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How do we build intelligence instead of obedience? Can we engage in inquiry instead of dogma? Dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” We often think of religions as being dogmatic. They give us broad ideas that assert how life is, how God is, how we are or should be, and generally how the world works, in addition to smaller rules about the minutiae of daily life: how we dress, what to wear, how to pray.
Beliefs in and of themselves aren’t necessarily dogma, but when we leave them unexamined, when we take them as fact, when we don’t question the authority from which they are derived, they can quickly become dogmatic. In many ways, our culture rewards obedience and punishes questioning. There are true consequences for deviating too far from any norm and questioning the norms themselves can be equally dangerous. Conformity is the rule of the day.
Yoga has its own dogma. For years I taught certain poses in a particular way without much thought. I did this because it was how I had been taught to do the pose, or how I’d had the alignment explained to me in training, or sometimes because I hadn’t taken the time to give it a whole lot more thought.
Warrior One, for instance, I always taught with the weight in the pinky toe side of the back foot. Recently a visiting teacher encouraged us to put the weight in the big toe side of the foot in a workshop she was teaching. Admittedly my first reaction was to think: She must be mistaken.
But she repeated the errant instruction, so I did as she asked, and lo and behold, nothing terrible happened! And in fact I found myself able to access the elusive action of squaring the hips a bit more than when I’m putting the weight on the back edge of the foot.
Part of how we build intelligence instead of obedience is by engaging in a practice of inquiry. In asana practice, we can ask one powerful question: What is the intended effect of this instruction? Ie why is the person in authority asking me to do this in this particular way? And then: is it giving me the intended effect? And finally: is the intended effect something that’s actually useful to me?
Going back to Warrior One, when we press into the pinky toe side, the arch of the foot lifts, as does the inner ankle, shin and thigh. The back leg which sometimes gets sleepy in the pose suddenly wakes up and participates fully in the pose. When we press into the big toe side, the hips square more easily, the ribcage rotates more, and any torque on the back knee may be relieved. If the intention of the instructor is to really work the squaring of the hips, which instruction might they give? And for a student who has flat feet, which action might be more beneficial?
Rather than accepting the word of our teachers as the gospel truth, let’s build intelligence based on a practice of inquiry. Critical thinking is a skill we can practice on the mat but can also lobby out in the world. This is a tool for living under oppression. In a political climate where opinion columns masquerade as journalism and the highest leader in the land desperately needs a fact checker, let’s bolster our intelligence instead of our obedience.