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.
For the record, I reached out to the writer with a draft of this post to ask if he wanted to walk back any of his statements. “I’m not changing a word of what I wrote and stand behind it,” he wrote back.
I’ll start with an article summary:
The writer hits every note of privileged commentary in one go: false equivalence, selection bias, normalization of misogyny and rape culture, religious bigotry and white supremacy, preaching equanimity to distressed citizens, and a side-order of tone-policing.
He pulls it all off quite efficiently with the data-free lies and equivocations that constitute the new normal: Trump is a peacemaker. His confessed sexual assaults “break the laws of political correctness”. Unlike Hillary, he has no conflicts of interest with foreign corps or governments. Sizeable blocks of Muslims and LGBTQ people voted for him. Also, guess what? Trump’s just itching to build hospitals in “Michigan and Detroit”! (Yoga bro: Detroit is IN Michigan. Appearing to know nothing about the people and areas you claim to care about looks like fake empathy.)
The writing comes from a well-placed NYC yoga teacher who works for a prominent brand lately in the news for failing to separate yoga from sexual harassment. He’s been teaching since 2003. (Full disclosure: he’s also been a student of the cult-leader I was once devoted to: an American Tibetan Buddhist who makes big money selling Tibetan Buddhism as a prosperity gospel to Chinese oligarchs. Thinking about that too hard could be hazardous to your health.)
On one hand this might seem like a weird source for these views. On the other it’s immensely clarifying. Looking at it directly might save you years of category confusion and emotional labour. If you needed any more proof that yoga and meditation practice is no predictor of political sentiment, critical thinking, feminist chops, equality values, or basic civics awareness, this article should banish the fantasy in a few brief moments, and let you get on with with your life.
Point #1. Yoga is like the Force. Jedis use it. So do the Sith Lords. And remember: Nazis LOVED yoga.
Our values are not coming from our practice so much as our practice is strengthening our values, which come from elsewhere. We can’t look to yoga techniques or texts for advice on morality or the common good. They aren’t specific enough to provide it, and private epiphanies can strengthen delusions as much as break them down. Remember that the Bhagavad Gita was the favourite text of both Gandhi and his assassin.
Did fifteen years of yoga and meditation practice soften me up to receive the life-changing data of feminism and BLM? It’s possible. But if I were living in a red state they could have also softened me up for surrender to the passions of Jesus or the alt-right. As Be Scofield argues, the spiritual realizations of yoga or anything else can express themselves as amplifications of the values you already hold dear. At the very least they must express through the values of the dominant culture. The writer here actually says that Trump’s election amounts to a “massive emotional and spiritual leap forward.”
Changing your values happens when you expose yourself to new values, presented and embodied by others you previously did not know or understand. It doesn’t happen by contemplating your inner life, which orbits around your existing values.
Point #2. Unless studio owners and trainers are explicit about setting up safe spaces, Yogaland offers no real opposition to predatory gaslighting, offered under the cover of yogaspeak.
The yogi who jumps the Trump shark isn’t just a mouthpiece of rightist bile. He can also do what Stephen Bannon can’t: position his privilege as open-mindedness and non-reactivity. He can bask in the role of “holding space” (even though he mocks the term) for the emotional hurt of people he pretends to care about, and whose suffering he cannot know or share.
Yogaspeak becomes the emotional Trojan horse for the very politics that are hurting his colleagues. How will he work alongside the queer and POC colleagues of his in-group? How will he serve the Muslims and women in his classes? Is there a mudra for one hand in namaste, and the other reaching to grab ____?
Sorry, but I don’t think that’s a gratuitous image. Especially when the writer finishes his piece with a jaunt into narcissistic emotional porn. He describes going as a Trump supporter — undercover — to a yoga center holding a vigil for those shaken by the election. He praises himself for his empathy and sympathy, even as he bypasses the panic some express over possible deportation. He savours the irony of being able to comfort people whose lives he just voted to degrade. He deceives people in order to participate in their emotions with a display of grandiose equanimity.
It’s like going to the funeral of someone you helped kill, holding hands with the survivors, and getting off on both the tears and your kindness in wiping them away. “Oh, you’re crying? I feel your pain. Here’s my big white handkerchief. Will I see you in restorative class for some deep healing?”
Even more disturbing is that he subtly compares himself to Trump, who, he suggests, might be an enlightened provocateur of our delusions: “How many spiritual stories are filled with tales of the adept on the road to enlightenment encountering a hag or a drunk, brashly writing them off, only to discover the skilful master was in disguise?”
Would the vigil-keepers have welcomed him if they’d seen his Twitter account, where he posts links mocking Clinton supporters, reports from Alex Jones (yeah the guy who claimed the Sandyhook massacre was staged) saying that post-electoral marches are killing children, retweets memes that suggest Clinton would have been an autocrat, and mocks “SJWs”?
That they sure as hell wouldn’t have invited him makes his presence borderline non-consensual. What we can say for sure is that the Cadillac of white yoga privilege is being able to cackle along with the alt-right in private, and then flash your engorged charismatic empathy in public. White yoga privilege allows a person to capitalize on having no moral centre.
We’ve got to ask: how much of this industry is run by powerful men who are gratified by using their status to perform spiritual superiority over those oppressed by that very status?
Will this invigorate a discussion about the need for equality, ally and anti-oppression work – along with possibly psychological screening – at the training level of yoga instruction? Not because of politics, but because of vampirism. Obviously, no regulatory process can or should dictate voting values or prevent funeral masturbation. But on the basis of his Twitter account alone, this writer would be disbarred from a psychotherapy college and fired from a public school position. But give him a yoga class or invite him to a festival in Bali? No problem. Let that sink in.
The writer fantasizes he’s holding space for his opponents while actually aggrandizing his self-image. Now the question is: how would his opponents hold space for him, once the phony yoga veil is pulled back from the real values at play?
Bottom line: the yoga space is like any public space: you can’t tell who voted for whom, unless they’re wearing that red hat or H button or you ask them directly. If you teach in that space, you might be in the position of serving even those whose views would oppress you. You’ve got to decide whether you’re up for that. If you study in it, you may be taking guidance from an energetic vampire who mocks your values. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because Bikram. And all the others. If you’re really opposed to discussions of stronger regulatory mechanisms and training in Yogaland, consider these consequences.
So: what to do in this Wild West? The old books of yoga said: study your teachers for a long time. The new books of yoga, aka feminism, add: the personal is the political. Taken together, they would encourage grave caution in choosing the person into whose care you commit your most tender self, where internal and external justice are trying to conjoin.