In the closing pages of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, author David Gelles shares a final vignette that (like the rest of the book) is more revealing for what it omits than what it describes. Interviewing Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s wildly successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindful business training program, Gelles asks him why mindfulness is so popular in Silicon Valley today. Meng replies, “The corporate spirit here is to radically change things for the better, to take radical steps for improving the world . . . It’s a very altruistic and idealistic culture.”
Gelles shares Meng’s self-congratulatory explanation without additional context or commentary. Yet it’s well known that the Silicon Valley tech boom has created unprecedented socio-economic inequality in the Bay area, with record numbers of homeless and a hemorrhaging middle and working class. Such facts, however, which raise important questions about Meng’s vision of “radical altruism,” are invisible to the world of Mindful Work. The larger social context in which Silicon Valley’s “radical steps for improving the world” are supposedly occurring is never mentioned, let alone analyzed and discussed.
This isn’t to suggest that the tech industry hasn’t, in fact, made positive contributions to the world in many ways. But Mindful Work provides no criteria by which to measure either the positive or negative social impacts of the business world’s “mindful revolution.” Instead, it zig-zags between presenting bombastic claims without critical commentary (Meng, for example, claims that SIY training “leads to Level 5 leadership. And happiness. And world peace”) and assuring readers that if mindfulness might make bosses just a little bit nicer, and workers just a little bit more able to manage their stress, then it’s all good.
I believe that we can and should set the bar higher, both analytically and pragmatically. The value of mindfulness in the workplace needs to be evaluated in concrete terms that include both individual, interpersonal, organizational, and social dimensions. Personally, I found it to be a poignant, if not depressing sign of the times that Gelles, a New York Times journalist, evidences significantly less social and political awareness than the progressive-minded CEOs of luxury clothing brands Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher, who he interviewed for the book. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?
Not all that long ago, elite journalists were expected to cultivate a broad social vision, and analyze current events through a lens informed by a commitment to (small-“d”) democratic values. Gelles’ authorial voice is certainly likeable: he comes across as a genuinely nice person who’s enthused about mindfulness because it enables him to be more present with his family at mealtimes despite the relentless demands of his job. His writing, however, evidences not the slightest hint of old-school journalistic, let alone politically progressive values.
Instead, Mindful Work conveys the taken-for-granted neoliberalism of someone who’s been thoroughly socialized into the politics of the post-Reagan and Thatcher eras, in which “there is no such thing as society.” Everything of consequence is assumed to happen at the individual level; consequently, there’s no need to think into the social and organizational contexts in which businesses operate and work actually takes place. “But for all this talk of stress, we rarely examine its root causes,” Gelles writes. “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.”
Given this framework, the claim that mindfulness is important because it gives us the tools to manage our stress makes perfect sense. As does the silence surrounding the work context in which said mindfulness is being employed. This mindset implicitly endorses the view that the way to reduce stress in any work situation is simply to add mindfulness, rather than assess whether it’s possible to improve working conditions in more concrete and systemic ways.
For example, Gelles happily reports how “at Green Mountain Coffee, based in Waterbury, Vermont, mindfulness has become part of the fabric of the company”:
At Green Mountain, mindfulness training started with the top executives and soon spread to midlevel employees. But Fried and her colleagues realized that much of the workforce was still not being served. The frontline workers who put in 12-hour shifts roasting coffee beans, packing boxes, and shipping them off . . . also need a bit of on-the-job stress relief . . . in a bid to reduce injuries, and perhaps increase mental well-being as well, she made it mandatory that all frontline workers do a series of mindful stretching exercises before beginning their shifts.
While Gelles quotes two workers saying they came to like the “Mindful Stretching” program because they found themselves in less pain at the end of the work day, one has to wonder how they’d feel about being offered 8-hour shifts at a higher wage rate instead. Mindful Work, however, doesn’t bother with questions such as what their pay scale might be, and why they are working 12-hour shifts.
Gelles does, however, report that “while it may be hard to draw a direct line form the mindfulness program to the bottom line, Green Mountain is thriving”:
Though meditation is no guarantee of a rising stock price, Green Mountain’s market capitalization increased fifteen-fold in the five years after it introduced mindfulness . . . And managers like Laura Fried view the company in a new light. ‘Look at this as a whole spectrum of offerings,’ she said. ‘Basic services that we provide to people who are dealing with their morning commute, and people like me who are facing existential issues . . . We are providing them with opportunities to enhance their own experiences at work and at home.’
