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Suggested Additions to Adyashanti’s Anemic “Post-Election Letter”

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti published the following Post-Election Letter to his Facebook page on November 19th . It was formatted as a caption to the photograph below. Since posting, it has been shared 1.7K times amongst his almost 57K followers.

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I don’t know how representative this is of the rest of Adyashanti’s work or writing. I don’t know whether it’s an uncharacteristic foray into politics. It might constitute a conscious shorthanding of complex issues for a social media format. But it’s a public letter on a platform of tens of thousands, addressed therefore to a broad spectrum of folks and experiences, so I’m responding to this (and this alone, being ignorant of his other work) as if it’s an important and influential document.

Also, it’s not unique. Since the election, posts like this have permeating whole sectors of yoga and meditation land. These sermons are built upon on (at least) five dangerous errors:

  1. Spotlighting emotions like fear and anger as fundamental problems to address, rather than the violence and oppression to which these emotions are responding. This amounts to a kind of spiritualized tone-policing that values civility and respectability over justice.
  2. Failing to show any awareness of how gendered, racial, and class privilege shapes and determines both the unequal consequences of political oppression and our unequal abilities to respond to it. By suggesting that everyone is responding to the same thing and from the same place, this language mirrors the propagandistic tool of false equivalency. In the campaign this was used to claim no difference between parties, or to focus on emails over admitted sexual assault. In these sermons, false equivalency is used to equalize the emotional responses of people in vastly different situations.
  3. Pretending that spiritual language is neutral, and that vague appeals made to undefined values like love and wisdom are somehow the first step to addressing violence and injustice, and not the first step to actually ignoring violence and injustice. Vague and supposedly neutral spiritual language is essential for keeping a spiritual teacher’s usually depoliticized base of support intact. For an example of a (white, privileged) spiritual teacher who’s actually challenging this norm, check out what’s happening on Marianne Williamson’s page. She’s willing to lose hundreds of her it’s-all-good hardliners by the minute by taking a pretty basic stand on pretty basic issues. I’ll embed an example below.
  4. Fostering the notion that charisma is more important than content.

Adyashanti has said that he has “penetrated to the emptiness of all things and realized that the Buddha I had been chasing was what I was.” So I’m sure he won’t take it personally if I use his incredibly anemic letter to illustrate these errors and offer edits and suggestions:

_____

LETTER FROM ADYA: Dealing with Post-Election Turmoil (would you consider “Trauma”?)

This election has stirred up a lot of emotion in people — mostly fear and anger, as far as I can see.

(Possibly from your vantage point you can’t see terror and clinical depression — consider adding these in? Also stirred up is the violence at rallies and now a surge of hate crimes spilling over the border into Canada. Positioning emotion as the primary problem confuses the response to existential terror with the bodily reality of it. This seems to be a standard move by spiritual teachers who want to reduce complex socio-political issues down to matters of internal attitude that they can minister to with books and retreats. Maybe better to avoid this opening gambit.)

We are in a time of great cultural upheaval in both the United States and Western Europe.

(Maybe add in the Middle East? Climate refugees? Syrians drawing neo-Nazi backlash as soon as they scramble up the beach?)

People on both the left and the right of the political divide feel disenfranchised, ignored, and threatened in so many ways.

(To avoid extending the pernicious false equivalencies and white male working-class myths that propagandized the US and Brexit campaigns and that aren’t borne out by available data, how about adding some nuance here about who has been disenfranchised and how?)

And it all boiled up to the surface during this election. It was bound to happen and in many ways necessary.

(Repressed racism and misogyny also revealed themselves, not as emotions, but as foundational structural realities. Maybe consider adding these? Also, the fatalism here is problematic. Some of your congregation will resonate with the nod at karma and hints at purification, but those who will be deported by Theresa May or killed by the Trump presidency cancelling the ACA may not.)

Cultural turmoil brings change.

(Not sure if you intended this, but this sentence could be read as providing tacit rationalization and forgiveness for your devotees who voted Trump. Returning back to the top: suggest subbing in or adding “trauma”. Also: physical violence brings change too. How should members of your congregations resist it?)

The question is, what kind of change will it bring? This is the great unknown, and wherever people encounter the unknown, the most common instinctual reactions are fear, blame, and anger.

(It’s true that volatility is a primary tactic of autocratic rule. But the motives and tactics of fascism are not unknown. Some people are having instinctual reactions not because of some general flaw in human nature, but because they know exactly how their situation is deepening and worsening in ways worse than white men like us can ever know. Also, now you’ve bookended your opening graf as though emotions — especially responsive anger, last-listed here for emphasis — is the real problem, and not what people are angry about. See above.)

I feel that this is a time when we who seek to be more conscious, loving, and wise get to see exactly how deep our wisdom and love really are. This is where the rubber hits the road — no more abstractions or high-minded ideas; this is where and when it is needed. This is where we come to see if we are still caught in the old ego-minded world of reactivity, anger, and fear, or if we have come upon the consciousness of wisdom and love. It is also a time when we can see if we are hiding out in transcendental ideologies of how unreal it all is as an unconscious defense against engaging with the world as it actually is.

(So this is a really nice graf that actually says nothing and speaks to no one outside of your in-group of devotees. Because you’ve posted it as a public letter I’m assuming you want it to mean something to other people as well, and not just be a calling card pointing to your charisma. To your previous admonitions against reactivity, etc., you now add the aspirations of wisdom and love. But what exactly do you mean, and how do these actually play out? In writing a letter that — so far — offers no real-world substance, how is your critique of transcendental ideology credible? What can you do here to resist the general sense your congregation is supposed to glean that because of your calm voice and beneficent smile everything will be okay if they connect to the inner wisdom you describe for them in your books and retreats? Isn’t that the very embodiment of a transcendental ideology, while pretending to critique it?)

There are important political and cultural issues at stake here to be sure, and we all have a stake in the outcome, which is why so many people are so fearful and angry. It’s as if 50 percent of the population cannot possibly understand, or even care to understand, the other 50 percent. And human decency and sanity have gotten lost amid the angst. Sadly, we have stopped truly communicating in the process.

(Who has stopped truly communicating? BLM, trans activists, anti-oppression workers — they have all been communicating pretty clearly for years. So are the Standing Rock Water Protectors. All of them are powerfully motivated by and communicating the righteous fear and anger of the planet itself. Also, is it wise to responsibilize your congregation for communication patterns that are pathologically distorted by fake news, click farms, and propaganda?)

I have watched this growing in our culture over the last 25 years and now it has boiled over. As a populace, we have stopped seeking to understand one another and have sought instead only to be understood; or, in many cases, insisted upon being agreed with. We have failed to take care of one another, to love, cherish, and understand one another.

(This generalization is worthy of Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. But if you want to add real spice to the spiritual/religious landscape, it might be a best practice to always balance the personal-moral appeal with a critique of power. Who has failed to take care? The “we” of this graf is either terribly exclusive, or it is pretending to be inclusive by erasing how structural oppression destroys access to care. Either way, it deepens the hyperindividualism of the neoliberal mode, which says: it’s all on us, where “us” really means “me”.)

There are very important issues at stake here: issues of poverty, inequality, political disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, the list goes on. But as each of us advocates for those issues that are important to us, we too must take responsibility for the breakdown of civility, decency, and unhealthy communication. No one forces our state of consciousness upon us. No one forces us to act out of fear, rage, and unconsciousness. We will either relate out of our conflicted mind states, or from the more evolved aspects of our nature.

(This one is complex, so I’ll number it out:

  1. The list that begins this graf ends with a rhetorical elipsis that affects boredom and hints at the unreality of the world.
  2. The second sentence pivots upon the subtle dismissal of material issues to turn the conversation back again to emotions and moods — again — as if the internal states generated by oppression etc. are as important as the oppression itself.
  3. The third sentence is a metaphysical speculation about the nature of consciousness, presented as if it’s scientifically true. “No one forces our state of consciousness upon us,” is, actually, demonstrably false. There are people responding to the electoral results from a history of PTSD, for example. Or women who have been raped who will now be tweeted at and governed by a confessed but unprosecuted sexual predator. States of consciousness can most definitely be forced by power and propaganda. It’s a mark of privilege to not understand this, or to deny this. Unless you’re going to claim that we are not subject to neurophysiological conditioning, maybe you can consider changing this.
  4. It’s not okay to imply that people who are angry are unevolved, rather than, say, not dissociative. A rewrite like this might cause less harm: “Depending upon your neurotypicality, it might be possible to observe states of your consciousness with a witnessing mood, in which you could recognize the rise of fear and rage and redirect it or self-regulate more quickly. This could be of help in our relationships. But it won’t work for everyone, and it won’t erase the structural power and pain that make it harder to do.” This is a little clunky and harder to use as a vehicle for certainty, but so is democracy.)

