Yoga and Craft

Apparently in Silicon Valley, the ancient spiritual practice of yoga is now presented as a technology (yes, not a technique, not a discipline or a practice: a technology!) to achieve peak performance…

I had a strong reaction when I read this so I followed the link and I watched the video to understand what it was all about. It amounts to a few minutes of quick variations of standard yoga poses – with the encouragement to focus on your breath and develop some awareness of what you are feeling, where the tension is in your body and so on… (Milarepa will be annoyed to know that a few minutes here and there is enough to reach ‘consciousness’… all those years he spent deepening his practice…)

sawThe nub of my reaction was that it seems to me that this new ‘technology’ speaks exactly to the critique that so many social philosophers from Marx and Engels to William Morris  and  to Gramsci levelled at the working conditions of the industrial era – the concept of ‘alienation’. My understanding is that with that term they described the profound disconnection in the worker between who s/he is as a person (thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations, beliefs, interests) and who they are required to ‘be’ in the workplace so that the company can prosper – a cog in a machine, a small part of a much bigger organisation, whose value is only in his/her ability to facilitate the progress of the task at hand (be it the flow of information or the next step in an assembly line sequence…) And this “new technology” offers the illusion of being person-centred and care about the individual while reinforcing the fact that what is required of you is to be at your best for the benefit of the organisation (“achieving peak performance”: whose? yours or the company?)

But perhaps I misunderstood something – I don’t have much experience of large corporations and that kind of work… I’ve never risen far in those sort of organisations

In any case, my thought process then moved into a different direction. I realised that one of the reasons I felt frustrated with the news of  this revolutionary technology, is that for me it’s old news. I’m not a yoga practitioner: I’ve dabbled in Zen meditation and T’ai Chi over the years but never with much consistency and I cannot claim to have ever achieved any proficiency or expertise in those practices. No, it’s old news in the sense that in my work as a furniture maker I have learned some time ago that it’s imperative that I am aware of how I’m feeling, where my focus is, where my energy is at etc. if I want to do a good job. I work with my body and my mind and my spirit (I mean that part of my mind that is not the logical/problem solving side…). The sort of furniture I make requires deep focus and concentration. There’s very little of routine tasks. Every operation needs my full attention. Especially with hand tools, but also with machines, I have learned from bitter experience that if I am tense, out of focus, somehow unbalanced, I will make mistakes. I’ll rush, I’ll try to take too thick a cut and tear the fibres, I won’t take the time to sharpen the tool or change the blade and it will show in the finished result. Or I will simply not cut it straight and square. And so I have learned that it’s important, as I move from one task to the next, to re-centre, re-focus, let go of distractions… For me it often takes the form of having a drink and a wander around the workshop. Or putting all the tools back so that I start the next phase with a clear bench. Or stretching my back by hanging from the architrave on the main door. And sometimes it means saying “sod it, I’ll go and do some filing, work through my inbox and leave the practical work for later on, when I’m in a better place”

Surprisingly enough, I learned much of this by teaching. When beginners are struggling (especially with hand tools) I have found that very often what I need to do is to help them shift their attention from the task (the line that they are struggling to follow in sawing, for instance) to their body and centre. Sometimes just changing their stance slightly to one side means that they can approach the task in a completely different way. But as long as they insist on focusing on the line, they contort their elbows and shoulders in ways that make it pretty difficult for their body to cut straight. In the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days, a baseball player explains how important it is to keep the focus not on the target but on your body: how you hold the ball, how you release it etc. Those are (seemingly) small things, but they are the ones you can control – the target is outside and therefore not worth worrying about: once you’ve let go of the ball, it’s out of your control… If you focus on the target you’re out of balance. If you prefer to get your philosophical insights from more literary sources, I think Eugen Herrigel in Zen and the Art of Archery says pretty much the same thing.

All of this led me to wonder whether this might be what distinguishes “craft” from other disciplines. I have always struggled with the label of craftsman – I am never sure exactly of what it means. Other jobs require a high level of skill or a good understanding of materials or a creative approach – and yet they are not classed as craft.

But perhaps this is it – craft is a particular approach to working, a particular attitude from the maker, an attunement to the task and the material that requires the whole person to be ‘present’ and eschews alienation. At the end of the day, what William Morris called “meaningful work” as opposed to the “useless toil” of the factories. And what I aspire to.

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