(adapted from Facebook entries that reflect on the intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness crowds and COVID-19 conspiracy discourse)
Yoga Culture Can Train Us to See Conspiracy
The intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness interests and conspiracy discourse makes sense.
The history of yoga/spiritualism/wellness is a history of understanding the conventional as illusory, or bankrupt. Society itself is typically seen as a conspiracy against the inner self.
More recently, the yoga/spiritualism/wellness world exists in part as a response to scientific materialism, and a rejection of biomedical objectification.
It gives a lot of people a renewed sense of agency in relation to their bodies and ways in which meaning is made.
Yoga/spiritualism/wellness also rebels against the caste structures of bureaucracy and professionalism.
It rebels against the gatekeeping that invalidates intuition and minimizes body memory.
Through meditating on principles like karma, yoga people can rightly claim foreknowledge in current fields of study, like trauma.
Through meditating on principles like renunciation, yoga people can also develop a keen sense of where social conditioning is inauthentic, limiting, or exploitative.
When yoga/spiritualism/wellness isn’t conveyed by cults, it really can push back against authoritarianism. Where it does not victimize, it really can nurture survivors.
But COVID-19 doesn’t care about any of these things.
It’s not going to work to displace a generalized spiritual feeling of distrusting convention and rationalism onto this crisis.
And public health people care that yoga/spiritualist/wellness people don’t die, or endanger others. Like everyone, they might not have all the answers, but they’re practicing too, in ways that we may write epics or sutras about one day.
If Conspiracy Discourse Intersects with Cultic Behaviour, How Do You Help?
There are a number of ways in which those who have been recruited into social media conspiracy discourse behave like high-demand group (i.e. cult) members.
Two caveats, however:
- Conspiracy discourse rarely has visible leadership, whereas most cults do.
- Conspiracy discourse that spreads online is unlikely to enforce a key aspect of cultic control — behavioural control — except in the broadest sense of “You must be online most of the time.” Other than this high demand, it’s implausible that an online group could control food, dress, sexual activity, sleeping hours, etc.
Questions of leadership and online vs. IRL aside: if conspiracy discourse maps onto parts of the cultic template, it might mean there are ways of helping recruits you know and care for, or at least showing them that consensus reality is not as threatening as they feel, or have been told to feel.
I see four qualities in social media conspiracy discourse that approach or the standard of thought or information control (cf. Hassan), by which a group cannot admit outside data or sources of authority that would disturb the ideology:
- Black and white, all-good/all-bad thinking;
- Unshakeable belief in a grand civilization narrative;
- Inability to distinguish charisma from evidence;
- The willingness to absolutely isolate oneself from consensus reality.
I see three qualities that meet the standard of emotional control (again Hassan), by which a group enhances bonds and compliance:
- Extreme hypervigilance. The group takes great pride in being constantly and uniquely awake to the highest truth of things.
- Frenzied defensive certainty expressed through endless comments, tagging, link-dumping.
- Affect of pious devotion that must remain impervious to evidence.
Cult analysts mostly agree that the person who has been recruited is extremely difficult to communicate with. Their new value system obstructs all former closeness, understanding, and generosity. But Hassan and Alexandra Stein and others suggest that if you knew the person outside of their cult behaviour, you can actually play a role in helping them remember that part of themselves.
In other words: if you had a relationship with the person pre-cult, you are keeping their pre-cult self accessible, perhaps even alive. This means that nurturing the relationship, despite how despicable their views are, can be important — and that you’re in the position to do it. Stein says that the cult member is in a disorganized attachment relationship to the group, which has offered a “false safe haven”. The antidote is the real safe haven of the secure attachment.
But simply considering this might be impossible if they are spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and 5G, and you’re immunosuppressed, and/or you just can’t even. Their behaviour is directly and palpably endangering you, and maybe the best thing is to block them.
But if you value the relationship —again, not saying you should — and Stein is right that the person presenting cultic behaviour is acting through an attachment wound and/or trauma bond, it literally cannot be repaired through dismissing, abandoning, patronizing, or humiliating them.
Maybe “Oh wow, I hear that you’re scared, and I am too” can go a long way.
Ignoring Direct Testimony is a Form of Silencing
Generosity dictates seeing the person engaging conspiracy discourse, or the subtler versions (“I’m just asking questions no one is allowed to ask”) as earnestly trying to be helpful, defend the vulnerable, nurture intuition and personal agency, and see through the illusion of an abusive civilization.
