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.
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”
“What does anxiety feel like?”
I’ll ask the question in groups beginning to study Ayurveda. The first round of answers rolls out:
Worried. Concerned. Apprehensive. Uneasy. Fearful. Agitated. Nervous.
They’re all great words. But, I’ll suggest, as psychological synonyms, they might not get us any closer to what anxiety really feels like.
What does “worried” feel like, after all? How does it feel similar to or different from “anxiety”? Continue reading “What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself”
Unlearning Meditation by Jason Siff hinges on an obvious but stunning insight. He says that the first of all problems in meditation is the meeting between the given instructions and the mind-as-it-is. Will the meeting provoke a confrontation, or begin a warm discussion? How will you respond to being told what to do? Will internalizing the voice that tells you what to do increase your sense of internal conflict? Will it build self-esteem, or tear it down? What’s that perfect amount of friction that will stimulate curiosity, but not inadequacy?
These are questions that resonate to the quick of our core social conditioning. They trigger reflection into our earliest learning environments with parents or childhood teachers. They bear witness to the complex of voices and impulses that constitute the developmental self. They pierce through the content of our knowledge to excavate the patterns of how we learn. Nobody but the practitioner can answer them.
Really grasping Siff’s conundrum has revolutionized the way I facilitate classes in everything from yoga philosophy to restorative yoga to Ayurveda. I now open every course with an assertion that has up till now only been implicit: that as practitioners and teachers we have to pay ever-closer attention to the relationship between techniques of care (the instructions in Siff’s model), and the contexts of care (the presentation of those instructions, and how the immediate response to that presentation will frame the process that follows).
The trouble is, the vast majority of focus in modern Euro-American yoga teaching and its adjuncts like Ayurveda is set up to deliver techniques and data. In any given training, I’d say that 90% of the explicit focus will be on transmitting information and practicing methods. The contexts of care may receive that remaining 10% of explicit attention, but they will mostly be conveyed through implicit signals: how does the instructor hold space, answer questions, confess the limits of their knowledge, be available or cloistered during breaks, etc.
This lopsided percentage seems inevitable in the context of modern yoga’s extra-curricular, continuing-education pedagogical infrastructure, which is largely transactional by nature. You see the skill set packaged as a product, choose the hours and location that fit your work/family schedule and transit situation, pay your dollars, and get the data. More transactions tender more data, which becomes a metric of progress. Evaluations of how well you’ve processed that data (or changed it to suit your purposes) are left up to the market, which elevates teachers on the whim of popularity and the smell of money. If you don’t get the amount or kind or format of data you think you want or need or signed up for, you can always make a consumer complaint.
For years, people have asked me for PDF copies of the slides I use to facilitate classes. I usually demur by saying that I’m never happy enough with them to publish them. But in my heart I’m wondering If I give you these slides, will you check out of this moment? What will they pile up next to on your hard drive? Along with many humanities professors, I’ve considered ditching the slides altogether and returning to the chalkboard, which can erased. Slides emphasize the data-products of education over the process. Yoga and Ayurveda cultures offer way too much data for any one student to fully grasp. But focused selections of data can be useful insofar as they encourage students to learn to reason, intuit, and inquire without undue anxiety.
Yoga and Ayurveda are highly interpersonal subjects that have never been taught in this type of transactional manner. The gurukula model, especially for topics like Ayurveda, demanded that learning the techniques took place within the overarching context of care. In many cases, the student lived in the teacher’s home, worked as an assistant, and witnessed first-hand how practice reflected life and vice-versa. Of course this intimacy is likely plagued with power dynamics that would be intolerable to turnkey generations, and in any case it’s virtually impossible to organize in the alienation of late capitalism. The Ashtanga community makes a valiant attempt with its emphasis on daily personal contact and the intentional organization of rhythmic ritual space. But for the most part, Euro-American yoga culture replicates rather than resists the consumer model of education, in which products take precedence over contexts of care.
Back to Siff, who applies the analysis to meditation techniques. We could apply it to asana as well. But I’ll turn it only Ayurveda for a moment. What are its easily-transacted consumer products? Self-assessment tools. Herbs, oils, daily routines, and exercise plans that coordinate with self-assessments. Mantras. Cooking rituals. Cookbooks. And food lists. Lots and lots of food lists!
I’m not denigrating the data at all. It comes to the world through a mostly-oral culture through which Indians have preserved the daily rituals of millennia. Its insights into the flow of time and the micro-macro conjunction of body and world are no less potent for being commodified.
But Siff’s challenge is this: how do we encounter this data? What is our immediate response to it? How does it make us feel?
In my time as an instructor, I’ve seen a modest share of what I would call empowered responses to Ayurvedic learning. I’d describe them as open but skeptical, curious and pragmatic. The student takes a little data at a time, asks realistic questions about its applicability to everyday life, and slowly begins to form a new and flexible perspective on biorhythm, appropriate effort, dietary sanity, technology exposure, and sleep hygiene. They look for resources immediately available to them. They begin from the premise that they’re basically okay. Warts and all, their bodies are generally self-caring and getting on with it, but could use some help in deconditioning from stress. They manage their behavioural changes in small steps, savouring and integrating each reward as it comes, with no grand goal of farting rainbows.
Often, however, and despite my efforts to resist the charge of the transactional structure in which I’m projected as a person who knows more about life than the people in front of me, the first set of responses to Ayur-data is a surge of inadequacy:
“This information is so perfect!”
“Indian things are so smart and beautiful, and here I am living in Jersey!”
“How did you learn all that stuff?”
How will I ever absorb it all?”
