the place of yoga

Jenny Hall comes to terms with how to practise yoga in an increasingly placeless world of cities and suburbs.

photo by Derek Shapton,

excerpted from the print magazine…

I believe that places, like dreams, can be interpreted. I believe that there is meaning underneath the landscape, that if we took the time to look, we could see ourselves and our values reflected in what we?ve built around us.

But who has time to look? I certainly don?t. I?m making the twenty-minute power walk to my regular yoga class and, as usual, I?m in a hurry. I don?t want to be late, I want to get a spot with good sightlines. I rush through lights that are about to change and weave through slower-moving pedestrians. I move through a landscape that feels like an obstacle. My destination is the studio, where I?ll unroll my mat, remind myself to breathe and notice the way my body feels. The crazy world outside will dissolve in a giant exhale. Right?

Not so fast, says Svatmarama Yogin, author of the Hatha Pradipika. His fourteenth-century text catalogues postures and pranayama, and is generally considered the philosophical basis for asana practice. The Pradipika has lots to say about the world ?out there,? about the world we modern-day yogis refer to glibly as the world ?off the mat.? Svatmarama emphasizes the importance of context, describing details of the ideal yoga room. It should be small ? four square cubits ? and free from rocks, fire, and other disturbances. There should be no holes, no insects, no cow dung. Outside the room we ought to find a raised platform and a well. A tall order for the modern-day yogi ? made taller still by the instruction that the room be located in a county ?where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.?

Must the Pradipika be taken literally in the Western world today? Most of us needn?t worry about cow dung, certainly. But is there an underlying message in the text?s prescription for the setting of our practice? ?Whatever the mind attaches itself to first,? writes Svatmarama, ?it becomes steady there; and then it becomes absorbed in it.?

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?I have to write my address on my hand,? my friend deadpans, ?because otherwise I won?t recognize my house when I come home at night.? Having just moved into a development of nearly identical townhouses, she likes to joke about the visual monotony of her new suburban neighbourhood. And it is disconcerting, the army of beige houses lining winding streets, streets named after the natural features that have been removed to make way for the development. It is hard to picture her here: her wicked wit and impossibly giant grin seem out of place, somehow. If I had to match her up with a place, I would imagine her in a rickety pink bungalow on a rambling estate full of secret nooks where a girl could get up to no good. I would imagine her in a place with layers, a place that doesn?t show you all its cards right away.

The problem with contemporary landscapes, including my friend?s new neighbourhood, is that context is no longer valued, says Edward Relph, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto. ?A lot of what?s happening in the landscape that?s being made now ? I?m thinking of Wal-Mart and such things ? has very little relationship to any location at all, to context.? Landscapes today, he says, ?are designed and conceived remotely, with more attention to economic considerations or to considerations of efficiency than to context. It?s a quick and easy way to do something, to make money, to turn over goods.? We live, says Relph, in a world full of places, but characterized by a kind of placelessness, a term he coined to describe the weakening identity of places to ?the point where they not only look alike, but feel alike and offer the same possibilities for experience.?

Relph believes that the impulse to travel is an attempt to infuse daily life with a sense of authenticity that is largely absent from our contemporary landscapes. ?There?s a sense of the possibilities of what places can be that comes through travel,? he says. ?Those possibilities are not actually realized in the daily contexts of people?s lives. There?s a disjunction between where people live and what they would see as ideal places.?

Jenny Hall works as a writer in the fundraising department at the University of Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in cultural geography and is working on a novel called The Grid System, which she likes to think of as a fictional version of her dissertation.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life