Yoga Work and Climate Chaos: a Note


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.

Our Lady of the Extinction

A few have already started to murmur it.

Quietly, because it feels sacrilegious, or too soon. And of course there was beauty, identity, and deep attachment. There was a gilded crown of thorns.

Yet everything moves so quickly. Both fire, and the vow to rebuild the past.

The vow is not to rebuild the deep past of primeval forests or oral culture. Nor to rebuild the Museo Nacional in Rio, nor sacred indigenous sites the world over. But to rebuild what it has meant to be European, French, and Christian. Or the dream of such things, circa the industrial age.

Because there is no other time to speak the truth about having no time, some voices are saying:

We all live in a burning cathedral, together. It’s much older than 800 years. Can we see the flare in Paris as a microcosm?

Watch the spire collapse. You can feel its internal strength turning to cinders. For a moment, the fire itself seems to offer support. There’s a pause. Perhaps prayers are also keeping it aloft. Then it leans, and you know it is falling into ash.

It’s just like watching the Ilulissat Glacier calve. The same quivering pause, before mass movement that starts with imperceptible splintering. But the scale is vast. They said it was like watching Manhattan fall into the sea, all at once.

When the ice falls, the water rises. The charred spire flattens into the pavement at a new ground zero. Waves of sorrow and hubris rise in displacement.

Notre Dame’s roof was a tinderbox of 13,000 trees, extracted from ancient forests. Hewn and raised with extracted labour into an alternative canopy, something better than the sky. To house relics, to validate relics, to hoard wealth, to symbolize material and spiritual empire, to tighten the tension between mystery and certainty, to inspire awe and fervor, to enshrine the names of powerful men, to worship the family unit from which all hymns flow and which all of this industry exploits, to freeze female bodies into statues of objectified melancholy.

It’s what male desire and power do. It’s what those of us who can do, do: accumulate value into magnificent burn piles, which for a few centuries can represent and rationalize the noble effort. So few of us see who or what we are stealing the raw materials from. I cannot recall paintings of medieval deforestation, nor of gold mines in French colonies, nor of whatever Vichy meeting preserved Notre Dame from the Luftwaffe.

It’s not just an accumulation of wealth and aspiration, but of an attention that makes so many other things invisible. Some are pointing out, respectfully, that black churches are burning every week. Or that the dazzle of rose windows can distract us from who has been violated beneath them. 

Of course there is a vow to rebuild. Because the scale is conceivable. In a great tradition, neo-feudalists can step forward to perform magnanimity. Don’t ask what they were doing with their 300M Euros yesterday.

The government will be invigorated by a reunification project. It will find common cause once again with captains of industry. Perhaps the yellow vests will be pacified, or even pitch in.

The cathedral will be rebuilt, with gusto and relief, because we cannot rebuild the Larsen Ice Shelf, nor replant the Amazon. Rebuilding will return us to the productivity we know, displacing an anxiety we cannot confess to any priest.

How will this not bolster white supremacy? From Moscow, Putin has offered to send elite carpenters. The subtext, tweeted a thousand times, is that Europe must band together to preserve itself from the refugees of the global fire it set alight.

They will pour more concrete, forge more steel, and harvest more trees. They will create and consecrate a simulation of the past. The completion date will be set for after the Paris Agreement deadlines. The finished project may feature holograms.

I grew up Catholic, in the age before climate chaos. I was taught to believe in God before I learned to listen to the world. I spent many hours in spaces that sought, with colonial affect, to mimic the grandeur of Notre Dame. I lit candles, gazed at the pierced heart, meditated on the vaults. I blinked at the statue of a nordic St. Michael skewering an African Lucifer with his golden lance. I played the pipe organ and sang soprano, and then tenor.

It was a troubled home. When I first visited Notre Dame in my 20s, I could feel its damp foundation. This was where I was from, but I didn’t feel at rest. I went through periods of fantasizing myself as a prodigal son, accepted once again. It never lasted. I loved my elders with a subtle disorganized attachment.

I’m certain I remember sitting in front of a Madonna and Child in Notre Dame, wondering What would she think of all this?

I wonder if I’ll see images of her again, with molten lead and charred latticework at her marble feet.

Despite itself, sometimes the old patriarchal literature captured a treasure. The scribes of Luke hinted at Mary’s foreboding. That she felt the fate of her strangely aware baby. That he would be murdered at a young age by priests and bureaucrats for suggesting that humans could take a different path. For some quip he would make about lilies in the field putting Solomon to shame.

The sculptors carve her holding him close, not against the elements, but against a civilization that builds its gorgeous prisons around them.

We can feel her warmth, and that nothing else matters. The roof needs no repair for this love to persist. She’s used to living in sheds. She’s used to not knowing when the end will come.

She would ask us not to rebuild, but to redirect. But she knows no one listens to her. She is Our Lady of the Extinction. She holds the baby, and every fear, and every moment of tenderness we muster. She treasures up all these things, and ponders them in her heart.

_________

Inspired by this essay by Catherine Ingram.