Yoga Work and Climate Chaos: a Note


I obviously think it’s really important to illuminate abuse in spiritual communities. It’s as important as advocacy work for any survivor group. Abuse survivors hold up the mirror.

And yet in the shadow of climate chaos, is it visible? Is it efficient? Is the scope broad enough, and scalable? Are venal spiritual communities worth the attention while entire nations operate as cults, and are pushing others into the sea?

What does it mean when you’re doing good work — the work you’ve made, trained for, the best work of your life, perhaps — in a culture based in economic and privilege excesses that both accelerate and will be wiped out by climate chaos?

Most projects of substance, whether undertaken alone or in groups, take five years. A graduate degree, a book, a training curriculum. Reviewing and reforming standards at Yoga Alliance. Five years is also one predicted window for seeing the first ice-free Arctic summer, which may provoke a methane tipping point, and then an exponential temperature rise.

Even if you had the personal, family, and community resources to switch paths and apply your intellectual and moral capital to climate mitigation, at this point you would run out the clock training yourself into competence. For most of us, it would seem, that path is not feasible.

Must we be satisfied with going to marches, when political activism has proven almost entirely ineffectual?

“The market tends to see short-term gains and discount long-term effects until the political structure has been modified by that success.” — Brett Weinstein, quoted by Catherine Ingram in this stunning essay.

How many of us have heard of or can even conceive of engaging in Decisive Ecological Warfare? People have been talking about it for 15 years, and it hasn’t happened to any scale. Why? I for one am just too compliant or privileged to put on a mask and sabotage industrial sites. If a literal gun was pointed at me, I would do it. But I’d have to be convinced I wasn’t alone, or that there were more on board than whoever showed up at the local anarchist meeting. I would have to see above-ground support for underground warfare. Of course, waiting and seeing is the problem.

But this morning I felt a window open. I’m not sure if I’m simply trying and succeeding at making myself feel better. But here it is.

A climate chaos landscape will be a literal assembly line for cults. It’s one reason why I didn’t jump in to hardline environmentalism in 2008 or so, when I first started reading Deep Green Resistance. I went to a few meetings, but they had that edge I was trying to heal from. I could see that the scene was extremely vulnerable to charismatic alarmism. I’d been there before. I walked away, because I wanted a normal life. Well, the joke’s on me.

But now it’s come around again, undeniable. With children to remind me of it with every plan for the future, every request for a toy or a trip I want to give them, and then grit my teeth as I do, caught between loving them and feeling their world burn. (Dear Lego company: please don’t try to fool us by producing your bricks from plant-based materials. Production itself is the problem.) At moments I can feel an authoritarian grip rise in my throat: I want to scare them with everything they don’t understand so that I can feel like something is in control, even if it’s only my own hypocrisy. So there it is, right in my kitchen: the foreshadowing of shitty leadership.

What happens when the bias towards apocalyptic cultism meets the apocalypse? We’re going to need massive stores of community health to not make die-off roll quicker than the climate coerces. Yes, we’re going to need resilience in infrastructure, and skills of self-sufficiency. And these can all be easily destroyed by toxic group dynamics.

Given that the horse of my career has left the barn, it seems like the task is to re-orient not its content but its scope and purpose. As in: looking at yoga culture reform as a training ground for more general anti-cult education. Maybe if you run a teacher training, this is a useful reframing suggestion: maybe you’re not minting yoga teachers so much as facilitating learning and adaptation in a community primarily dedicated to not destroying itself. In a 2011 essay, I proposed that yoga studios could become true community hubs if they hosted social services. Perhaps holding space for collapse awareness group meetings is part of this. What is restorative yoga actually for, in the big picture?

Some of what I’m saying here is as much about self-soothing as it is about altruism. Writers often write out what they struggle to do in the smaller and unseen moments of life. When it comes down to it, it’s the unseen that will count. The only preparation for chaos that’s feasible for most of us may have nothing to do with our formal careers. Let the oligarchs monetize the apocalypse.

