WAWADIA Update #21: You Are Not the Problem… Your Yoga Culture Is

 

(A post in support of the #WAWADIA IGG campaign, which finishes up on December 1. Please support if you are so moved.)

 

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he injury stories alone have provided all the motivation I need for taking on this stupidly ambitious job.

Like:

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.

 

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12 Comments

  • Hmm. I’ve felt a freedom from Admin –just by seeing it exists.

    I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t go to yoga class.
    — I’ve never taken a selfie.

    I do enjoy my streaming TV… But that’s a recent thing.

    For sure, an injury or two in yoga brought me around in short order. And I started yoga with a Lilias Yoga for You book.
    She saved me.
    I’ve been saved, –so that’s done.

    • very few a taught the tripod headstand correctly, thus the so called experts discourage it…..BUT, if you are taught correctly, it too has its benefits, when you do a tripod headstand, always leave space enough between your head and the floor for a lotus flower, which means, you are not using your head, but lifting your shoulders and the weight is on the arms…..we all learn differently, but it is not hard to understand where all the yoga injuries are coming from having teachers with one month teacher training and a certificate in their hands from 200 hours yoga alliance, thinking they can teach something that takes years of self practice.

  • Hmmm… I’m currently returning to teaching yoga after surviving a difficult many years of Lyme disease. I survived but my inner ears did not. Ironic Relevance: the yoga “community” are proving the absolute worst offenders in terms of offering up blasé blame for the illness and subsequent injury – in other words this wouldn’t have happened to me if …..” – and I must be doing something wrong or be karmically damned if my practice, or a certain mantra, or whatever hasn’t magically made it all better. I see the arrogance driven by fear – “that could never happen to me right?”, and I feel compassion for the naïveté, but still…

  • Oh Matthew. Bless you. You always put things so much more eloquently than I can! I’ve written a response to this too, filtered through the lens of my PTSD recovery process. But it’s just a personal story. I’ve been stood on too, in classes, and slapped. Ridiculous. I’d never allow it now.

    Keep on dude, you rock!

    PS If I move before your book ships, how do I change my shipping address? Want to know before I buy.

  • Hi Matthew – I don’t think you are looking deep enough here, or in many of your posts. The ideas implanted in the minds of the teachers who you are freely disparaging in your posts did not receive these ideas in a vacuum. A lot of this language has been passed down from the ‘Be Here Now’ era, from Louise Hay books etc, that are all products of the New Age movement. Much of their impetus came from Theosophical Society and 19th and 20th century spiritualists, not just Vivekananda and Yogananda. While questioning the motivations and intelligence of a movement is a necessary prerequisite for growth, you are giving into the same problems that got you where you are in the first place, namely isolating a problem from it’s larger context, and trying to grind it’s face in the dirt.

    Mark Singleton suffered from this same problematic viewpoint in his Yoga Body book. He tried to connect the dots of a limited time frame to try to prove a point, that yoga had no textual history to link it to current practices, and therefore current practices must have come from other sources. Now his work is largely being shown to be lacking in many areas, and disproven as textual evidence is discovered. He also suffers from isolationist tendencies, and limits himself to a short period of time in India, without examining India’s contact with Greece and Egypt going back to the start of the millennia, and the free flow of information and practices that spread to Europe well before Ling and Neils Bukh started doing gymnastics.

    I have read through a half dozen of your posts on the suggestion of a friend, and my feedback to you, from the standpoint of an Ashtanga Yoga teacher who does not by into the party lines, is that you come off as a hater, and what is the use of that? Don’t just be a hater – think outside of your box of anger and personal narratives to examine how we may have gotten to the point where we are. William Broad already wrote your book. We all know that people say ridiculous things; this is not isolated to the yoga world. Magical thinking is a problem not just for yoga practitioners, it is a problem that our culture, and cultures before us, suffer from in general. It doesn’t just come from yoga – it comes along with the human condition. It’s not new, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

    If magical thinking is the problem, then your complaint is that yoga teachers should be smarter than that, and not give into it. And that they should be better trained. That is fair enough. But I think you are speaking, in your posts, about an extremely small sampling of people, if there are indeed 20 million plus people practicing yoga to some degree in America. Your thesis does not speak to a larger population.

    Does that mean that I think it is good if people get injured by their teachers while learning or practicing yoga? No, let’s not be absurd. And slapping a student is beyond the pale.

    Last, why don’t we try to help a newer generation become more educated by positive role modeling and study. That is truly the most constructive way for people learn. Not through anger and finger pointing. Try to also remember that teachers of all subjects can be lacking in knowledge, education and communication skills – not just in yoga. So teaching in general is in question here as well.

    For the record, I have injured myself practicing yoga – but never at the hands of my teacher. And I have also fixed myself with yoga as well.

    Have a Happy New Year!

    • Eddie! Happy New Year to you as well. I’m so glad you took the time to write.

