Tara Stiles in a Glass Box. Dead Guru in a Freezer.
“The loss of quality that is so evident at every level of spectacular language, from the objects it glorifies to the behavior it regulates, stems from the basic nature of a production system that shuns reality.”
― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Two very similar yoga stories splashed across the web this week.
In what she called her “David Blaine moment in New York”, Tara Stiles busted out all the asanas in a glass box decked out like a miniature high-end hotel room, complete with stilettoes and a champagne-bucket, mounted on the back of the W hotels Yoga Truck, which rolled slowly from one W location to another. It was a promotion for – oh, so many things.
Another story emerged from Jalandhar, India. A high court there has been asked to determine whether the wealthy guru Ashutosh Maharaj, who his followers have been keeping in a commercial freezer under armed guard (you might want to read that twice) is as dead as one might guess, or whether he is in a state of profound meditation. His family insists he died of a heart attack back in January. His followers are expecting him to resurrect from his mahasamadhi when he’s good and ready, and are committed to preserving his corpse for his saintly re-entry.
The Telegraph quotes an unnamed aide: “Maharaj has been in deep meditation. He has spent many years meditating in sub-zero temperatures in the Himalayas, there is nothing unusual in it. He will return to life as soon as he feels and we will ensure his body is preserved until then.” In the interim, the aide and his cohorts will maintain control of the guru’s $170M estate, thank you very much. The family really, really wants him declared dead, so all frozen assets can be released.
Now there are superficial differences between the stories. Like the fact that Deepak Chopra’s favourite yoga teacher is quite bendy, possibly quite overheated in her gridlocked cube, and likely limits herself to simple pranayama. The Maharaj, of course, is a little stiff with the cold, but apparently matchless in breath retention.
There’s also the fact that Stiles’ performance out-ironizes the guru’s. Her display echoes the travails of street yogis in early 1900s Calcutta and Delhi, who were forced by colonial expansion to surrender ancestral lands and pose for paisas in the gutters. Vedantins like Vivekananda and scientizers like Kuvalyananda expressed disgust at their bendy antics, seeing them as impediments to Indian physical dignity and the advancement of rational medicine. Stiles’ performance of the body beautiful in a rolling Red-Light window reclaims a prouder yogabitionism, even as she’s imprisoned in glass as a perfect specimen of healthist objectification. Comparatively, Maharaj’s game is about as complex as a five year-old’s lie, so we’ll have to say that Tara wins this round in the shark-jumping competition known as popular yoga culture.
But both stories feature the worship of human flesh, and the battle over its politics and meanings. The tales become fully indistinguishable in the responses they generate in the faithful, who are endlessly resourceful in protecting their dreams.
In Jalandhar the process is quite straightforward. Guard the freezer with soldiers. Do not disturb the Maharaj’s “meditation”. Compare his frosty sojourn with a spiritual junket to the Himalayas. Forbid jokes about sno-cones and slushies. Screw his family over: they never really knew him. Protect the legacy that predicted his immortality. Soothe all believers. He’s astral traveling. He’s running the estate from the ethers. He loves you. The kids will be all right.
Tara’s airbrushed performance of samadhi is also very well-guarded. Not by thuggish regents with guns, but by the smiling denizens of modern Yogaland, unconsciously armed with the rationalizations of neoliberalism.
When Jennilyn Carson and Roseanne Harvey offer some basic criticism of the yoga selfie complex to the New York Post, we should expect that mainstream-y sources will trip over themselves to intelli-shame them. But these aren’t the real guards. The real guards are the well-meaning, committed practitioners who either cannot see what’s obvious – that Stiles’ product display is as dead and packaged as the frozen steaks in a W hotel walk-in – or they cannot bear to admit it, and so they reframe it into what the dominant culture says it must be: a manifestation of Tara’s perfectly free self-expression of perfect freedom, because reasons!
Well, not reasons exactly, but the usual dissociative deflections. Here’s a selection from the comment thread to my status update, which snarked about the whole thing:
“It’s all expression of consciousness. [sic] Let people break free from dogma, none of this is right or wrong. If [Stiles et al] can bring more attention to Yoga and spread it and inspire people to practice, why not?”
“Change your perception 🙂 you can find darkness and dark motive [sic] in anything you find.”
“You do your yoga and let the lovely lady do hers!”
“We should all stop being yoga snobs 😉 myself included – it’s all good.”