Two hundred pages later, Gelles reports that Green Mountain’s founder and former CEO, Bob Stiller, who “was once featured on the cover of Forbes as he meditated,” squandered his fortune on “trophy real estate,” such as a $17.5 million apartment in Manhattan, after retiring in 2007 as a billionaire who’d reached “the highest realms of American capitalism.” While Gelles uses Stiller’s story to illustrate the fact that “practicing mindfulness is no antidote to materialism,” he (rather oddly) presents this seemingly frank admission of the limitations of the corporate mindfulness movement as a means of rebutting David Loy and Ron Purser’s widely read “Beyond McMindfulness” article.
Gelles quotes Loy and Purser’s critique that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employees: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments” verbatim. Yet, rather than seeing the parallels with some of the stories he’s presenting and claims he’s making, Gelles scoffs at this “seductively nefarious vision” of “corporations brainwashing their minions with meditation, turning them into more efficient, profitable drones.”
Rather than acknowledging that he already endorsed the view that stress is a personal problem and trying to defend it as correct, Gelles simply sidesteps the heart of the McMindfulness critique by assuring readers that “rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person.”
Mindful Work is so deeply immersed in the neoliberal mindset that despite devoting an entire chapter to rebutting “McMindfulness” as Lefty claptrap, Gelles appears oblivious to the ways in which his book exemplifies many of the issues that Loy and Purser identified. Gelles, for example, approvingly cites research stating that “mindfulness can be a source of employer value proposition and may in the long run provide organizations with a valuable tool to manage high burnout levels of employees within the workplace.” He doesn’t, however, ask why employee burnout levels are so high – let alone investigate what, if anything, might be done to address this other than offering mindfulness programs based on the premise that it’s up to each individual to cope with the stress that they presumably manufacture of their own accord.
Happily, Mindful Work also reports on several companies in which mindfulness is integrated into a broader commitment to developing and implementing socially responsible business practices. The founder and Board chair of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has struggled “to bring his personal mindfulness into the operations of his business,” which, he recognizes, only goes so far given that the company’s bottom line is selling high-end outdoor clothing. Still, the company has worked hard within the parameters they have to lighten their environmental impact, pioneering the technique of using recycled bottles to make fleece jackets, and facilitating “a robust aftermarket for used Patagonia products.” The company is also fiercely committed to its employees: Patagonia hasn’t fired anyone since 1991, and bucked powerful business trends by refusing to lay anyone off during the Great Recession.
Similarly, PrAna, another high-end active wear company, does more than simply take a company-wide “meditation break” at 3 pm daily. It also works to realize its commitment to socially responsible business practices by taking concrete steps such as increasing its use of organic cotton and other environmentally sound fabrics, and having senior managers openly discuss how best to handle any necessary trade-offs between the company’s financial goals and ethical commitments.
Similarly, Eileen Fisher, a high-end women’s clothing company, combines mindful work breaks and inclusive “Circle Way” company discussions with concrete policies such as distributing at least 10% of annual after-tax profits to staff, sourcing environmentally sustainable fabrics, and increasing salaries and reducing hours for the Chinese workers who produce their fabrics.
Mindful Work apparently went to press before Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini made headlines by raising the wages of the company’s lowest-paid workers to $16 an hour. Gelles does, however, recount the story of how a near-fatal skiing accident eventually caused Bertolini to explore yoga and meditation as a way of getting off pain killers and rebuilding his health. After returning to work and being promoted to CEO, Bertolini instituted yoga and mindfulness programs in the workplace.
Unsurprisingly, Mindful Work highlights the fact that an evaluation of these programs showed participating employees lowering their stress levels in ways that positively impacted the bottom line, dropping their “overall health care costs to the tune of $2,000 per employee per year.” Happily, however, Bertolini — unlike Gelles — was also interested in thinking into the company’s working conditions more broadly.
As NPR reported in April, Bertolini and his team took the time to investigate the “challenges their low-wage workers face”:
(T)hey discovered that to make ends meet many were on public assistance, such as food stamps, or Medicaid for their children. Bertolini says he was taken aback, shocked “that we as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people that were living like that among the ranks of our employees.”
Bertolini was committed to changing that, but he discovered the cost of boosting compensation for his low-paid workers would be significant — about $27 million a year. But he also found that research shows there are costs associated with paying low wages. Low-paid workers quit more often, and the turnover is expensive. There’s also evidence higher-paid employees provide better customer service. Bertolini thought the potential benefits could offset the $27 million cost and improve his company’s profits in the long run.