I cannot say exactly how to relate with those who are caught in their own conflict…

(“I cannot say exactly how” sounds like a disclaimer. Maybe it belongs up top? After all, you can’t really say much about anything except your own meditation technique and experience, right? Including this at the top might nail down your scope of practice for those who are confused and think you are offering evidence-based advice, and not simply persuading people that anger/rage etc. are wrong. Secondly, “caught in their own conflict” sounds pretty exclusionary to my ear. I get that your brand rests on the implication that you yourself have no internal conflicts — including the conflict between wanting to be a meditation teacher and wanting to be politically relevant — but who are the “caught” you are referring to here? You don’t want to insult anybody.)

…except to say that if we seek to understand as our first impulse — and to respond from the wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being — we will at least be standing on a foundation of sanity and peace. And our actions, whatever they may be, will then be expressions of the highest consciousness that we have attained, and we will have taken responsibility for our own feelings and impulses, and made the wisest choices that we have access to.

(The vagueness here really might only give your congregation a nice feeling that they’ll depend on you to top up. Without defining the “foundation of sanity and peace” arrived at by the “wisest, most patient, and loving dimension of our being”, you’re really only directing people’s affect. You’re also suggesting that the subjective states of feeling wise, patient and loving will mean that ethical actions will naturally follow. This is not true. The Nazis loved yoga. And Zen monks of your very own Sōtō Zen lineage supported the Rape of Nanking. Why not use this space to tell your congregation to get concrete training in anti-oppression work?)

If we are inspired to advocate for certain causes, we will do so out of love for those causes, rather than out of rage against the perceived “other.”

(Here’s one last nod at false equivalency to mop up. This sentence makes it sound like people “other” each other equally. It’s not true, unless you believe in things like “reverse racism”, or that “SJWs” are as guilty as the alt-right for offside language. Also, what do you intend for your congregation to feel about their rage? Shame? That they should repress it?)

Perhaps then we will become agents for sanity, peace, love, and the living of it in this confused world of ours.

With Great Love,

Adya

(Finally, I’d suggest not publishing this letter as a caption for a guru headshot. The portrait suggests that you’re floating above the “turmoil” of the election in a sanctified, linen-clad body. Your Nordic, silver-fox gaze is an invitation to paternal transference. Not everybody is ready or willing to surrender to this, and some never should. Think of everyone who surrendered to their transferences onto Trump himself. It’s a dangerous mechanism. Yes, it’s just a photo, but you probably don’t want to subtly gaslight your students into telling themselves that everything really should be alright, because you’re gazing on them with knowing approval. Maybe a picture of you doing something besides meditating or teaching would work better?)

_____

Here’s that Marianne Williamson post:

What a Yoga Bro Who Sees His Trump Vote as An Act of Love Tells Us About Yoga Spaces

 

Honestly I’m conflicted about spotlighting this article (trigger warning: predatory gaslighting), but I think exploring it might be instructive. My intent isn’t to isolate this individual any more than he’s isolated himself. It’s to show how Yogaland is woefully ill-equipped to engage the Trump era because of this malicious fact:

the discourse of neutrality, openness, and empathy can be effortlessly co-opted by a cynical and grandiose narcissism and used by those whose job it is to put others into psychosomatic stress positions and presume to shape their inner lives. This has always been a problem. Now it’s a cultural crisis.

For the record, I reached out to the writer with a draft of this post to ask if he wanted to walk back any of his statements. “I’m not changing a word of what I wrote and stand behind it,” he wrote back.

I’ll start with an article summary:

The writer hits every note of privileged commentary in one go: false equivalence, selection bias, normalization of misogyny and rape culture, religious bigotry and white supremacy, preaching equanimity to distressed citizens, and a side-order of tone-policing.

He pulls it all off quite efficiently with the data-free lies and equivocations that constitute the new normal: Trump is a peacemaker. His confessed sexual assaults “break the laws of political correctness”. Unlike Hillary, he has no conflicts of interest with foreign corps or governments. Sizeable blocks of Muslims and LGBTQ people voted for him. Also, guess what? Trump’s just itching to build hospitals in “Michigan and Detroit”! (Yoga bro: Detroit is IN Michigan. Appearing to know nothing about the people and areas you claim to care about looks like fake empathy.)

The writing comes from a well-placed NYC yoga teacher who works for a prominent brand lately in the news for failing to separate yoga from sexual harassment. He’s been teaching since 2003. (Full disclosure: he’s also been a student of the cult-leader I was once devoted to: an American Tibetan Buddhist who makes big money selling Tibetan Buddhism as a prosperity gospel to Chinese oligarchs. Thinking about that too hard could be hazardous to your health.)

On one hand this might seem like a weird source for these views. On the other it’s immensely clarifying. Looking at it directly might save you years of category confusion and emotional labour. If you needed any more proof that yoga and meditation practice is no predictor of political sentiment, critical thinking, feminist chops, equality values, or basic civics awareness, this article should banish the fantasy in a few brief moments, and let you get on with with your life.

Point #1. Yoga is like the Force. Jedis use it. So do the Sith Lords. And remember: Nazis LOVED yoga.

Our values are not coming from our practice so much as our practice is strengthening our values, which come from elsewhere. We can’t look to yoga techniques or texts for advice on morality or the common good. They aren’t specific enough to provide it, and private epiphanies can strengthen delusions as much as break them down. Remember that the Bhagavad Gita was the favourite text of both Gandhi and his assassin.

Did fifteen years of yoga and meditation practice soften me up to receive the life-changing data of feminism and BLM? It’s possible. But if I were living in a red state they could have also softened me up for surrender to the passions of Jesus or the alt-right. As Be Scofield argues, the spiritual realizations of yoga or anything else can express themselves as amplifications of the values you already hold dear. At the very least they must express through the values of the dominant culture. The writer here actually says that Trump’s election amounts to a “massive emotional and spiritual leap forward.”

Changing your values happens when you expose yourself to new values, presented and embodied by others you previously did not know or understand. It doesn’t happen by contemplating your inner life, which orbits around your existing values.

Point #2. Unless studio owners and trainers are explicit about setting up safe spaces, Yogaland offers no real opposition to predatory gaslighting, offered under the cover of yogaspeak.

The yogi who jumps the Trump shark isn’t just a mouthpiece of rightist bile. He can also do what Stephen Bannon can’t: position his privilege as open-mindedness and non-reactivity. He can bask in the role of “holding space” (even though he mocks the term) for the emotional hurt of people he pretends to care about, and whose suffering he cannot know or share.

Yogaspeak becomes the emotional Trojan horse for the very politics that are hurting his colleagues. How will he work alongside the queer and POC colleagues of his in-group? How will he serve the Muslims and women in his classes?  Is there a mudra for one hand in namaste, and the other reaching to grab  ____?

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s a gratuitous image. Especially when the writer finishes his piece with a jaunt into narcissistic emotional porn. He describes going as a Trump supporter — undercover — to a yoga center holding a vigil for those shaken by the election. He praises himself for his empathy and sympathy, even as he bypasses the panic some express over possible deportation. He savours the irony of being able to comfort people whose lives he just voted to degrade. He deceives people in order to participate in their emotions with a display of grandiose equanimity.

It’s like going to the funeral of someone you helped kill, holding hands with the survivors, and getting off on both the tears and your kindness in wiping them away. “Oh, you’re crying? I feel your pain. Here’s my big white handkerchief. Will I see you in restorative class for some deep healing?”

Even more disturbing is that he subtly compares himself to Trump, who, he suggests, might be an enlightened provocateur of our delusions: “How many spiritual stories are filled with tales of the adept on the road to enlightenment encountering a hag or a drunk, brashly writing them off, only to discover the skilful master was in disguise?”

Would the vigil-keepers have welcomed him if they’d seen his Twitter account, where he posts links mocking Clinton supporters, reports from Alex Jones (yeah the guy who claimed the Sandyhook massacre was staged) saying that post-electoral marches are killing children, retweets memes that suggest Clinton would have been an autocrat, and mocks “SJWs”?

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That they sure as hell wouldn’t have invited him makes his presence borderline non-consensual. What we can say for sure is that the Cadillac of white yoga privilege is being able to cackle along with the alt-right in private, and then flash your engorged charismatic empathy in public. White yoga privilege allows a person to capitalize on having no moral centre.

We’ve got to ask: how much of this industry is run by powerful men who are gratified by using their status to perform spiritual superiority over those oppressed by that very status?

Will this invigorate a discussion about the need for equality, ally and anti-oppression work – along with possibly psychological screening – at the training level of yoga instruction? Not because of politics, but because of vampirism. Obviously, no regulatory process can or should dictate voting values or prevent funeral masturbation. But on the basis of his Twitter account alone, this writer would be disbarred from a psychotherapy college and fired from a public school position. But give him a yoga class or invite him to a festival in Bali? No problem. Let that sink in.

