Recent Notes on Somatic Dominance in Yoga, Buddhism, and How to Know When You’re Doing It
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.