Skeptics contested this sunny view that it’s possible to raise wages and improve profits at the same time. Bertolini, however, was undeterred, contending that “even if it doesn’t boost profits — and maybe even if it costs the company something — raising wages is still the right thing to do”:
“There definitely is a moral component and, you know, I had plenty of arguments that the spreadsheet wouldn’t pencil out,” he says. “And my view was, in the end analysis, this is just not fair . . . We need to invest in our employees. We need to help restore the middle class, and that should be good for the economy as a whole. And so for us it is as much — probably, for me personally, more — a moral argument than it is a financial one.”
According to NPR, “Bertolini has become an evangelist on this subject, handing out a how-to packet to other CEOs to encourage them to look closely at boosting their low-income workers’ compensation. He says he’s getting positive feedback from many.”
The Real Bottom Line
These are strange days, indeed. When it comes to wages and working conditions, the CEO of Aetna is many times more radical than a New York Times journalist writing a book about mindfulness. Similarly, the top execs of high-end clothing manufacturers Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher link their mindfulness programs to ethical commitments and company policies far more demanding than America’s leading mindfulness teachers generally advocate.
If Mark Bertolini can become “an evangelist” on the subject of how to increase wages for low-income workers, then why can’t the “conscious communities” that practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do the same? And why can’t elite journalists advocate for more than a little more niceness and tools for individual stress-reduction in today’s radically unequal labor market?
Today’s mindfulness movement has much to offer. Gelles is right to champion the virtues of learning to manage one’s own stress more effectively, as well as fostering a kinder and more considerate workplace. The problem, of course, is that in a time of relentless work speed-ups, ever-increasing inequality, unprecedented environmental devastation, and unraveling democratic values, this simply isn’t enough.
Gelles dismisses such concerns as beside the point, concluding Mindful Work with the hand-waving truism that mindfulness “won’t transform out entire economic system on its own . . . Perfection is more than should be expected from a simple meditative technique.” Of course, that’s true. What’s also true, however, is that over-hyping the “quiet revolution” of corporate mindfulness may end up doing do more harm than good. This is particularly true when it’s praised both for its potential to “reduce stress, making drab days in cubicles more bearable” for office workers, while serving as “a source of employer value proposition” by providing “valuable tools to manage high burnout levels of employees.”
Critics of the contemporary mindfulness movement rightfully contend that teaching tools for quieting the mind and focusing non-judgmentally on the present moment without any accompanying ethical framework is problematic. Even with an ethical framework, however, it’s impossible to harness the power of mindfulness to promote positive changes in business without considering the organizational and social context in which it’s operating. While Mindful Work presents some important examples of how mindfulness, social ethics, and business practices can be combined, it does so in a way that obscures, rather than highlights the essential point that this combination is, in fact, the real bottom line.
What, if anything, do the “yoga and body image” and “yoga service” movements have in common? If you believe that the former is simply about upping the number of yoga cover models who aren’t skinny, white, and conventionally pretty, and the latter exclusively dedicated to things like teaching yoga in prisons, then you’d probably assume they have nothing in common at all.
If, however, you’d had the opportunity to attend the Yoga Service Council conference earlier this month, you’d have been able to experience these movements in ways that highlight their connections, and demonstrate the powerful synergies between them. Since I was fortunate enough to have been able do so, I’m writing to share my reflections with those who are interested in the work of the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and Yoga and Body Image Coalition (YBIC), but weren’t able to make it to the conference.
Supported by the deep green spaciousness of the Omega Institute campus, those of us at the conference devoted a lot of time, thought, and feeling to the nested practices of deepening relationships: with ourselves, each other, different communities, and our larger environment. In my view, it’s ultimately this work, which YSC founding members Traci Childress and Jennifer Cohen Harper memorably characterized as “conscious relationship,” that powers both movements. More broadly, it’s also what enables us to experience yoga in ways that break free of the hyper-individualistic, commodified, and/or fundamentalist boxes that otherwise keep us unhealthily confined within psychically narrow, claustrophobic spaces.
Social Awareness in Yoga Service
During the past several years, the YSC has become committed to incorporating a strong a social justice framework into our work. While there’re many reasons for this, perhaps the biggest is the realization that without sufficient social awareness, our core commitment to making yoga truly accessible to all can play out in problematic, and even harmful ways.
