Until yesterday, I had entirely avoided entering into the fray around Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson, nor had I really subjected myself to much of his online content. He speaks about hot-button topics that I don’t always feel inclined — or qualified — to comment on. I know a lot of people have already put him through the shredder, probably more articulately than I can.
I also generally try to avoid the ‘left/right’ polarity as much as possible. I don’t see it as truly relevant political terminology anymore, and it’s so charged and polarized that I think ultimately this terminology is going to have to be discarded if political progress is going to be made. With regards to Peterson, there are people I respect who can’t stand the guy. And there are people I respect who find his ideas interesting. I was content to simply be neutral on the topic, and I did that mostly by avoiding him.
Until yesterday, when I saw a clip of him speaking about the Indian goddess Kālī.
It gave me pause, because one thing that people on all sides of the opinions-on-Jordan-Peterson spectrum can usually agree on — even if they don’t agree with his conclusions — is that if nothing else he is well-studied and smart.
I may not feel it’s my place to enter into a debate about his position on the use of trans pronouns and whether or not that should be legislated. However, I do feel qualified to take a position on what he has to say about Kālī. I’ve studied her for many years, I’ve read her relevant texts, I’ve been to her major and minor temples across the Indian subcontinent, I have had dialogues with temple priests and householders, and conducted podcast interviews with PhDs who’ve written entire books on her.
And there’s no getting around the fact that 99% of what Jordan Peterson said about Kālī — in two lectures — was wrong. And I mean just plain wrong, from a factual perspective.
I’ll explain how in just a moment, but what inspired me to look a little deeper into Jordan Peterson after this was not so much that he was wrong, it was that while he was in the process of being wrong he was conveying, through voice and gesture, an absolute certainty that he was right. Like for him the permutations of the goddess Kālī were child’s play and anyone within earshot should be wowed by his knowledge of obscure Indian goddesses. It’s nice I guess to have a captive audience of mostly 18-year-olds. Raise your voice, wear a tie, and make a few bold gestures, and suddenly whatever you say is right.
Well if the guy was capable of exuding such certainty when speaking about something that he had no idea about, how did that translate into other areas of his work, I wondered? How did this type of myopia color a worldview that he presents — often and vigorously — as absolute truth with that type of professorial certainty that shuts down question or dissent.
Let’s start with Kālī. You know her, right? The mother goddess with the protruding tongue, wreathed in heads, wearing a skirt of limbs? The swallower of time, she is sometimes called. For Tantric practitioners she is the absolute reality itself, that force which transcends life and death, space and time, the supreme consciousness. Her form challenges her devotees to see all of this wheel of life and death, all of it, even the uncomfortable stuff, as sacred. She is adored by millions of people. In Kerala, her rituals involve trance-mediumship, dance, and music. For those in Bengal, she is right at the center of their spiritual and material life. They see her intimately, as a mother who is always present, both fierce and tender at once.
I’m going to talk about her a lot more in future episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go into too much detail now.
First of all, Peterson doesn’t know how to pronounce her name. He calls her Callie, which rhymes with Sally. In this day and age, if you’re going to be a Western professor purporting to expound the mysteries of a goddess who is actively worshipped by millions of people, who is studied by academics, who is sung to by devotees, who is written about by scholars, you should probably start by knowing how to say her name.
In one lecture, he compares an eight-legged version of her to a “spider” a fairy-tale vision of evil as she “traps the unwary.”
She dwells in a “web of fire,” he says, and represents the “sum total of all fears.” Which sounds like a great Jungian interpretation, until you realize that it bears no resemblance to how Kālī is actually viewed or described in India.
Kālī is all about “how to deal with threat,” Peterson goes on, about humans “trying to come to terms with the category of all awful things.”
And yet, the Bengali poet Ramprasad sang hymns of love to her, and the saint Ramakrishna would go into ecstatic trance merely at the mention of her name. How can this be? When devotees sing to her, she is called “the oceanic nectar of compassion” and “full of grace,” “whose mercy is without end,” the “vessel of mercy” herself.
Yet for Peterson, she’s an “embodied representation of the category of frightening things. Some poor artist was thinking of ‘how do I represent destruction…’” he surmises, when speaking of her origins.
