Why I’m Still on the Yoga Boat: A Few Notes

Why I'm Still on the Yoga Boat

I’d like to bite at a question  Diane Bruni asked on the Yoga and Movement Research Group Facebook page, months ago:

Why are we still on the yoga boat? Given all the scandals, disillusionments, power dynamics, and injuries to tissues and psyches, why do we still care?

(This was before YMRG exploded in both numbers and flash-fires of hostility. Had she asked last week, she might have added: “And why are we still on the Facebook yoga-group boat? Isn’t it burning and sinking? Shouldn’t we be swimming?”)

When Diane and I present together on the more difficult sides of yoga practice and culture, I usually open my bit by saying something like: “Diane and I are coming to this from a combined 45 years of practice and teaching, so we’ve seen some things. The danger with a day like this is that we could just toilet our mid-life crises into your laps. We’ll try not to do that.”

And then we try to balance our critiques of how repetitive stress affects tissues and learning relationships with our sense of wonder and possibility. We’re here, after all, because we love yoga.

The shadow side of that question might be: what else are we going to do?

This an important thing to consider when the dominant propaganda of the precariat economy is “Surrender to your higher self and follow your truth.” It would be more honest if they said, “Surrender to your freelance uncertainty, and try to look abundant as you try to sustain your relevance.”

It can be liberating for those of us in this ambivalent mid-life position to acknowledge our age and investments and sunken costs and narrowing exit possibilities.

These things hem us in, but have their positive side as well. The more you’ve invested in an art form, the more you’ll need to continue exploring within it, creating meaning as you go.

 

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I collect trolls. I’m not talking about loyal critics, to whom I’m indebted, but about people who make shit up. Even then, “troll” can be the wrong term, because outright lies can carry a shadow of truth. So I’ll call this one guy a half-troll. One of his favourite pastimes is to use several pseudonyms to crow that I’m writing about yoga because I couldn’t get another job except for flipping burgers.

Funny thing is: he’s partly right. Those were the breaks.

Part of why I’m on the yoga boat is because when I exited my second cult in 2004 I was 33 and hadn’t completed college. I’d had moderate success as a writer before that period, and had kept it up, but there wasn’t any money in it. Although there had been. In the early 1990s in Canada — if you were white and straight especially — you could make your way modestly in literary fiction easier than a decade later. It took me several post-cult years to really get that the writing world had changed — not the white/straight part so much as the fact that content hosts had figured out how to almost completely stop paying for content.

I’d been exposed to yoga and loved it, and taking a training seemed to be a no-brainer. Back then you could easily find a job upon getting a diploma. Or you could make one up, especially where I was living in rural Wisconsin. I opened a studio with my partner at the time and threw myself into it. I loved every part of it: personal practice, community building, continuing education in yoga therapy and ayurveda. Owning studios in Wisconsin and then in Toronto in 2006 locked my personal and professional identity up with the yoga world.

We get older and things change and alternative doorways close down. By 2012 I was injured, and a lot of people around me were as well. I realized my movement training was naïve. There was no way I could physically keep up with my schedule of 15 classes per week.

As my body pain increased, I began to teach more restorative classes. I also retreated into more writing. I consider this a kind of jnana yoga, though many disagree. They too, are sometimes right. Sometimes I write to avoid yoga. It’s tricky, because I can always claim it’s inner work, but at times it just retrenches my conditioning.

As I researched yoga injuries and abreactions to practice, new psychological doorways opened for me to explore. Namely: how do we sometimes use yoga and meditation to reinforce or bypass the very patterns we would most like to change?

I’ve told this story before: the WAWADIA? project was mainly inspired by conversations with my partner Alix Bemrose, but another key prod was the observation of my friend Scott Petrie, who said: “If you needed to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way of doing it.” What an amazing rabbit hole.

I’m still on the yoga boat partly because my half-troll is right about the burgers, but also because I believe yoga is self-inquiry, and yoga culture provides amazing tools towards this end, including the opportunity to critique it. I engage the yoga of meta-yoga. (That is an obscenely pretentious sentence. I’ll own that.)

