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.
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.