The Pain of Feeling Ironic about Yoga: Brief Notes
One thing that’s coming into clearer focus as I keep looking into the 1960s-90s period of the global yoga boom is that non-Indian students/consumers were attracted not just to notions of bodily freedom and the enhanced internal agency promised by meditation.
Through idealism and orientalist distortions, they were also attracted to an ostensibly older and more grounded mode of being.
On one hand, this was partially expressed through a nostalgia for conservatism. I believe this had a lot to do with being attracted to how Iyengar’s (and others’) colonial-era survivorship blended with post-war Fordism to value good posture, an independent work ethic, strongly defined gender roles, visions of the benevolent patriarch, obedience to a productive method, a fixation on the hero’s journey, and the notion that the world was improving, one sun salute at a time.
Beneath this simmered an attraction to something more primal: the very capacity for belief itself. Postmodernism had argued an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, such as “nationhood” or “religion” or “history” and even “self”. The 1970s academic deconstructionists attacked faith without mercy. Their work trickled down into a pervasive sense of irony within popular culture. It got so bad that at one point I realized that the feeling I had of understanding something was indistinguishable from the feeling I got when mocking it.
Somehow, the ground of yoga offered something more solid, less depressed. For the disillusioned global spiritual consumer, its homeland became the site of an unshifting reality or confidence, lived by those who had stood there and endured.
With privilege, you could travel to India as a tourist from historical and cultural bankruptcy, and try to soak some of that up, to fill the hole.
You could study there, get sick there, feel like a child again, without language or good toilet skills.
You could watch countless people flow by in an endless reaffirmation of your stereotypes and archetypes.
You could go to a temple and ask a nadi reader to retrieve your life story from a library of palm leaves. You could hear mantras recited, unchanged in tone or rhythm (or so they said) from before the dawn of time.
You could pretend to be guiltless, making yourself oblivious to the inequalities that allowed you to fly there in a plane and blend the reverie of gazing out at cloud cover with a vague sense of spiritual purpose.
But the one thing you couldn’t do as a spiritual traveller in India was to feel ironic. The feeling would instantly erase your visa from your passport.
That milky chai in a red clay cup as you waited for the rickety train was the sweet taste of relief from all doubt and skepticism and smugness. You could breathe its aroma deeply.
The Oneness everyone talked about had a somatic immediacy. There was nothing abstract about it. I felt it in the springs of the bus seat lurching up to Dharamsala, the punch of camphor in the sinuses. I thought I saw it in the cow pats drying on the mud walls.
How painful it is to become disillusioned with an authenticity project. To become ironic about yoga culture, skeptical of its pathways of authority, doubtful of its origin stories. How shameful to realize you were making yourself feel better by othering, by positively colonizing.
Or: to hear that this one made that up and the other one was in it for money or sexual gratification. To see that modern yoga in the U.S. and India both can prop up a politics you abhor. Didn’t we come to these mats and cushions to relax our cynicism?
From personal experience I know that irony can be the ironclad defence of the depressive. But if it retains just a little bit of sweet within its bitterness, it can serve a nobler role. If it’s a little less sneer and little more Mona Lisa, it can light a pathway to inquiry.
There really can be more to deconstruction than clever white men reliving their adolescence by claiming that all meaning – including the meanings that create power and inequality – is somehow a mirage.
Deeper than its flash, deconstruction shows that the heart is a garden of doubts to be carefully tended.
It shows that the attempt to fix meaning flows from patriarchal insecurities, that nostalgia for the father and the Word and for certainty cannot be healed through transference and projection, or fawning neocolonialism.
It shows how ultimately ridiculous it was – though not innocent – that you thought yoga was a specific thing you could grasp and possess and preach.
I had a teacher once who gave an eccentric etymology (of the “nirukta” or poetic variety) for “moksha”. He said that the “mo” pointed to “Mohini” who infatuates the yogi, and the “ksha” meant “removal”. Thus, he said, one way to think of “moksha” was as “the ending of infatuation.”
Infatuation ends in disillusionment. Irony comes in to soothe and protect.
But after a while, one may not need protection from vanished illusions.
It’s impossible to take a deep ironic breath, after all.
Maybe the Buddha is smiling through the other side of irony. The mature, humble, forgiving side.