The Telegraph reports: “Although Punjab Police initially confirmed [the Maharaj’s] death, the Punjab High Court later dismissed its status report and local governmental officials said it was a spiritual matter and that the guru’s followers cannot be forced to believe he is dead.” [Emphasis mine.]
Nor can some very earnest yogis, it seems, be forced to believe that their beloved practice is so easily co-opted by the evils it is meant to resist. But why can’t they see it? Are we given so few crumbs of hope that it’s irresistible to see glass-box yoga rolling past Tiffany’s as a sign of the paradigm shift? Or is it that we all feel Tara’s obvious tender humanity, and want to assert that she’s in control, empowered — when we haven’t got a clue? If we don’t assert her freedom, will we realize we are complicit in something extremely sad? How will the kids be all right, if we don’t put a good face on it?
“It’s all good” is such a flexible mantra, innit? Serving not only yoga marketing, but also global capitalism and hyperindividualism, which sells a crucial lie: Tara Stiles is a free agent whose wealth and fame are the natural outcomes of hard work and a positive attitude – and we should all enjoy such blessings, regardless of race, class, education, or body type. Of course the social constructions of her desirability are erased by her flawless pigeon pose. Of course she is being asked to advertise a totally accessible physical ideal and economic reality that would never depress the self-esteem of women or the poor. Of course she inspires more people than she alienates. Of course she isn’t emphasizing flexibility over stability and extreme-range movement over pleasure and function. Of course she is honouring the great introspective traditions of India by being gawked at in what looks like a porno web-cam set. Of course she’s not being objectified while shilling for a multinational hotel chain. Of course her Slim Calm Sexy hypermobility is not being sexualized by dysmorphic delusion. Could her submissive display trigger some people? No way! Not a chance! None of the bad things those haters are whining about are really happening. Because if they are, we’d have to do something. We’d have to give up guarding the freezer, and making money by lying about what’s really inside.
But doing something about it has external consequences we’d like to ignore so badly, internal control is really the best option. For hidden behind the self-policing of the neoliberal religion, we know there are guns trained on our hearts and pepper spray aimed at our faces. For anyone who challenges the cruel logic of patriarchal capitalism, there’s a cop ready to grab you by the breast and a jury ready to throw you in jail for elbowing him away. When First Nations people blockade a multinational’s fracking development that will destroy their unceded earth and water, the military shows up with armoured vehicles, full camouflage and assault weaponry.
What a buzzkill! So much better to breathe and remember that it’s all good! So much easier to use yoga to unite with the mystical truths of capitalism than to fight against it with every breath! Adam Smith apparently has two invisible hands. One holds a taser and the other flashes a calming mudra, but occasionally they’re joined in Namaste.
I had a strange dream of international yoga intrigue that I’ll have to bring to my therapist. There were these radical feminist yoga teachers dressed up like Pussy Riot. They formed two squads. One hijacked a freight plane to the Punjab and raided the ashram compound, overpowering the guards to steel the freezer with the guru inside, along with mad stacks of cash. They buried the rupees in a field and texted the coordinates to the Maharaj’s family as they piled onto the waiting plane with his body.
Meanwhile, the other squad stormed the Stilesmobile, greeted Tara like an old friend, and then they all spirited off to a New Jersey airfield. They skipped up the gangplank laughing as the freezer was wheeled down.
Then I was walking on Fifth Avenue, and the glass cube inched along beside me with pink stocking-headed yoginis riding on top, shouting “Imperialists! Behold the corpse of your appropriated yoga!” into megaphones. Below them was the Maharaj himself, propped up in full lotus, looking grey and a little damp with his own melt, staining the white duvet brownish-pink. But it all ended well: Pussy Riot mummified him for a long ocean journey home, paying for his fare and an elaborate cremation that his family alone could attend in peace. I don’t think they got news of the performance art bit.
Suddenly I was in Jalandhar, but in the outskirts, far away from the ashram, bumping along with Tara and her new comrades in a baubled and bangled Tata lorry. She was sleeping with her head in the lap of the squad leader, who was gently stroking her cheek. We stopped in the middle of nowhere, in the foothills of some mountain range. There was a little cottage with a garden and a goat. We all got out and the leader turned to Tara and said in a thick Russian accent: “Here is room of your own. Nice windows. No glass wall. You rest here. We have good soup. No one see you here. You can feel like yourself.”
The guru is dead. Long live Tara, but not in a glass box. If she really wants to get the David Blaine reference right, she and her handlers should know that his trick is to first survive bondage, and then escape it.