What other artform flaunts its own paradoxes so blatantly: between improvement and acceptance, discipline and freedom?  What other form of inquiry into conditioning shows how inquiry is bound by conditioning? Okay, the postmoderns did it, but it was disembodied and often joyless. I was there. I still have jackets in my closet that smell like Gauloises.

 

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Sometimes I daydream about teaching movement/asana again, but really, there are too many geniuses out there doing it now in an intensely crowded field of new research. I would have to go back to asana school for years to feel competent again. And when I take classes with rockstars like Diane or Peter Blackaby or Daniel Clement or Donna Farhi or Frey Faust I’m like “What’s the point? This is not where I can add value.”

The real movement professionals are equal parts elite athlete and zen master. That’s not me.

I’m also somewhat over it, to be honest. I got what I needed out of asana practice personally. It woke me up. I still practice here and there, but I also have a blast swimming or playing handball with other middle-aged men, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.

I know other people are wired differently and will get a lot of juice out of life-long refinement and exploration on their mats. I admire and respect them. I don’t think I can do what they do in a healthy, non-obsessive way. My asana arc has gone from dissociative-disembodied in my late twenties to an acutely embodied late thirties, to a mid-forties meh, I’m embodied amongst other bodies, and so what: because climate change. That’s fine with me for now.

As much as I wonder whether I should just mothball the laptop for a year and commit myself to daily classes with Monica Voss or Susan Richardson here in town, it’s unlikely. There are two children running around now. Plus, weird things happen. Like I flew into Albuquerque on July 14th this year, excited to be a student of Donna Farhi for the weekend, and to round up my interviews with her. But that was the same day that Michael Stone fell into a coma. There was no way I could sit there and watch my breath and sensations, which were both screaming at me. I had to do a different yoga that day, and since, really.

For now my seat on the yoga boat is as an analyst for how things change, and why. I can still practice and meditate and reflect. That is still labour, and if it does or doesn’t have value, people will let me know.

 

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But here’s the biggest reason I’m still on the boat: I love the personal, social, and increasingly political moment called the YTT. I’m grateful to work in that context.

Say what you will about industry standards and commodification. You’ll be right about a lot of things, and I’ll agree with you. For my part I’ve also seen that every YTT I know provides space that doesn’t exist anywhere else: space to consider the meaning of everything in one’s life, from bones to soul. People wind up there during life transitions: after divorces, deaths, illnesses. They show up with a level of existential gravitas that is rare, and which opens them up to discussing the great mysteries of philosophy and esotericism.

Yes there are probably too many programmes, and running YTTs often involves beating back against hidden financial pressures with a smile, and the teacher market is saturated, and trainings can be thin on diversity and accessibility. These are all problems to be worked on. And when they are, the contemplative environment of the YTT can, I believe, be a quietly powerful influence on the broader culture.

There’s some exciting lemonade. The YTT industry has been created and sustained by consumerism, gentrification, and the pressures of a fragmenting labour market. Those who go into these programmes expecting to professionalize will be increasingly aware of all of this. Can this provoke a tipping point in attitude?

What I believe will happen, over time, is that more and more serious students will look at the YTT as personal enrichment, and that that if they want to convert that enrichment into work, they’ll look for and create possibilities in yoga service, rather than yoga sales. They’ll be less interested in getting yoga right than in figuring out how they can share it.

Finally, there’s all the new content. Within a few years, how many YTT programmes will include units on trauma sensitivity? Who won’t want to be able to offer a trauma-sensitive environment?

Can trauma-sensitivity discourse be the gateway to broader considerations? Its premises, after all, point to intersectional truths: the world is not even, the playing field is not level. We are all different. We come from different experiential backgrounds. Those backgrounds are seared into and onto our flesh, and it takes work to acknowledge, respect, and support these differences on the mat.

(I’m not sure we’re fully aware of how radically the TS discourse challenges the dominant ideology of modern yoga, expressed in endless refrains of universality and oneness. The language is shifting away from aspirations to — or presumptions of — unity, to a humble listening to the unknown other. Is this what the ṛṣis did? Didn’t they listen to something they could not understand, but listened carefully enough to memorize what they heard, intuiting how important it was?)

How would the fundamentals of TSY, related to single bodies seeking healing, not ripple out into the social fabric of practice? How would they not expand conversations around inclusivity, and even cultural appropriation? How would they not force discussions around accessibility and accommodation — so far only aspirational — into actionable territory?