      The way I come off in the few posts you’ve read is surely my own fault, but also a function of the decontextualizing phenom that you’re describing here. In this case it’s probably as related to the post format as anything else, in which inflammatory issues can be raised provocatively to start rich conversations, like I hope this one will be.

      With 120+ interviews, 23 posts, and a 52-page prospectus backing this project (in which I address head-on almost all of your complaints, starting on page 39) six posts really don’t cover the territory. In the same vein, I know that your one comment doesn’t represent all of your work either, which is why I won’t dismiss you in general for being defensive, minimizing, and deflective. Rather, I’ll focus on the substance of your comment.

      “It’s not yoga culture; it’s the larger culture” is a deflection, I’m afraid. Of course we can’t isolate the ideas of 20th century asana teachers from Theosophy or the Human Potential Movement. However they got there, those ideas are showing up in yoga studios throughout the world with very mixed results. As yoga educators, we can call them out where we see them.

      Your argument stops just short of juxtaposing their provenance against an “authentic” culture of Hathayoga — something that presumably would be separable in history, theory or practice from the many cultural constructions that yoga operates through, something that Theosophy, etc., has “distorted”.

      This implicit appeal to the “authentic” is a mainstay of commentators who would rather say “not my monkeys, not my circus” when confronted with cultural problems they do not see themselves as immersed in. Just one example from your own book Guruji with Guy Donahaye will be useful here. Your interview subjects are very interested in the “authenticity” conferred by Mysore. They’re also very interested in the sanctification of pain and injury that comes through practice. Is the necessity of pain “authentic” to AY? If so, how is it distinguished from the valorized pain of Crossfit?

      How do we untangle the threads of culture? I think that suggesting that we should before moving forward can be a good way of avoiding what’s in plain sight. In Mysore, Pune, or Manhattan, how we construct global yoga culture doesn’t matter. What matters is that many people are getting hurt while doing whatever they’re doing when they say they’re practicing yoga. I’m arguing that it’s good to find out why, and I can’t imagine you’d disagree.

      I find your casual misreading of Singleton defensive. His thesis was not so ambitious to say that MPY has no textual provenance, but that current asana systems are far more influenced by early 20th century global physicalism than is widely acknowledged in the modern mythology. It would be nice if you cited the scholarship of his detractors who “largely show” that this straw-man version of his research is “disproven”.

      About minimization. I have my share of personal anger to be sure, but characterizing this project as being stuck in my “box of anger and personal narratives” is an additional slap in the face to over a hundred earnest interview subjects (and thousands more if I have time to interview them) who have been physically and emotionally injured in asana classes and want to tell about what they’ve learned from their experience — through the medium of “personal narrative”. (What else do people have, anyway?) Against the backdrop of 20M US practitioners, this is indeed a small number, but that’s the way it goes with qualitative research. In the prospectus, I speak to this issue on p. 40, covering the problems of self-selection bias, while limiting the scope of my findings.

      I’m not sure that you’ve come across my formal thesis on its own yet, probably because of this fragmenting blog format. If you haven’t, here it is. Impossible to say how large a population it speaks to, but it’s written pretty broadly.

      Thanks again for taking the time.

  • The yoga is not the problem, you are.

    This reminds me of the rich blame tradition begat by having fewer gods to blame things on.

    If things aren’t going well ( I get injured), it must be MY fault for not following the 10 commandments.
    Oh, I WAS following the 10 commandments.
    Oh, I THOUGHT I was, but actually I got it wrong.

    Oh, my reward for trying and failing, and beating myself up over how wrong things have gone: The reward comes LATER.
    In heaven.
    But first, Purgatory.

  • Dear Matthew Remski. I wish to thank you for the brightly resonating bell that you sound. I hope that it will be clearly heard above the chorus of bootstrapping and fantastical spirituality that pervades North American yoga culture right now.
    I too have been questioning a number of poorly examined platitudes that get tossed around the yoga world. I have acknowledged the good hearts and intentions of people posting or saying deeply biased or unsupportable things and have tried to reveal these biases (including but not limited to race, class, culture, 1st world privilege, and an astounding ignorance of history, politics, and economics).
    Like Eddie with you, I have been lashed at, accused of being negative, and charged with perpetuating the problem (the problem is always over-simplified and essential BTW – and never well defended). The most triggering sentence I have supposedly spewed is this one, “what evidence do you have for that assertion?” Suddenly the love and kindness mantras gets tossed out the window in favor of ad hominem arguments.
    Such is the culture of yoga-nice. A culture I am beginning to see is brimming with repressed anger, denial of privilege, and contemptuous of critical thinking. You, on the other hand, inspire me and a growing number of others. Thank you, thank you, thank you for trying to make yoga real, grounded, and self-aware.
    Self-study includes being able to see our own presumptions and world view clearly. The glory of disembodiment, the denial of a situated perspective, and the unwillingness to dirty hands in the muck of real and material human culture make the chances for accurate Swadhaya seem very unlikely.

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