”

Who knows what yet unimagined potentials await.