I loathed the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you here.
An embittered genius jazz band conductor for an elite New York school emotionally and physically abuses and gaslights the mostly young men in his band, constantly.
Who knows what happened in his own history for him to be this way but it was probably brutal. He plays the boys off of each other in a dominance hierarchy in which everyone pays tribute upwards. The administration knows it, the faculty knows it. Nobody stops him. The school believes he gets results, rather than that they are a selection facility for talent and privilege, and that results can be and are arrived at in many different ways.
The narrative centres around one boy, a drummer, who we watch manage the trauma of this relationship. He does everything he can to please the abuser, including rehearsing maniacally until his hands bleed. The euphoria of music, plus the flow states of his toxic effort, afford him and viewer a kind of spiritual bypassing relief.
But of course the abusive teacher cannot be pleased by any of the drummer’s efforts. Why? Because then he would lose his power.
Accurate depiction of abuse? Yes. Good movie? No, because the writer-director chickens out at the end through a cascade of rationalizations that pretend to show that the abuse was all worth it. He avoids the more obvious, less Oscar-worthy answer, which is that some children survive horrible things with remarkable resilience, while others don’t.
After the abuser wields every trick of power in the book and betrays the drummer in the most epic way, the director then has the boy finally surrender to the abuser and the “process” in a moment of communion through the ecstasy of music. It’s a very Christian apologetic, really, with glory and pain not only contingent upon each other, but that contingency throbbing with an (homo)erotic charge.
Who is caught in the crossfire? The woman, of course. The drummer’s partner appeals to his emotional core, and so she must be discarded. Such an old story: somato-psychodramas between men feed the roots of the misogyny tree. Demeaning women comes to be accepted by patriarchy as an insignificant form of collateral damage.
The pseudo-resolution of the film orbits around the faulty premise that abusive teaching can produce empowered learning. Is there any data for this, or is it merely the best story we think we can tell?
Is it such a prominent story because it’s untrue? Do we have to keep repeating it to convince ourselves it’s meaningful?
I don’t buy it. Abusive teaching can be correlated with certain performed results, but only through a battery of other factors coming together.
We have to name the process: saying the band leader got the drummer boy to show his “essence” – which is what the entire denouement of the movie tells us – is a trauma response designed to relieve cognitive dissonance.
This culture conflates communion with survivorship, which is why brothers-at-arms war movies are a staple. We didn’t actually need to go to war to find out who we really are. Rather, we were sent to war and we found out how we each improvise survivorship according to our privileges and wounds. Except for those of us who didn’t survive, and who therefore didn’t get movies made about them.
Although – the dead were in those movies, really. They were the bit characters who had their heads shot off in order to show everyone else what dangers the survivors survived. That’s the thing about triumph-through-adversity narratives. They require sacrificial victims. In Whiplash, the director throws another kid under the bus to illuminate the resurrection of the hero via contrast. That the sacrificial victim is black adds another disturbing layer.
This is all on my mind because of yoga, of course. In response to a description of teacherly abuse on the Yoga and Movement Research board, someone commented to the effect that the teacher involved was difficult, full of contradictions, but that, like fire, being around him could be “incredibly transformative.”
Sorry, but “transformative” is not the appropriate word. If dude were able to pull himself up short in the middle of his intrusions and say “Wow, there’s my anger management problem pouring out again, full force. I think it has something to do with intergenerational violence and my need to offload my repressed humiliation onto younger men. I’m really sorry” – that would be transformative. Anything less is just a cycle of abuse with chaotic results narrativized by (partial) winners who need to make sense of winning.
I believe the comment also betrays something unintended. It puts the old-school yoga teacher in the category of artist. It suggests: “He’s a genius, but he can burn you.” This has been used as a framing device for guru-types forever.
Of all of the problems with this model, this is perhaps the most pernicious. Maybe it hangs around precisely because of vestigial Christianity, and we can’t stop making sense of things that way.
I’ve never met any, but I believe that spiritual geniuses — unlike artists, who I know a bunch of — would be those who figure out how to not burn others with the coals of their past.
Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.
The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.
You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.
Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.
And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.
A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.
Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.
Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.
Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.
Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.
As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”
The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided.
It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.
Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.
Okay, full disclosure:
I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.
In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.
Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.
I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.
It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.
I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.
I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:
In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.
I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.
I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.
Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.
Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:
I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media.
Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.
This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.
My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:
Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.
