Friday, May 17, 2013

In Perpetual Motion: A Conversation with Norman Sjoman PhD on Yoga, Art and a Personal Sense of Order

"Dark Rudra" original on canvas and paper, Norman Sjoman

I t happened the usual way things happen for me. I read something curious and then the thought of it grew, generating questions that then fractured and multiplied, interrupting my routines, populating my peripheral vision. I owe this particularly pleasant detour to Canadian painter, writer, yoga teacher and Sanskritist Norman Sjoman who I’m told was living in Argentina at the time I managed to make contact with him. See, I was on a mission to sequester myself (very successful on the isolation end of things) with the books I needed to read for my final comprehensive exam when I re-read Sjoman’s lovely book, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, in which he wrote the following:
"I feel that the only possible way of communicating any meaningful sense of justice is through one's personal sense of order, one's aesthetic."
So of course, this seemed an unusual pronouncement to make. I mean, not that the statement itself is hard to understand, but that Sjoman had decided to open his discussion of the hatha yoga traditions of the Mysore Palace with this note to his readers seemed out of the ordinary. What was his concern with the aesthetic? 

Norman Sjoman
Norman Sjoman has published on art, art history and the techniques of yoga, and also lectured on these subjects as well as Sanskrit at universities in various countries. Born in Mission City, British Columbia, Sjoman has a BA Honours from the University of British Columbia, a Filosofie Kandidat from Stockholm University. He has a Vidyāvācaspati (PhD) from the Centre of Advanced Studies in Sanskrit at Pune University, a pandit degree from the Mysore Maharaja’s Mahapathasala and a Diploma from Alberta College of Art. Over a 14-year period in India he studied four different śāstras (traditional philosophical disciplines), in Sanskrit, with several individual pandits. From 1970-1976 Sjoman studied yoga under B.K.S. Iyengar. Sjoman has taught yoga in several countries and is accredited by yoga studios in Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. In 1982 he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Yoga by the Nippon Yoga Gakkei. At present he resides mainly in Calgary, Canada, while making frequent visits to India,
"Harihara," original on canvas/paper, Norman Sjoman
Europe, Mexico and South America. As a visual artist, Sjoman has illustrated his own books and books by others. He has prepared exhibition catalogues for various artists, including Druvinka, Shehan Madawela, Raghupati Bhatta, and R. Puttaraju. In 2006 Sjoman was invited to the first panel on yoga at the American Academy of Religion in Washington, DC, where he presented a paper entitled Summary of Research on Yoga. In 2006 he presented a monograph "The Yoga Tradition" at India's Lonavla Yoga Institute.

I like to think that like all detours from life’s main roads, this conversation (which is the result of a volley back and forth of questions emailed over great distances) gives you a sense of yoga’s tributaries and alleyways as Sjoman discusses art, poetry and the body in motion...all those things that make the busy pace of the main road that much more bearable. And so using something other than straight lines we build relationships that can sustain more than plans and ambitions: a personal sense of order, a treehouse, an āsana, a fable that happened one day in the backyard.

"Rudra Rajata" original mixed media on canvas, Norman Sjoman

Priya Thomas in Conversation with Norman Sjoman, PhD

"Burnt Rudra" original mixed media on canvas/paper, Norman Sjoman

 "I feel that the only possible way of communicating any meaningful sense of justice is through one's personal sense of order, one's aesthetic." - Norman Sjoman

Priya Thomas: Given your quote above, I'd like to talk about your perspective regarding the study of yoga as a discursive enterprise, as a psycho-physical practice and as an aesthetic… knowing full well that you would likely not separate these things. I think readers would be interested to hear your thoughts on the value importance of aesthetics as pertains to yoga, and to hear about your own journey with yoga.

