White Elephant versus Termite Yoga Practice
White elephant or termite practice?
Manny Farber is one of the most important critics in movie history, a legend who penned classic pieces for The New Republic, The Nation, Art Forum, and Film Comment. He was an early champion of the American action film, as well as of Hollywood stylists like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Preston Sturges, and even Chuck Jones. He’s most famous for the essays “Underground Films” and “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art.”
In the latter piece, Farber introduced and championed what he called “termite art,” a phrase he used to describe any unpretentious movie that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."
The tapeworm film is in contrast to “white elephant art,” or “masterpiece art,” which was “artificially laden with symbolism and significance.” The white elephant films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, “pin viewers to the wall and slug them with wet towels of artiness and significance.”
Dramatic, histrionic flourishes coupled with a rasping ujjayi breath might characterize a white elephant yoga practice, as each vinyasa and each asana is a neon sign blinking seriousness and “significance.” A key characteristic of white elephant art, according to Farber, is that it’s filled with “overripe technique.”
In contrast, the termite practice is laconic, workmanlike, efficient; a termite practice, as Farber defines termite art, “nails down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgets this accomplishment as soon as it has passed.” The termite practice is epitomized by an economy of expression.
To engage in a termite (or tapeworm-moss-fungus) practice, as the very name suggests, is to concern oneself with a burrowing into the many layers of the self, each layer as fine as onion skin, and not peeled so much as enveloped, chewed, swallowed, and digested, until one is left to confront the paradox of the self-devouring uroboros, the ancient Greek depiction of the snake or dragon eating its own tail.
You will not notice those termites at your studio as their economy renders them invisible. They will arrive, practice, and depart without drawing your attention. A termite’s practice is entirely separate from physical ideas of flexibility and strength; it is compact and internal.
Among the ways to cultivate the termite aspect of one’s practice, as Matthew Sweeney suggests in Ashtanga Yoga: As It Is, is to practice alone for an extended stretch of time. An unintended benefit of the solitary termite practice, as those around the world who practice alone know, is the deep and overwhelming sense of gratitude that arises, from deep in the core of the body, when one once again is fortunate enough to practice with a true teacher.
On a mundane level, a termite practice favors the rooting and grounding of the out-breath, while the white elephant practice favors an upward and expansive in-breath. The key difference is that both sides of the termite’s breath are directed internally, while the white elephant allows the breath to dissipate externally.
The stereotypical white elephant inhales and exhales with thunderous momentousness, and each movement up and down, forwards and backwards, is rigid with overwrought concern for perfection. It is over-burdened with floating fireworks and a concern for rubbery circus flexibility.
The white elephant is entirely dependent upon the strict division between the practitioner, the practice and, most critically, a sense of “spectators” who are “viewing” the practice. But it is this sense of performance that transmutes the white elephant. While practicing “on-stage” and acutely aware of the gaze of others, the white elephant self-consciously activates and engages each and every body part in a steady diffusion of consciousness.
So there is value in the white elephant practice, as true to its name, it inevitably lumbers inward: the relentless focus on the performance and perfection of each asana, and the interlocking vinyasa between, can only lead to the white elephant dissolving in the performance. From there, with a little grace, any sense of separation between performer, performance, and audience dissolves entirely. One thinks of Shiva’s aspect as Nataraj, whirling through his never-ending dance of destruction and creation. The dancer, the dance, the audience: all are one.
Who does not begin practice as a white elephant? Who does not enter a new studio or workshop as a white elephant? A key characteristic of the white elephant is its own self-consciousness, and who has never felt self-conscious? Whose practice does not flip-flop between white elephant and termite stages, sometimes even in the tiny space between the in- and out-breaths? The transition from white elephant to termite comes as one continues to practice: thoughts arise, one observes them, and one returns to the breath.