The writer fantasizes he’s holding space for his opponents while actually aggrandizing his self-image. Now the question is: how would his opponents hold space for him, once the phony yoga veil is pulled back from the real values at play?

Bottom line: the yoga space is like any public space: you can’t tell who voted for whom, unless they’re wearing that red hat or H button or you ask them directly. If you teach in that space, you might be in the position of serving even those whose views would oppress you. You’ve got to decide whether you’re up for that. If you study in it, you may be taking guidance from an energetic vampire who mocks your values. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because Bikram. And all the others. If you’re really opposed to discussions of stronger regulatory mechanisms and training in Yogaland, consider these consequences.

So: what to do in this Wild West? The old books of yoga said: study your teachers for a long time. The new books of yoga, aka feminism, add: the personal is the political. Taken together, they would encourage grave caution in choosing the person into whose care you commit your most tender self, where internal and external justice are trying to conjoin.

 

After 11/9: How About a National Engaged Yoga Network?

This thought-experiment is meant for yoga practitioners and teachers who identify as progressive and/or opposed to the President-elect and the hellfire of social oppression, political regression, and environmental destruction that’s upon us.

It’s for those who wonder if they can maximize the physical, financial and emotional resources they commit to internal work and justice by combining them more than they’re combined already.

Most importantly, it’s for studio owners and prominent teachers who feel that their student base fits this profile.

If that’s not you, I wish you well, and we’ll talk some other time.

Ideas are one thing, but making them work can be bonecrushing. So before going anywhere with this one it would be good to discuss its pros and cons. Is it useful? Would spending energy on it splinter scarce resources? Is it an organizational idea that will preach to the choir and increase the insular bubbling that is part of our tragedy? I’d love to hear your comments, below.

Four caveats:

  1. I come at this without any political science or statistics training, so I’m totally prepared to be taken to the woodshed here.
  2. I know that the tone here might be too wonkish for many phases of rage and grief. It can be a mark of privilege and perhaps dissociation to offer theory too soon. I have no intention of interrupting all the colours of outpouring. If the timing doesn’t sit well for you, my apologies, and maybe you can bookmark it for later.
  3. The title for this organizational idea, Engaged Yoga Network (EYN) is a placeholder that can be changed, and not meant to be confused with or distract from the work of the Socially Engaged Yoga Network of Chicago, which does awesome local service work.
  4. I’m a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen with a lot of international readers. This could be an international initiative for sure, but it’s probably simpler to start focused. I don’t know.

Here goes.

If the 9-12 thousand1)Estimate from Andrew Tanner of YA. yoga studios that dot the U.S. were better networked, they could potentially provide organizational support via meeting spaces and marketing infrastructure to the political aspirations of a population larger than the Green Party membership, UAW, and MoveOn.org put together. This population would largely intersect with the same population that has dissociatively underserved the common good in relation to its resources and privilege: middle-to-high income white people. 

Ipsos tells us there are 36 million practitioners who have attended a yoga class over the last six months. Forty-five percent of them report practicing in one of the thousands of yoga studios in the U.S. That’s 16.2 million people: about 13% of the Nov. 8th voting turnout.

How does this demographic shake out, politically? We’ve been around the block enough to know that practicing yoga is not a reliable predictor of political sentiment or affiliation. People come from across the political spectrum to practice. Moreover, modern global yoga culture has historically positioned itself through the pretence of political neutrality in order to serve a politically diverse clientele, while projecting a spirituality that transcends politics.

That said, the harrowing electoral college map:

as of 11/11.

 

…reminded me of this map from earlier this year:

greenscale of practitioner concentration

From Ispos, Yoga in America 2016, p. 22.

 

If we transpose the electoral results onto the studio-practicing population, at the very least half of that 16.2 million opposed the President-elect. But it must be way more than that. The typical yoga class in an urban centre or mid-size town (where more of them are taking place) isn’t split evenly between red and blue voters. A higher percentage of yoga practitioners are college-educated than not, and there are more studios in urban than rural areas: these are both correlated with stronger blue leanings.

So we can definitely say that somewhere between 8.1 and the full 16.2 million studio practitioners currently oppose the President-elect. If we split the difference and called it 12 million Trump opponents, we’re talking about a block almost as large as the AFL-CIO. My gut tells me two things: that’s a conservative estimate, and it’s also a whole lot of sleeping infrastructure power that can be mobilized from the coasts inwards.

Questions:

Would those 12 million progressive practitioners be supported in their social values and deepen their levels of activism if their studios were signatories in a national political network? How many of those 12 million want that kind of support? Do they have brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood outlets for political engagement elsewhere, along with the time to invest in them? (I ask this because I know too many practitioners who say they would like to be more involved in political justice work before and after election days, but never have as much time as they’d like.)

Would those 12 million appreciate a space that offered the self-care of yoga and meditation in the front rooms, and community organizing in the back rooms? Would they mind that the advertising for each overlapped? Or do they specifically come to yoga spaces to get away from their socio-political exhaustion? And would an explicitly stated political stance alienate enough of a percentage of non-progressives in a given studio (in purple states and cities, for instance) to undo any positive gains? If this is a possibility, could the stance be modulated as needed?

These are questions that only each studio owner can hope to answer.

Owners who have jumped in headfirst have overtly politicized their spaces by hosting social justice events, fundraisers, and accessibility initiatives. A few have developed entire political economies, like my friend Christi-an Slomka who ran her former studio in Toronto with her colleague Jamilah Malika on a model that acknowledged its occupation of First Nations territory, fostered safer space, trained teachers in anti-oppression work, helped marginalized and racialized groups foster dedicated classes, and had a robust work exchange system. Her work is on pause for now, but her colleagues Leena Miller Cressman and Emma Dines continue it in Kitchener, Ontario. Laura Humpf of Rainier Beach Yoga in Seattle and POC Yoga, withstood withering attacks from the Right and Alt-right for offering yoga classes for people of color. She’s continuing the work nonetheless.. Lisa Wells has been hosting discussions on Racial Justice and Food Justice and hosted readings by Queer Poets of Color at her studio in Corvallis, Oregon. She’s now collecting gear and raising funds  and subbing out her classes so she can stand with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock before the month is through.

This organic layer of yoga-demographic radical activism is natural to college towns and diverse urban centres. But these yoga activists are usually on their own with their efforts in Yogaland. There can be deep costs to this isolation, in terms of physical and emotional exhaustion, and financial sacrifice. While many might want to follow in these leaders’ paths, the levels of commitment these leaders represent might be too demanding.

Slomka, Miller-Cressman, Dines, Humpf and Wells (is it any wonder that women are leading here?) might personally inspire graduates of their training programmes to emulate their activism, but if one of them wanted to open a progressively-oriented studio in Reno or Fort McMurray, wouldn’t it be nice if they were supported by something beyond personal mentorship, which is always limited by time and energy? What if she had instant access to a national network of ideas custom-selected for yoga demographics? What if the intellectual and emotional resources of that leadership were captured so that the leaders didn’t have to share them over hundreds of individual phone or Skype calls.

The progressive studio owners I know are all run off their feet. They always want to do more community and social service than they have time for. What if they belonged to a network that fed them monthly ideas for service and best practices?

Can we imagine an organization that can support the progressive work of any studio owner or teacher who wishes to mobilize their network to a commitment level appropriate to their community? Can we imagine a meeting-place for intellectual resources, support for initiatives in less progressive areas, and a greater sense of national cohesion?

Yoga practice will continue to help those of us lucky enough to do it to self-regulate. But can yoga infrastructure help resist the tide of the next four years — especially for those who don’t have time to do yoga?

I’m thinking that an “Engaged Yoga Network” would consist of two arms:

  1. A simple, crowd-sourced manifesto of progressive values to which studios can be signatories.
  2. A network of online resources especially crafted for yoga spaces, that support teachers and both stimulate and normalize activism at the studio level.

There’s so much great progressive yoga-related content out there, being generated by organizations like CTZNWELL, Off The Mat, and the Yoga Service Council. EYN would be about helping to aggregate it and integrate it with the rhythms of physical practice spaces.

In addition to the class downtime space of rooms for strategic meetings, many studios already use a potential delivery device for this often-fragmented content, in the form of client management software. Imagine studios being able to add a tab or menu item to their MindBodyOnline interface that they could load up with news, resources, and events from an EYN content consolidator? What if every signatory had an EYN portal on their homepage?

But yet another fancy web-based tool does not a movement make. The value of EYN could be to mesh the best of progressive yoga content and activism opportunities into the presentation of regular studio programming, through which actual people people actually meet and feel things together and maybe have tea. It could function as the thematic backdrop for self-work. That’s what politics is, anyway.

