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.
I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
(Some rough, opinionated notes.)
I’m realizing that reading the dynamics of high-demand yoga and meditation groups through a cult psychology lens is necessary work and personal to me. I get hate mail for it, but the grateful notes outnumber the missiles by about three to one.
However, using this language doesn’t answer a crucial set of questions:
Why do groups like Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain, Rajneeshpuram, Rigpa, Shambhala, and Agama exist? Not: where do the ideas and personalities come from? Not: what unmet needs do they pretend to fill?
But: what are the basic political and economic conditions that allowed so many of these groups to mushroom in the post-war era, and so easily construct a pretence of value? What did the culture at large have to first commodify for these groups to then come along and upsell?
Political cults run on the premise of political action. Warlord cults run on the premise of revolutionary struggle. Psychotherapy cults like the Newman Tendency ran on the premise of transforming a therapeutic mode into a social justice tool. In each of these contexts, I sense a product.
But yoga and Dharma cults? What broadly-accepted social discourse and value allows them to be a thing, to project a plausible relationship to positive, pro-social human labour? What do they promise to make? Continue reading “Don’t Deepen Your Practice”
Sexual objectification dehumanizes, hollows out subjectivity, strips agency. It’s the most virulent bug in the social software. Marketers exploit it for maximum return.
But when the target is a gorgeous male politician who works it hard by duckfacing the international press, the creep factor gets lost in the giddiness.
Hotness and hope are commingling in Canada’s Camelot.
And anxiety too. A lot of men out there, including me, just had their repressed dysmorphia torqued up with a big homoerotic rachet, wielded in the manly hands of Justin Trudeau. We’re poking our bellies, searching for abs. Continue reading “It Makes Sense that We’d Sexually Objectify Justin Trudeau, for Just a Little While”
(A post in support of the #WAWADIA IGG campaign, which finishes up on December 1. Please support if you are so moved.)
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he injury stories alone have provided all the motivation I need for taking on this stupidly ambitious job.
Somebody is encouraged to “lengthen” their hamstrings through passive stretching. They are told that this will cure their lower back pain.
Somebody is taught tripod handstand without the disclaimer that any weight placed on the cervical spine is discouraged by many medical professionals.
On the general advice of their practice culture and colleagues, somebody holds plow pose for yin-lengths of time to soothe their neck pain.
Somebody’s told that their shoulder pain is karmic, related to some past misdeed, and that it’s good that it’s “coming out now” rather than causing a crappier birth next time around.
Somebody’s told that practicing the same 90-minute sequence six days per week can’t lead to repetitive stress injuries, because the sequence itself is “therapeutic” – and you can’t overdo therapy, right?
Somebody latches onto a studio’s “unlimited” introductory month and isn’t discouraged from coming to three elite-level classes per day, or from signing up for the studio’s popular green juice cleanse, even though she looks very slender and somewhat wan.
Somebody is shown how to do a posture that demands torsional stress on the knee. They injure their knee attempting it, and then are told they can avoid injury in the future by working on their “ego”.
A teacher asks whether there are any students in the class who’d rather not be adjusted. Somebody with PTSD puts up their hand. In front of everyone, the teacher asks them what their problem is.
Somebody’s encouraged to keep practicing while injured, to “keep the prana moving”, but isn’t given any corrective or therapeutic movements, because the instructors are certified in yogacheering, but not physiotherapy.
Somebody is told to stop crosstraining because it will stiffen them up and because “asanas are all you need to be healthy.”
Somebody has their hamstring attachment torn by an instructor who decides it’s a good idea to lay their full body weight across the student’s back while they are in Supta Kurmasana, because, you know, ‘openness’.
Oh, and then somebody gets slapped in the head by an abusive instructor. It goes on and on.
In each of the above, you might as well replace the word “somebody” with “many people.” Because I’m pretty sure the stories I’m collecting aren’t isolated. So yeah: I have a lot of motivation. But every once in a while I come across a piece of yoga culture that gives me that little extra kick.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]onsider this anonymous, borderline-abusive post from the Ashtanga Picture Project on Friday, entitled “The Yoga Is Not The Problem… You Are.” On one hand, it chapped my ass hard on behalf of those who tell the stories above, plus myself, plus countless others who injure themselves or are injured by teachers in the strange shadow of yoga’s therapeutic marketing. On the other hand, seeing the megalomaniac victim-blaming hubris of modern postural yoga parade in full monty makes my job a lot easier, if a lot less pleasant.
I’ve laid into the Ashtanga Picture Project before, back when its Admin suggested that attaining “impossible” postures is a simple matter of believing in yourself and working hard, and ergo has nothing to do with particular physical traits, dubious functional movement goals, and lots of leisure time. I really don’t mean to hound this blog, because its heart is probably in the right place and all that, but when this particular post gets over two thousand Faceblot hits… come on. It’s a drum corps march of every tone-deaf, dangerous, pious, evading-serious-issues, “you’re on your own” platitude you’ll ever hear in Yogaland. I won’t quote much of it, because this is how it starts:
Whatever pain you are feeling from yoga, it is caused by you. It is caused by your attitude. It is caused by your actions. It is caused by your interpretation of the shape. It is caused by your thoughts.
