Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist
THERE IS NEVER ANYTHING TO PRODUCE. In spite of all its materialist efforts, production remains a utopia. We can wear ourselves out in materializing things, in rendering them visible, but we will never cancel the secret.
— Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (1987)
Note: This bit of exploratory theory is inspired by the modern globalized yoga industry, as described in sources like Andrea Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. If you’re a yoga teacher or student who identifies as existing outside of that industry, or feel you belong to a community that plays no part in it, this post may not concern you.
Actually, the 80 billion USD per year global yoga industry does have a product.
But it’s not a thing.
It’s not a car, or a book, or an app, or a head of romaine lettuce.
It’s not therapy or medical service.
You have to pay for it, while suspecting you’ll ever possess it.
The product is a wish, projection, or longing.
You must embody it for it to be real. The effort involved in this can be endless.
The global yoga industry produces the aspirational self.
Or: the self-one-wants-to-be-seen-as.
Or: the self-that-does-not-yet-and-may-never-exist. But you’ll keep trying to give birth to it.
The aspirational self can be visualized in many forms: spiritual gymnast, mindful citizen, paragon of natural health, guardian of culture, or warrior of religious truth.
These forms share the challenge of all forms: they attempt to represent an internal state or intention.
But for these forms to socially embody or professionalize the aspirational self, they must be on display.
So: if the product of the yoga industry is the aspirational self, the site of its purchase and consumption is performance.
The value of the aspirational self is an alchemy of how much effort you put into its performance and how much social meaning it creates.
Some performances of the aspirational self are worth more than others. This creates competition over something that literally doesn’t exist.
It is not an accident that many of the A-list teachers of globalized yoga come from theatre, music, or movie backgrounds.
It’s not an accident that Mr. Iyengar was the most-photographed yoga practitioner in history, and also almost never practiced alone, but in full view of his devotees.
When he practiced yoga in the main hall at RIMYI, he was surrounded by photographs of himself practicing yoga.
The aspirational self is invisible unless you’re working it, and watching it work.
Some yoga language tries to obscure this future-and-performance-oriented aspirational self as the goal of practice.
This language says that there’s nothing to achieve, that if we are not perfect, we are already self-sufficient. That we have and are everything we need.
Firstly: this isn’t true for many trauma survivors, who have had inner resources stolen from them.
There are many more trauma survivors than we know. The more their stories are heard, the more this language of self-sufficiency rings hollow.
On a broader level: this language is disingenuous.
Because whether yoga is your original state or not, the message remains that its practice offers you something you do not currently have.
It will deliver that thing in the future.
We aspire to what it will deliver: a different self.
When will it come? What will it feel like? How will we know it’s here?
No one can say.
The aspirational self — if it comes into existence at all — does not follow supply-chain logic. It cannot be traced back to a resource, a process of extraction, a result of exploited labour.
The aspirational self is ephemeral, but it is nonetheless commodified and marketed.
The commodification and marketing of the aspirational self must be anxious, given its origins in dreams and primal needs. We are packaging wishes, projections, and longings. Then we must perform them, without ever exactly knowing why, or for whom.
We can see how essential the aspirational self is to the yoga industry by what happens when there are movements to regulate it.
The attempt to make the aspiration of therapeutic service into a legally-defined and regulated therapeutic service is met with resistance.
On one level, the resistance is directed at the power structures that are seen to be co-opting and commodifying yoga — as if this hasn’t already happened. “Who has the right to define the practice of our internal states?” Or: “Will white people own this, too?”
A less-acknowledged resistance comes from the fact that regulatory drives expose the ephemeral and possibly manipulative nature of aspirational drives.
Aspirational drives cannot be subjected to a scope of practice. The aspirational self does not need the protection of codes of conduct. The aspirational self is invulnerable.
On the other hand, the aspirational self, like the transcendent self, has no civil rights.
The industry resists an actual product. It needs an imaginary one, a blank slate, something that can sell or valorize anything. This offers freedom, but at the expense of great anxiety amongst both its producers and consumers, who with every breath may feel the questions “Who am I?” or “What am I doing?”
These are indeed eternal questions, just like they said.
The Iyengar-styled aspirational self desired alignment. Did it get it? Or did it seem to?
Those who followed John Friend for a while aspired to something similar: their “optimal blueprint.” He would have students perform their optimal blueprints on stage, while other students applauded? What do they have now?
The Ashtanga-styled aspirational self desired intensity. What did that do?
The 3HO-styled aspirational self shivered as something coursed up the spine. Was it kundalini, or a stress response?