In Neil Pearson’s Mettaversity presentation on how pain science can inform yoga practice, the paradox sharpened. This is what I gathered: Continue reading “On Pain, Awareness, Self-Regulation, and What People Want in Yoga”
Honestly I’m conflicted about spotlighting this article (trigger warning: predatory gaslighting), but I think exploring it might be instructive. My intent isn’t to isolate this individual any more than he’s isolated himself. It’s to show how Yogaland is woefully ill-equipped to engage the Trump era because of this malicious fact:
the discourse of neutrality, openness, and empathy can be effortlessly co-opted by a cynical and grandiose narcissism and used by those whose job it is to put others into psychosomatic stress positions and presume to shape their inner lives. This has always been a problem. Now it’s a cultural crisis.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Guardian.
Is yoga a sport? A therapy? A religion?
If you’re not a yoga insider and you listened to British Wheel of Yoga Director Paul Fox and British Hindu monastic Swami Ambikananda joust over these questions on BBC this Monday (time cue 2:50), you’d be none the wiser. Their prickly duet sang of a subculture-turned-industry that not only can’t decide which of the three it is, but for decades has based its mystique on the tensions between them.
The question at hand is whether or not British yoga is ripe for regulatory intervention through alignment with a National Occupational Standard. Instigator Fox says yes, because he claims yoga is causing physical injury — but he can’t say how much — and that some teacher trainings are too short – but he won’t say which ones. Defender Swami says no, because she claims yoga is a religion, and regulation would constitute a neo-colonial intervention into an ancient tradition.
Obscured from most observers would be the fact that these are two power brokers wrestling within yoga’s confederacy of cults, in which charisma and zeal consistently outperform evidence.
When Fox asserts in science-y terms that yoga practice can deliver medical benefit through the guidance of expert instruction, but it can also injure people if the instruction is poor, he sounds reasonable. However, hard data on both the good and bad of yoga postures is very thin. Fox seems to be upselling and crying wolf at the same time, and as the director of an organization leveraging membership dues to lobby for regulations that would surely validate its own “expert” trainings, his motives cry out for a grain of salt. Especially when he punches down at less-moneyed guilds like the Independent Yoga Network, which recently gutted Fox’s proposal with a few curt bullets.
About the upselling. Research into yoga’s benefits is surging, but it faces definitional, methodological and conflict-of-interest obstacles. Whose yoga is being tested is the first question, followed by what that yoga consists of. (These are the same questions that Fox’s regulation project would have to dictate answers for.) Then there’s the fog of self-reporting, and the fact that yoga tests are impossible to control or double-blind. And from the beginnings of the modern yoga in 1930s India, researchers have been over-invested in positive outcomes. They’ve either been self-promoting teachers, propagandists, unwitting pseudoscientists, or a blend of the lot.
Research conflicts continue. An example: Fox’s own teacher, yoga anatomist David Keil, is currently undertaking a broad survey of yoga injuries. It looks like a noble effort, well-supported and designed. But will Keil really be able to objectively assess whether his and Fox’s particular slice of the yoga pie – the Ashtanga method, famous for its joint-punishing acrobatics – is more or less safe than any other?
But I can understand Fox’s alarmism about injuries. When I started publishing on yoga’s shadows two years ago, I too was outraged that people should be getting hurt when they were looking for healing and succour. I quickly realized, however, that my crusade was about something deeper than the torn hamstrings and shoulder dislocations that could more easily happen in Crossfit or tennis. I learned that what little hard data we have shows that injury rates in yoga are quite low. And in more than two hundred interviews with subjects injured doing yoga, I’ve found that “expert” teaching is as much a predictor of injury as a preventer.
Why? Because key experts at the forefront of yoga’s globalization in the 1970s had some ideas about the human body that mingled the medieval with the naive. In his bestseller Light on Yoga, Iyengar suggested that placing one’s full weight of the body onto the head in headstand was a great idea. Pattabhi Jois – Fox’s own root-guru – said that his repetitive Primary Series was “Therapy for the Body.” Along with the echoes of their abusive childhoods, they passed these axioms down through training programmes where elaborateness projected legitimacy, and students matched cash with devotion to make their tuition.
My research has led me to believe that if there are injuries to worry about, they’re not primarily from particular postures or inadequate training hours. They come from dysfunctional learning relationships in which the abusive attitudes and behaviours of top teachers are internalized by students. If I were Fox, I’d be less interested in micromanaging the resumés of workaday British teachers than in sussing out the lingering effects of Iyengar battering his students, or Jois sexually harassing his.
For her part, Swami Ambikananda seems keen on a different kind of micromanagement: that of the image of yoga itself, to protect it from business-oriented interlopers like Fox. But when she claims that she stewards a 5000 year-old tradition that’s religious in nature, and Hindu in essence, and that regulating it would continue the barbarity of the Raj, she stretches the ligaments of credulity in a posture that many right-wing Indian politicians would applaud. Her argument should make atheist, agnostic, and Buddhist yogis nervous, even as it dodges the possibility that public oversight might prevent yoga lineages from falling into the psychopathy that religions are so good at covering up.