Norman Sjoman: I will try to avoid cheap comments even though the glib answer is endemic to media.  I have discussed āsana as a psycho physical practice in Yoga Touchstone and Dead Birds. I will recapitulate some of that. First of all I have proposed dividing āsana into still and moving āsanas there.  The idea of still and moving is a concept that dates from the Upaniṣads and describes the world.  The word āsana itself means 'still' or 'position' (elaborated in Yoga Touchstone). The Indian term for movement is karma.  It accounts for the physical and beyond the physical extending even further than our idea of subconscious (that determines the patterns in our body that limit or control our movement) into previous incarnations.  The division of body and mind is artificial and stems from an orientation toward hyper objectivity as part of the metaphysic of scientific discourse and capitalism. We partially recognize this unity in our language with the word ‘emotion’ which literally means out of movement etymologically but we interpret that in terms of fight or flight.

So when we consider yoga, we have to consider the whole psycho-physical apparatus.  This has implications beyond the physical – our dreams, our deep sleep states, the dissolution of the body (as happens every night when we go to sleep).  In short, the practice of yoga is in reality an exploration of consciousness and this has been indicated from some of the earliest records in Indian thought, particularly in the Upaniṣads and continues almost up to the present in Indian texts.
To turn to art, these states of consciousness are not accessible to the dominating probes of objectivity (we could mention academics and politics here).  Therefore, logically, in order to explore them we have to turn to something else – here, art.  I think it is clear from the above that in āsana or movement, emotion is often a better means of access than anatomical abuse.

Now, in ancient India there were two forms of truth – satya and ṛta.  Satya more or less refers to a form of objective truth and ṛta was something like the truth of the whole moving cosmos.  The two do not necessarily correspond and overlap.  In the first pāda of the Yogasūtram that occurs after the ability to grasp object and subject (consciousness itself) and discriminate between them; there is the sūtra, ŗtambharā tatra prajñā, literally consciousness or knowledge at that point carries (or is) ŗta, the form of truth that is beyond or the core of objective truth if we accept the above explanations.  I might add that ṛta has disappeared as a concept in later Sanskrit. Interestingly enough, this word (ṛta) is the etymological source of our word art.  I have traced this in an article in my book Art: the Dark Side.  It is usually traced back to Latin which gives an idea of entertainer or street artist.  But traced all the way back, we get the sense that the artist is a seer that has access to a higher form of truth. From understanding this, we can extrapolate the attitude we would have to take on the ground.

Regarding justice, Pablo Neruda said there is no justice in this world.  The only justice to be found is in painting, in art where some kind of balance or order is necessary for it to be art and, I might add, there is nothing at stake any more.  I think the similarities to yoga are obvious.

Priya Thomas: It takes many years I presume of practice before one gets to the point of considering there to be “nothing at stake” anymore with either art or yoga.  For many, this would seem like a place they wouldn’t want to exist either....

Norman Sjoman: Perhaps you have misunderstood my comment here.  In the case of art, there is a certain confusion that has arisen with the dominance of economic considerations in our lives.  Previously one’s life was not governed by financial destiny.  One had one’s space on earth and food and living was not under the control of business excess.  When you work outside the fantasy of finance, there is nothing at stake.  Your art is for itself.  Most artists, excluded from financial reward (which is realized by promotion), practice their art because they want to (that is, emotion, above or the fact that they have no choice).  We speak of doctors and doctors.  Healers are excluded in a similar way.  Yoga has been especially prone to financial liquidation because of its popularity and a somewhat pathetic understanding that it is just about some particular configuration of the body.  Indian disciplines demand a lifetime of devotion (translate hard work). There is nothing really at stake because the discipline is only about you if you are fortunate enough to understand that.

Priya Thomas: I'm not sure I misunderstood your question about those for whom the notion of "nothing at stake" is anathema to their purpose in making art or doing yoga. I suppose I was in a way saying that for some, extrinsic motivators do seem to overshadow intrinsic ones. Wherever you look there's an artist or a yogi whose motivations are explicitly extrinsic. This, as you say, may pertain to economic considerations. But my point was that extrinsic motivators (i.e. those things that are at stake) continually appear in people's list of reasons for doing yoga or art. Is the intrinsic mode of being something that yoga can develop over what you call a "lifetime of devotion?" Or are artists (and yogis for that matter) necessarily those fish that swim upstream i.e. against the current? Didn't William Faulkner say, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore”?

