I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
(Some rough, opinionated notes.)
I’m realizing that reading the dynamics of high-demand yoga and meditation groups through a cult psychology lens is necessary work and personal to me. I get hate mail for it, but the grateful notes outnumber the missiles by about three to one.
However, using this language doesn’t answer a crucial set of questions:
Why do groups like Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain, Rajneeshpuram, Rigpa, Shambhala, and Agama exist? Not: where do the ideas and personalities come from? Not: what unmet needs do they pretend to fill?
But: what are the basic political and economic conditions that allowed so many of these groups to mushroom in the post-war era, and so easily construct a pretence of value? What did the culture at large have to first commodify for these groups to then come along and upsell?
Political cults run on the premise of political action. Warlord cults run on the premise of revolutionary struggle. Psychotherapy cults like the Newman Tendency ran on the premise of transforming a therapeutic mode into a social justice tool. In each of these contexts, I sense a product.
But yoga and Dharma cults? What broadly-accepted social discourse and value allows them to be a thing, to project a plausible relationship to positive, pro-social human labour? What do they promise to make? Continue reading “Don’t Deepen Your Practice”
When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).
We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.
We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.
But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.
This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”
It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.
The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?
Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?
I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?
It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.
- A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
- Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
- There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
- Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
- I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
- I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
- What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
- I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
- So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
- I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
- Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right.
- I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
- Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
- I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
- Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
- When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
- Consent cards.
- Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
- TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
- I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
- I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
- At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
- Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.
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OP: Hi everybody! I love this group! I hope you can help. I have a question about this thing in yoga: [insert whatever]. I’m wondering if you have any advice or resources to share. I’m writing this OP in good faith with an upbeat tone. I know that I might not be using the most correct language — after all, I’m just starting out as a teacher! I’m hoping that won’t matter, because we’re all learning together, and you all want to help, right? Thanks!
Commenter 1 (C1): [That thing in yoga you’re asking about] has nothing to do with real yoga. Can’t believe you’re going to be teaching.
OP: um okay well I’m just starting out thanks Continue reading “Facebook Yoga Group Thread From Hell (Hopefully, a Requiem)”
Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.
Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.
Content warning: description of organ harvest.
I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.
I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:
Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.
They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.
Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.
They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.
The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:
If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.
One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.
There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.
The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.
In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.
Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?
Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?
The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.
If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.
You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.
If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.
Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.
You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:
Don’t squander your life!
Does anyone really squander their life?
2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.
“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.
That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.
I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.
The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.
I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?
The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.
“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”
Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.
When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.
The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.
I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.
I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:
Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!
He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.
But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.
Friends harvested more hidden things:
His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.
You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.
You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.
In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.
If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.
When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.
If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.
Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.
When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.
He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:
Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.
If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.
After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.
When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something. One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:
“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”
There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.
He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.
I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”
I yell into my silent phone:
Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?
I wait for his laugh.
During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.
“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”
“I guess. Can you say more?”
“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”
After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.
We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.
It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.
Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.
We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?
I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.
We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.
I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.
I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.
Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.
His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.
When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.
Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.
We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”
He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.
As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do. Show each other your face, he would say.
I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.
If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.
It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.
A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.
The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:
Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.
Don’t squander your life!
Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?
Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?
The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.
The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.
He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.
A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.
If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.
After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.
I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.
Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.
It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.
Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.
If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.
The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.
At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.
The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.
An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.
This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.
I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.
Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:
I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.
I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.
I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.
Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.
I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.
Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.
Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.
My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.
I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.
I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.
I’d like to bite at a question Diane Bruni asked on the Yoga and Movement Research Group Facebook page, months ago:
Why are we still on the yoga boat? Given all the scandals, disillusionments, power dynamics, and injuries to tissues and psyches, why do we still care?
(This was before YMRG exploded in both numbers and flash-fires of hostility. Had she asked last week, she might have added: “And why are we still on the Facebook yoga-group boat? Isn’t it burning and sinking? Shouldn’t we be swimming?”)
When Diane and I present together on the more difficult sides of yoga practice and culture, I usually open my bit by saying something like: “Diane and I are coming to this from a combined 45 years of practice and teaching, so we’ve seen some things. The danger with a day like this is that we could just toilet our mid-life crises into your laps. We’ll try not to do that.”
And then we try to balance our critiques of how repetitive stress affects tissues and learning relationships with our sense of wonder and possibility. We’re here, after all, because we love yoga.
The shadow side of that question might be: what else are we going to do?
