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.