An online foundation could open the door for studio owners to pick and choose initiatives and commitment levels that suited their time and budgetary limitations, as well as the tolerance of their student base for activism. A studio in Ithaca would be well-positioned to go full-on progressive-political, trying all kinds of things that wouldn’t fly in Phoenix. But both could be supported by and affiliated with the same stream of content and inspiration. And neither would be working alone.

I mentioned above that global yoga operates under the pretence of political neutrality. Not to belabour this, but it’s a pretence because the culture lives in spaces of privilege and non-diversity where financial boundaries and time constraints restrict accessibility. Modern global yoga has grown in popularity in perfect sync with the rise of neoliberalism. We could almost say 2)Brian Culkin has a forthcoming book chapter on this. that yoga functions as the individualistic religion of the neoliberal era. Even most of its physical spaces exist through the processes of deindustrialization and gentrification that have mercilessly increased inequality.

In other words, as the notion of the common good has catastrophically devolved over the past forty years to where we are today, yoga culture has thrived. Isn’t that weird? Its thrived in part by not pushing back, by letting white and privileged people restore themselves without questioning themselves. Maybe, this week, this fact has become unbearable to many of you.

The typical yoga studio is already a politicized space. At this critical juncture, what kind of politics do we want it to communicate? Could there be a more pressing time to mobilize every resource we have?

It was Be Scofield who first convinced me that yoga practice doesn’t naturally lead to progressive action. I once asked her why then, as a social justice activist, was she interested in yoga culture at all? “Because,” she replied, “it can lend organizational power to progressive ideas.”

Yoga culture doesn’t make people progressive, but it does gather together progressive resources of space and intention and infrastructure. These resources are untapped because for many reasons the culture mainly positions itself as apolitical, and recognizing this is false carries costs.

The untapped progressive resources of yoga culture are built on the physical presence and privilege of as many as twelve million people. Many of these might already be politically engaged. Is it worth trying to use this infrastructure to support and encourage those who aren’t yet doing as much as they can or want to do? And can the growth of yoga into the heartland be consciously and efficiently linked to a growth of progressive listening, attunement, and coalition-building in the heartland?

LMK what you think if/when you have a moment. Everyone is so busy and overwhelmed. Blessings on all of your work, whatever it is.

 

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N.B.: My usual policy is to publish all comments. But I’ll be selective here. If it’s not constructive or if it’s spiritual bypass-y, I won’t publish it. There’s really no time to waste now.

Also: I don’t feel any ownership or authority over this idea. There are way more qualified people than I out there to run with this or something like it, if it’s worthwhile. I’ll support them any way I can.

 

 

 

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Estimate from Andrew Tanner of YA.
2. Brian Culkin has a forthcoming book chapter on this.

Poem and Prayer for the Night Before

 

This is for those who have worked too hard in their lives to see it come to this absurdity. That would be almost everybody.

It’s for those who retreated to the foliage of Vermont after the New Dealer and his era tickered out like a grandfather clock with a lost winding key.

For those who bore and will bear the brunt of the “emancipation of unbridled hatred.”

For those who were duped or coerced into letting that hatred flow through them, and hollow them out.

For people of colour who had to watch the Klan endorse a mainstream candidate.

For election officials, some of whom will be people of colour, who must faithfully count votes for the Klan’s candidate.

For those of less privilege, who absorb all the emotions and history in lieu of burning the country to the ground.

For those who watched the debates and saw a rapist lurk behind a century of feminist resilience and said from the gut I’m with her, but still didn’t feel safe.

For those who watched the debates and projected something slightly different: a battering father wrecking the house, and an enabling mother tidying it up, putting the best face on things.

For all the idealists or frantic depressives leaning towards Jill Stein and getting shamed by the pragmatists. They call you irrational, narcissistic, privileged. They call you a child. They tell you to grow up. They’re acting like your older siblings who somehow figured out how to get over your abusive parents and get on with it, and they’re hating on you as you struggle over whether you’ll come to Thanksgiving.

For the person too paralyzed by the hideous spectacle to want to vote. Never mind Louis C.K. calling you an asshole. He has to blame someone for his depression, and you’re an easy mark.

For the countless women in secret women-only Facebook groups venting lifetimes of misogyny.

For bell hooks and Cornel West, who said you don’t have to compromise with your vote.

For Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky, who said maybe you should.

For everyone alone with their decision.

For the migrant worker sweeping the parking lots after the rallies where he heard them chant those things and has learned enough English to understand enough.

For every boy who watched his daddy put on that red baseball hat and inflate himself with impotent bluster. Who wanted to mimic him to please him. And to validate him, and make him stronger, because he sensed there’s something wrong with daddy.

For all those humiliated, unemployed daddies.

For the older boys ripe for radicalization by gun worship and propaganda from any side.

For the teens on the Lolita Express, trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein with money from both parties.

For all the accusers, silenced by rape culture and fossil fuel.

For queer people, who suffer to transcend the binary.

For parents reading the Lorax at bedtime and knowing it’s all way more fragile than a single cartoon trufula seed.

For the right-now-and-soon-to-be climate refugees who are watching.

For those who point out cravenness on both sides of the aisle and get accused of creating false equivalences. When really, their attunement to despair forces us to imagine better.

For those who felt the pantsuit fad was sweet and inspiring until there was silence on the Standing Rock Sioux.

For those who teared up at FLOTUS’ gorgeous speech, but also heard “going high” and thought of drones floating above faraway dunes.

For those who felt conflicted when they watched the President play with children or ride around in a vintage car with Jerry Seinfeld or drop the mic at the Correspondents’ Dinner. They felt how easily personableness can seem to project care but can also distract us from machinations beyond all personality: new pipeline projects and extra-democratic transnational trade deals.

For Evangelical women who will tell their secret to the ballot box only.

For red staters who don’t think much of psychotherapy and would never be able to afford it anyway.

For rural pastors that provide the only sanctuary against meth labs.

For every parent who had to explain “grope” and “pussy”.

For everyone who had to go through this nightmare while undergoing chemo and hearing people scream about repealing the first bit of health care progress we’ve made.

For all the stiff, wall-building men in armored flesh who cannot and must not disclose the horrible vulnerability that drives their narcissism.

Yes, this prayer is even for Candidate Bigly, with his right shoulder frozen up high as if expecting daddy to suddenly smack his head. Whose mental illness seeks out the fame that increases it. Who cannot remember his childhood because surely it was traumatic. Who may know somewhere that his addiction to power saved him from the fate of his brother, who drank himself to death. Who has no friends and must grab power from women.

And for his wife, who escaped god knows what in her journey through soft-porn-or-worse all the way to her gilded cage.

And for the better Clinton, who deserves a complete and primal revenge, but can’t truly get it until the neoliberalism that created her opponent and funds her is destroyed. But then what would she do?

For all of these and everyone else, everywhere in the world, an election prayer:

May we vote, and if we can’t vote for ourselves, may we vote the best vote possible on behalf of others. Even if those others are in other countries.

May we take a few breaths together on Wednesday morning.

May we assume better things of each other than we ever have before.

May we acknowledge that individualism is propaganda for loneliness and inequality.

May the compression of this absurdity create an unlikely upswell of creativity and stamina.

May we agitate for health care and mental health services and education for those most abused by those traumatized people who have money and bullhorns.  

May we do self-care in order to not lash out. 

May we recover from having our emotions hijacked by algorithms.  

May we heal with each other across disparities, because that’s the only way it happens.

 May our ballots unfold their wings in the hands of the counters, revealing agency, suggesting flight.

 

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“unbridled hatred” quote from Judith Butler.

Meditation and a Basket of Phones

My kind host for a meditation weekend in Coeur d’Alene emailed ahead to ask about protocol for the weekend. One question was about mobile devices. The logistics part is simple, but the question also brings up a lot about what meditation might mean and engage with moving forward in our evolutionary storm.

Etiquette first: ringers and vibrate functions are best turned off for a weekend like this. Going further to block cell data would seem to be reasonable if you want to really internalize.

On the other hand, access to texting can put the mind of an anxious caregiver – for children or the elderly – at ease. And nobody would ask the on-call surgeon to turn their pager off.

For those willing to experiment, it’s interesting to see what limiting device usage on off hours contributes as well. Many people sense a serene envelope open up in time when they fast from data. Perhaps they remember the feeling of knowing something instead of being told something.

But for some – millenials especially – the prospect of going device-free for two and a half days is panicky. If we just chuckle about this – kids these days! – we risk brushing over the startling fact that the whole species is becoming cybernetic, and there’s no turning back, and our spirituality has to accommodate this fact if it is going to avoid exercising a pious and/or regressive nostalgia.

Beneath the discussion of best practices lie our feelings about the devices themselves, their distracting impact on our lives, and their seeming incompatibility with introspection in general, let alone in relation to meditation. What’s complicated is that we feel their positive effects as well. We’ve felt ourselves judiciously use devices to self-regulate, even contemplate, recover from extroversion, to reach out of loneliness for something that feels like contact, and might actually be good enough at times. We should remember that the original “text neck” was the head bowed constantly in prayer and deference.