The central image that Peterson references in both of his lectures is not a standard vision of Kālī at all. It is a Tantric statue, perhaps even Buddhist, almost definitely Nepali or Tibetan (it is difficult to see in the video). Yet Peterson skips the entire foundational introduction to Tantric iconography and the fact that Tantra is a major world religious tradition and that its challenging iconography is a vehicle through which the individual meditator can access certain states of consciousness and files the whole thing under one moniker — fear.
Then he says one accurate thing. That there is in fact ritual sacrifice that takes place in honor of Kālī.
He goes on to talk about sacrifice, in a pre-Joseph Campbell colonial-era anthropologist kind of way. He speaks of the human realization that we could bargain with the future, which he extols as a “major development” for human beings, but in doing so he also wittingly or unwittingly categorizes sacrifice and ritual — and all things Kālī — squarely in the realm of the primitive. The implication being that yes, that was a step along the way (what “way?”) but we’ve grown a lot since then.
People “sacrifice to what [they’re] afraid of in hopes that good things may happen,” he says. This skips, of course, the centuries of high meditative texts to Kālī, the vision of her as twelve vibrational aspects of consciousness, each of which can be accessed and refined over time, it skips the entire corpus of devotional literature to her. It skips all this in favor of a particular vision, which is central to Peterson’s worldview. A neat polarized version of reality in which the old trope of male/light/order and female/dark/chaos is actually — in his mind — hardwired into human behavior and therefore male societal dominance is a natural expression of male “competence.”
Kālī, of course, smashes this vision in half. She is order itself. She “dwells within the order” and is “at home in the yantra”. She is not evil, she “destroys evil.” Yet Peterson’s descriptions ignore all this and sound a lot like the accounts of British colonists who first encountered Kālī in 18th century Bengal.
The fact that Peterson, like many early anthropologists, is incapable of seeing ritual as anything beyond “transaction” because he comes from a culture that centers transaction above all else is indicative of the core problem with Peterson’s worldview. It’s late capitalist thinking, presented as hard human truth.
Material transaction — “I’ll give the gods this corn if they make it rain”— is one small aspect of ritual, but it is not in any way the only or most important aspect. One could say it’s possibly the least interesting aspect of ritual, and for those who actually understand ritual and its permutations, this is a western dumbing down that has far more to do with the detached scientists that were viewing the ritual than the ritual itself in context.
For example, the gaining of a transcendent state of consciousness — in which the practitioner is privy to intuitive vision — is far more interesting and important. That ritual could actually be advanced technology for propelling human beings into the trance state so that they can see reality more clearly eludes most anthropologists because to understand this one would have to understand why a society would want to center the trance state. We’re not a society that values meditative states. We’re a society that values material transaction.
This is just one example — the inability to see outside of the prism of modern western capitalist culture leads Peterson to make vast assumptions about human nature and present them as static, in the process ignoring history.
What Peterson presents as inherent to the human being — male dominance and a success hierarchy based on who’s better at making money — is not in fact inherent at all and is a symptom of modern culture. Every good anthropologist should know this. While I agree with him that hierarchies present naturally within social structures, and that hierarchy is not inherently a bad word, what and who those hierarchies center is not in fact written in stone. Many of the agricultural empires that have come to dominate the world over the past several thousand years have indeed centered men, conquest, and stuff, with women falling unfortunately under the category of property. This centering of material domination as the primary human purpose has also led human beings to the verge of environmental collapse within just 1% of our history.
This calls into question Peterson’s entire vision of competence. To buy that men are in charge of the world today because they’re inherently competent you have to buy that the current global culture reflects anything akin to competence. To call a society that has no idea what to do with its own trash and that hasn’t even factored its own environment into the equation for success ‘competent’ is, shall we say, inaccurate. Stand four of the world’s top leaders in a row — Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un — and I guarantee the first word that comes to mind is not ‘competence.’ So no, Jordan, the top of the hierarchy is not dominated by the ‘competent.’ The Mongols raped their way to the top of the hierarchy, and so did countless others before and after them.
I’m not going to use the P word. I agree with Peterson that the word ‘patriarchy’ is vastly overused by the left and has strayed far beyond its actual definition to somehow encompass ‘all bad things.’ But it is difficult to argue against the fact that the culture of conquest and material accumulation at all costs has led human beings into a very serious situation, and therefore when forging a vision for what defines human success we may want to look more at what actually lasts than what has gotten us into the mess we’re currently in.
