The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
— Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
J. Brown makes transparency in the yoga biz bittersweet. He consistently points to the sorrow in the shadow of yoga marketing: perpetual change, impossible economics, anxious upselling, getting older, seeing through the dross, living with pain.
This gem of a post expresses the paradox that many full-time yoga teachers share with clerics: they can find themselves committed to leading a ritual that is neither as personally valuable nor as physically accessible as it once was. As always, he finds the sticky ethics in the economics: “There is an inherent conflict of interest between the financial need for increased attendance and an organic ebb and flow of practice and teacher/student interaction.”
But is my friend overly melancholic? Is yoga really of “marginal” utility? Or is it simply time-limited in a way that the perpetual growth-fetish of capitalism cannot tolerate?
I’ve wondered for years whether asana is something realistic seekers can pursue with intense enthusiasm for any longer than they would spend on a graduate degree. Theoretically, postures and breath refinement never end. But the natural limits of tissues and time eventually intersect with a flattening of that learning curve that was so exciting in the honeymoon period. For the shrewd, the question becomes: what does the high-intensity learning stage of asana allow us to go on to learn? What does leaving it in bits and pieces teach us about dying?
In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a five-year plateau. When they hit it, the rebellious find something else to learn. But some devotees blame themselves for their waning ardour, and double down on the ritual. This five-year thing happens to coincide with an offhand comment Christopher Wallis made over lunch one day: that from a Tantrik perspective, there are a lot of physical practices that are age-appropriate and eased away from within a few years.
“Those of us who wish to carry the torch”, writes J., about what lies beyond those few years, “are going to have to forge new models that might retain yoga’s mystical wonder, without the delusion that practice is infallible.”
Perhaps they’ll find inspiration in an old model called the ashramas: the stages of brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householding), vanaprastha (retirement/mentorship), and sannyasa (renunciation). Does intense, exploratory asana fall mostly within the purview of the studentship phase of life? It did for most of Krishnamacharya’s Mysore students. We should remember that Iyengar and Jois were the odd men out for carrying what they learned beyond their twenties. Krishnamacharya’s later work in Chennai was all about adaptation to circumstance, which is why it struggles to be marketable. Capitalism doesn’t adapt to life; it forces life to adapt to it. And it thrives to the extent that it denies death.
What happens when the early asana juice dries up, as it does for everyone who isn’t juicing in some way? Welcoming children, opening a business, or settling on a profession obviously forces asana practice to reorganize. Totally natural for the householding (aka shitstorm) stage. Did we think we’d be sun saluting through retirement and renunciation phases?
J.’s post is embedded in the web of gritty calculus he’s working through as a studio owner in the age of runaway gentrification and the overheads and community breakdown that come with it. So he’s not just talking about the aging bodies of yoga teachers having to embody youth. He’s also troubling the socio-spatial question of what a studio can be.
In a Vastu immersion years ago, I remember Hart deFouw talking about Vedic house floorplans, idealized to embody the ashramas. The dreamt-of house abuts the street with a storefront where the family’s wares or scholarship is on offer. (Seems like an upper-caste vision, but whatever.) Behind it are the family’s living quarters and kitchen. But behind that are the chambers of the grandparents, who would venture out even further into the back garden whenever their children weren’t pestering them for worldly advice. Eventually, they leave the house altogether and wander the earth like Mark Whitwell.
What if the modern studio echoed this floorplan? J.’s Abhyasa Yoga in Williamsburg could have a general asana room to serve the five-year plan, and then a tea room behind that, and a meditation room behind that. Of course, as you “progressed” (aka “got older”) you’d get more and more chill about coming, and J. would feel more and more embarrassed about taking your money when you did.
But could it be organized so that the asana room pays for the other rooms in the same way that younger workers pay into Social Security? Somebody run the numbers! But we’d have to gauge the energy transfer as well: younger/abled bodies doing the sweaty work in trade for less measurable forms of labour.
If we think about it as an ecosystem, it mightn’t be so much about individuals coming into and out of the brawny years of practice, leaving studio owners and teachers trying to keep up with teachers half their age, condemned to moon around like Prufrock. It might feel more like the intergenerational family of Vedic culture (minus patriarchy, heteronormativity, classism, famine, and epidemics): everyone doing different types of work to keep the house both industrious and restful, extroverted and introverted, brimming with equal amounts of new life and fading light.