Reflective Essay by Rupert Horlick
“Informed by the philosophical roots of yoga from Patanjali, the VBT and any other sacred texts, discuss the commodification of modern yoga. Discuss how you feel you can best represent the essence of yoga through your own teaching that feels congruent with your understanding so far.”
Written by Rupert Horlick, Graduate of Yogasara Teacher Training 2022
In Classical Tantra there are said to be three modes of practice, known as the three Skillful Means to Liberation (upāyas). In this essay I argue that the Western practice of yoga overemphasises ‘The Embodied Means’, thereby reducing, if not destroying, its ability to lead practitioners to the goal of liberation. Furthermore, I explore how the lack of training in the mode of ‘The Empowered Means’ leaves individual practitioners, and whole communities of practice, susceptible to vikalpas (thought constructs) that perpetuate the commodification and consumption of yoga practice. This can lead well-meaning yogis to believe they are progressing on their path by simply showing up to a weekly class in the right gear, while remaining blind to their lack of empowerment and action in the face of the life-destroying forces of modern neoliberal capitalism.
I will begin by outlining the three Means, as described by Abhinavagupta, and detailing how the practices common to modern Western Yoga fit into these categories. Next, I will demonstrate how Western Yoga privileges The Embodied Means over The Empowered Means and the consequences that has for the dissemination of yogic wisdom and practice. Finally, I will suggest some starting points for working with and teaching through The Empowered Means.
The Three Upāyas
In his text Tantrāloka, Abhinavagupta outlines the three upāyas, or Skillful Means to Liberation. Christopher Wallace provides us with a succinct explanation of the three modes:
“The goal can be reached […] through The Divine Means (śāmbhava-upāya), the method of accessing Divine Consciousness by means of non-conceptual intuition; through The Empowered Means (śākta-upāya), the method that emphasises working with the energy of beliefs or thought constructs, and the feelings they produce; or through The Embodied Means (āṇava-upāya), the method that works with the physical body and subtle body through various kinds of yogic practices.”1
I won’t expand on The Divine or Embodied Mean, but will look a little further at The Empowered Means. According to Wallace, “The Empowered Means focuses on shedding mental constructs that are not in alignment with reality (aśuddha-vikalpas) and the cultivation of wisdom, that is, modes of understanding that are in alignment with reality (śuddha-vikalpa)”.2 The idea is that the practitioner becomes aware of their own thought constructs and challenges them to see if they are in alignment with reality. A misaligned thought construct will create suffering as it reduces the being’s access to the ecstatic experience of being immersed in reality.
On the other hand, an aligned thought construct points toward the interconnectedness of all things, in accordance with ‘The View’ of Tantrik yoga. The practitioner practices living from this new thought construct and, if the new construct is sufficiently aligned, dissolves a layer of misunderstanding, taking one more step into experiential reality. The aligned thought construct also disappears, as it is no longer required once it has challenged the misaligned construct. Truly living from the aligned construct requires practice in many contexts, for example in one’s family environment. It might be easy to hold the view that ‘all beings are a source of divine light’ while practising alone in the mountains and impossible in the presence of one’s own kin!
The Embodied Means can easily be practised in a studio and transmitted to many students at once, while The Empowered Means requires a variety of practices and experiments across a whole range of contexts, with specific steps tailored to each individual practitioner. This makes The Empowered Means more complex to teach, to practise, and therefore to commodify.
Wallace notes that “a given teaching or practice, however true or effective, is right for a certain person at a certain stage of development, and ceases to be true or effective for another person at another stage of development”.3 In the Western world, most people spend significant of their time sitting down, engaged in work, or distracting themselves with consumption. They might be stuffing their feelings down with food, mindlessly scrolling through streams of online culture, or engaging in retail therapy. In any case, the body and its associated feelings and sensations are sidelined. So, for the average Westerner, The Embodied Means is a very appropriate starting point in their yogic journey. Coming back into the body through postural yoga and learning to look within and feel sensations will provide them with plenty of spiritual work. However, at some point the limiting factor in their spiritual development will no longer be their access to embodiment, but their access to empowerment. Their blockages to living fully will live more in the realm of thought constructs, beliefs, and ideas, and they will be hungry for the more subtle work of The Empowered Means. Part of the ‘Skillful’ in Wallace’s translation of upāya is knowing when to apply each practice. So, clearly we will limit yogic practice in the West if we focus solely on āsana, āsana, and āsana.