Not all societies have centered male forcefulness and material accumulation. I have said before on this podcast that it is more and more important for us to remember that there are other models of human behavior and to look at societies that have centered very different things than us. Or, as I heard a Czech Member of Parliament once eloquently express, there is nothing inherent to the human experience or makeup that dictates that late-stage capitalism is the only vision of how we can be.
Australian Aboriginal culture has lasted for 60,000 years (15 times longer than large-scale human civilization and 2,000 times longer than the United States) and centers, as Ethnobotanist Wade Davis reports, accessing the dreamtime and preserving rather than changing the surrounding environment. The San people of the Kalahari similarly center the trance state, in which they access n/um — the vital lifeforce which is used in intricate and effective healing ritual. The San have lived mostly uninterrupted for 50,000 years. One could easily say that — given the timeframe — these peoples’ measurements of societal success are ultimately more relevant than ours.
This isn’t to idealize hunter-gatherer culture, to attempt to ‘go back to how it was’ or to say — as some agenda-driven scholars have claimed — that the 300,000-year history of homo sapiens is a history of peace-loving matriarchs that were then crushed by the invading patriarchs. This is a view lacking evidence and nuance. It is rather to say that for the vast majority of human history, the accumulation of capital was not centered as the sole purpose of human existence. In many societies, there were other more transcendent and more intuitive success metrics.
So why are these other visions of human success important in the context of Jordan Peterson? Because Peterson’s entire vision of humanity is based on the success metrics of late-stage capitalism. Powerful men who dominate and rise in the hierarchy are ‘successful’ because of their ‘competence’.
His definition of Right and Left — in which Right is hierarchy and Left are those who are dispossessed by it — is driven by this limited vision. It’s a definition that is antiquated to say the least — Donald Trump was elected by the dispossessed, and they weren’t leftists. There are plenty on the political right who are dispossessed by the current order. And in fact, there are arguably more on the right who despise authority and big government and favor ‘rebellion’ than on the left. Meanwhile, there are plenty on the left who organize into “successful” hierarchies of their own.
So why would Peterson stick to such a limited vision? Because it fits into his narrative of Right/Male/Successful/Hierarchical vs Left/Female (or at least female driven)/Dispossessed/Chaotic. And he bends all things to fit his model.
So — artists have a hard time making money, he tells Russell Brand in an interview, because of their brains. Yeah, or — artists have a hard time not because of inherent brain chemistry, but because our society doesn’t center art. The artists of the Chauvet caves probably found themselves right at the center of society 35,000 years ago. The Vedic vision of the cosmos was that art, order and ritual were three organic aspects of one universal whole and artists (and visionaries) were right at the center of that. In our culture, anything that is not specifically intended for the generation of capital is not centered and therefore those who do not center their lives around generating capital are not ‘successful.’
But that is our culture, and the truth is that our culture is very young— what Peterson deems as inherent is in fact not inherent at all. There is nothing about human wiring that says that this is the only way.
I think there is value to having someone as intelligent as Peterson in on these types of conversations. I also think it is good to challenge the increasingly static vernacular that the left presumes the whole world should unquestioningly adopt, immediately. Therefore, if he were just a little different in focus, I could see having Jordan Peterson around as a really good thing.
You see, he positions himself as the guy who’s actually talking about these issues whereas — in his view — the left is just shutting down conversations. He’s willing to say what a lot of people are thinking but won’t say (Really? Laws around words?) If he were truly the bridge-builder he says he is, that could be a real positive.
But he’s not — and this is what Russell Brand picked up on when he labeled the ‘mischief’ he saw on display in Peterson. Peterson likes poking at the left, he likes painting the left as unsuccessful misfits. He likes bolstering the egos of his right-wing fan base. He likes tapping into certainty, and rightness, and maleness, and the perceived power that comes with all that.
And — probably of most relevance — he’s smart enough to know that there’s more money to be made in jabbing the left than in truly being a bridge builder. He’s making a (good) living taking the low hanging fruit that the extreme left offers him and spinning it into some kind of global crisis, when the real crisis is the very polarization that he — quite knowingly — promotes.
By the time I got to his ‘white privilege doesn’t exist’ talk — in which he engages the most insipid of academic tactics to bring the conversation entirely into the realm of theory rather than paying one drop of attention to 500 years of brutal history, he had completely lost me. He is married to a vision, and will bend worlds to promote it, but the vision isn’t based in reality. It’s based in politicized machismo.