But there’s a moment when that earnestness turns a corner and is revealed as either a deception, or as immature, or as self-centred. I’m seeing this a lot.
It happens when someone posts a conspiracy theory doubting the existence, power, or origin of the virus, citing an indirect source. Then a friend, obviously triggered, posts a comment like:
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is a front-line health worker and this information endangers them.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is terribly sick (or has died) from this disease, and your post will endanger others.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. I’m recovering from this disease and I don’t want anyone else to get it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
The key moment is when the OP doesn’t respond to that comment. What that shows is either that they value their idea over the direct testimony of the commenter, or that they believe the commenter is lying.
Valuing an ideology over testimony is at the root of systemic abuse.
We might consider the non-response to be a form of survivor silencing.
Conspiracy Discourse is Not Pessimistic Enough
The paranoia conceals an unreasonable hope.
The iconography of warfare and cast of evil and angelic characters presents a morality play in which, if Bill Gates (or whoever) is outed and defeated the truth will be known and the world (righteousness/purity etc) will be restored.
In this light, the pandemic is a chapter in a necessarily heroic narrative that places the underdog truth-tellers – the brave few who get it – at the centre of a transcendent revolution.
This is not pessimistic enough, in my view, because there really are no grand heroic narratives in the age of climate collapse.
To my eye, what’s happening now is basically what we have going forward, unevenly distributed: one unsolvable crisis after another rolling around the globe and intersecting, with little to rely on but the ability to discern solid sources of information, the capacity to strengthen secure attachments, and willingness to listen to the indigenous, who have been here before.
A non-grandiose framework is not depressive. Within it, there are innumerable loving, nameless actions, compromised by blindspots and anxieties, but also enriched by good instincts and earned resilience.
In October 1960,
A gas explosion tore off the back wall
Of the Metropolitan department store in downtown Windsor.
Nine seniors sitting on chrome stools at the lunch counter
Were crushed under the rubble,
Along with one young girl, who bled out
In the arms of two firemen who couldn’t pry her free.
One five year-old boy was small enough
That the blast threw him free and clear.
My great-grandmother ran the flower shop
On that street, and over the next days
My mother, fourteen, worked with her through the nights
Making the funeral bouquets.
The current explosion, also accidental,
is slow, almost invisible.
The elderly vanish. The shops remain intact.
No one is allowed inside them,
But the shopkeepers are still working
Through the night, or whatever we call time
In the enclosed and sleeping city.
The flower shop at the end of my street is closed,
But the keeper curates her shrinking deliveries
As people call in for wreaths, centrepieces.
We can still do funerals, though no one can attend.
Two blocks down, my barber visits his quiet shop
To sit in his own chair
And listen for the echo of banter and trash talk.
To watch the sunlight pass through the barbicide
And the shears glint gently on the flannel.
Beards are growing in homes,
Like the community gardens, locked up and tangling.
An arthritic priest fumbles with his iPhone
On a tripod, on the altar, trying to frame
His face, the book, the chalice, stained glass behind him.
A parishioner Amazoned him a selfie ring-light
And it glows like a hollow monstrance.
He’s joining an ancient line of hermits
Performing rites for laypeople, remotely.
There have always been funerals that no one attends
Except those who are working on them.
Poverty, trauma, and alcoholism socially distance.
Once a month when I was a church organist,
I’d play at the service of some war vet
Who’d died on the street.
The Legion paid me, the priest, a bagpiper,
And five bucks for the altar boy
To carry the candle and fold the flag.
I sat up in the loft and listened to the gospel,
Stared out the clerestory,
Shivered when the pipes droned and cried Going Home.
Three men, a coffin, and a boy,
Standing more than six feet apart,
Saying nothing to each other apart from the ritual,
Watched by no one, careful to get it right.
Except for the boy: young, easily distractible,
Not quite part of this slow disaster.
A starter list, mainly for me. Feel free to add your own questions in the comments.
Did I let you learn about the pandemic at your own pace?
Did I tell you enough, so that you didn’t feel I was keeping secrets?
Did I tell you too much?
Did it ever feel like I was asking you to take care of me, or to soothe my worry?
I know I was scrambling to find money during that whole time. How did it feel when I couldn’t pay you enough attention?
Did it make sense to you at the time to ask you to do that homework-type stuff? Was it weird for your dad to be a teacher too?
Do you remember doing aerobics-dance-party-wrestling with mom in the living room when it rained?
