Yogapillgate: Discourse, Transparency, Epistemology, Magic
On Saturday, LA yoga teacher and Bollywood dance instructor Hemalayaa Behl posted a blog about how people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off all those inauthentic anti-depressant medications.
She confessed that hearing about fellow yoga teachers who use “happy pills” triggered disappointed memories of her own mother, who didn’t have the strength to pull herself up out of her mental health challenges by her yoga bootstraps.
The post was an ugly, patronizing, reductionary, ignorant erasure of the experience of vast numbers of people who already battle widespread stigmatization of medications they need, in the worst cases, to keep them alive. To her great good credit, Behl has admitted as much through a heartfelt apology.
Unfortunately, the tsunami of negative response — and Behl’s contrition — has now prompted her to remove her original post. This means that the thousands of fruitful and polarizing comments it has generated through links so far, not to mention the hours of intense work that writers like Charlotte Bell, Alyssa Royse, and Camicia Bennet put in to passionately and thoughtfully responding to Behl are now pointing at an empty space. Taking the post down steals time, energy, and insight from all of those people, and insight from those who would learn from the full exchange. Fortunately, the web cache gives it all back.
In addition to her apology, it’s too bad that her PR sense (or people) didn’t encourage her to make even better lemonade: keep the post up, headed by an apology, disclaimer, links to the responses, and the resources she’s asking better-informed people to provide. It all could have gotten a lot better.
Though it can be dangerous (in the original post, Behl offers to help people get off medication with her workshops), I’m positive that the majority of people in modern yoga culture can forgive the exuberance and naïveté that can mask insecurity and empathy failure. Many of us have been there, because projecting one’s personal revelations into universal prescriptions seems to be a yogic reflex.
(I’m wondering if a medication should be developed for just this. Yogic self-projection inhibitors: YSPIs.)
Realizing that you’ve overreached and being able to talk about it with transparency and gravitas — and allowing others to talk about it by not hiding — has got to be found somewhere there in the eight limbs: probably between satya, aparigraha, and good old Isvara-P.
And honestly, none of this Behl’s fault. Nobody’s alone in this. Her view isn’t some monstrous anomaly. Stigmatization is the bitcoin of self-help. Yoga culture as a whole overreaches and self-aggrandizes, and anyone who excels in it is probably at risk for getting really good at these two skills. Yoga culture as a whole has a hard time distinguishing existential inquiry from neoliberal “I am my own master”- ness. Yoga culture holds itself accountable to precious little except its own psychological hazing. Combine this with a large practitioner population traumatized into belligerence by a lack of universal health care, scientific illiteracy, and the ministrations of opportunists, and Behl’s blog is really nothing out of the ordinary.
I think we also have to understand that the blogging and social media worlds are both real and ephemeral. We should now expect online responses to come with as much speed and fury as nervous responses. And like nervous responses, they can trigger people for years, and are best framed accordingly if we leave them lying around. Blogs don’t live in your attic or garage, after all. Unlike nervous responses, they leave highly visible traces which can continue to be discussed when calmer moods prevail. Those traces can link us together in undiscovered ways — all the more so if we can manage to not dissociate from them and shut them down.
What will we find in the links? Knee-jerk reactions to our discomfort with biomedicine? An inability to hold space for experiences we can’t understand? Or a woman who was just trying to say “I really hope that what happened to my mom doesn’t happen to me”?
One thing I’m sure we will find if we keep looking is the intense confusion of epistemologies that plagues modern yoga culture. Epistemology is brainiac for how do we know what we know, how does knowledge change, who do we trust, how do we trust ourselves, and how far. MPY never seems to know whether it wants intuition or evidence, fails to investigate where either of these come from, how they’re different or what each might be good for.
This is the issue I focused on when I posted Charlotte Bell’s response to Behl to my Facepalm page. Bell spoke eloquently about the humbling surprise at having to surrender to blood pressure medication after decades of yoga and healthy living. I’ve had a similar confrontation with the limits of my intuition in a dangerous spell of airplane-induced (probably) deep vein thrombosis. Both Bell and I came up against the same stark realization: no amount of self-inquiry and no single remedy will ever be sufficient to the mystery of life.
We would love to be able to understand ourselves completely, but sometimes specialists who do not share our aspirations or jargon will know things that are crucial to our survival. They will appear to us wearing white coats: as if in dreams from which we would otherwise not awaken. There is no Ayurveda that could clear the blood clots from my lungs in a quick enough manner to protect my aortae. And when Charlotte goes to have her hip replaced later this month, it will be because there is no asana, acupuncture, herbs or reiki that can shave away her bone spurs and replace her cartilage with the titanium she needs.
In the light of their extraordinary, almost-immediate effects, Bell’s BP meds and the warfarin I took seem to be as magical in their properties as Behl would like dancing and naps to be. Bell quotes Judith Lasater, in fact, who calls the meds “magic”.
But we mustn’t confuse the layperson’s lack of education with older forms of mystification. What we have to be clear on is that the mechanisms of this magic come from an altogether different process than those that brought us asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation and the nationalistic, colonialist, romantic, capitalistic forces that have prematurely presented them to the world health care market as universal therapies.
Scientism can indeed have its own magical air about it. How different is that scrawled latinate scrip from the mantra in a language you can’t read? But in direct opposition to the yogic arts scientific method is self-consciously directed away from the indeterminates of mythopeoic subjectivity. It has emerged in forthright resistance to the less constant or repeatable magic that preceded it.
There is nothing in the supremely useful collection of yogic arts that can be tested in the same way as the most basic pharmacological compound must be tested, with the same placebo controls and double-blinding techniques that verified the success of the polio vaccine. You can’t have a control group that thinks they’re doing yoga, when they’re really not doing yoga. Yogic experience cannot be peer-reviewed. I’m cool with anyone who calls yoga a “science”, as long as we’ve just gotten out of my Delorian in 1920s Calcutta.
Am I saying that the intuitions of yogic inquiry are meaningless? Of course not. We practice and sometimes become less reactive. We practice and sometimes become more connective, more intersubjective. We practice and sometimes worlds shimmer, open and close. We practice and sometimes we can slow down and remember things. (Sometimes this isn’t good.) And when we vaccinate a child, they don’t get diphtheria.
We who practice today are an inextricable braiding of breath and penicillin, yoga straps and seatbelts, coconut oil and fluoride, prenatal yoga classes and pitocin, meditation and ritalin, pennyroyal and advil, breastmilk and formula, organic and processed, essential oils and anticoagulants. We are privileged enough to live in several different worlds at a time and most of us use every influence — and like the memory and family we contain, not without conflict.
But there are those in yoga culture who cannot accept that they live in multiple worlds with many streams of mutually repellant knowledge. (For a sampling, check out my Facebook post of Bell’s article.) Some people can say, probably while sipping FDA-regulated tea: “Sanatana Dharma is a complete and perfect collection of lessons and prescriptions for complete health, evolution and enlightenment.” So we can all just pack it up, I guess. Climate change, Ebola — thank goodness everything’s taken care of.
It doesn’t feel safe when you want to know for sure what will work for you and someone else, and you suspect that you can’t. Will you double down on the certainty that polarizes your gut and your community? Will you turn the lab coat into a torture bib, and the dhoti into an angel’s garment? Or vice-versa?
In the end, the doctor and the sage worth their titles tell you the same maddening but ultimately liberating thing: you need help to see yourself clearly, and no method is complete. But which of them will be transparent, look you in the eye, make you feel heard, and make the methods you will explore together open-source? Which one will empower you with the tools to build evidence you can really share? In your moment of need, will they shake hands with each other at your bedside?