Which brings us back to Kālī, who is also the unfathomable, that which has not been defined or written or is even perceivable. The passage of time that her very name invokes will see which ideas for human success last and which are crushed under her feet. The Petersons (and Schreis) will come and go, and how humans will shift and adapt to urgent necessities in environment and society remains to be seen. Many isms and modalities will doubtlessly be left aside along the way. Kālī is known as the one who “smashes opposites,” who destroys polarities. This, more than anything else may be what we need right now. My view is that left and right will come to be definitions of the past. My view is that there is a place for the artist, and the visionary, and for the dreamer, and for those dispossessed across the political spectrum to come together in shaping the future. Ultimately, the barometer for success that a divine mother like Kālī — mother nature herself — might appreciate, isn’t how ‘competent’ we were along capitalist lines, but how we were in relation to one another and to her — how well, in the end, did we love.
After fifteen years of affiliation with Yoga Alliance, I have decided to revoke my registration. I will no longer be individually associated with Yoga Alliance as an RYT yoga instructor nor will I register any further yoga schools with Yoga Alliance.
I will continue to teach workshops, immersions, retreats, and courses. They simply will not be associated with Yoga Alliance. I will also no longer call my immersions “Teacher Trainings.”
There are several reasons for this decision. I encourage other yoga instructors to read this and consider the best way forward for themselves and for the practice of yoga.
1) Yoga Alliance is based on a faulty premise, and this is hurting Yoga in a big way.
Yoga Alliance, for all its talk of standards, is built around a fabricated standard based on an inherently false premise — the idea that 200-hours of training is a sufficient minimum level of yoga education for a person to become a yoga teacher.
Simply put, 200 hours of training is not an adequate baseline standard.
I say this not to disparage any of the great up and coming teachers out there or the hard work they’ve put in. This is not a criticism of the enthusiastic practitioners of yoga or of their desire to share the practice.
But it is important to understand point by point what the inexcusably low 200-hour standard — and the fact that, thanks to Yoga Alliance, it is the centerpoint around which the modern yoga world is constructed — is doing to yoga.
The yoga world is facing a massive glut of under-qualified teachers (There are currently 90,000+ RYTs within the Yoga Alliance system). The overall quality of yoga being offered and the connection to the actual roots of yoga has plummeted exponentially. While a certain level of watering down is to be expected any time a tradition jumps an ocean and turns into a commodity, in the yoga world it has reached ridiculous levels.
It is currently possible, within Yoga Alliance standards, for a person to take their first yoga class ever on the first day of a certain month and to be a Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher by the end of that same month.
There is no discipline that I know of — in any field — in which one can claim the level of mastery necessary to teach other people that discipline within 200 hours. This isn’t a thing. This cheapens the practice, distances the practice from its roots, dramatically lessens the quality of what is being offered, and opens yoga up to criticisms of cultural insensitivity.
2) Yoga Alliance standards were fabricated without any connection to how Yoga is traditionally taught, and this is culturally insensitive
Beyond the devaluation and commercialization that comes with such a glut, it is important to understand that this 200-hour standard bears no resemblance to how yoga was traditionally taught and transmitted from teacher to student.
Basically, in creating standards for the yoga world, Yoga Alliance adopted a bodywork model — similar to the certification program one might take to become an LMT (licensed massage therapist). As far as I know, no Indian teachers of any of the major lineages of yoga were consulted in creating the 200-hour standard. The progenitors of modern yoga, all of whom were Indian, never intended for yoga to be taught by people who had very little practice experience. If one knows anything about Indian tradition, one knows how laughable the idea of someone teaching after mere months of practice is.
Yes, traditions change. We don’t live in the era of guru/shishya transmission in which a student probably wouldn’t teach until after 30 years of practice, nor, necessarily, should we. But in a time when issues of cultural sensitivity are front and center in public discourse, and the yoga world has come under increased scrutiny for appropriation and commodification, it is irresponsible for Yoga Alliance to continue to forward a system of standards that do not remotely reflect how yoga was traditionally transmitted and taught in India.