So how do you say “the ultimate infrastructure is love” without this becoming another useless meme or starting a superficial social movement? But it’s true. The one feasible practice may be simply to foster secure relationships, to know what it feels like to love but also have boundaries, to care for our traumas and the traumatized, to be inspired by integrity before charisma, to develop trust and forbearance so that if and when we go hungry our worst impulses are somewhat mitigated.

You have to hide the Easter eggs for the children, even when you don’t know if there will be Easter eggs next year.

Listening to Survivors is a Survival Test (Or: Neoliberalism and Yoga Rise and Implode Together)

It was Brian Culkin who first got me thinking in socio-economic terms about modern yoga. He talks about yoga as the de facto religion of neoliberalism: preaching individualistic empowerment through flexibility, adaptability, leaning-in to challenges, self-reliance, lowering expectations for structural support and change, and creating facsimiles of community where real communities used to be. Later, my thinking was bumped along by an amazing essay by Lavrence and Lozanski on how Lululemon, especially in earlier days, wove these themes into its athleisure fabrics and stitched it all up with random orientalist clichés.

Along this trajectory it became clear that yoga infrastructure was inseparable from urban gentrification. I remember Diane Bruni telling me how much rent Downward Dog had to pay for its two-studio space in Toronto’s Parkdale in the mid 2000s. It was something like 10K/mo. She said that making that rent in the summers was touch-and-go. I was shocked: this was Toronto’s most popular/lucrative yoga space, and they were just hanging on? Moreover: this was their second home.

They had moved west and down-rent along Queen St. from their first space on Spadina, which was in a building that used to house garment factories. So the studio itself owed its birth to the shuttering of manufacturing in Toronto’s downtown core. They practiced in the rooms that used to make the clothes that they practiced in. Downward Dog was actually featured by Naomi Klein in the first pages of No Logo, who gives it as an example of who and what moves into a North American urban space when jobs get shipped to the lowest-paying labour market.

I’m willing to bet that the majority of iconic early urban yoga studios have a similar history. That’s what gives them their forlorn beauty: large empty spaces with exposed brick and plumbing and refinished b-grade hardwood floors, often stained with machine grease, now a patina, or fabric die. When they were manufacturing spaces, all of the aesthetic elements were signs of frugality: now they indicated rawness or authenticity. This didn’t even have to be urban: the first studio I co-owned was in Baraboo Wisconsin, pop 12K. It was in the former cafeteria space of a shuttered engine coil factory.

These are spaces in which people used to make things. Now the product is the aspirational self.

Downward Dog couldn’t afford the rent hike in the old Spadina building, so they moved out to the edge of the gentrification wave sweeping west into Parkdale. Who moved into their old space? A dot-com, of course! And then, like every studio in the gentrification landscape, DD had to diversify its product, always anticipating the next overhead rise.

The pious love to complain about runaway commercialization in the yoga industry, as if teachers and studio owners were uniquely greedy or venal. What they miss in a cloud of unprocessed shame is that it’s also a function of survival in a post-material, post-labour, service economy-centered world. I’ll bet that if someone runs the data some day, it will show that the growth curve of teacher training programmes and niche classes (pre-and-post natal, kids yoga, and now yoga for trauma survivors) maps perfectly onto the rise of overhead for yoga spaces.

The industry is not only filling consumer needs, it is creating programming to fill and pay for increasingly expensive spaces, owned by hedge funds. Another bet I’d take: the proliferation of 500-hour YTT programmes historically begins not only after the first waves of 200-hour YTT grads emerge between 2000 and 2010, but also in conjunction with the expiration of 5-year leases. When studio owners considered whether to sign on for another 5 years at a steep rent hike, many figured they could make it work by creating even more programmes in which people could “deepen their practice”. “Deepening their practice” became correlated with “managing my debt load.”

The globalization/commercialization/complexification of modern yoga (and Buddhism, etc.) is not some sign of moral decay so much as a feature of globalization itself, which outsources both slavery and trash to the most marginalized while making those at the centre feel as though they are living a reasonable and ethical life. As you sit in retreat and meditate on When Things Fall Apart, you can enjoy some real psychological benefit. But you can also be really effectively closing your eyes to where and how things are *actually* falling apart. This reaches peak irony if you do it in Costa Rica.

