Essays: Over-dumb about Yoga |
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Over-dumb about Yoga

ONE’s doubts about the Wisdom of the East have always begun from an aversion to its tone of voice. Whether in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore or the perfumed sales-pitch of the Maharishi, an appreciation of the Eternal seems to require the obliteration of one’s own logical faculties. It is always possible, however, that one’s fastidiousness is misplaced: perhaps the stuff merely suffers in translation, and evinces a Cartesian decisiveness in the original Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil or Sanskrit.

On the subject of mysteries such as Yoga, one has maintained, one would like to think, a sensible reserve. Just because the accompanying literature is unreadable doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is unworkable. One has friends who practise Yoga and whose relationship to the world and to themselves has been transformed by it. Obviously it is better to be in control of your body than not to be.

Even the most healthy Westerner has only to think back over his own medical history to start suspecting that there ought to be, has to be, another way, or Way: all those powders and needles and gases, all that helpless waiting while the white witch-doctor decides how much he dares tell you. Think what it would be like to run your own organism, instead of it running you! In the face of Yoga no one can afford to feel superior. It was with a proper humility, then, that I tuned in to Hugh Burnett’s documentary The Roots of Yoga (BBC1). Already hushed by the shock of hearing from a reviewer that I was ‘over-bright,’ I was determined from now on to be over-dumb. Un-smart, non-clever, receptive.

‘I shrink to the size of an atom and reach out to the moon,’ a man said almost immediately. The type of Yoga under examination was Hatha Yoga. The man was sitting in a position that looked fiercely difficult. A friend of mine, who can do the same position, says that there are even harder ones up the line, culminating in a number where your legs double back under your tail and you sit comfortably on your ankles with your feet cupping your behind. The attitudes these chaps could get into were undeniably impressive. For the benefits of getting into them, however, we had to take verbal assurances. Such-and-such a position was good for hookworm and tapeworm.

There was a doctor on hand to say that Hatha Yoga really could deal with arthritis, bronchial asthma, colitis, dysentery and things like that. It seemed more than possible. That someone who could wrap his legs around his head would be an unlikely candidate for arthritis seemed a truism. What about hookworm, though? Perhaps the hookworms can’t stand the activity: they pack up and quit.

Water was poured in one nostril and came out the other. A piece of thread, good for adenoids, was introduced into the nose. This was also good for hair and eyes: ‘all the organs it is affecting.’ It also improved your eyesight. A man swallowed 29 feet of white bandage. ‘Yes, but first you have to practise for two days.’ This was good for stomach ailments, helped you reduce, and dealt with 18 different types of skin disease. Since the man had not a blemish on him, he could have said 180, or 1,800 — or rather the man talking on his behalf could have. The man himself was full of cloth.

It was somewhere about here that Hugh Burnett succumbed to a mild panic — induced, I think, by the deadly Eastern combination of visual miracle and verbal tat. When his guide assured him that after the appropriate training the adept would soon be ‘sucking the water through the rectum,’ Burnett, instead of saying ‘Show us, show us,’ said ‘How? How?’ Apparently the stomach makes a vacuum and the liquid rushes in through the sphincter to fill the gap. I have no doubt that this happens, but it would have been nice to see a beaker of water marked Before and After held by somebody — Burnett would have been the ideal candidate — who had actually been there when the man sat on it. And the same goes double for the bloke who can suck air through the penis. Not only air, but milk, honey and mercury. ‘Mercury!’ shouted Burnett, ‘why mercury? Isn’t that dangerous?’ ‘No,’ came the all-wise answer, ‘it is not dangerous.’

A man bent a steel bar with his eyelid, but I was still thinking about the mercury. I stopped thinking about it when a much older man smashed a milk bottle and lay down in the pieces while they put a heavy roller over him. There was a fulsome crunching as the small pieces of glass became even smaller pieces. The man rose to his feet long enough to brush a few slivers from his unmarked skin and win a tug-of-war with an elephant. Then he lay down again and they drove a Mercedes truck over him.

Plainly this skill would come in handy any time you fell asleep on a broken milk-bottle in the middle of an autobahn. Apart from that, its only function can be to convince the sceptical that Hatha Yoga gives you power over the body. No arguments, although I would like to know if there is a limit to how much the old man can stand. Suppose you wheel away the Mercedes and bring on, say, a Volvo Thermo-King juggernaut: would he still be lying there, or would he go off and meditate?

The programme wound up by visiting an ashram with 120 inmates, half of them Westerners. The ashram was meditationsville, and whenever Westerners meditate you have to wear a snorkel, else the rhetoric will drown you. One girl adores her Baba Yogi so much she just likes to stand near him, ‘to feel his vibrations. Which, as he is a Perfect Master, are very pure.’

Here was the universe being solved in personal terms, with the Americans being the most self-obsessed of all. ‘He knows everything... and yet he has retained his physical form out of pure compassion, because he wants to help us.’ The girl’s face was lit up like a torch. But it was another girl who took the biscuit.

‘My meditations are so intense... I start doing really strange things... it used to hurt me when I meditated... it cleansed me, completely cleaned me out... I can’t get enough of my meditations... because my meditations have taken over my life... I feel his vibrations coming into me... it makes me feel love.’ And so on, for ever. A man was splitting his tongue in half when I turned the show off. Man Alive (BBC2) screened the first of a two-parter on mental health in this country. We saw some ECT, which is not quite as scary as a split tongue, but still passing strange. Nobody knows how it works, but in certain cases it helps. The Wisdom of the West. Next week Captain Overbright returns.

The Observer, 9th June 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]