3) Low Yoga Alliance standards encourage studios to churn out low quality trainings, and Yoga Alliance does nothing about it
The 200 hour standard has become the hub around which the yoga world revolves. Again, this is not the students’ fault — they are products of a system. A system that Yoga Alliance created and that yoga studios buy into because for studios, offering a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) is the most feasible way for them to stay financially afloat.
Such studios may be staffed by people who themselves only have a couple of years of experience. (It is also possible, within Yoga Alliance standards, for the same student who became a yoga teacher after a month to train other teachers after a mere two years). Studios offer teacher trainings with little thought as to whether their training staff can accurately answer questions on yogic history, present even a rudimentary knowledge of the Indian spiritual culture which birthed yoga, convey where yoga fits within systems of Indian philosophy, represent the physical practice well, truly understand or explain pranāyama, mantra, etc. Less tangibly, but no less importantly, teachers who are training other teachers may not have even started to truly embody the practice themselves.
This further waters down the teaching pool. Under-qualified studios train under-qualified teachers. The next generation of under-qualified teachers start training other teachers, and the quality level plummets even further. Again, at a time when yoga is being questioned along lines of cultural sensitivity and respect, how is this justifiable? In such a climate, one would think that Yoga Alliance would be scrupulously monitoring studios to make sure that they are adhering to at least basic standards and offering a certain quality of program. But they are not (more on this later). It is fundamentally more profitable for Yoga Alliance to have MORE registered teachers and schools vs. really paying attention to the quality of programs out there. This is not yoga, it is capitalism.
4) The emphasis on the 200 hour YTT created by Yoga Alliance forwards a value system that runs directly contrary to the principles of Yoga
The cycle that has been built around the 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified YTT and is perpetuated by studios and bought into by eager students mirrors larger societal systems of consumption and non-sustainability which yogic teachings are inherently critical of. The entire premise of 200 hours of study, quick turnaround trainings, flip-of-the-switch lifestyle change (hey look, now I’m a yoga teacher!), is exactly the vritti-fueled mentality that traditional yoga seeks to balance out.
While Iyengar, Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois certainly charged money for their classes, and certainly wanted yoga to grow in the west, the current reality is not what they envisioned. The construction of a yoga machine based on churning out of thousands of new teachers per year directly contravenes yogic principles of Satya, Svādhyāya, Aparigraha, and — when fledgling teachers with almost zero knowledge of how to work with bodies are actually working with people’s bodies — Ahiṃsā. It is fundamentally unyogic.
One of the primary gifts that yoga has to offer in a world focused on endless production and forward movement, in a society bent on accomplishment, is the opportunity to drop in and center without thought of goals or outcomes. Such centering, in what I’ve observed as a former teacher trainer, does not happen when a student approaches a training already thinking of yoga as a career change. There is a marked difference in how a student approaches an immersion, for example vs. how they approach a 200-hour teacher training. Is what is needed in the world right now more quick turn-around yoga teachers? Or is it more time for practitioners to truly calm and come to center?
The problems with this non-sustainable cycle are evident, both for the practitioner, the studio, and the yoga world at large. Yet rather than seek to remedy these issues, Yoga Alliance actively profits from this non-sustainable cycle and promotes it. The institution of a low standard is the perfect vehicle for Yoga Alliance to at once claim to be the standard setter and at the same time profit from the fact that when it comes down to it, there are basically no standards.
5) Yoga Alliance does not actually monitor and regulate the standards that it sets
Even if you buy that there should be a western organization regulating the yoga world along self-created (and inarguably low) standards, the sad truth is that Yoga Alliance doesn’t actually regulate.
I’ve helped launch 5 yoga schools. In none of my dealings with Yoga Alliance has there been a hint of monitoring or a question of standards. I could have frankly been teaching anything this entire time and calling it yoga and Yoga Alliance would keep collecting my annual fee and looking the other way.
In my dealings with Yoga Alliance employees, they do not seem qualified or empowered to care about anything other than whether the forms on their website are correctly filled out. That is the extent of quality control. Once a school is approved there is no follow up, no surveys, no communication other than a reminder to pay the annual fee.
Schools that are unquestionably offering teachings that are not linked to any yogic tradition whatsoever, schools that offer practices that by any definition are non-yogic, even schools that have accusations of mental and physical abuse are allowed to continue on with their Yoga Alliance certification.
If the counter argument is that the yoga world is too big to adequately monitor, this only proves all of the above points even further. How has it gotten this way? How have we ended up in the unsustainable situation we are in?