While the world is catching fire, Gen Ys and millennials are asked to increase their levels of self-inquiry and self-work in an increasingly precariat landscape. Their efforts to pay off student loans with gigs and side hustles mute all kinds of news from the Global South, where their clothes are made, and Greenland, where the glaciers are calving. They use credit cards to pay for time on the hamster wheel of self-inquiry and self-improvement while their consumption of self-inquiry / self-improvement products is expanding their carbon debt.

It’s not like the yoga world has accelerated the carbon crisis, but it is poignant to consider that in the crucial decades in which something could have been done, an entire generation of liberals was encouraged to spend money on self care in environments designed to give the impression that everything was fine and the only real problem was mental hygiene.

My job, made-up and largely accidental, can be really demoralizing. You pull on the Jois thread, or the Manos thread, or the Trungpa thread, and so many things unravel in your hands, to the point where you can wonder what is left. It seems endless.

And yet maybe — because it’s happening now — it’s also predictive.

Perhaps the ongoing collapse of spiritualities in the neoliberal era is a microcosmic sign. Theodora Wildcroft has shown that the sociology is expressing a profound shift: everything we relied on for authority and authenticity in modern yoga culture — historical beliefs, medical/scientific beliefs, moral beliefs — is in crisis. Aren’t these the same beliefs that on a macro level have kept industry and capital flowing? Hasn’t the entire culture been telling itself that its history is justified, its technology is salutary, and its morality is assured? On the basis of what? Temporary positive returns for the privileged?

The story of late capitalism itself carries a yoga overtone: that everything can infinitely rise and expand and converge in oneness. But the promise of globalized orientalism through yoga wellness and Buddhist moral rectitude is showing its cracks. Perhaps the interlocking crises Wildcroft describes, catalyzed mainly by women sick of abuse and betrayal, suggest that the yoga world on the whole is a canary in the broader coal mine of the world.

If yoga and Buddhism promised us a more connected and beneficent world, it did so in conjunction, functionally and psychologically, with the oneness and convergence promises of globalization. Survivors of yoga and Buddhist groups are telling us how those promises have been emptied out, and what we must now do to repair things. They share a voice with climate refugees, the bees, and sea coral.

Listening to survivors is actually a survival test.

Our Lady of the Extinction

A few have already started to murmur it.

Quietly, because it feels sacrilegious, or too soon. And of course there was beauty, identity, and deep attachment. There was a gilded crown of thorns.

Yet everything moves so quickly. Both fire, and the vow to rebuild the past.

The vow is not to rebuild the deep past of primeval forests or oral culture. Nor to rebuild the Museo Nacional in Rio, nor sacred indigenous sites the world over. But to rebuild what it has meant to be European, French, and Christian. Or the dream of such things, circa the industrial age.

Because there is no other time to speak the truth about having no time, some voices are saying:

We all live in a burning cathedral, together. It’s much older than 800 years. Can we see the flare in Paris as a microcosm?

Watch the spire collapse. You can feel its internal strength turning to cinders. For a moment, the fire itself seems to offer support. There’s a pause. Perhaps prayers are also keeping it aloft. Then it leans, and you know it is falling into ash.

It’s just like watching the Ilulissat Glacier calve. The same quivering pause, before mass movement that starts with imperceptible splintering. But the scale is vast. They said it was like watching Manhattan fall into the sea, all at once.

When the ice falls, the water rises. The charred spire flattens into the pavement at a new ground zero. Waves of sorrow and hubris rise in displacement.

Notre Dame’s roof was a tinderbox of 13,000 trees, extracted from ancient forests. Hewn and raised with extracted labour into an alternative canopy, something better than the sky. To house relics, to validate relics, to hoard wealth, to symbolize material and spiritual empire, to tighten the tension between mystery and certainty, to inspire awe and fervor, to enshrine the names of powerful men, to worship the family unit from which all hymns flow and which all of this industry exploits, to freeze female bodies into statues of objectified melancholy.