This an important thing to consider when the dominant propaganda of the precariat economy is “Surrender to your higher self and follow your truth.” It would be more honest if they said, “Surrender to your freelance uncertainty, and try to look abundant as you try to sustain your relevance.”
It can be liberating for those of us in this ambivalent mid-life position to acknowledge our age and investments and sunken costs and narrowing exit possibilities.
These things hem us in, but have their positive side as well. The more you’ve invested in an art form, the more you’ll need to continue exploring within it, creating meaning as you go.
I collect trolls. I’m not talking about loyal critics, to whom I’m indebted, but about people who make shit up. Even then, “troll” can be the wrong term, because outright lies can carry a shadow of truth. So I’ll call this one guy a half-troll. One of his favourite pastimes is to use several pseudonyms to crow that I’m writing about yoga because I couldn’t get another job except for flipping burgers.
Funny thing is: he’s partly right. Those were the breaks.
Part of why I’m on the yoga boat is because when I exited my second cult in 2004 I was 33 and hadn’t completed college. I’d had moderate success as a writer before that period, and had kept it up, but there wasn’t any money in it. Although there had been. In the early 1990s in Canada — if you were white and straight especially — you could make your way modestly in literary fiction easier than a decade later. It took me several post-cult years to really get that the writing world had changed — not the white/straight part so much as the fact that content hosts had figured out how to almost completely stop paying for content.
I’d been exposed to yoga and loved it, and taking a training seemed to be a no-brainer. Back then you could easily find a job upon getting a diploma. Or you could make one up, especially where I was living in rural Wisconsin. I opened a studio with my partner at the time and threw myself into it. I loved every part of it: personal practice, community building, continuing education in yoga therapy and ayurveda. Owning studios in Wisconsin and then in Toronto in 2006 locked my personal and professional identity up with the yoga world.
We get older and things change and alternative doorways close down. By 2012 I was injured, and a lot of people around me were as well. I realized my movement training was naïve. There was no way I could physically keep up with my schedule of 15 classes per week.
As my body pain increased, I began to teach more restorative classes. I also retreated into more writing. I consider this a kind of jnana yoga, though many disagree. They too, are sometimes right. Sometimes I write to avoid yoga. It’s tricky, because I can always claim it’s inner work, but at times it just retrenches my conditioning.
As I researched yoga injuries and abreactions to practice, new psychological doorways opened for me to explore. Namely: how do we sometimes use yoga and meditation to reinforce or bypass the very patterns we would most like to change?
I’ve told this story before: the WAWADIA? project was mainly inspired by conversations with my partner Alix Bemrose, but another key prod was the observation of my friend Scott Petrie, who said: “If you needed to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way of doing it.” What an amazing rabbit hole.
I’m still on the yoga boat partly because my half-troll is right about the burgers, but also because I believe yoga is self-inquiry, and yoga culture provides amazing tools towards this end, including the opportunity to critique it. I engage the yoga of meta-yoga. (That is an obscenely pretentious sentence. I’ll own that.)
What other artform flaunts its own paradoxes so blatantly: between improvement and acceptance, discipline and freedom? What other form of inquiry into conditioning shows how inquiry is bound by conditioning? Okay, the postmoderns did it, but it was disembodied and often joyless. I was there. I still have jackets in my closet that smell like Gauloises.
Sometimes I daydream about teaching movement/asana again, but really, there are too many geniuses out there doing it now in an intensely crowded field of new research. I would have to go back to asana school for years to feel competent again. And when I take classes with rockstars like Diane or Peter Blackaby or Daniel Clement or Donna Farhi or Frey Faust I’m like “What’s the point? This is not where I can add value.”
The real movement professionals are equal parts elite athlete and zen master. That’s not me.
I’m also somewhat over it, to be honest. I got what I needed out of asana practice personally. It woke me up. I still practice here and there, but I also have a blast swimming or playing handball with other middle-aged men, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
I know other people are wired differently and will get a lot of juice out of life-long refinement and exploration on their mats. I admire and respect them. I don’t think I can do what they do in a healthy, non-obsessive way. My asana arc has gone from dissociative-disembodied in my late twenties to an acutely embodied late thirties, to a mid-forties meh, I’m embodied amongst other bodies, and so what: because climate change. That’s fine with me for now.