6) It is difficult to reasonably conclude that Yoga Alliance exists for any other purpose than to make money
Within a system that from any objective perspective leaves itself open to plummeting quality, easily skirtable standards, and unsustainable growth, Yoga Alliance is in the position to actively monitor, to raise standards to a level that would change the face of the yoga world, to implement real and agreed upon guidelines for what it means to be a yoga teacher, to put their foot down on (or at least make statements condemning) such aberrations as ‘beer yoga’, to discredit schools that are clearly abusing the system, and on and on. With over $7 million in assets in the bank and an annual payroll of $1.2 million (I’d be interested to see a breakdown on that number by staff member), Yoga Alliance is certainly in a position to do more. All I can conclude is that they don’t want to.
Ultimately, I am leaving Yoga Alliance because I don’t want to perpetuate a system that runs contrary to yogic principles, that has exponentially lowered the quality of teaching and understanding in the yoga world, is culturally disrespectful, and that forwards the very type of consumptive and non-sustainable behavior that yoga fundamentally seeks to move us away from.
A personal note.
When I began offering teacher trainings 7 years ago, it was after a lifetime of immersion in Indian thought and tradition. I grew up in a Zen Buddhist community. I lived in India at age 13 where I encountered — and studied — the cosmologies of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. I studied Sanskrit. I practiced Tibetan Buddhism diligently for the next 8 years. I studied massage therapy and had a 1000 hr massage therapy certification. I taught advanced Anatomy and Physiology at the New Mexico Academy of Healing Arts. I had 5 years of martial arts experience and over a decade of dedicated yoga practice. Most importantly, I had actually studied yogic tradition. I could name the central texts of yoga. I understood where yoga sits within Indian tradition. I had done years of mantra practice within the context of direct lineage transmission and so I could at least reasonably explain what a mantra is. (You now have teachers prescribing mantras who’ve never themselves done any significant mantra practice.)
With all this, and given what I observed in the yoga world, I felt that I was in a place to offer something that was needed — a teacher training linked to the root texts and original intent of yoga practice.
Despite this level of study, I still felt trepidation when I began offering teacher trainings. I couldn’t put my finger on it. What I came to see was that the emphasis on churning out teachers was the problem. That if I truly wanted students to experience the space of ‘yoga’ — the calming of the consciousness — that I had to remove the expectation that trainings would lead to a goal.
As I mention in the opening paragraph, I will continue to offer immersions and retreats. I will no longer use the words ‘teacher trainings’. These immersions will not be associated with Yoga Alliance. Students won’t be able to be cash them in for pointless ‘hours’. Ultimately, what are hours? The practice is the practice of lifetimes. 10,000 hours is a number generally associated with mastery. Courses I offer, over time, will yield the result they yield based on the practice and dedication of the student. What matters ultimately is if a practitioner is able to embody the teachings in their lives. That is what will make them good teachers in the long run. Not a quantifiable number of hours.
For those students who took one of my 200 hour trainings, I’m sure you will remember that I always emphasized that 200 hours was merely opening the door. I hope that you benefited from the study that you undertook. I know some of you are teaching. I encourage you, in no uncertain terms, to keep studying, and at some point to study within one of the uninterrupted lineages of yoga practice.I encourage you to study, at some point, in India. I encourage you to study the source texts from those who truly study them and know them. And perhaps to consider withholding that which you are not truly able to claim that you deeply understand. Practices such as mantra, visualization based meditation, and pranāyama were traditionally not given openly to beginners. They were transmitted within a lineage context. Mantra particularly required very deep understanding. Do not let the drive to make your classes different or marketable take you into the trap of teaching that which you are not ready to teach.
It is always worth asking — have I mastered this well enough to teach it?
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your attention. I will be following up this statement with several pro-active things that I will be offering in the coming months and years.
With deep respect for the practice of yoga,
When the early Vedic peoples of India observed the world around them, they saw certain fundamental truths reflected throughout all levels of nature. The most fundamental of these truths is that we live in a universe of motion and transformation. Things change. The stuff of the cosmos changes into other stuff. Everything that we see, in its current form, was — not so long ago — in a very different form. Not so long from now, everything will be in a very different form again.
This is true for our physical bodies, for the body of this planet with its ever-shifting canyons and mountain ranges and volcanoes and sea beds, it is true for the entire physical universe, which was born from a single point and will return again to that primal singularity.