Remember when the Croatian bakery had to close and my mom gave us that bread recipe and we started baking bread?
Remember when she needed more yeast and my dad drove my mom across the city to get some from me, and we met them at the curb but you weren’t allowed to hug them?
Did it bother you that I looked at my phone while we played chess?
We had a lot of new rules during that time. Did I explain them well enough? Did they make you feel more or less secure?
I remember walking with you and your brother in the ravine, and other kids were running around less supervised, and coming too close. Were you embarrassed when I scolded them?
But do you remember when the ravine was empty, and we walked there hand in hand in the dusk?
Do you remember me losing my temper? Did I come to you to repair?
Do you remember being angry at me? Did you ever feel shy about telling me about it?
How did it feel to have to keep that distance from Nana and Papa when we met at the park?
I remember saying “No, we can’t do that,” a lot, and it made me feel awful. Do you remember me saying: “But we can do this other thing?”
What did you imagine was happening for other kids around the world? Did it make you start thinking about justice?
Did you feel like your mom and I were working happily together? Did you feel our love?
Did you see me thank her enough for all the things she does?
When you heard the news over the radio, what was most interesting to you? Frightening? Inspiring?
Did it make you want to be a doctor, a nurse?
What did you learn about being bored?
Were you worried about your little brother?
Do you remember when your mom gave him his first haircut in the kitchen — with kitchen scissors because that’s all we had — because we couldn’t take him to Denise, who came to our house for your first haircut?
What made you most scared? What helped soothe you most?
What did you learn about reassuring children, without lying to them?
Did I ever say anything that, remembering it now, you feel: “That didn’t help me prepare for this”?
Did I live or buy things or relate to our neighbours in a way that now makes you feel, “That didn’t really model the skills I need now”?
How did this influence your thinking about the climate?
Did this make you want to have your own children more, or less, or about the same?
Most Yoga Teachers are Not Online Producers. They Have a Deeper Gift, and Now Is the Time to Trust It.
Actually, some yoga teachers are online producers. They have highly developed business models and an easy familiarity with outrageously expensive and complex technology. They have seamless integration between video production and distribution through nerdy tools like “affiliate networks” that allow them to “blitzscale”. Their in-person events and conferences are really advertising gigs for their online products. They pull off a near-mystical blend of personae: equal parts tech-bro, boss-babe, and yogalebrity.
Does this sound like you? Nah, I didn’t think so.
Next questions: Does it sound like a landscape you want to compete in? Do you want to take up space there? Is there another option when you’re forced online?
This blog is an expansion on some thoughts I first discussed and developed privately with Theodora Wildcroft about ten days ago, and then publicly with Jivana Heyman in a webversation we did yesterday that I’ll embed below. I’ll also say that this is a very new idea but that I feel it’s worth initiating broader conversation about sooner rather than later, given how quickly things have changed. I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts, feedback, and objections.
About twelve days ago my Facebook feed filled up with dozens of independent teachers and studio owners teaching yoga classes from their living rooms with anywhere from 2 to 8 viewers and lonely little Venmo links in the comments. I had a number of itchy, conflicting feelings:
This makes sense.
The dedication is moving.
Everyone wants to serve and connect, and survive.
I’m worried this isn’t sustainable.
I wonder if these folks are aware of what they’re competing against.
I’m afraid it won’t work out well to try to occupy space with Omstars or Yogaglo or Alo Moves.
So here’s what Theo said to me (I paraphrase):
Streaming yoga classes have been available on the cheap since 2009. The world already has more demonstration videos than anyone can even use. Most of them are free or cost a pittance. We’ve got to figure out why people have still been coming to studios and classes at all, and offer that.
(2009 was the year Yogaglo was founded. And the platforms have only gotten slicker, and more competitive.)
So I sat down to think of the reasons that people have chosen to attend studios despite online instruction becoming ubiquitous and virtually free.
Here’s an incomplete list:
- They enjoy the scheduled trip out of the home or on the way to work dedicated to self-care.
- They enjoy the body-buzz of the room: they’re inspired by others moving beside and around them.
- They want hands-on help from the instructor.
- They enjoy the togetherness, and sometimes find common cause beyond the mat.
- They want direct communication with, feedback from, and attunement with the instructor.
Let’s call these the IRL values. What’s not on this list is the visual demonstration/ performance of postures. The streaming formats have that locked up.
Physical distancing means that among the IRL values listed, #1-4 are off the table, perhaps indefinitely.