Norman Sjoman: I have to reread Faulkner.  I have quoted him in Dead Birds as well.  Our initial impulse to action is often extrinsic.  If we are fortunate, our actions though should transform us in the process.  Indian Śāstras (traditional philosophical disciplines) all expect that transformation after which they say, the śāstra itself is meaningless.

Priya Thomas: There is a fair amount of emphasis placed on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra in contemporary postural practice. What do you make of this text occupying a central position in the perception of a canon?

Norman Sjoman: It looks now like my next book will be coming out, the 'Yogasūtraćintāmaṇi' which addresses this issue. This is a book about the much abused yoga sūtras.  What I have done is, using the sūtras as a framework, drawn relevant statements from Indian scholars and yogins of a thousand years earlier - Upaniṣads, Buddhism and so on.  These indicate a much older tradition than the yoga sūtras including the spiritual anatomy that is usually credited to the later śāktas.  In addition to that I have gone ahead into the tantric and śaiva texts that were created in the thousand years following Patañjali and supply their comments and critiques as well.  This enables us to see the yoga tradition as a tradition and place the yoga sutras within that rather than using them as the beginning and end of what is known as yoga.  Taking the tradition as a whole enables us to understand this as a spiritual discipline directly relevant to ourselves rather than as some symbol system or mechanical system of authority. I could say more but I restrain myself. 

Priya Thomas: You spoke earlier about the word emotion and its etymological relationship to movement. How would you describe yoga's relationship to emotion?

Norman Sjoman: Everyone who practices āsanas seriously has experienced the resolution of an emotional complex connected with a physical or anatomical release or access to movement and vice versa.  I have spoke about that in detail in Dead Birds. Indeed, ‘attitude’ is often ultimately more important in the accomplishment of movement than physical preparation.  Physical preparation tends to remain in a part of consciousness that is limited by a certain anatomical logic that might give some mechanical access in movement. Anatomy can be considered an ocean but it has boundaries. Emotion gives access to possibilities.  In Indian terms, that word can be covered by the word ‘heart’.  That adds a different perspective.

Priya Thomas: When did you first get interested in yoga?

Norman Sjoman: I began trying to work with Yoga in Sweden from a book.  I heard the word Sanskrit there as well and, when I heard it, I knew that I would study that and began to do so.  I did not even know it was an Indian language then.  I have felt that the two complement one another.  After all, they are both about concentration.

Priya Thomas:
What book did you find that guided you to practice yoga in Sweden?

Norman Sjoman: The first book I found was one by Ghosh.  I have never been able to find that book
again.  Then I took some classes with a young French boy who had been in a car accident and had
BKS Iyengar
been severely injured.  He had a Chinese physiotherapist who noticed that his movements were similar to yoga and worked with him with yoga.  Then I found Iyengar’s book on
āsanas.  I went to Pune to study Sanskrit and found that Iyengar was there.  I went to him for years. 

Priya Thomas: Describe your art practice.

Norman Sjoman: I have always been interested in art even as a child.  Now, I like to have a number of things in front of me.  I dabble with them.  With good fortune, one of them will take me and then I work on that exclusively until I am finished.  Then I hang around and wait for something else to take me.  

Priya Thomas: Why do you think there’s justice in art? Or in yoga? 

"Language Mandala," mixed media on canvas/paper, Norman Sjoman

Norman Sjoman: Art requires a certain ‘balance’.  That balance is a form of honesty.  It’s easy to be tricked or attracted by an extraneous symbol – a flesh flash for example.  Yoga, even at a physical level, begrudges absence of balance and alignment.  How much more so with the mind? With the breath? With meditation? You can perceive a quiet mind directly. 