In meditation environments that owe their moods and aesthetics to earlier times, the impacts of devices are viewed as so foreign and intrusive that some facilitators braid their pre-modern instructions with a penitent yearning for a pre-digital age. This is understandable, given that meditation globalized in the pre-digital era. I heard of one retreat in which attendees were asked to power down their phones and ceremoniously place them in a basket that was handed around.

I imagine this was a powerful image: a basket full of blank-screen phones, piled in a dumb heap. Suggesting a stop on the way to the tech junk piles of the majority world, where ragged children break them apart for bits of precious metal.

Each device in the basket is almost identical to the other, but also a dark window onto ostensibly personal worlds. Feeds, bookmarks, contacts, passwords, settings: all analogous to the things you’d presumably want to examine in meditation – or reset, or purify.

The content of the idle phones is like the deluded self of many streams of Indian wisdom culture: a tangle of social conditioning we mistake for ultimate identity. It’s really consumerism at its most seductive, offering the illusion of private agency through economies of scale. But beyond what they transmit, what about the materiality of the phones – their form? The fact that they are not just artificial selves in external hard-drive form — but have become prosthetic to the body?

I remember going to the Catholic shrines in Quebec as a child and gazing in wonder at the piles of crutches left in grottoes where devotees had felt themselves to be cured. Bodies used those objects to get around. Bodies formed themselves around their help. But were the bodies really cured, or were they simply ecstatic with hymns and stories for a short time? And why did the piles of devices not grow as I returned year by year? The piles seemed varnished into place. The era of physical miracles seemed stalled in the 19th century.

Turning the phone off in a yoga studio suggests a return to a more liberated sense of embodiment, a time before we were maimed by (post)modernity. That it stops an internal function and leaves a serene outer shell parallels the cessative modes of a meditation instruction themselves — found in Raja Yoga, for instance — by which the meditator seeks to turn something off within. We can turn the device off, but can we turn off the neurology that has formed itself around the device? What does it feel like for that prosthetic to be pulled off, or out?

Meditation is an activity set apart from normalcy. Sitting still and quietly is simply a weird thing to do. In its most radical forms – which largely fading from the zeitgeist in favour of mindful productivity strategies — inconceivably weird goals are set: to become eternally still, effulgent; to become a different type of human being altogether, emptied of the content of karma. The Jains represent their saints in apophatic form: they are silhouettes only, blank, perfectly symmetrical. Like powered-down phones.

jainphone

As we continue to explore meditation, we’ll make the best logistical choices we can about phones and such. But our efforts will raise the question of just how set apart can meditation be without it turning into a fantasy of back-then-ness, or not-here-ness? When we sit, are we imagining ourselves into pre-modernity? What about the SSRI’s coursing through the neurons of some of us, or the Advil tackling our inflammation?  Our lives may be more quiet without wifi access, but are they more “authentic”? A lot of the discourse would suggest so. This poses a dilemma, because the pre-digital age is over, at least for everyone reading this post. Are we quietly telling ourselves we are living in an inauthentic age? Are we increasingly accusing ourselves of phoniness? Does this help?

Our brains have changed. Our neurons are entirely porous to the unlimited streams of data that meet or even shape the material contours of the world. This is a somatic reality, which will only complexify with the advent of wearables, or swallowables. Recently, I felt it all in my flesh while driving the Tesla of my host in Edmonton. The whole car is online, and knows exactly where it is in space. To “drive” it is to sit inside a vastly expanded macrocosm of your own motor cortex. Except it’s not really yours. With the internet of things, the motor cortex will be as networked as our libraries now are. You’ll be able to see yourself move explicitly in relationship to the movements of others, across broad swathes of landscape. I know some Buddhists who might really like that condition, while remaining suspicious of the corporate infrastructures that fund it.

I’m almost 45, and I can feel how much my brain has changed through exposure to the cloud, in only a decade. I used to research in library stacks, finding books with index cards, taking notes on yellow legal pads. Knowledge was a cavern, and I would go spelunking. Now it’s to the satellite and back without blinking. There’s no shortage of material. As a writer I am instantly confronted with the anxiety of influence as the beautiful think pieces about everything I want to learn about seem to pour out of empty space. On the dark end, I’m flooded with the limitless pornography of the world — porn in the sense that it presents itself as something sensual or pleasurable in the guise of oppression and inequality — politics, consumerism, dissociation from climate change, the tyranny of neoliberal happiness.

Because I feel flooded I must filter, or else I feel possessed. If I feel possessed, I must purify. When I turn off my phone I feel confessed, emptied out, free to listen, free to pray.

But I have to recognize that my condition is generational, and framed by the melancholy of my Baby Boomer meditation teachers. I want to be careful about passing along certain moods — I do enough of that already. My sons will grow up in a networked consciousness in which data flows may feel as natural as pranic flows. They may not sense technology as a near-demonic possession in the same way that I must. It will be their landscape, not an invader. It will make them feel dirty at times, but not continually infected. Their spirituality will have to integrate it in ways as mysterious to us as the changing brain itself.

Whatever they come up with will affirm that human beings only think that they can recapture some original state. Hopefully, they’ll feel less of a crisis in their attempts to bridge familiar and unknown worlds. Watching their breath might help.

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist

 

“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?”Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype

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In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit.

I came across it in a post to the Yoga and Movement Research Community group on Facebook. Commenters with basic biomechanics knowledge asserted that this exercise does not convey functional, healthy, sustainable movement. They pointed out the cumulative danger of distending the back chain of fascia from the soles of the feet on up, and worried about loaded flexion on the spine.

It all seems strange, given that the teaching comes through a brand that positions itself as “therapeutic”.

Let’s just supppose the exercise doesn’t offer verifiably healthy movement beyond the anecdotal. What does it offer? Why do so many people love it? Why will Iyengar people continue to teach and practice it – just like they will keep teaching cervical-load-bearing headstand – over the objections of phyiotherapists and kinesiologists? Could it be that they are working with a different understanding of “therapy”?

If we don’t ask these questions, we’ll get bogged down in accusations that unsound movements, defined as such by a specialized few, can’t fulfill the aims of yoga. Whose aims, exactly? And what meaning of yoga? Would the hatha yogis of old be geeking out in Katy Bowman workshops? Would Krishnamacharya be emailing Jules Mitchell for privates?

Nah. Try asking a sadhu standing on his head surrounded by a ring of fire whether he’s into “nutritious” or “functional” movement.

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Many people complain about the degeneration of “traditional”, “classical” or “authentic” yoga in the global era into asana-fixation. They come at it from a number of angles. They worry that the other limbs have been lost in a mirage of bodily concern, that no one knows how to find and serve a guru, that Sanskrit is fading from view, that of the few who know what moksha means, only a fraction commit to it as a goal. These are all worthy points.

But perhaps the greatest shift embodied by the asana-fication of yoga is that which allowed the early modern Indian yogis to evangelize it so effectively to fellow citizens and then beyond. In the 1930s, anticolonial reformers seized upon asana as an indigenous resource for wellness, going on little but myths of the mystical longevity of ancient yogis. Over time, their movement backgrounded discussions of moksha to repurpose an esoteric and socially outcaste artform as a commodity and performance of public health. It sold like hotcakes.

They did this without the benefit of evidence-based medicine, so it’s no surprise that the biomechanics and physiological assumptions might be off, or in some cases downright dangerous.

We don’t know that much about what pre-medieval usages of physical yoga looked like. In the Gita it might have overlapped with martial arts. In the Sutras it positioned the yogi for meditation. Medieval versions are much closer and easier to study – still extant in the roaming sampradayas being researched by the daring scholars of the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS. We do know enough to say that these are practiced in the context of renunciation. They are performed by people that hold themselves apart from industry and raising children – people who make themselves artfully “useless”, and “superbly sterile”, to use Wilde’s terms.

Bottom line: the 20th century pasted the mandate of social and political utility onto bodily movements once intended to be useful only on their own terms. What had previously been used to simply “create a mood” was now purported to nurture the good citizen. Something beautifully useless was co-opted into the stream of production.

If you’re my age and North American, you might remember seeing this modernization cycle play out in microcosm in the mid-nineties. The first Ashtanga flyers I ever saw in Toronto were stapled on utility poles on the dirty streets of Parkdale beside posters for punk bands and fetish balls. It was a natural mode of marketing for the yogis in question, many of whom were reaching out of the wasteland of clubs and drugs. Their pix fit right in. They were twisted into postures that looked as pained and doleful as the punk-goth fusion taking over the streets.

But the messaging said something that punk-goth didn’t. This is good for you. This is healthy. It may have looked weird, but unlike the fetish ball, it would cathartically lead you back to normalcy, to enlightened functionality. It was an art that promised scientific progress and moral virtue.