It’s what male desire and power do. It’s what those of us who can do, do: accumulate value into magnificent burn piles, which for a few centuries can represent and rationalize the noble effort. So few of us see who or what we are stealing the raw materials from. I cannot recall paintings of medieval deforestation, nor of gold mines in French colonies, nor of whatever Vichy meeting preserved Notre Dame from the Luftwaffe.

It’s not just an accumulation of wealth and aspiration, but of an attention that makes so many other things invisible. Some are pointing out, respectfully, that black churches are burning every week. Or that the dazzle of rose windows can distract us from who has been violated beneath them. 

Of course there is a vow to rebuild. Because the scale is conceivable. In a great tradition, neo-feudalists can step forward to perform magnanimity. Don’t ask what they were doing with their 300M Euros yesterday.

The government will be invigorated by a reunification project. It will find common cause once again with captains of industry. Perhaps the yellow vests will be pacified, or even pitch in.

The cathedral will be rebuilt, with gusto and relief, because we cannot rebuild the Larsen Ice Shelf, nor replant the Amazon. Rebuilding will return us to the productivity we know, displacing an anxiety we cannot confess to any priest.

How will this not bolster white supremacy? From Moscow, Putin has offered to send elite carpenters. The subtext, tweeted a thousand times, is that Europe must band together to preserve itself from the refugees of the global fire it set alight.

They will pour more concrete, forge more steel, and harvest more trees. They will create and consecrate a simulation of the past. The completion date will be set for after the Paris Agreement deadlines. The finished project may feature holograms.

I grew up Catholic, in the age before climate chaos. I was taught to believe in God before I learned to listen to the world. I spent many hours in spaces that sought, with colonial affect, to mimic the grandeur of Notre Dame. I lit candles, gazed at the pierced heart, meditated on the vaults. I blinked at the statue of a nordic St. Michael skewering an African Lucifer with his golden lance. I played the pipe organ and sang soprano, and then tenor.

It was a troubled home. When I first visited Notre Dame in my 20s, I could feel its damp foundation. This was where I was from, but I didn’t feel at rest. I went through periods of fantasizing myself as a prodigal son, accepted once again. It never lasted. I loved my elders with a subtle disorganized attachment.

I’m certain I remember sitting in front of a Madonna and Child in Notre Dame, wondering What would she think of all this?

I wonder if I’ll see images of her again, with molten lead and charred latticework at her marble feet.

Despite itself, sometimes the old patriarchal literature captured a treasure. The scribes of Luke hinted at Mary’s foreboding. That she felt the fate of her strangely aware baby. That he would be murdered at a young age by priests and bureaucrats for suggesting that humans could take a different path. For some quip he would make about lilies in the field putting Solomon to shame.

The sculptors carve her holding him close, not against the elements, but against a civilization that builds its gorgeous prisons around them.

We can feel her warmth, and that nothing else matters. The roof needs no repair for this love to persist. She’s used to living in sheds. She’s used to not knowing when the end will come.

She would ask us not to rebuild, but to redirect. But she knows no one listens to her. She is Our Lady of the Extinction. She holds the baby, and every fear, and every moment of tenderness we muster. She treasures up all these things, and ponders them in her heart.

_________

Inspired by this essay by Catherine Ingram.

Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)

Carmen Spagnola asked me some awesome questions for her fascinating podcast series on community in the shadow of collapse.

We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.

Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.

My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.

I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”

Pooping Unicorns in Paris: a Solstice Prayer

Pooping Unicorns in Paris: a Solstice Prayer

Creative Director Daniel Harmon is talking about the viral commercial he and three of his brothers produced for Squatty Potty.

But he could also be talking about how capitalism is dealing with climate change.

“The big challenge for us was taking the really gross world of the colon to a place that was clean and fantastic and friendly and approachable. And delicious, for lack of a better word.”

Continue reading “Pooping Unicorns in Paris: a Solstice Prayer”