In other words: yoga practice happens in a psychic bubble of me-ness that attempts physical shapes and gets injured in the process because of … character flaws? Also – practice has no interpersonal context. In this slice of Admin’s world, there are no teachers, techniques or instructions, and no communal goals. No people advising other people on what to do or how. No differing levels of training in biomechanics. There is no learning from each other, or from groups, or from temple friezes in Karnataka, or from Lilias on PBS, or Richard Hittleman’s 70s classic, or Kino’s YouTube channel. In short, Admin seems to claim that yoga operates pristinely, outside of culture.
It’s not true. People learn asanas from other people, just like babies learn any type of movement at all: through imitation, instruction, hands-on manipulation. The most antisocial yogi in the loneliest cabin in the most remote forest is practicing under the influence of a culture. Today, in a fractal-explosion of the photoplates of Light on Yoga, some people even learn about asana through the yoga-selfies of people they’ve never met. That’s what APP is all about, no? APP is fostering a culture of yoga, while saying, in this post at least: there is no culture. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition is also fostering culture. If you click through you’ll see that it’s just a little bit different.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]here could this “you are the problem” argument be coming from? I reached out to the APP Admin to try to understand this better, but they didn’t respond, so I’ll take a crack at a few possible answers.
Superficially, APP’s post tops off a messy layer-cake of recent Ashtanga aversion-and-attachment manifestoes. In layer one, Annina Luzie Schmid baked up a searing defection notice, which was quickly smeared with enough commentary-custard to be reposted by Yogadork. Layer two popped out of the springform pan of Jessie Horness, whose unfazed devotion to practice seems to mean that she doesn’t care enough about any of the cultural issues that Annina raised to actually address them. Next, APP drizzled a coulis of refutations, and then added the post in question as icing. So in a way, it’s all just an old-fashioned yogasphere confection: bitter, tart and sweet.
(Of course then – I have to mention – Zoë Ward took that cake and smooshed it in the internet’s face with this eerie mashup of hate and love, reframing the rejection-allegiance tension down to the moment of the vritti – the no-and-yes of practice. I appreciate that this piece actually describes the deep ambivalence at the heart of the matter, rather than staking out territory.)
In a broader scope, this post is a reminder of the pervasive effects of neoliberal brain damage. It’s been twenty-five years since Dame Thatcher proclaimed to her Conservative party Conference that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women.” How many of us have internalized this, surrendered to it, and perhaps think we can recast the hostility of our political zeitgeist as the backdrop of some heroic vision quest? How many of us have yogawashed the hyperindividualism of the age into the wish that transformative narcissism is a viable path? The entire culture is saying: Things are good. You’re on your own. You’ve been given the endless-growth truth about human life: don’t be ungrateful. The playing field is as level as a yoga mat. Whatever happens on it is between you and God. Whatever pain you are feeling from your culture, it is caused by you. Go on, manifest!
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ut the APP post reminds me of something else. It communicates something developmental, which unfortunately doesn’t read well in print. Admin’s thesis might be useful in a moment of one-on-one confrontational psychotherapy. But putting it into print is a kind of violence.
I grew up, as I imagine almost everybody does, in an objectivist, essentialist mood. Susan Gelman describes it well in The Essential Child. The world was filled with objects and populated by people, and it was my job to go out and learn about them and decide what they were – not to me, but in themselves. In developmental psychology, it’s a mood that pervades ages four to seven, a period of almost continual extroversion that seeks to name and hopefully control the world. It opens the door a few years later to the Hardy Boys, or Nancy Drew, who are never paralyzed by the question “Who am I?” The adult version of this mood is nourished by Sherlock Holmes. We love Cumberbatch in that role because it feels like he’s about six years old, without a shred of self-consciousness. (How he becomes a sex symbol through that is a whole other story.)
While I was trying to become an adult, I had two insane gurus. They smashed whatever was left of this objectivist mood with their one-trick pony wrath. “Reality is subjective!” yelled one. “It’s all in your mind!” bellowed the other. For a while, I cruised through an almost unbearably lighter world. It was indeed freeing to flip the cognitive error of childhood: to consider my own interiority as the common denominator of all experience, perhaps even the source of it. What couldn’t I change? The world wasn’t the problem. I was. I could start with the man in the mirror, to quote Michael Jackson’s impossible pledge — he who looked into so many mirrors and probably couldn’t see a stable self to start with at all.
I get the sense that “It’s all in your mind” is the vinyasa that the APP Admin is flowing through right now. In fact, in one of their answers to complaints about the post, they write:
How is saying that you are responsible for your life shaming? To me, it is freeing.
To which I say: yes, it can be freeing. For a while. Until you see that neither position is really true, let alone sustainable. Reality isn’t objective, and it isn’t subjective. If we can find reality at all, it’ll be somewhere in the middle, where we realize with a shock first sickening and then poignant that we actually have no idea where we end and where our culture begins.
I think we soften that shock in the yoga shala, by realizing that we really don’t know where the teacher’s body ends, where the body of the fellow student ends, and where our flesh becomes ours alone, if it ever does. By realizing that while asana can feel solitary, it’s never alone, because movement connects identities by breaking them down.
This all means that it really matters how we treat each other. Because the body is culture.
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.