And here we are. Mainstream postural yoga is now a staple activity in the neoliberal project of enlightened consumerism. A way to find balance within the chaos of technocapitalism – not resist it. A way to make the body receptive amidst concrete and steel. A kind of spiritual parkour. People don’t do yoga to drop out, but to fit in. Both the gritty urban studio and body of the grungy renunciate have been gentrified. The studio avoids closure by renovating to spa standards and offering wine tastings. Ex-punks are running tech companies, and they offer yoga breaks at lunch to enhance productivity.

Where can yoga still resist the illusory tide of upward mobility, including nouveau-riche aspirations for always-better, always-more refined health?

_____

Before we junk the video as “unhealthy”, let’s try to understand the territory it might be exploring at the threshold between health and spirituality – the territory where modern yoga thrives.

Iyengar people will position the knee-torturing exercise of the video within a whole series of related tasks purported to “wake up” the body and imbue unknown parts — like the backs of the knees in this case — with “intelligence”, which is synonymous with “health”, via intense sensation. The teacher first says that the purpose of the posture is to subject the calf to an intense stretch. The implication is that this produces wellness. All calves need to be intensely stretched, right? But later, she says that if you feel that stretch, “you know you have a calf”. She makes wellness synonymous with awareness.

I’ve heard the same statement from a dozen such teachers. I heard it from Lindsey Clennell about the opening scene in the trailer for his upcoming homage film, “Sadhaka”. Iyengar is shown toiling over his granddaughter’s legs with straps and pieces of dowel. I asked Clennell what the guru was correcting or improving for her. How the manipulations are improving the health of her legs.

The filmmaker and devotee rejected the notion that Iyengar was correcting her. “Really what he’s doing with Abijhata is probably teaching her that she has got legs.”

(As if she doesn’t know. As if her own understanding of her legs is deficient. As if her legs would become real because her grandfather sees and disciplines them.)

Iyengar ideology is saying that until you feel the quickening strangeness of new stress in a particular region, that region is asleep. Its postural syllabus is comprehensive in the attempt to apply new stresses to every sinew. The teacher examines the student’s body for stress-free zones, and lets nothing remain asleep. The premise is that if any part of your body disappears to your awareness, you are forfeiting divine potential.

This thinking may help a ton of people who experience disembodiment all the way up to dissociation. But the body also disappears from awareness when it is doing its work perfectly well. What if my calf is absent from my executive mind because it is holding and carrying me with ease? Why would I have to seek it out, prod it, distend it? What kind of conversation do I need to have with myself? How intrusive need I be?

I can attest to these “awakening” effects from my experience of Iyengar. I did wake up to unknown parts of myself, usually along the lines of the back body. Some teachers said that “opening” the back body afforded greater access to the unconscious. I wanted that, and so I kept working until I got looser and looser in my back body, until finally I was in constant pain, which only went away when I tightened up my back chain in the gym.

There were moments of that pain, however, that prompted deep consideration about the nature of my body, its purpose, and existence itself. I wonder if there are some like me who were reluctant to give up the physical dysfunction of asana because they were unconsciously squeezing contemplation out of it.

When I was practicing, I didn’t consider the long-term effects of joint laxity via hyperextension. Hadn’t even heard the word, “hyperextension”. My assumption was that the sensation of coming to my end-range of motion, and pressing further, and waiting there, and tolerating it by down-regulating my response to it, and feeling the sunburn of it go numb — was healing. I was making an unconscious trade-off between normal mobility and a sensation that would take me beyond myself.

Maybe Iyengar made that trade-off as well. I just interviewed someone who told me that as early as 1994 (a full twenty years before he died) the guru could hardly climb stairs because his knees were in such pain. My source said he would make sure he entered the Pune yogashala last, after everyone was inside, so that students wouldn’t see him struggling up the stairs. They said in the early 2000s, he often had his knees bandaged.

Injury is isolating. It can send you deep inside and make you seem useless to yourself and others. Pain can be a doorway into pratyahara, if it shuts down every other input. As Elaine Scarry shows, it destroys cognition and language. It is a mechanism of anti-sociality. It cannot really be shared. It is the ultimate private experience. In the midst of the roaring city, or the tumult of a famous career, pain can put the body on a silent mountaintop.

Can nutritious movement offer the same thing?

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Does Iyengar yoga, or any yoga, make people any healthier than any other activity? The science to which it so often appeals may never tell us. We’ll ever establish the utility of yoga in the same way we measure the effectiveness of, say, antibiotics. Our ideas about it will always be gut ideas. It will impact us as art does, in ways very difficult to describe.

But we could try.

We could, inspired by Wilde, set these questions of progress aside to ask: What kind of mood does this video convey?

My highly subjective answer is that it evokes a mood of parental orderliness and care, somatized through discipline and stress.

Notice how satisfying it seems for the teacher to roll that mat up, perfectly. Then, the symmetry of the blocks, mirrored outwards in the alignment of mats, ropes, and of course the bodies of students, who, though all shaped differently, are homogenized by this geometrical impulse.

I had one teacher who was so horny about folding blankets they would talk about running a blanket-folding weekend immersion that everyone would have to come to before going on. We laughed and got into it as well. It was like learning how to tie a really neat tie, or earning a brownie badge for your bed-making hospital corners. It was about tidiness more than about support, or finding where the two of these merged in a regression to grade school life.

I remember how all the prop-play scratched a deep itch of groundlessness and the need to contain something. When I practiced this stuff I also had the feeling of over-cleaning, of working away a stain that threatened to darken as I rubbed. The tricky part was deciding to be satisfied when I stopped.

So it was revelatory to go to Uma Dinsmore-Tuli‘s little studio in Stroud to do yoga nidra, and see the blankets and sheepskins scattered higgledy piggledy on the floor. For her, the prop was something that was lived in. It was the mess, not something against the mess. It made me wonder about just how reactionary the Iyengar technique was for its non-Indian students. Trainloads of hippies showed up in Pune in the 70s. They traded weed for cucumber water and doffed their dungarees for the uniform shorts and t-shirts they would have worn in 1950s gym classes. They took drill-sargeant orders and folded those blankets perfectly.

In a gentler translation of Iyengar’s own monitoring, the teacher in the video checks in with everyone, constantly. She singles out the men especially, asking about their homework as if they were schoolboys. Part of the mood here is knowing you’re always being watched. Can you obey the instructions? How long can you hold that hyperextension? Can you transform a stress position into a surrender position? What do you feel as the backs of your knees loosen? What sensory combination of relief and love awaits you as you rise back up out of the hurts-so-good pose?

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Modern postural yoga is such a strange beast. It offers contemporary visions of wellness through medieval tools and rationales. It aspires to be scientific, but practitioners know its effects can’t be measured in any clinic.

Like art, it thrives on contrast and expresses paradox. Like how the quest to gain personal agency might come through devotion to precise instructions. Like how through the wish to make yourself healthy, you might discover a hidden drive to discipline yourself, punish yourself, or make yourself useless.

The old modernizers of yoga did something truly extraordinary. They promised progressive health, public health. They offered civic hope and bodily utility. Kuvalyananda invited Nehru to his lab to examine the fine young lads he was hooking up to his breathing machines. Sivananda proclaimed “Health is wealth, Peace of mind is happiness, Yoga shows the way.”

But through a mixture of biomechanical naivete and the vestiges of older yoga metaphysics, they managed to conceal within their sunny promise the booby-trap of yoga’s self-inquiry, which, as Peter Blackaby says, is not exercise, but a process of exploration without a definable goal. And how can you market that?

I’ll end here with a queer appeal to “tradition”. As the biomechanics and functional movement people plow towards perfecting the therapeutic promise of modern yoga, I hope the useless things they’re challenging don’t disappear entirely. But I also hope knee torture and stretching-fetish are transparently lauded for their useless artfulness by the Iyengar people and others who teach and practice them.

If we’re clear about their risks, perhaps we can really appreciate strange asanas for how they help us navigate the problems of existence through the tender body, how they produce nonsensical moods for contemplation, how they make us question the uses of everything, right down to the bone.

Billy Bush and the Rape Culture Alpha-Toady Dyad: 1 Quote and 8 Thoughts

I’d like to share this sharp reflection from a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook, and record a few additional points that have been inspired by it, as well as a whole lot of personal memories.

The thing that disgusts me most about that tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault is not him (although that is *plenty* disgusting), but Billy Bush’s response. Because I’ve heard that kind of response my entire life. When you are a guy, you occasionally find yourself in unwanted proximity to these two kinds of toxic masculinity: the alpha male and his sycophantic toady. The former brags about doing things to women against their will, while the latter laughs and showers praise on him for doing so. But while the former is pathological in all sorts of ways, the latter is enraging *and* pathetic. Because the toady is both perpetrator and victim of the patriarchal power exercised by the alpha male. When Bush cravenly exclaims “Yes! The Donald has scored. Whoa, my man!” he is abjectly trying to gain some purchase on the privileges of heteromasculinity from which he feels excluded (the fact that Bush is widely rumoured to be gay only reinforces this point). But the toady can only accomplish this through endorsing and even trying to share in the assault on women’s bodies. The bodies of the women waiting outside the bus, unaware of their role as currency in the exchange between alpha male and toady.