Embodiment over Empowerment
What we term ‘yoga’ in the West is generally the practice of physical postures (āsana), occasionally accompanied by meditative practices and peppered with nuggets of wisdom.
Someone discovering yoga in the Western world is likely to start with a class offered in a gym or an online video. This class will probably focus on the physical mechanics of the postures, with some emphasis on the breath, and leave the practitioner feeling a sense of relaxation or vigour. Perhaps they will take this up as a weekly practice. They might end up in a ‘Power Vinyasa’ class that, although it includes yogic postures and regular breathing, has a speed and emphasis that feels more like an aerobics class. Or they may end up in a ‘Hot Yoga’ class, focussing more on how to remain in postures while fighting the slipperiness of their abundant sweat.
Although these practices are clearly embodied, it is also possible for them to contribute to The Empowered Means. For example, a teacher offering students cues to notice the thought constructs that are present while entering a particular posture is a step towards practice of The Empowered Means. However, Abhinavagupta tells us that The Empowered Means is only really effective in the presence of “a continuity of conceptual understandings […] that we define as ‘sound reasoning & discernment’ (sat-tarka).” This “continuity of conceptual understandings” traditionally comes from studying the teachings alongside a “teacher of Reality (sad-guru)”.4
Yoga in the West is growing year on year in popularity and there are now over 10,000 yoga teachers in the UK.5 Teachers are being produced in 250 hour courses, with varying degrees of quality. In that time teachers are equipped with the basics to run a class, including sequencing, cueing, and basic anatomy. While many training courses mention yogic philosophy, it isn’t clear how the philosophy is practically embedded in the structure and practices of the class. The teachers, raised in Western culture themselves, are likely to transmit what they know and feel comfortable sharing, so what gets transmitted becomes increasingly physical and scientific. With a lack of clear and intentional training in The Empowered Means, how many of these teachers are likely to stumble into becoming ‘teachers of Reality’?
Any given practitioner may receive insights and overcome some harmful thought constructs, but without a deeper and more methodical focus on The Empowered Means, their progression along the path is likely to remain sporadic and stunted. The more astute practitioners will seek something more, looking for other teachers and texts to provide what they sense is missing, but many students will remain trapped in the routine of weekly yoga, reducing them to yoga consumers, rather than true spiritual seekers.
So, a lack of adequately equipped teachers, leads to a propagation of an increasingly physical yoga and swathes of students mostly unaware that something is missing from their practice. In the next section, we look at how this contributes to the commodification of yoga and allows yoga to become an additional practice that supports, recreates, and reinforces neoliberal ideology and thought constructs.
In this section we identify the role that vikalpas play in our lives and where they come from. Further, we explore how vikalpas are perpetuated and spread through our material-discursive practices, such as a yoga class.
Finally, we look at how this can lead to apparently ‘yogic’ practices actually reinforcing neoliberal beliefs and structures.
We all relate to and make sense of the world through our vikalpas, or thought constructs. Without a strong practice in The Empowered Means, we are unlikely to be aware of the vikalpas that are operating in our lives. There could be any number of thought constructs lying around, wreaking havoc on our relationships, our creations, and our practice. A practitioner might come to their practice believing ‘I am not strong enough to do this posture’ or ‘I should already know how to do this’. In their wider life, they could be meeting the world through the lens of ‘Nobody really cares about me’ or ‘The world is out to get me’. Each of these vikalpas shapes the way we see the world, acting as a filter on what we perceive. This in turn limits
the possibilities that we have access to and therefore determines how we act and what we create in the world.6
But where do these vikalpas come from? If we have not consciously constructed them ourselves, we will be filled with the thought constructs that we have been swimming in since childhood, like a fish living unaware of the water. These come from our parents, our teachers, our peers, our traumatic experiences, the news, and our off- and online echo chambers.
When we come to our yoga practice, we bring our vikalpas along with us, but material-discursive practices, such as yoga, also have the power to transmit constructs. The term ‘material-discursive practice’ comes from strands of modern discourse theory. Discursive practices are the ways that we as humans create, transmit, and otherwise interact with meaning, and material practices are the ways that we interact with the material world.
Karen Barad argues that meaning and matter are deeply entangled, and it is therefore more helpful to refer to one entangled set of material-discursive practices.7 Each kind of material-discursive practice carries with it certain vikalpas. So, we can see that the thought constructs we hold and the practices we engage in are mutually enabling.
