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.

Lululemon: Wide Right. No Goal. Tone Deaf. Class Blind.


So Lululemon does two years of marketing research in the rust-belt city of Buffalo, and somehow comes up with the idea that evoking two local sports tragedies totally out of context in a fancy floor-mosaic in their new store would express solidarity with the hoi polloi.

I think I know why that Lulu fabric goes all sheer. Clearly, the market researchers moonlight as quality controllers and test the pants by shoving their clueless heads up their asses while wearing them.

The dumb-dumb mosaic in question is the centrepiece of the new Lulu digs at the Walden Galleria mall. It’s emblazoned with the phrases “Wide right” and “No goal.”

“Wide right” was the phrase that NFL announcer Al Michaels used to seal Buffalo’s defeat in the 1991 Super Bowl when Bills kicker Scott Norwood (head hung in anguish above) missed a gamer-winning field goal with zero on the clock. “No goal!” is the chant that all of Western New York hollered for years in bars and in their dreams after Bret Hull illegally put his skate in the crease and tipped in the game winner that robbed the Sabres of the 1999 Cup.

Oh Lulu. You have no idea what real passion is, or what you’re messing with. For all of that “sweat everyday” and “do one thing a day that scares you”, you obviously know zilch about the deeper meanings of sports to people who don’t have the leisure to use it to express their neoliberal fabulousness, because they’re too busy using it to survive.

See, if your manifesto had been written in Buffalo it would say things like “Try to get that first shift at least three times per week.” Or “Even though you’re exhausted, go easy on the coffee.” Or “You can’t ask John Galt for a living wage.”

Maybe you thought that because “No Goal” was a popular bumper sticker in the Buffalo area throughout the early 2000s that everything was coolsies. But you don’t get to appropriate the battle chant of a group you want to be part of just so you go on to make them feel inadequate about their workout pants from Walmart. You don’t get to capitalize on the memory of something you don’t care enough about to understand.

The Buffalo news reported this tweet from @allysebian: “We can make fun of ourselves. You can not.”

But really — what can we expect from the cynicism of trying to ersatz-localize the franchises of a transnational McStore?

Sure — bring in your Bangladesh-made product, available only in sizes that can fit the bodies you want your logo on. Make sure you brush the collapsed-building-dust off each unit.

Then: pull on the local heartstrings. Create hometown buzz by reaching out to people you’d never have dinner with. Hire tile-cutters. Those old Italian guys struggling to make ends meet will do. Ask them to tile in painstaking detail key phrases that still smolder in their hearts. Practice radical acceptance and metta when they come in with cigarette smoke on their breath and salami in their lunchboxes.

You might feel all peace, love and leggings inside, but you’re really laughing at the tile-cutters. They probably know it. And all because you want their daughters to buy your stretchy pants. That’s what mindless capitalism and dissociative privilege does.

Lulu, you wanted to express solidarity. I have great faith that you think you wanted to do just that. But your business model is constitutionally incapable of expressing solidarity with anyone, from plus-sized women to sweatshop workers to Buffalo sports fans. It’s a bit of a problem, no?

Hey I have really great idea. Let’s hire unemployed Buffalo steel-workers to make shiny steel yoga mannequins. Let’s dress those mannequins up in stretchy pants with “Yoga Is the New Steel” printed across the butts. Then we can make tank tops that say “Who needs a union when you’ve got yoga?”

Joe jobs and football are so old-paradigm, fellow light-seekers. We’re in a new era! We’re taking over abandoned factory spaces to offer mindful movement at $22/hour. The ashes of the American dream are the vibhuti we wear to Landmark meetings and our yoga-inspired trance-dances. The dumpy folks sucking on Pabst down at the bar may never understand. But hey, what can you do?

I hope that yoga peeps far and wide can grok the whole class thing involved here, because it would suck to be as tone-deaf as the protégés of Chip Wilson. I’m having a dirty old laugh at the whole thing, but the mosaic isn’t really funny. The cracks between those tiles are the fault lines in means and sensibilities between the yoga class and the (no-longer-)working class. That mosaic is at ground zero of why liberals with enough money to buy $90 stretchy pants can be really crappy at even seeing the world they live in, let alone helping it become more just.

I hope yoga peeps get it, but I have my doubts. After Yogadork reports the story, Lucy, the first commenter, starts the stupid ball rolling:

“Anyone who takes a game played by men in tights this seriously needs to grow up and get a real life.”

Really? Isn’t this a store dedicated to selling tights? Who exactly has to “grow up?” Are you talking about men and women who work like such dogs during the week that they long to watch their bodily aggressions and glories played out in the gridiron cathedral?

And what’s a “real life”, anyway? Have you ever watched a wide receiver dive at full speed into a crushing tackle to try to get just their fingertips on a ball thrown like a bullet? Ever hear about Brett Favre breaking the fingers of his receivers with the force of his passes? Have you seen defensive linesmen vomiting at the sidelines after the exhaustion of a long series? These guys play so hard that they’re in chronic pain from their thirties onwards. Yet they continue, maybe born for it, because they were born there, on that piece of earth they fight over. What else do you do under the Friday night lights of your small town where your dad just got laid off? What is this body good for, anyways, if it doesn’t feel its own strength and pride?

Here’s a haunting parallelism brought to you courtesy of global capitalism. Maybe football in Buffalo runs as deep as Vedic ritual in Bangladesh. Both game and religious sacrifice help to keep people alive and vital while they forge steel and sew stretchy pants. Or while they beg for better wages from people who believe in progress and assure us that everything’s all good.

In the Buffalo News, commenter “Memetic” nails it:

“The Bills and Sabres are the furthest thing from the minds of the upscale clientele drawn to this store. In fact, they probably appreciate a good dig at the galoots that live and die by them.”

I can say that I didn’t really get football until I tried to run a yoga studio in rural Wisconsin. The studio had to schedule around not only Packers games, but Packers practice reports on the radio.

There I was, bringing a different type of movement into a land of muscle and impact, pain and glory. It only really worked when I realized I was just a guest of people whose souls cut deep into those frozen lakes and chalk-lined fields in ways I did not understand.