Priya Thomas: Do you take movement to be a form of art? What constitutes art for you? 

Norman Sjoman: I am constrained by the way you put your question.  I would consider that movement which rises to ‘art’ (ṛta above) is movement that is part of the space around you pervaded or even formed by your own consciousness. And there is movement that is a fragmentation of that and does not rise to that state.  There is a long argument in Indian aesthetics about the conveyance of this state to the spectator and the state of mind of the participant.  There are different opinions.  It is generally accepted that there is a stimulation of emotions in the spectator that rise up until they transcend the ego fettered mind and become a direct temporary experience of transcendence.  The proof of that in Indian thought is the statement we make ‘I was lost in the music and I did not know a thing’.  It’s not uncommon.  One cannot expect anything less of art. I hope that is revealed in the photographs in Yoga Touchstone.

Priya Thomas: Can you describe the state of mind that arises in making/performing art?  Is it akin to a kind of possession? Is it an experience of svarga (loosely translated, a temporary “heaven”)? Is it pratyakṣa (insight) – what is it?

Norman Sjoman: What more is there to say than above?  Wallace Stevens has spoken eloquently in this excerpt of “The Man with the Blue Guitar:”

The Man With the Blue Guitar

The man bent over his guitar, 
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar, 
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are 
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must, 
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar 
Of things exactly as they are.”

I cannot bring a world quite round, 
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye 
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can 
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man 
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade 
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

Ah, but to play man number one, 
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board 
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door, 
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho, 
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang it from a savage blue, 
Jangling the metal of the strings…

So that’s life, then: things are they are? 
It picks its way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string? 
And all their manner in the thing,
And all their manner, right and wrong, 
And all their manner, weak and strong?
And that’s life, then: things as they are, 
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry, 
Of the torches wisping in the underground,
Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light. 
There are no shadows in our sun,
Day is desire and night is sleep. 
There are no shadows anywhere.
The earth, for us, is flat and bare. 
There are no shadows. Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place 
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place, 
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

A tune beyond us as we are, 
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;
Ourselves in the tune as if in space, 
Yet nothing changed, except the place
Of things as they are and only the place 
As you play them, on the blue guitar,
Placed so, beyond the compass of change, 
Perceived in a final atmosphere;
For a moment final, in the way 
The thinking of art seems final when
The thinking of god is smoky dew. 
The tune is space. The blue guitar
Becomes the place of things as they are, 
A composing of senses of the guitar.
"Rudra Whispers," original mixed media on canvas, Norman Sjoman
"Tree of Life," original mixed media on canvas, Norman Sjoman

T he blue guitar refuses to compose “things as they are,” composing instead beyond them... not unlike an āsana, creating an aesthetic order both emotionally moving and utterly transformative. As Sjoman reminds us, the word emotion means out of movement. As any yogi hell bent on their physical postures knows, movement, so closely linked to order, is also linked to emotion... Who hasn’t had that moment in a yoga class when you could identify a physical location that had become the residence for a particularly stubborn memory? Those in seated meditation will tell you the same, pointing with kinetic precision to the locations of their emotional turbines and the eruptions of anxiety that are regularly diffused, carried by breath into the delicate passages of their wrists or the soles of the feet. 

As summer approaches, even those who have no interest in yoga slip into circles around campfires, skip stones on oceans and circumambulate foreign cities, collaborating with other bodies as if these compositional forms of breath and movement, these poses, were hardwired into being... as if the movements of the night sky and its fireflies, or even the simulated flickering of the aurora borealis on my screensaver were but choreographic variations on a deeper theme, an infinitely flexible, more mutable order whose essence is perpetual motion.

All of Norman Sjoman's books are available to purchase online through Black Lotus Books.


  1. A very moving conversation. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Exquisite. My thanks to you both.