A sociopolitical system, such as neoliberal capitalism, recreates itself over time by transmitting its vikalpas and its material-discursive practices. For example, many parents choose to send their children to a modern Western form of school. This is a material-discursive practice, because the specific materiality of the school – the architecture of the buildings, the amount of nature in the surroundings, the timetable, etc. – and the ways of making meaning – authoritarian teacher who ‘knows’ transmitting knowledge, punishment, etc. – are entangled and necessarily stem from and transmit certain thought constructs. These practices are specifically tailored to mould children into subjects who will behave well within the system and punish those who do not or will not conform.8
An alternative schooling model, such as a democratic school, that creates empowered and creative subjects, requires a different materiality and different relationship to meaning. This would produce young people who have a set of vikalpas that are not compatible with neoliberal ideas and systems, and who will likely go on to act and create in the world in ways that resist neoliberalism.
We can see, therefore, that the details of the practices we offer to people as yoga teachers matter. One set of practices could propagate neoliberal vikalpas and produce neoliberal subjects, while another could lead to empowered and liberated subjects. Let’s examine three common practices in yoga that have the effect of perpetuating neoliberal vikalpas.
The first is the use of school terminology. Commonly, the person offering to lead a group of people through a series of yoga āsana is called a ‘teacher’, the participants in the class are called ‘students’, and the whole gathering is called a ‘class’. Using this language immediately invokes the vikalpas of Western schooling: ‘The teacher knows and the students do not know’; ‘there are right and wrong answers’; ‘we need to compete to be the best student’. The sense of right and wrong and the need to compete pit the practitioners against each other as rational economic agents, optimising their practice of yoga to become the best. The role of the teacher as ultimate knower, leaves the students reliant on regular classes and stuck in a cycle of consumption, continually striving to be better.
Secondly, the individual nature of āsana practice. Each practitioner shows up in the class, has their own experience on their mat, and goes home, perhaps with a bit of changing room chat to process the experience. There is often very little support from the teacher or the structure of the class to create a sense of community. There is very little emphasis on the role of relating, either with the teacher or with other practitioners. There is also very little emphasis on the role of expression, a form of sharing of experience. These feed vikalpas, such as ‘I am separate’, ‘I can do this alone’, ‘I don’t need anyone’, again reinforcing the neoliberal experience of being a lone wolf, optimising one’s own value.
Finally, the emphasis on achieving physical perfection. There’s a subtly transmitted idea that a ‘good’ yogi should be able to do ‘all the postures’. A good yogi can stand on their head and their hands, touch their toes, and twist their neck around one hundred and eighty degrees. There is an encouragement to continue working on and moving towards various physical goals and achieving certain āsana, even when these are clearly not the next most important step on the practitioner’s spiritual path. This is based on and feeds vikalpas like ‘my body is never good enough’ and again leads to a subject constantly striving for self-improvement.
All of these practices can have the effect of stunting people’s progress along their path, leaving them in a place where they constantly want to consume yoga āsana classes without really creating change in their lives. This supports the commodification of yoga by creating sustained and increasing demand for the specific form of ‘the yoga class’. The commodity is perfect, because it allows the practitioners to ‘feel better’ both physically and in their own esteem, while holding them in certain thought constructs that block their genuine empowerment. These subjects even become living advertisements for the yoga class as they expound its benefits and its aesthetic with a lack of awareness of the pitfalls.
Personally, I think this yoga commodity still provides a net benefit to the individuals and I’m glad that they have access to it, but what is the cost to their ultimate spiritual goals and the planet, if they become trapped in it? I think their empowerment is too important to get lost in an endless stream of sun salutations. Now I will explore how I and others can support practitioners to go beyond.
Seizing the Means of Liberation
Thankfully there are many ways we can supplement our āsana practice to encourage a deeper, more holistic practice. The first step is for yoga practitioners to become empowerment practitioners, clearly shifting identity to become people who are working on their own thought constructs and how they show up in reality. As a spaceholder for yoga classes, I will paint a clear picture of the role of āsana, including how they can help us and what their limitations are. I will offer various techniques that are based in The Empowered Means in one way or another. I will encourage people into these other practices and techniques and help them see how yoga is so much more than a physical, postural practice.
Insight meditation, based in the Buddhist tradition, is one form of practice that works directly with thought constructs. The meditator chooses an insight, such as the impermanence of sensation, and sits in contemplation, noticing the effect that this particular point of view has on their experience of reality. For example, how does my experience of pain change if I see it as impermanent? These ideas can easily be brought into an āsana class, though they might need to be tried seated as well or practised ‘in the real world’ to truly integrate the insight.