This is particularly true given that the work we’re supporting commonly involves negotiating some of our society’s most entrenched social divisions. For example, having relatively affluent, white yoga teachers offer classes in places like prisons, which are disproportionately full of low-income Blacks and Latinos, raises important issues of race, class, power, privilege, and identity.
In such settings, yoga teachers who sail in full of good intentions but without social awareness can all-too-easily wind up replicating harmful interpersonal dynamics. For example, we may unintentionally re-inscribe hierarchical “us-versus-them” divisions in which “we,” the love- and light-bestowing yoga teachers, are oh-so-generously helping “them,” the unfortunate, and presumably unenlightened masses.
Despite positive intent, such actions can cause harm by perpetuating a sense of separation and hierarchy. This process can fuel a misguided sense of self-aggrandizement on the part of teachers, and alienation and/or disempowerment among students.
Social Awareness in Yoga Culture
When we shift such social awareness to the “mainstream” yoga studio setting, we may see parallel dynamics in play. As Jacoby Ballard and Lisa Garrett discussed in their “Teaching for Diversity” session, it’s quite common for yoga teachers to give cues that unintentionally alienate, and perhaps even harm their students. For example, gendered blanket statements such as “men usually have tight hips, so may want to use blocks in this pose” may sound belittling, or be taken as an insulting erasure of an alternative gender identity.
Even when social categories such as race or gender aren’t involved, yoga teachers can still unknowingly perpetuate a harmful sense of hierarchy between them and their students. Many, if not most sincere students tend to place their teachers up on pedestals, particularly when they’re first starting to discover just how powerful the practice can be. Teachers who aren’t sufficiently grounded and aware of such social/psychological dynamics are often swept into their own problems of narcissistic ego-inflation as a result.
Similar problems of unintentional harm being generated by a lack of social awareness surround today’s popular “yoga body” imagery, which inundates us through advertising, magazines, and social media. As Yoga and Body Image Coalition co-founder Melanie Klein explains in very personal terms in her 21st Century Yoga and Yoga and Body Image essays, many women in particular have been conditioned since birth to believe that if we could just manage to grab that elusive gold ring of thinness and prettiness, then our inherent worth as human beings would be affirmed – and we’d finally feel happy and fulfilled, forever.
Commercialized “yoga body” imagery plays on this false promise, cruelly. Rather than affirming our authentic aspirations and experiences as multi-dimensional human beings, it channels them back into the pernicious fantasy that our physical appearance dictates our inner experience and inherent worth. As Teo Drake and I discussed with Chelsea Roff and about seven others in a small group roundtable at the YSC conference, the fact that yoga today is simultaneously being sold as means of honing the “yoga body” that supposedly achieves happiness, and experienced as a practice that deepens our awareness holistically is creating a lot of confusion, and sometimes causing harm.
As Mircea Eliade explains in his classic, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, practices of cultural “deconditioning” were traditionally understood to be an intrinsic part of yoga. This experience of deconditioning is way of reverse-engineering the intrinsic nature we have as human beings to be profoundly conditioned by our culture. It’s natural for us to believe certain things so deeply that we taken them for granted as indisputable facts, rather than recognizing them as provisional human beliefs. Yogic practices enable us to progressively unwind these layers of cultural conditioning. This process, in turn, strengthens our connection to that deeper source of awareness that undergirds all beliefs, whether we hold them consciously, as ideational commitments, or unconsciously, as reflexive taken-for-granteds.
While it may seem presumptuous to see the unraveling of cultural biases regarding body image in light of this traditional idea of cultural deconditioning, I believe there’s an important connection here. For example, as I’ve engaged with the “yoga and body image” movement more deeply, I’ve found that I’ve had to work through resistances to it that I hadn’t previously realized I’d had. Because there’s definitely a reactive part of me that feels bored, impatient, and dismissive when I see yet another round of impassioned discussion over the pros and cons of this or that yoga cover girl. From an emotional distance, it seems so dismayingly trivial. I feel sick and tired of the whole thing.
Yet when I connect with people enough to feel the deeply personal issues that fuel such debates, everything shifts. Rather than belittling their concerns as shallow, I’m able to connect them to parallels in my own experience. And this process doesn’t really feel that different from what I’ve experience in yoga service. Teaching yoga in a jail and homeless shelter, for example, has similarly caused me to confront biases and assumptions that I wouldn’t necessarily have encountered in the same way otherwise. At the same time, the practice of yoga has given me the personal resources needed to confront, process, and transform them in ways that feel educational, empowering, and good.