The nature or quality of the aspirational self cannot be measured, peer-reviewed, lab-tested, or crashed-tested.
There’s no external mechanism that can validate its achievement or empirically describe its nature.
We try to show it as we advertise its potential existence.
If we suspect its absence we will try harder to fill the empty space.
No wonder some yoga people market their practices as though their lives depended on it. Some live-stream their daily activities our hours at a time.
This is more than a narcissistic wound, bleeding into pixels. For them, the life of the aspirational self really does hang in the balance. They are providing life-support for a dream.
Because we know the aspirational self is fragile, we reach for props to support it.
People try to use the prop of “authenticity” to support it.
People try to use the prop of “tradition” to support it.
People try to use the prop of “lineage” to support it.
People try to use the concept of “ground of awareness” to support the idea that the aspirational self is always accessible.
None of these props have solid, stable, or trustworthy meaning. They are aspirational supports for an aspirational self.
Each of these props can become a weapon in the hand of the person who hasn’t resolved the shame of not knowing what the hell they’re doing with their lives.
Worse: each can be actively weaponized by an enabler of abuse to silence a victim.
Why are people outraged by goat and beer yoga? If they feel it denigrates cultural and religious dignity, that’s one thing. If they express this from a position of post-colonial critique, they are speaking into the wheels of a machine and must be heard.
But some of the outraged are also saying that the goat and beer yogi is not performing the aspirational self with sufficient piety. They’re not performing intention correctly.
The outrage comes because this in turn casts doubt on whether any intentions can be performed correctly, or in ways that can be communicated without distortion.
It casts doubt on whether the intentions of practice are shared. If they aren’t, how will we know ours are okay?
The aspirational self isn’t here. The confidence with which people assert its presence and its qualities betrays the anxiety of its absence.
The most powerful declarations of certainty (including this one) conceals an equally powerful doubt.
That is yoga. That isn’t yoga. The honest position is “I’m doing this.”
Perhaps equanimity involves putting the aspirational self away. Gently and tenderly, as one would do with a beloved childhood toy.
Hi Matthew, You’re right! We sell a promise, but we’re not that clear about the promise we’re selling. We sort of lost sight of it along the way during a decade or three caught up in perfecting physical alignment and scorpion pose (on the beach). Sure, we’ve read a coupla books…but really…the promise is nebulous, a someday reward, and many teachers don’t even remember what it was originally. At least we don’t really talk about it between the opening Om and the Savasana. Something about transformation I think. Or we never really thought about it that carefully. We memorized the 8 limbs of yoga though…so…;)
I’ve been saying ‘promise’, but I like ‘aspirational self’.
Hi Matthew– I greatly appreciate your pointing out the lie of self-sufficiency and inherent perfection for trauma survivors, who probably make up the majority of yoga practitioners in any given room at any given time. Some traumatized from the past and other traumatized by the bizarre attachment patterns (or outright abuse or neglect) with the teacher, and the anxiety you mention here and in your book created by the incessant questioning and desperate attempts to grasp at a kind of salvation colored by our native culture whether we like to see its impacts here or not (and which brings up the opposite, hell or punishment in so many minds).
The reductionism of this post is off the charts. I could name at least ten abstract but existent, real things that even the most commercial of the commerce-oriented yoga classes sell. My favorite has always been humor. Many of the most celebrated yoga teachers in the United States have been hilarious performers. And, yes, there is and has been an issue with truthfulness. The flyers at Yoga Works never advertised Richard Freeman’s workshops and Erich Schiffman’s and Paul Grilley’s regular classes as comedy hours, but lots of us attended them for the humor and were completely satisfied with the price, Pattabhi Jois was funny. I made the horrible mistake of trusting him partially because of his sense of humor, but he did sell something real that I bought. And yes, only a few of the teachers really had something to sell along those lines. But that’s true in every world. Only a few musicians and a few painters and a few magicians and a few athletes are worth the price of admission. The rest engage in performative dream-weaving. Feel free to remove these last sentences from my comment if you must, Matthew, but you’re selling a dream. With very little else to sell in respect to performative talent, you sell the aspirational potential that we can fix something I don’t think can be fixed, You’re selling a dream that traumatized people given a voice will change the world for the better. I’d like to believe you’re right, but experience tells me otherwise. Experience tells me that at least a third of the time, traumatized people become victimizers themselves, and I know that “the law of thirds” there is applied in this way by a very high percentage of psychologists.
Hi Scott. Exactly my thoughts. Good reading your comment.