Imagine it: the YTT as a non-denominational ritual that offers accessible space for social inquiry, rooted in the rhythms and techniques of self-awareness. Isn’t that where this boat has always been going?

Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study

Byron Katie's Domination Technique: a Case Study

Enough people have asked me my thoughts about Byron Katie and “The Work” that I’ll give a few here in relation to the following video.

In it, Katie “helps” a woman understand that her fears of the Trump administration are unwise, with an undercurrent of “deluded”. Katie does this using several techniques of charismatic dominance. This is ironic, to say the least. Continue reading “Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study”

Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype

Against the "Recent YTT Grad" Stereotype

I want to push back a little against an inaccurate and often cruel stereotype of the 200-hour YTT graduate that’s been gaining steam in Yogaland over the past couple of years.

It frames out like this:

The recent YTT grad (80% likely it’s a “she”) is millennial, hasn’t practiced for long enough to be taking a training to start with, thinks that shapes are the point and has the Insta account to prove it. She got conned by a McStudio into signing up for a watered-down curriculum and is being taught by only slightly older entrepreneurial hacks who needed to run a programme to make their rent. Her knowledge of biomechanics is scant and of yoga philosophy worse. She has no connection to the “sacred”, and believes that yoga is a personal lifestyle choice, indistinguishable from fashion. Continue reading “Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype”

The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

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. Continue reading “The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana”

The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi

The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
— Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

J. Brown makes transparency in the yoga biz bittersweet. He consistently points to the sorrow in the shadow of yoga marketing: perpetual change, impossible economics, anxious upselling, getting older, seeing through the dross, living with pain.

Continue reading “The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi”

Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege

Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege

A few days ago I critically Faceposted an infomercial featuring a Jivamukti Yoga School teacher demonstrating a series of assists on a fellow teacher as she glides through a sun salutation. Presented as appropriate for all teachers, the technique was classic Jiva, featuring hovering, intimate, near-constant touching. It was totally consistent with what’s presented in the 2014 manual Yoga Assists, co-written by Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life along with Michael Roach.

Also consistent with the book, the video opens with and sustains a key omission. It offers no contraindications for the body-contact-heavy encounter. There is no discussion of individual needs or student consent, and no indication of any formal attention paid to the fact that touch can traumatize or re-traumatize as much as it can facilitate healing. Thankfully, unlike the book, the video doesn’t get into how the teacher should read the students chakras and use these assists to help them purify their karma.

The video may not be the best PR move for a company dealing with the fallout from a recently-settled sexual harassment lawsuit. Especially when the plaintiff claimed in an interview that the advances of the sued teacher weren’t limited to the bedroom, but also communicated through intimate adjustments in class. But the criticism in my post stayed away from all that, to focus on the simple absence of basic disclaimers.

I tried to be careful not to implicate the presenters directly. It seemed clear to me that they were doing exactly what they were trained to do. The video gave me no reason to doubt their good intentions. They were competently and artfully offering a technique that is standard across the Jivamukti platform, as many commenters confirmed. I was taking aim at the message of the presentation, not the presenters.

Continue reading “Learning About the Need for Trauma Sensitivity Is a Little Like Learning About White Privilege”

“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

"But He's Not Erect": Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles. Continue reading ““But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies”

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”

Guru Google

 

 

 

B.K.S. Iyengar would have been 97 on Monday, and Google honoured him on the home page of globalization. The guru, rendered in cartoon avatar, doodled through pigeon, triangle, and headstand twists. The illustrator gave him the silver mane of his elder years, but also the litheness of his youth.

My first reaction was cozy. “Google” can still be a fun word, and who doesn’t love the doodle? The white page implies a wintry playground, and the brown stick figure sweeps angels into the snow of search-engine possibility.

For a moment, I felt a warm sigh roll through me: “The practice is truly for everyone. Yoga has come of age.”

But what age?

An age in which it makes perfect sense for techno-capitalism to co-opt yoga as its go-to religion. In which a virtual power aligns with an embodied practice to foreshadow its plans to reach into our very breath and cells with its web-crawlers. Continue reading “Guru Google”