“What’s my dosha? I just can’t understand my dosha!”
“Why oh why didn’t I study Sanskrit in college?”
“My life is just too busy to improve everything in all these intricate ways!”
“I’d like to be a good Ayurveda-person, but my children make me crazy!”
“If only I knew what my goddam dosha was I’d know whether to eat green grapes or red grapes!”
Obviously the anxious response to data and instruction doesn’t help anybody. It’s likely to provoke old patterns of disempowered learning remembered from family or sports coaches or music teachers, or those health-fad gurus with crazed eyes who insist your life will be vastly improved if you’d only eat more avocadoes grown thousands of miles from where you live. It also allows the practitioner or teacher to magnify the stress of consumerism. Most will do this unwittingly through the seductive power of countertransference. But it’s no secret that there are teachers and therapists who consciously manipulate feelings of inadequacy.
There’s another type of disempowered learning-response, although it’s tricky to see, because it looks like enthusiasm. I call it Sari Ayurveda (or “I’m really sorry I’m not Indian Ayurveda”). The new non-Indian Ayurveda student expresses its most exuberant form by showing up to the class potluck wearing a sari, chanting mantras over rice pudding sprinkled with rose petals. I like saris well enough, and I love rice pudding and mantras, but a manic enthusiasm for cultural difference is usually more about fantasizing about a different life than integrating the life one actually has.
I’ll be the first to say that bursts of Indophilism can provide a needed break from the atomized homogeneity of the Euro-American middle class. The masala of Indian aesthetics known through global export is refreshingly anti-Ikea. But people who drive head-first into Ayurveda or yoga studies as though they’ve found the promised land are bound to be disappointed. To them, the data is like a sari: a living garment in one culture that becomes a costume in another. It’s a way of avoiding the other wing of self-care, which asks “How do you feel about how this data interacts with your actual life?”
If Ayurveda is about integrating with your environment, it will hardly do to play tourist in your hometown. It might be good to remember that Ayurveda and Greek medicine share root understandings of wellness, and that in Europe, Greek medicine localized itself to every language and herbology it encountered. Four hundred years ago, most medicine was Greco-Ayurvedic in flavour, theorized in humours and doshas, and adapted to local resource and custom. The existential question in the age of globalization is: What are my local resources and customs? I feel this is something to not only contemplate but work on through simple things like home gardening.
Data and techniques can’t entirely be separated from the contexts of care, because they inspire faith, and faith informs care. Here’s where we can add another flavour to this dyad, and speak about the relationship between “active ingredients” and “placebo”.
Are there active ingredients of a yoga practice? Of Ayurveda? Some will say breath, some will say mindfulness, some will say adherence to certain ethical principles, some will say spirals or energy or grounded femurs, some will say triphala and the neti pot, some will say regularity and dedication, some will say devotion to a guru. Some cherry-pick the list, and some go whole hog.
Everyone is has their formulas and reasons, but no one can define amounts or intensities. There’s a general consensus that yoga works through certain active ingredients, but we don’t know how to measure them, or what they do precisely, and for whom. They cannot be isolated and tested in any way that would satisfy the evidence standards of even undergrad science. This is because they are intrinsically blended with the placebo effect.
Placebo drives pharmacologists to distraction. It must be humiliating to work for years on a drug that gets marketed on the basis of beating a sugar pill in 5% of test subjects. But whether they know it or not, yogis and Ayur-people are dealing with placebo all the time, simply by virtue of the fact that they cannot say for sure what the active ingredient of their processes actually are. Perhaps some face the same disillusionment as the pharmacologists if they realize that painstaking years of exacting asana cues prove only marginally more effective in stress relief and self-inquiry than rolling around on the floor with bolsters.
The placebo carries the wide-open, negative definition of improvement not directly attributable to a given intervention. It’s thought to involve everything from spontaneous improvement to stress reduction to the shared expectation of the doctor and client that the treatment will work to the client’s faith in the doctor or drug. These sound an awful lot like the factors of a care-giving relationship.
In my work with Ayurveda clients it often seems that the active ingredients of the recipes or herbs traditionally said to be helpful are matched if not outweighed in their impact by the time and consideration it takes to learn about them, prepare them, and try out their new tastes. Let’s say a client makes a stew for themselves that has all the right ingredients in it to feel nourishing in just the proper Ayurvedic way. How much more nourishing will it actually feel if the client is also cooking for themselves for the first time in three years? Did that pancha karma treatment really do what the advert said, or could the fact that you spent a week by the beach not working have something to do with feeling better?
My work as a consultant, yoga teacher, and yoga educator is complicated by the fact that I can never really know what’s working. But it does seem that outcomes improve if I pay as much if not more attention to the contexts of care as I do to the data. The primary context is empowerment. Proper diet and herbs may well help with a person’s chronic IBS. But so can really listening to their story. Therapists have to recognize that the bright and unexpected sensations of attunement and validation and the permission for self-care may be interrupting that bowel discomfort as much as that soup or kitcheri monodiet is.
It’s poignant that drug trials administer placebos in the form of sugar pills. In Ayurveda, the sugar pill can’t be entirely inert, because it’s sweet. Madhu is the Sanskrit word for sweet, probably referring originally to honey. It’s cognate with the Greek methu (wine), and comes into Celtic as the name of Maeve (“she who intoxicates”), and into English as the honey-wine known as mead.
The context of care might have no measurable effect, but it helps when it’s sweet. The sweetness of care allows for the strange ferment of matter and mind. It relieves the anxiety of stressing over asanas and lineages and sequences and instructions and herbs, or anything else that increases the distance or tension between who you are and who you want to be.