Tl; dr: Trump is to rape as Billy Bush is to rape culture. And the GOP, by keeping Trump as their candidate, are all Billy Bush now. And how fucking pathetic is that. — Derek Nystrom

 

  1. Rape culture is a hierarchy, and toadies strike a dirty bargain to gain advantage within it, in relation to the violence of the alpha male. Their need to avoid violence is plain when we see that they are often physically smaller than the alpha. If they are the same size or larger, they are often physically other or inept in some way that makes them vulnerable. Vaudeville enshrines this as a basic sight gag: the sidekick is a shrimp or a geek or a lurch or a fat guy. Each are targets, each knows it. The internal pressure of the toady’s anxious defensiveness reflects the alpha’s psychic armour and doubles the charge of his aggression.

 

  1. The toady has likely gone through an initial hazing, and is subjected to periodic and arbitrary exclusions and humiliations. That these are arbitrary is key: the shadow-fuel of the toady’s enthusiasm is knowing that he can be excluded or fired or sued or mocked or physically brutalized at any moment. Enthusiasm is not just vicarious self-identification with the person who can assault women at will: it is also an attempt to sublimate immediate danger. The easiest and safest thing to do for the toady is to perform joy in the transfer of his humiliation onto another person, while stabilizing his social capital by gratifying the dominance of the alpha.

 

  1. The unconscious toxic mimic of homoeroticism here should not be missed, nor its contribution to homophobia. The toady is masturbating the alpha, psychically for sure, but even physically, by mirroring and amplifying his excitations. If the toady is homophobic himself — and he may well be in part through the process of displacing having been called faggot enough — it is in part because he can’t imagine a homosocial world without humiliation. And what if, horrifically, the toady is actually gay? Reflecting on this as a straight man fills me with overwhelming admiration for what many gay men must have to do to come out and try to be at home in the world. They have to find and trust and believe in their tenderness and love amidst the alpha-toady dyads of dominant male dynamics. Unbelievable how scary and hard that must be. I can hear a million voices saying well, duh! as I write this. I’m truly sorry I didn’t see it before, and how essential the bravery of queerness can be to dissolving male violence, where it doesn’t replicate it. What an inspiration it is, capturing my awestruck gratitude, along with, I hope, that of every other hetero man who wants a different world.

 

  1. The toady might actually loathe women as much as the alpha does and seek to likewise assault wherever he can, or he might have convinced himself he loathes women in order to limit his cognitive dissonance, or he might not loathe women at all, and be caught up in a massive internal split. It doesn’t matter to women, who carry the heaviest burden. The toady’s goal is to offload shame, and if he doesn’t assault to do it his contribution is the pathetic enabling so integral to rape culture.

 

  1. I think an unexamined voice in the horrendous victim-blaming that men use to deny or minimize rape culture is that of the toady who is really saying: “I figured out how to offload alpha violence. Why couldn’t you?” Deeper still, I can imagine a toady affecting a special hatred for the rape accuser because she is standing up for herself exactly where he couldn’t, and under circumstances inconceivably more difficult. Her nobility challenges the omnipotence of the alpha, but it magnifies the toady’s impotence. The toady must reframe her speech as whining or self-pity, which is what he’s doing inside. He hates her brave stride to regain her dignity, because it reminds him of his shrinking, dirty bargain.

 

  1. I believe the somatic trace of that bargain might be a core obstruction to some men becoming true feminist allies. I’m not talking about the alphas, for whom there’s no hope beyond damage control. I’m talking about those who live in that enabling territory all the way up to toady, but deny it through attempts to self-cleanse through mantras like #notallmen. Yes: it’s daunting to consider the ramifications of male privilege and to wake up to the oppression of patriarchy. The empathy of some might be jostled into activism from these considerations alone. But others will have to remember and feel it in their bodies — that place and moment when they absorbed the violence and dulled its pain by discharging it onto someone smaller, other, or gendered differently. Once you feel it in you, watch out: you’ll have to really recover from it instead of drinking or inflating yourself with your chosen distraction. A big reason you punched down was because you didn’t even recognize your humiliation, let alone recover from it. It was normalized. Once you recover, you may be able to ally yourself and start punching up. But that can be a long road.

 

  1. There isn’t enough time and money in the world for all the adult men who need it to do all that therapy. They’d have to want to besides. Fat chance. We’d also have to collectively offer support through yet another cultural “conversation”, designed to expose wannabe-ex-toadies to the proper self-inquiry resources etc. Who has enough spoons to “call them in”? How many toads can really change their toadiness after their 30th birthday? Emotional capital is a precious resource, and maybe shunning is the economical choice in some cases.

 

  1. Consider the littles at home and in the schoolyard, where it all begins. Where forces as old as time shape the alpha-toady bedrock of the culture. It forms through countless tiny acts of domination and submission that any woke parent can see. But with hard work, the energy within this primal economy can be transformed into rhythms of consent, nurturance, protection, and acceptance.

Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling

 

This notable comment about cultural appropriation in yoga just popped up on my post called “Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”

Notable, because it shows how reasonableness can occlude emotional intelligence. I’ll paste an excerpt in here in full and then offer some commentary below.

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“At what point is it appropriation? Was it appropriation when the Gandharans started making Buddha statues? Was it appropriation when Vyasa/Patanjali whoever it was decided to borrow Jain metaphysics for the Yogashastra? Was it appropriation when the Devi-Mahatmya brought the goddess into the Brahmanical worldview? Was it appropriation when Shankara decided the Bhagavad Gita was about non-dualism (a claim that was rigorously fought by Ramanuja, and quite successfully at that)? Was it appropriation when the ontology of Vedanta was combined with Islam and helped to produce what we understand now as Sufism? What about when the Hatha Yogis reinterpreted Buddhist tantras through the framework of a mix of Shaiva ones and Vedanta? Was it appropriation when Vivekananda interpreted the teachings of a man he lived with for a short time, a Kali tantrika, through the frame of theosophy? Was it appropriation when Krishnamacharya looked at the still practicing Hatha yogis in India and decided that wasn’t the true yoga, which bore more resemblance to calisthenics? When K. told AG Mohan among others that the third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika contained nothing of value due to its inclusion of Vajroli et al?

“I find this line of appropriation tells us little and offers us nothing more than the same narrative we’ve always had: Yoga is good, pure and right, and yoga is from India, the source of all that is good and pure and right in the world, and all of the achievements of India stretching back to the Veda are the creation of an eternal order called Hinduism, to the exclusion of everyone else from the sub-continent. This is at best naive and at worst total chauvinism, and it boggles the mind why people that clearly lean left and are skeptical of any kind of essentialism accept it. There is a question embedded in your statement: Who are we calling to mind when we say someone else if the land is clearly India?”

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So it looks like the commenter did their Religious Studies homework. It’s true: the essentialism of what Andrea Jain calls the “Hindu Origins” view of modern yoga doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

But what kind of scrutiny? The comment implies “This shouldn’t even be a thing,” when clearly for many people it is definitely a thing. It’s using an academic argument to foreclose an emotional-cultural event. Will it work?

Nah.

The combatants in the cultural appropriation debate are, at least in part, using the subject of yoga as a platform for exercising essentialisms other than that worrying the commenter. Yoga discourse is now the home of fraught dialogue over a much more material history than studies of the origins of practices and philosophies can uncover. Its transnational status has produced a cage match about the impacts of transnationality.

For starters, there’s the essential and ongoing condition of white supremacy and the intergenerational trauma of colonization. “The West has stolen and corrupted yoga”, means what it says, but it is also shorthand for “colonial brutality irretrievably altered the course of South Asian history, and it feels shitty to watch white people accessorize themselves with the only things they didn’t destroy.” It is a call for repentance, for realizing that the freedom that some privileged people have to self-actualize and chant and drink green juices comes with a hidden historical price tag that the spotlight of the internet can now illuminate.

As one yogi of South Indian heritage recently asked me: “Why can’t y’all play with the trinkets of your own past? Not interesting anymore?”

The call pushes the tender buttons of white guilt, but draws out something deeper as well: an essential feeling I believe exists not only on the Right via puritanical conservatism but also on the Left via postmodern ennui: the yearning for something inviolate, authentic, and sacred in the chaos of the technocapitalism from which we shamefully benefit.

When things are bleak, the Left will take any vision of coherence it can get.