In fact, certain yoga regulations could even protect Ambikananda’s own school from negative aspersions. Her “Traditional Yoga Association” claims its spiritual heritage through relationship to Swami Sivananda. Unfortunately, so does the Satyananda School of Yoga, whose worldwide organisation has been rocked by allegations in Australia of fraud and child rape. With both schools claiming the same spiritual lineage, wouldn’t the Swami’s students be comforted by knowing her school was independently approved as a psychologically safe space? Because traditionalism, devotion, and positive orientalism give no insurance of kindness, safety, or sanity, maybe some regulation really is in order. Not of postures, but of power and projection.
I think the British Wheel can stop spinning on this one. The invisible hand is never a satisfying answer, but simple market pressures are positively impacting physical safety standards in classes worldwide. Trainings that want to be competitive now hire bonafide physiotherapists or osteopaths to teach the anatomy and physiology segments of their programmes. “Biomechanics” and “functional movement” are the new buzzwords of Yogaland, and the language of trauma sensitivity is starting to make trainers aware of both therapeutic possibility and overreach.
If the shouting dies down, consensus may gradually develop around touchy issues like the safety of headstand, passive stretching, and whether yoga’s flexibility fetish is dangerous to the hypermobile, or needs to be supplemented with resistance training. If we’re really lucky, an organic discussion will also emerge about a yoga teacher’s scope of practice. This is sorely needed when the commodified vision of teaching is limited to physical skills, and the traditionalist vision is bloated by promises of salvation.
While it all shakes out, people who just want to feel the loveliness of yoga can remember a few simple pointers. If you move with the simplicity and curiosity of a small child, you’re unlikely to hurt yourself. If a teacher seems to have an agenda for your body you don’t understand or didn’t consent to, they need to go to therapy.
New practitioners should also know that yoga bureaucrats cannot guarantee yoga safety. Nor can yoga priests. And that yoga bureaucrats who want to regulate often stand to capitalize on controlling the conversation, while yoga priests who want to resist regulation often stand to benefit from an absence of scrutiny and critical thinking. But if you seek out independent, low-key teachers who don’t put on airs and don’t lay their trips on your body, you might find their expertise offers something neither regulations nor religions can guarantee: humble service.
This notable comment about cultural appropriation in yoga just popped up on my post called “Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”
Notable, because it shows how reasonableness can occlude emotional intelligence. I’ll paste an excerpt in here in full and then offer some commentary below. Continue reading “Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling”
One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.
“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”
As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.
And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.
I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free. Continue reading “When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between”
B.K.S. Iyengar would have been 97 on Monday, and Google honoured him on the home page of globalization. The guru, rendered in cartoon avatar, doodled through pigeon, triangle, and headstand twists. The illustrator gave him the silver mane of his elder years, but also the litheness of his youth.
My first reaction was cozy. “Google” can still be a fun word, and who doesn’t love the doodle? The white page implies a wintry playground, and the brown stick figure sweeps angels into the snow of search-engine possibility.
For a moment, I felt a warm sigh roll through me: “The practice is truly for everyone. Yoga has come of age.”
But what age?
An age in which it makes perfect sense for techno-capitalism to co-opt yoga as its go-to religion. In which a virtual power aligns with an embodied practice to foreshadow its plans to reach into our very breath and cells with its web-crawlers. Continue reading “Guru Google”
Last updated: December 6th.
Liquid Facts, Solid Derision
On Friday, November 20th, the Ottawa Sun broke a story that went viral. The global backlash has distorted and minimized an issue that South Asian thought leaders in yoga culture have been grappling with for years.
“Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students,” the story began, “ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.'”
The class was administered by the student-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (hereafter “Centre”), under the umbrella of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (hereafter “Federation”).
“Jennifer Scharf,” the piece continued, “who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.”
The Sun reported that Scharf was told via email that:
“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.” The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
In a phone interview with me, Sun reporter Aeden Helmer clarified that these quotes came from a single participant in a 17-page email correspondence between the Centre, the Federation, and Scharf that ran from September through November.
The Sun article concluded with the comments of Federation official Julie Seguin, which argue against the validity of the cultural appropriation reasoning. Helmer confirmed via email that Seguin’s quotes were drawn from that same correspondence, which suggests that the Centre and the Federation were not in agreement on the issue as it was being discussed. Continue reading “Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story”
It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.
– Yogi Berra
A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.
But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.