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.
It’s an age in which the individual body, detached from solid social systems and social contracts, predictable employment and a reliable environment, stands alone in pixelated, timeless space. To survive, it must mirror the hyper-flexibility of borderless flows of money and data.
An age in which seeking is conflated with searching. In which self-inquiry is performed through the infinite postures of consumer choice. In which racial and class identity is parodied by appeals to brand loyalty.
An age in which public health is the burden of personal responsibility, and mindfulness elides into modes of surveillance that boost productivity.
An age in which everything is personal, but nothing is private.
Most importantly, the Guru Google doodle appears in an age of control, in which the bodymind and its desires are provoked, served, and monitored by a universalized power. Call it capital, call it prana. Whatever it is, it flows over boundaries, and accumulates virtue in the flesh of the disciplined. Through stock tickers and body scans, it provides constant tracking.
Is the desire to control nature, vitality, and flesh the sacred thread that ties Mr. Iyengar to the priests of the digital economy?
Iyengar was a coder. He wrote a precise but ever-changing flow of if/then/goto prompts and cues into the wetware of his students. His operating system is perhaps primarily notable for its totality. He turned each skeleton into a logic-tree of divine performance, each cell into a microchip of efficiency. Each breath warms or cools the capacitors of life through the 1’s and 0’s of inhale and exhale. The mind tracks every detail of the body with ritual obsession, chanted out of a distant past. His yoga is conceived of as a unity between thought and action, brokered by instantaneous communication.
Google controls through the totalizing illusion of choice, plus the collection of our responses to that illusion, fed back to us in the form of more choices. You’ll be able to choose the colour of your self-driving car, but can you choose to have no destination? You have to navigate somewhere.
For his part, Mr. Iyengar also inspired his students to sublime moments of choiceless choice. Like Google’s, his algorithm orders chaos and banishes boredom through attention to the minutest detail.
Globalized postural yoga and the high-tech world are entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan. They are endlessly positive explorations of patterns that erase as much as they create. Both blend and blur cultures and histories in the service of progress and individualist mastery.
Both offer personal space, and then watch you perform. Note that your iPhone has the same proportions as your yoga mat. In 1990, we used to say we could “find ourselves on our mats”. In 2015, you can look for yourself on your mat with your phone beside you, beaming your searching performance to periscope. Is the body easier to find through its images?
There are other symmetries.
In June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood at the top of New Delhi’s Rajpath Boulevard to lead 38,000 people in government-issued uniforms through the Common Yoga Protocol on International Yoga Day. Then, in September, he toured the headquarters of Facebook, Amazon, and Google, leading a mainly-Indian diaspora in salutes to the digital age.
At a staged meeting at Facebook headquarters, Mark Zuckerberg told Modi that he owed his gumption to Steve Jobs, who suggested he visit India during a patch of self-doubt. Zuckerberg went and hung out at the Kainchi temple in Uttarakand, where Jobs had received blessings from Neem Karoli Baba over thirty years before. Today, some of the locals are calling Kainchi the “Zuckerberg temple”.
Modi listened and nodded with a knowing smile, and then waxed poetic about the ancient Indian connection between vigyana and adhyatma: “science” and “spirituality.” At video time cue 4:45, his translator blended up a yogatech smoothie, creatively rendering adhyatma as “technology.”
This conversation revealed the thread that ties capital to charisma. Both feel pre-existent. Both are accumulations of labour. Capital is accumulated from muscles. Charisma is accumulated from the projections of psychological inadequacy. Modi and Zuckerberg digitize both into something we call the cloud: a futurist construction of a primal creative matrix in which neither the songs of seers nor streams of data have beginning or end.
But something is being forgotten. Historically, hatha yoga has exempted the body from dominant pathways of social and economic production. Between Modi leading the masses and Iyengar’s body being yoked to the Google logo, whatever remains of hatha yoga culture is completing an historical flip. In the mainstream, postures and breathing are no longer presented as being about releasing social repressions and conditioning and interrogating the drive to produce. They are now essential to accommodating or expressing new forms of power.
That accommodation seems to work for some, for a while. For the Western boomers who form the éminence grise of the professional yoga class, the Iyengar doodle might kindle the warmth of a full-circle return: the kids have received the transmission. And the guru-doodle, as cute as a bendy toy the grandkids would love, does his asanas in an empty white field reminiscent of the minimalist, post-industrial spaces in which studio culture was born in the early 1990s.
It was gentrification that made urban studio culture possible, as it transformed the modern city from a site of material labour to a filing cabinet of virtual finance. Now, Google employees are driving rents so high all of my yoga friends, boomers and younger, are being driven out of the Bay Area. Is the doodle an apology of sorts?
The page can search for everything, and yet cover over so much. In the white-out behind that stick figure stretch countless bodies, brimming with sensations and mysteries that cannot easily be indexed – though Google will try.
What the doodle won’t show you is the sickly boy travelling to Mysore in 1934, hoping to improve his health. He’d never used a phone. It misses the dust of the motherland on his feet. It isn’t showing you the beatings he suffered at the hand of his teacher. It omits the jaggedness of the Light on Yoga plates, photographed in such a rush the shoot left the young adept sick enough to be hospitalized for weeks. It doesn’t see the anxious labour of making bodily meaning as a postcolonial — or a post-material — actor.
The guru doodle hides the fact that new economies, powered by old inequities, force bodies into painful positions while asking them to express adaptability, equanimity, hope, and even beauty.
But the pre-digital algorithm, should it be remembered, reveals that no human icon or AI search engine has all the answers. Which may be the best reason to dim the screen and practice.
with thanks to Brian Culkin, Manoj Mehta, and Jason Hirsch
or it’s just a doodle…
Maybe we could Google to find out if it’s just a doodle!
the algorithm’s are still pumping out results. 🙂
Just to be accurate – it was pigeon pose. King pigeon, rajakapotasana – is different. Although that would be obvious If You Really Knew What You Were Doing In Asana! Ha! Only teasing, although I do encourage you to practice postures, but this is an interesting piece you have constructed here. Have you read Elizabeth Kadetsky’s book, First There Is a Mountain? I really enjoyed it, she goes to great lengths to uncover BKS Iyengar’s history and rise to global fame.
Thanks Sam! I love FTIAM. I had the privilege of interviewing EK in Manhattan last summer.
When it’s time to honour a pompous shit-talker, I’m sure you’d make the Google short list. Don’t you have a book to write, or are you going to continue to obsess over Kino’s injuries and late gurus? I’m sure the crowd funders of your “project” have similar questions…
Thanks for the vote, Peter. Book’s going well, thank you, but complexity really slows things down. It’s not easy to present the strange intersections between therapy and transcendence, medieval and neoliberal demands upon the body, guru and celebrity charisma, narratives of pain and suffering, and the performativity of social media. But I believe that it’s these very tensions through which the nature of modern global yoga culture can be discovered, and that lie at the root of why practitioners can hurt themselves or be hurt by teachers whilst engaging a practice they are convinced is essentially healing in nature.
Thank you, Matthew. Clearly (following FB threads, too), you’ve hit a nerve, and the shit-slinging that’s going on is revealing and important to see ….