I want to encourage a community of practice around my yoga spaces. After an āsana class I would invite participants to discuss their experience, perhaps providing them with specific prompts based on the themes of the class. This could help to encourage expression and reflection and a sense of connection. I would emphasise awareness of thought constructs and ask them to offer feedback to each other.
I have noticed some yoga teachers gesturing towards the importance of feeling one’s emotions, saying things like ‘just let things come up’. While this acceptance is an excellent first step towards people feeling their emotions, I believe we need to go further to suggest more complete emotional processing, supported in a healing space. Such a space allows the uncovering of the related thought constructs that are contributing to the stuck emotions, and open up the possibility of change. This view is based in the practice of Possibility Management, which is a modern emotional transformation community with clear roots in the Tantrik yoga tradition.9 As a yoga spaceholder I would encourage participants to acknowledge these emotions, note them down, and actively take them to emotional healing spaces.
Possibility Management also contains a process for identifying and working with memes, the modern psychological concept akin to vikalpa, called Memetic Engineering.10 Through interaction with a spaceholder, participants can discover their thought constructs, including victim stories, and can choose to take on a new story. This is a modern incarnation of The Empowered Means practices outlined by Christoper Wallace in Tantra Illuminated. It has a healthy community of practice and has evolved in our Western context, so therefore might be an easier starting point for modern Western people than ancient Tantrik practices. As a yoga teacher, I might mention such communities and ideas to my students so that they could pursue them outside of the yoga class. In this way, I am recommending ways that my students can advance in The Empowered Means and seize liberation in their spiritual lives. This would give them the chance to go far beyond asana can in a weekly class.
We have seen how pursuing embodiment without empowerment blocks the full blossoming of a spiritual journey. It can lead to a practitioner to get stuck down a no-through road, barred in by vikalpas. The essence of yoga goes far beyond physical practice into direct contact with experiential reality, and this requires practice and teaching in The Empowered Means.
As a practitioner peels back the layers of vikalpas, they step out of neoliberal subjectivity and move towards something new and unknown, and at the same time ancient and universal. I invite us as a community of practitioner-spaceholders to empower ourselves and each other to create yogic spaces that are new and not commodifiable, so that we might build a culture that serves all living beings. Will you join me?
1. Wallace, C.D. (2022) Three Ways to Freedom, Hareesh.org. Available at: https://hareesh.org/blog/2015/11/7/three-ways-to-freedom-the-tantrik-analysis-of-spiritual-practice (Accessed: February 2, 2023).
2. Wallis, C.D. (2013) “An Introduction to the Practice of Śaiva Tantra,” in Tantra illuminated: The philosophy, history, and practice of a timeless tradition. Petaluma, CA: Mattamayūra Press, pp. 357–357.
3. Wallace, C.D. (2022) Three Ways to Freedom, Hareesh.org. Available at: https://hareesh.org/blog/2015/11/7/three-ways-to-freedom-the-tantrik-analysis-of-spiritual-practice (Accessed: February 2, 2023).
4. Wallace, C. (2022) The Empowered Method (Tantrasaara Chapter Four, Part 1), Hareesh.org. Available at: https://hareesh.org/blog/2019/1/5/the-empowered-method-tantrasaara-chapter-four (Accessed: March 2, 2023). 5 Cadman, J. (2021) Yoga statistics, Finder UK. Available at: https://www.finder.com/uk/yoga-statistics (Accessed: March 2, 2023).
5. Cadman, J. (2021) Yoga statistics, Finder UK. Available at: https://www.finder.com/uk/yoga-statistics (Accessed: March 2, 2023).
6. Chandran, R. (2017) Vedic quote: Watch your thoughts , ADVAIDAM. Available at: https://www.advaidam.com/2017/11/13/vedic-quote-watch-your-thoughts/ (Accessed: March 2, 2023).
7. Barad, K.M. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
8. Davies, B. and Bansel, P. (2007) “Neoliberalism and education,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), pp. 247–259. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390701281751.
9. Callahan, C. (2020) Building Love that Lasts: Secrets for creating an extraordinary life and profound intimacy with your partner. Chino Valley, AZ: Hohm Press.
10. Callahan, C. (no date) Memetic Engineering. Available at: https://memeticengineering.mystrikingly.com/ (Accessed: March 3, 2023).