(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.