Let me pause here, and articulate two caveats about what follows.
- There are IRL yoga businesses that have developed online content over the past decade that is not fairly characterized by the tech-bro / boss-babe / yogalebrity stereotype above. I know several studios that have produced excellent online work that has served to support rather than overshadow or replace their IRL values. They may be better set up to shift into virtual studio mode at the present moment, but I fear the economy will be cruel to them as well, especially if they expect the virtual to subsidize the shuttered real.
- IRL value #4 is off the table as far as the mainstream yoga economy goes. But I also know that there are communities of marginalized practitioners for whom gathering together is a survival need, and this need will likely outlast what is to come. For these populations, #4 is better stated as “They require togetherness“.
Okay, moving on:
If the UK’s Imperial College is correct about distancing likely needing to last for 18 months in most parts of the world, and if poor old Dr. Fauci is correct that COVID-19 will have cyclical surges until a vaccine is found, most of the brick-and-mortar spaces that provide IRL values may well be finished. I’ve owned two studios, organized festivals, and taught in YTT programmes for more than a decade. I know dozens of studio owners, and can think of only one who might have the resources — which come from outside the yoga industry — to ride out this stoppage.
Thus: I believe it’s naïve to think about this condition as temporary, and about the online space as a “holding tank” for a brick-and-mortar business that will just pick up where it left off.
Let’s say that those of use who have survived are all free and clear and vaccinated in 18 months. How long will it take for the public to resume feeling comfortable in embodiment spaces? How long will it take for former yoga consumers to have the same level of disposable income? And will they spend it on class passes? Will they spend it on cardio training to rehabilitate damaged lungs? Will they use it build up their community gardens or learn new survival skills? Will the yoga consumer of 2021 need more yoga classes, or have we given them enough since the 1980s? Let’s remember that we’re not just talking about an 18-month stoppage: we’re talking about 18 months of people getting super-interested in other things, by necessity.
If I’m right about the impacts of an 18-month stoppage, we may be looking at a near-total collapse in the private-sector industry — or at a paradigm shift away from its basic group-class model. Which brings me back to the list:
To my eye, the IRL values that can be sustainably approximated in online / streaming / webinar formats are expressed in #5. Communication, feedback, and attunement are NOT on offer from existing streaming services — and certainly not from celebrities. (Levels of attunement are likely inversely proportional to the celebrity of the teacher.)
But #5 is exactly what independent teachers and studio owners seeking to maintain connection with their long-term students and communities can actually provide. For a while it may seem as though a certain portion of your business is willing to play Simon Says on Zoom along with you, but stripped of the IRL values that Zoom in the long term cannot provide, I can’t see how this will last.
It certainly won’t last if independent teachers and studios post rates comparable to their pre-pandemic drop-in standard. I’ve seen folks ask for $10-15 for each class, which I feel in my bones isn’t going to fly long-term — again, given the dirt-cheap rates of the yoga video mills, plus the fact that the majority of the clientele are also seeing their income in free-fall.
Most of the major yoga media platforms have free trial periods. New or existing students could even skip the countless YouTube classes and be on commercial-free platforms for months, at no cost. And check out these screencaps from Googling “online yoga” just this morning:
QED: the tolerance for paying for online classes is already low. In a tanked economy, it will sink lower.
Don’t get me wrong — I think the impulse to ask for $10-15 is on point, because the premise is that the teacher is offering IRL values. But for that to be true, the focus has to be on #5.
So: what does #5 look like, in practical terms, for the non tech-bro, non boss-babe, non yogalebrity teacher now having anxiety rise as they try to learn Zoom?
I think it looks like a brief, conversation-based private lesson. Equal parts check-in, instruction, and homework assignment. The vibe is encouraging and empathetic. The limits are clear: it’s instructional, but it’s not therapy. The timing and finances are set by mutual agreement, just like any other private appointment.
The scope of practice issue here is crucial. I’ve spent a good amount of the past five years analyzing and theorizing and consulting on the issue of the yoga teacher’s scope of practice. My basic argument has been that the absence of a SOP in the profession is closely tied with rates of charismatic overreach, as well as physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. As I’ve done that work, people have often said: “But the vast majority of yoga teachers are kind and ethical people,” and my response has been “Okay, I’m not talking about that, but I agree with you, and also think we can improve things further.” But in this situation I feel it’s appropriate to be sensitive to the costs of gatekeeping, lean into the general-goodness theory, and have faith that on the whole, yoga teachers with whom this blog resonates will understand clearly how not to cross over into unqualified territory.