The Vedic people associated this dance of energy, this kinesis, this eternal process of change and transformation with the principle of heat, or ‘tapas.’
In Vedic understanding, it was tapas that created the universe. A primal impulse, a first loving desire transformed the inert potentiality of limitless space-consciousness into the bright, hot, spinning universe of transformation that we know and see and hear and feel around us.
“Verily in the beginning, Prajapati [God] alone existed here. He thought within Himself, “How can I be propagated? He longed to become many. He practiced tapas and created living things.”
This primal heat of transformation is responsible for the entire manifest universe. Everything we see, feel, touch, hear and, taste in this universe has ‘been through the fire’ and everything reflects the fundamental transformative, luminous, and kinetic qualities of tapas.
The very atomic fabric of creation – in its luminosity, motility, and its endless variegated forms — is tapas itself. Tapas is synonymous with creation, and is itself the source of creation’s fundamental natural laws. As it says in the earliest Vedic writings:
Order and truth were born from heat as it blazed up.
Just as the elements of the periodic table were born through the initial cosmic boiler-room temperatures of the big bang and subsequent supernovas, so the fundamental building blocks of this universe – and the laws that govern it – are born from heat.
The Vedic people saw this heat reflected on all levels of creation. Tapas blazed above them, in the form of the sun:
The sun fills the world with his tapas. He looks downward on us, heating all created things.
And tapas was within them as well:
His is that shining form which gives heat in yonder sun and is the brilliant light in a smokeless fire, the same fire that cooks the food in men’s stomachs. He who is in the fire, and he who is in the heart, and he who is in the sun – he is One.
In fact, tapas connects the whole of the Vedic universe.
To early humans, the heat generated by the campfire, or the sexual act, by the effort of hunt or battle, by dance or hard work was the expression of one and the same source, the cosmic fire.
-Wolf-Deiter Storl, Shiva, the Wild God of Power and Ecstasy
All processes of the natural world were thought to be contained in this heat. This lifetime itself was a tapas. We were born out of the heated womb, we physically grew and were sustained as beings through the heat of metabolic process, along the way we suffered the heat of pain and experienced the heat of joy. At the end of our lives, having burned through this lifetime, we returned once more to ash. Ashes to ashes. Tapas.
Tapas was at once the heat of gestation, incubation, birth, growth, creation, passion. But it was also the friction of restraint, the fire we feel when something is lacking, the primal longing, the struggle for transformation.
Tapas was both pain and joy, and pain and joy shared a common heat:
“For the first time he witnessed a birth. With astonished burning eyes he gazed at the face of the woman in labor…the expression of her face seemed most remarkable to him…the lines of the screaming woman’s face were little different from those he had seen in other women’s faces during the moment of love’s ecstasy…He was surprised by the realization that pain and joy could resemble each other so closely.”
— Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund
This primal recognition of the heat of existence formed the foundation for all of the spiritual traditions of India.
In honor of the radiant heat of tapas, and to connect to its transformative energy, the early Vedic people used fire as their main form of worship.
The fire ceremony – called yajna – dates back thousands upon thousands of years. Yajna – which involves chanting sacred mantras and pouring substances such as butter and milk and grain into a fire — was a vehicle through which Vedic people could connect to the larger natural transformative forces around them, the great order of the universe – the rta.
Rta means order, and also relates directly to the word ‘ritual.’
All human ritual seeks, in some way, to reestablish connection to an underlying natural order – and most ritual involves a connection to the transformative power of heat.
In the Native American sweat lodge, seekers enter a womb of tapas – primal fire and water — in order to reconnect to spirit though their own experience of tapas. They emerge from that gestation period like newborns, clearer and more attuned as a result of the purifying quality of heat.
All across the globe, we find the use of heat in ritual that serves to connect us to the primal heat of tapas.
Every time we enter the space of yoga practice, we are connecting to this primal fire and water. In our movement through the asanas, we are heating ourselves in order to open, and in that openness we are in a better place to receive – to receive breath, to receive illumination into our lives. It’s no coincidence that one feels clearer and cleaner and ‘reborn’ after the practice of heating through asana. This is tapas.
Through this heating process, we work to burn off that which stands in the way of us and our connection to the great transformative force of this universe, the light that some people call the Divine.