As much as I wonder whether I should just mothball the laptop for a year and commit myself to daily classes with Monica Voss or Susan Richardson here in town, it’s unlikely. There are two children running around now. Plus, weird things happen. Like I flew into Albuquerque on July 14th this year, excited to be a student of Donna Farhi for the weekend, and to round up my interviews with her. But that was the same day that Michael Stone fell into a coma. There was no way I could sit there and watch my breath and sensations, which were both screaming at me. I had to do a different yoga that day, and since, really.
For now my seat on the yoga boat is as an analyst for how things change, and why. I can still practice and meditate and reflect. That is still labour, and if it does or doesn’t have value, people will let me know.
But here’s the biggest reason I’m still on the boat: I love the personal, social, and increasingly political moment called the YTT. I’m grateful to work in that context.
Say what you will about industry standards and commodification. You’ll be right about a lot of things, and I’ll agree with you. For my part I’ve also seen that every YTT I know provides space that doesn’t exist anywhere else: space to consider the meaning of everything in one’s life, from bones to soul. People wind up there during life transitions: after divorces, deaths, illnesses. They show up with a level of existential gravitas that is rare, and which opens them up to discussing the great mysteries of philosophy and esotericism.
Yes there are probably too many programmes, and running YTTs often involves beating back against hidden financial pressures with a smile, and the teacher market is saturated, and trainings can be thin on diversity and accessibility. These are all problems to be worked on. And when they are, the contemplative environment of the YTT can, I believe, be a quietly powerful influence on the broader culture.
There’s some exciting lemonade. The YTT industry has been created and sustained by consumerism, gentrification, and the pressures of a fragmenting labour market. Those who go into these programmes expecting to professionalize will be increasingly aware of all of this. Can this provoke a tipping point in attitude?
What I believe will happen, over time, is that more and more serious students will look at the YTT as personal enrichment, and that that if they want to convert that enrichment into work, they’ll look for and create possibilities in yoga service, rather than yoga sales. They’ll be less interested in getting yoga right than in figuring out how they can share it.
Finally, there’s all the new content. Within a few years, how many YTT programmes will include units on trauma sensitivity? Who won’t want to be able to offer a trauma-sensitive environment?
Can trauma-sensitivity discourse be the gateway to broader considerations? Its premises, after all, point to intersectional truths: the world is not even, the playing field is not level. We are all different. We come from different experiential backgrounds. Those backgrounds are seared into and onto our flesh, and it takes work to acknowledge, respect, and support these differences on the mat.
(I’m not sure we’re fully aware of how radically the TS discourse challenges the dominant ideology of modern yoga, expressed in endless refrains of universality and oneness. The language is shifting away from aspirations to — or presumptions of — unity, to a humble listening to the unknown other. Is this what the ṛṣis did? Didn’t they listen to something they could not understand, but listened carefully enough to memorize what they heard, intuiting how important it was?)
How would the fundamentals of TSY, related to single bodies seeking healing, not ripple out into the social fabric of practice? How would they not expand conversations around inclusivity, and even cultural appropriation? How would they not force discussions around accessibility and accommodation — so far only aspirational — into actionable territory?
Imagine it: the YTT as a non-denominational ritual that offers accessible space for social inquiry, rooted in the rhythms and techniques of self-awareness. Isn’t that where this boat has always been going?
A few months ago there was an interesting thread on Yoga and Movement Research Community about the difficulty in establishing medical causality for yoga injury. The debate was vigorous as always, but this time reached a pitch that suggested to me that there are many things beneath the surface.
What I’ve learned in talking with the medical people who treat yoga-related injuries is that they are cautious about attributing exact causation to any particular moment or movement. They know that there are simply too many pre-existing injuries, repetitive stresses and loading patterns at play to pinpoint a particular action definitively as the cause of a new injury. Continue reading “Talking About Yoga Injuries Can Be a Way of Talking About Other Things”
I want to push back a little against an inaccurate and often cruel stereotype of the 200-hour YTT graduate that’s been gaining steam in Yogaland over the past couple of years.
It frames out like this:
The recent YTT grad (80% likely it’s a “she”) is millennial, hasn’t practiced for long enough to be taking a training to start with, thinks that shapes are the point and has the Insta account to prove it. She got conned by a McStudio into signing up for a watered-down curriculum and is being taught by only slightly older entrepreneurial hacks who needed to run a programme to make their rent. Her knowledge of biomechanics is scant and of yoga philosophy worse. She has no connection to the “sacred”, and believes that yoga is a personal lifestyle choice, indistinguishable from fashion. Continue reading “Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype”
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”