I had no other way, always presupposing that I couldn´t chose freedom”
Every now and then, we modern yogis need someone to mess with our heads. Franz Kafka is a man for that job. His short story “Report to an academy” makes beautiful use of our monkey theme to reflect on modern yoga and it´s relationship to the Nature/Culture divide.
Kafka writes in the voice of a young chimpanzee captured in the wild. Our little hero wakes up on a big ship, wounded by gunshot and stuffed in a cage so narrow that he can´t stand up. After days of tortuous misery, he slowly loses the hope of freedom and starts looking for the next best thing: A way out. On the ship apes belong in a cage, so the way out is to stop being an ape. Our hero painfully subjects himself to teachings in how to shake hands, how to smoke a pipe, how to drink form the liquor bottle and, finally, how to speak. Upon his arrival to Europe he subjugates himself to more human teachers and regimens and reaches “the educational level of an average European”. We are introduced to him as he responds to an invitation from The Academy, delivering a report about his “former life led as ape”. The report is a story of becoming human. A one-way ticket to never fully arriving. He boldly states:
“I felt more comfortable in the world of men and fitted it better; the strong wind that blew after me out of my past began to slacken; today it is only a gentle puff of air that plays around my heels (…) your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.”
In the eloquent discourse of Kafkas ex-ape, there is no possibility of going back to animal nature. Neither is there any going forwards to pure human accomplishment We are left with the impossible process of becoming human. The tickling at our heels bears witness to the price of taking “the human way out”. Unrestrained, free, animal embodiment is forever lost to us once we enter into the domestication project that life in civilization requires. To Kafka, freedom is purely a monkey business. An irritating tickle reminding us all what we are losing every step of the way.
There are two things I like about this story: First, it portrays human nature not as a mode of existence but as a becoming. Humanness in this story is an irreconcilable process that is never quite nature, never quite culture and never even a mixture of the two. It´s neither this nor that. It´s something else. Something impossible.
Second, I like the distinction Kafka’s ape makes between freedom and a way out.
Both these points tickle my thinking about how we engage in modern yoga and meditation practices. Now there are many approaches to yoga. Some see it as a matter of domesticating something wild. As taming or transcending the animal in us (see Salute to the Monkey Mind part one). Another approach to yoga is seeing the practice as a returning to nature.
I´m sure most of us modern yogis have all subscribed to this yoga magazine in some way. Conciously or unconciously we are drawn to yoga as a practice of uncovering the natural, free animal in us. A s a yoga teacher I have definitely practiced and preached from idealized naturalness repeatedly over the years. Yoga is both practices and marketed as an opportunity to uncover the wilddeness within of rewilding the body. Walking in bare feet, eating raw, going on retreats in forests, mountains or beaches, opening our hips, balancing on our hands, breathing deep in the belly, cooking paleo, going into silence. It tastes like animal freedom.It helps us recover from stress, anxiety and fatigue. It´s undoubtedly nourishing for us to go into the wild and practice. But does a yoga holiday in the wild neccessarily help us with the human predicament of raising children in a polluted city, living a life in shoes or turning off the news with a pit in the stomach? Does it help us act when we encounter sufffering in ourselves and others?
“Rewilding” – at least in its commercial application – seems to be a rare privilege only accessible for the few. Not all of us have the opportunity to spend our life in silent self-reflection on a white beach drinking kale juice and learning to do a headstand every morning. Most of us are stuck in civilization’s hamster wheel, a cage of very real and often painful relationships to people, to nature, to power, to the body, to ourselves. Going “back to nature” has paradoxically become a privilege for the privileged. It takes resources to find a way out if the way out is to stop being human and attain purified naturalness. It takes time, money, pain, sweat and diet to keep up the strength and flexibility of a modern yoga-monkey.
How many of us modern yogis have not looked to yoga posture practice for a tension-free, liberated animal-like body? And we are willing to work hard to be able to afford yoga classes, workshops, super food, and yoga holidays in the silent wilderness. We take times away from our loved ones to work on our hanumanasana. And in between the holidays we overuse electronic devices, sleep too little, worry too much, fail to do anything about it and experience the pain of addiction to coffee, sugar, drugs, alcohol and other peoples opinion about us. Even the simple silly things like walking in high heels, carrying a bag on one shoulder or holding the belly in leaves a painful imprint in our enculturated human bodies. A pain of civilized restriction producing a dream of animal freedom. A trickle on our heels. A pain that make us long for going somewhere else, doing something else, being someone else. Someone more natural, more animal, more free perhaps?