As I see it, here are two key advantages of the online private lesson:
- The timing is flexible. I’ve seen a lot of colleagues try to guess about when they should be running their new virtual classes. It seems to be an impossible calculus, because so many people are now at home with their children, and those schedules aren’t going to settle down for months. It’s a lot easier to block off a specific half-hour in a week than to pencil in a virtual class that you can bail on at any time.
- The finances can be individually negotiated. People are falling apart financially, but it’s unevenly distributed. I don’t believe that we can establish a stable market value for an online class at this point. However: the individual student who knows their daily and weekly needs and resources can definitely make a decision about how much a 30-minute meeting is worth vs. what they can afford. It might be $5, it might be $50. I’m betting that by the time we get to 6 months, most of us will accept the fact that beggars can’t be choosers. In a broader sense: negotiating the value of each exchange is a step, however small, towards anti-capitalism.
With regard to time vs. money: a participant in my webservation with Jivana asked, astutely:
“How many teachers have the time to give 20 individual classes right now rather than one class on Zoom for all 20??”
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I believe the time/money calculus will become clearer as people monitor their income from those Zoom classes over the next month. My prediction is that the numbers will inevitably decline, because a) the Zoom format will feel flatter and less communicative over time (visual media retention requires increasing visual complexity) and b) the money won’t be competitive. Also: it will be far harder for the virtual studio to attract new students. The question is: why not act upon the clear IRL value #5 sooner, while you have existing connections, rather than later, as they start to fray?
There’s a broader theme here, and some supportive history.
The rush to digitalize the brick-and-mortar studio is bringing up a lot of anxiety. I think it’s important to tune into that. Because beneath the tech issues and financial terrors, I’m betting that something else is coming into focus:
Yoga has always been degraded by visual media, and we can feel this in our bodies. I believe this tunes us in to something we’ve known all along: that the entire modern movement has constellated around a paradox:
Yoga is an internal, personal practice. Look! Here are some pictures and demonstrations of other people doing it for you to imitate.
Is cultural appropriation a problem? Yes. Commercialization? Yes. But at a more primal, embodied, cross-cultural level, the modern yoga movement — for a century now — has nurtured a schizoid split between presence and performance.
The most obvious example of this is reported on by BKS Iyengar himself — perhaps the most-photographed yoga person of the pre-Instagram era. The hundreds of plates in Light on Yoga were photographed in such a compressed period of time that he had to be hospitalized for weeks after. What that means is that the best-selling yoga photo-manual in the world, which is chock-full of claims of medical benefits, is actually the visual record of a man entering a health crisis. He’s literally sickened by his performance of wellness. He both established an artform and set the tone for its most unsettling outcomes.
There’s something fundamentally off about this very old problem. And the rush to go online may only rub salt in this wound.
It’s no-one’s fault. It is a collision of culture, technology, and globalization. But right now, in the space of a few weeks, our world has become very small and intimate. As we wash our hands, things become very tactile. We cannot be globalized in the same way. The age of spiritual junkets to Pune and Mysore might be over for good. We can’t afford to use technology uncritically, and this means we might be able to re-invest in a culture that values presence over performance.
We can let the tech bros, boss babes, and yogalebrities keep their share of the performance market. If we do, we might connect with something older in yoga history.
So far as we know, yoga instruction in the premodern period featured no group classes, no visual aids, no physical adjustments, and no physical demonstrations. As Jim Mallinson told me about learning hatha yoga from his late guru Balyogi Sri Ram Balak Das: the instruction was all oral. Jim was told, in conversation, about a series of postures, and encouraged to practice on his own. There was no need for “alignment”. There were no mirrors, no selfies. No need to make sure it looked right. There was only simple instruction, encouragement, and faith.
Now that’s a process that can easily migrate to Zoom, with no special equipment — or persona — required.
P.S.: Here’s my online plug. The last session of 6 Critical Problems in Modern Yoga and How to Work With Them runs this afternoon. The topic today is: “How and why to practice in the shadow of climate crisis, or during COVID-19 chaos…plus. a Bhagavad Gita thought experiment”. You can join at any time. If you need tuition relief, we can work that out by email.
New series starts May 1. “Cult Dynamics in Yoga and Buddhism: Recognition, Recovery, Resilience“. Also negotiable tuition.