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Maybe the discussion of the integrity of yoga is really a discussion about integrity. Listen carefully to how the appropriation critics always reach for depth as the litmus test for integrity. “Yoga is not a fitness fad,” they’ll say.

(Our commenter above might reply that this ignores the fact that it was Indian modernizers who first backgrounded moksha to market yoga as a wellness discipline. They still wouldn’t be listening.)

“It’s a path that demands ethics and meditation.”

(The commenter might reply that all serious global practitioners acknowledge and practice this. Still not listening.)

“It’s a path that leads to liberation.”

(The commenter says “I know that.” But what liberation are we talking about? Textbook freedom? Interpersonal freedom? Intercultural freedom?)

There’s a stalemate, unless the commenter listens between the lines.

Does it make sense to think that the anti-appropriation side believes it can police the internal experience or intentions of non-Indian practitioners? Who would be so grandiose as to think that? How would they even know it had been accomplished, that the formerly appropriative non-Indian yoga person was now legit, and not just another pretender who’s taken a Sanskrit name or who’s bowing down before a saffron robe because of unresolved Daddy issues?

The argument isn’t just about personal depth or character. Anti-appropriators are consistently appealing to historical depth, the depth of memory, to a fundamental honesty about the inequities that have happened between peoples. Inequities so blatant and present that Indian per capita income in 2015 was 1600 USD, and so internalized that some Indian folks try to whiten their skin to get ahead.

If honesty and recognition of global inequality were a hallmark of global yoga, if non-Indian people generally connected personal practice with concrete efforts to support global equality, would some other version of moksha be felt?

Anti-appropriaters can never really answer the question of what those they accuse of appropriating should do to make amends. Why should they? Historical restitution is not accomplished through good-behaviour checklists. It’s approached through the hard effort of ongoing relationship. I.e., not like what our Canadian Prime Minister Selfie Trudeau does, making a show of care for First Nations and then building pipelines through their unceded lands.

It’s not about saying a creed or getting the footnotes right. It’s about looking the other in the eye and saying I’m going to surrender to relationship with you. Maybe that’s a good remix of isvara pranidhana?

I’m not trying to romanticize the task or sugar-coat the context. It’s not all earnestness and people trying their best to navigate deep wounds. There are some folks you’re better off not looking in the eye. There are anti-appropriationists who co-opt the language of social justice to forward reactionary politics. There are participants in these debates who are simply trolling.

Included would be non-Indians on the anti-appropriation side who are clearly dealing with their own cultural alienation by finding validation in a new gang. If that means tacitly endorsing the politics of the Indian right, that’s a fair price for entry. Then there are people out to ruin the reputations of people they think are competitors, and they’ll spread lies to do it. There are people I’d swear are drunk-posting. There are roving bands of commenters who don’t even bother to read the thread they’re summoned to before seizing it to wag the dog. And I’m about 97% sure that there’s this one Jekyll and Hyde dude who’s using multiple pseudonyms to argue both sides vociferously on multiple groups and sites just to whip shit up, while carefully maintaining an entirely different real-world persona.

Deep emotions are easy to illicit by internet predators, and yogaland offers no end of content to rile the emotions of people sensitive enough to be attracted to yoga.

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Two days ago I shared a solid article by professional scholars outlining Baba Ramdev’s documented homophobia and his ties to the current Indian government. A yoga culture war debate broke out like a rash. It featured the old standbys of rage, yoga bypassing, yogasplaining, yoga piety pissing contests, more rage, strawmanning, dehumanization, scapegoating, religious bigotry, accusations of racism against LGBTQI activists commenting on the plight of queer Indian people, diversions via link-dumping, more rage, summoning reinforcements through mass tagging, crass reductions of complex social ills for ideological gain, gaslighting and ad hominem circularity.

Beneath it all, there were also some good points made about cultural appropriation and privilege.

What to do? Leave it alone? Moderate? Block?

I really really don’t like blocking. I counted up all the reasons why. There are eight.

First: there are real people behind those words, and I myself fear abandonment.

Second: the id-content of the trolling remark reveals an emotion or politics I want to understand and sometimes feel.

Third: people are often inconsistent with their trolling behaviour and it can be worth it to take the bad with the good. Plus, people change their behaviour. Not often, but sometimes.

Fourth: my posts are usually provocative and I have a lot of blind spots and make a lot of mistakes, so it’s only fair to expose myself to as much and as varied criticism as I can get.

Fifth: when the content of dispute is so often about which voices are privileged and which are silenced, blocking should be an utterly last resort.

Sixth: taking responsibility for the white and male privilege wrapped up in accumulating this platform demands recognizing that a little aggression is peanuts compared to structural inequality and the best thing to do is listen and feel all the feelings instead of policing the feelings of others.

Seventh: Some parts of some exchanges are helpful before they become troll-y. Blocking people breaks the record of exchange, often making the argument unintelligible for those who want to follow. I bristle at this from a labour perspective. People put time and effort into this, and blocking can erase way more labour than is just.

Eighth: the self-selection bias of this platform’s network model means that we are all subject to malnourishment by too many confirming views. To wit: I doubt there is a single Trump supporter amongst 5000 friends here. That’s a huge problem.

However, my page also hosts many whose speech has been chilled and silenced because of the flaming. They’ve told me so in private messages and in person. Ironically, these are always people who value social justice, religious tolerance, cultural respect, checking privilege, intellectual honesty and civility in relation to discourse around yoga’s self-inquiry and service practices. That they are too intimidated to contribute their sensitive perspectives is a total drag.

It is also a fact that professional scholars of yoga — both Indian and non-Indian — have been terrorized by the trolling these contentious subjects attract. This is an outrage. But even trolling is just the tip of the iceberg for those who endure structural and somatic oppression every day. Like when gay people have to read comments claiming that Ramdev’s promise that yoga can cure homosexuality and his efforts to keep homosexuality criminalized are harmless opinions because he doesn’t hold office. I can be all circumspect and equanimous about such commenters in my hetero cis-burb, but they can’t.

I know that some media outlets ban all trolling, while others are simply closing their comment departments altogether. So it seems that there’s a gathering consensus that trolling is harassment, and not protected speech. That feels right.

I’m not sure what to do, but I’m paying close attention to it. At the heart of the matter for me is a confusion about identity and ownership in this real estate: whether the trolling comment is my problem, given that it’s a personal page, or the problem of everyone who dialogues here, given its public accessibility. If it’s the latter, what is my responsibility to the whole?

Part of me leans towards fostering safety through blocking, knowing that there are many environments in which those compelled to be abusive or distractive can freely operate. But another part is afraid that if I block people I will encourage polarization, and degrade the opportunities for listening that allow me and perhaps others to feel our way into the emotions beneath the rhetoric. I can’t imagine a blanket policy that would work. Perhaps it has to be moment by moment, like everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

“Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”

 

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to in North America, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood.

Just joking.

But seriously. There’s a pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity hangs in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker:

They’re a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of practice, study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity. It presents as insecurity and ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors.

They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress.

They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. And the often-yawning gap between the two.

They have plateaued in practice several times, and have faced the question of doubling down, reframing, or changing. It’s often unclear which path to take.

They love discipline, but wonder whether they sometimes are repeating self-repressive patterns through a spiritual rationalization.

They’ve been inspired by the manic intuitions of certain gurus, but have seen the long shadows they cast.

They love serving others, but have felt the needy gaze of the student, and the nausea of discovering they are gratified by it.

They love revelations, but know how easy it is to use pleasure to dissociate.

They’re inspired by ancient wisdom literature, but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined.

They cherish the feeling of a practice that transmits an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton, and know it’s not that simple. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work, but they’re queasy about yoga being mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They get itchy when they hear younger teachers talk about changing the world through yoga.

They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help #BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. At times they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They got into yoga to feel less objectified, and it worked at first. But now they feel that gaze again.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder what litmus tests of belief they would have to pass to really be feeling it, and how many ways there might be to feel freedom anyway.

They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable. They are aware of the colonial roots of modern yoga. They know they’re practicing something from somewhere else on land that belongs to someone else. Their yearning to honour the tradition rises in tandem with their confusion over what exactly that tradition is.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile. They seem okay with it. That’s cool.

But then there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity.

I feel a prickle when hear their tone. I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom?

Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about absolutely everything — exactly what you wanted?

Haven’t you grown to see the inseparability of light and shadow?

Hasn’t it been clear for years that you can’t tell where the teacher ends and the teaching begins?

Didn’t you always need to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether you read about it or were taught it?

Wasn’t it always more about responsiveness than about tasks or goals?

Wasn’t it your uncertainty that got you here?

Did you think that was going to change?

Isn’t it true that freedom isn’t free? Not in the American sense — but that freedom with integrity depends on being deeply bound to the trouble of the world?

Maybe wondering what to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave that provisional name.

 

 

 

When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between

One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.

“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”

As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.

And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.

I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free.

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