This is where Kafka blows my mind. Between the lines, Report to an Academy gives us an analytical razor sharp enough to cut through spiritual materialism. (Especially the kind that is dressed up in commercialized naturalness and ape-acrobatics). Let all Instagram Yoga Celebrities pose in peace while we listen to a monkey-powered reflection on human attempts to attain physical freedom like that of the apes: Acrobats in trapeze on the variety stage:
“They swung themselves, they rocked to and fro, they sprang into the air, they floated into each other’s arms, one hung by the hair from the teeth of the other. “And that too is human freedom,” I thought, “self-controlled, movement.” What a mockery of holy Mother Nature! Were the apes to see such a spectacle, no theater walls could stand the shock of their laughter.”
To Kafka’s ape, physical prowess for humans is a far cry from free animal embodiment. In the ape-gaze, modern yoga as seen in impressive handstand videos has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with wanting a way out.
Yoga will never turn us back into monkeys. (We have a generation of irreversibly injured yoga bodies to prove that). Our species have physical limits that will tickle our heels every step of the way (AND our knees, sacroiliac joints, lower backs, writsts…). Reminding us that we are not the free and unrestrained apes that we aspire to be. I know a yoga teacher who finds it acceptable that his body always hurts somewhere, that is just part of the game, he says. Yoga clearly never succeeds in transcending the animal in us. No amount of yoga can concour the mortal, fleshy vulnerability of our bodies. I know medieval yogis wrote about super human powers and cheating death. But they are all dead now. We can let that one go i think. The apes laugh their butts off watching us undergo pain and torture on the mat and the cushion to attain that rewilded “free” animal body. Self-controlled movement. Whether we approach yoga as a disciplined mastery over the body (a cultural pursuit) or a practice of freeing a wild, natural body (going back to nature) it remains to Kafka a becoming human: A one-way ticket to never fully arriving. Becoming has no glorified purity at the end of the tunnel. We humans never quite “make it”.
Kafka blows my mind because he has the courage to eschew purity and insist on bastard impossibility. I would like to think that Report to an Academy has more to offer than a steriotypical punch in the face of big bad civilization. We can do more than just crying for a our internal chimpanzee cut in two by the bars separating nature and culture. We can practice yoga in a way where we dont have to spend the rest of our lives dreaming about a body we will never attain. Kafkas ape bears witness to the impossibility of coming to terms with Nature/Culture duality that human existence plunges us into. To Kafka, becoming human is simply an impossible situation! No completion is possible, no purity attainable, no picking and choosing will ever fully satisfy us. We can´t go back and we can´t move forwards.
So what if we could surrender to that?
What a relief! To let go of a way out and instead feel free to be just this. A half-baked ape-human at peace with itself. To surrender willingly to the irreconcilable becoming that is our life. Not quite the unrestrained wild animals we long to be, not really the perfectly cultivated human beings we would be “if only”... Just this. Beautifully incomplete. Immaculate imperfection.
What does this mean to a yogi? I´m not sure yet. It would have to be a collective experiment. I imagine we can practice surrender to the perfect impossibility of human life anywhere. Not just in white beaches or silent meditation halls. Not just in solitary silent retreats but also in engaged action and social life. I can imagine a yoga practice that allows us to explore, love and honor the limitations and capacities of this very body, these very relationships, this very walk on this very earth. On the mat, in meditation, at the computer screen, in high heels, watching the news, crying, worrying, holding the belly in, breathing out, falling in love. Feeling this and allowing what we are feeling to fuel spontaneous action. Allowing for a real time relationship with this impossible world.
Imagine a spiritual practice that doesn’t just make us feel great with ourselves but also intimate with the pain and joy of other beings. Imagine a yoga practice that calls for an unflinching response to what is happening here and now. Imagine no longer having to claw for a way out of reality’s hamster wheel. Imagine walking on earth willingly encountering everything that tickles our human heels. The sound accompanying every step being apes laughing laughing…