One of the many memorable encounters I had at the YSC conference came when I was representing the “Yoga and Body Image Coalition” with Teo Drake, selling t-shirts off a folding table and chatting up anyone interested about our work. (I serve on the YBIC Advisory Board; Teo was a contributor to the book.)
As we were talking to interested conference goers, a pretty young woman with strikingly light blue eyes came up to our table. She simply stood there, quietly listening. But, she was doing so with such complete presence and undivided attention that my focus was soon drawn toward her. Quickly, we became absorbed into talking with each other in that way where it feels like the rest of the world has just temporarily dropped away.
She told me that she was a fashion model, in on a visit from Japan. She had never heard of the Yoga Service Council or the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She was simply at the Omega Institute for the weekend, and had happened to wander into our exhibit. But she did practice yoga. And, she made it clear that she did suffer from body image issues, as well.
This revelation caused me to do a quick double-take. I looked at her and thought: She’s so perfectly pretty – blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin, beautiful face. But the feeling I’m getting from her is one of quiet distress and confusion. “I want to do work that helps other people,” she told me. “But I’m not together enough yet. I need to work on myself first.”
Confessing this, she looked entirely sincere, very young, and a little ashamed. I had a momentary flash of imagining what it might feel like to be a beautiful 20-year old model, inexperienced, uncertain, and, perhaps, surrounded by vultures who treat you as a thing to enjoy and exploit, not a person. I don’t know if this picture I intuited was true to life, or not. But it came to me very strongly.
I assured her that simply being aware of the fact that she needed to take care of herself on a deeper level was fantastic, and important. That to see that clearly was to be way ahead of the game. She looked at me like I’d said something that mattered. I felt something shift.
As has happened many times in parallel instances in the past, I suddenly realized how deeply I’ve been conditioned to assume that someone who looks like her could not possibly suffer from body image issues. And that talking to her in a way that felt truly connected, rather than looking at her and making unconscious assumptions, had broken through my formerly taken-for-granted paradigm, and revealed it as a false lens that had initially given me a distorted picture of the person standing right in front of me. And that having this shift happened enlarged my world in ways that were liberating, and good.
The moment passed. We both moved on to the next thing. But that brief exchange was one of the most memorable of a day that was full of beautiful encounters, and yoga-sparked magic. Self-study. Conscious relationship. Social awareness. This, for me, is yoga in practice – taken off the mat, and into everyday life. This is how we connect more deeply with our selves and each other to uplift and transform our world.
You can learn more about the Yoga Service Council, and join as an individual or organizational member, here. If you’re interested, please also mark your calendar for next year’s conference now: May 13-15, 2016, at the Omega Institute, NY.
You can learn more about the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and sign up for our free email newsletter, purchase “Yoga and Body Image,” and download a free book discussion guide here. If you’d like to support the work of the YBIC by purchasing a “This is What a Yogi Looks Like” t-shirt, tank, or hoodie, you can do so here.
As anyone who pays any attention to yoga on social media well knows, yoga selfies on Instagram have been dominating the cyberspace scene for some time now. As someone with less than zero interest in photographing myself doing a backbend (or whatever) and posting it online, I can’t speak to what it’s like to participate in this incredibly popular phenomenon. (True, I made a lame stab at establishing an Instagram account, but it didn’t get very far. My photos were boring and didn’t even sustain my interest, let alone attract legions of followers.)
I have been watching the whole thing unfold from the sidelines, however. I read the relevant blogs and articles that pop up in my newsfeed, and occasionally check out popular and/or interesting hashtags like #yogaeverydamnday and #curvyyoga. In the process, I find myself wondering: Why is this so popular? What does it mean for yoga? And what, if anything, does it mean to me?
As a writer with Lefty leanings, I’ve always had some vague sense that I should be constitutionally opposed to yoga selfies. But that’s really not my reaction. Instead, I find myself zigzagging between sociological curiosity (like any popular trend, it’s interesting for me to think into what it’s all about and why); personal disinterest (sure, it’s kind of intriguing, but I’d really rather just practice yoga and read about it, not look at photos); and – surprisingly – mixed, but largely positive feelings about it.
This is curious because again, I have this sense that someone like me should be denouncing the selfie craze as shallow, ego-driven, overly obsessed with the body, reinforcing thin/white/pretty/bendy stereotypes of yoga, etc. But, based on the limited knowledge I have about the whole “Instayoga” (to coin a term) scene, that’s not how I feel. Instead, I see some interesting and positive possibilities in it, some of which have already materialized, others which I can only imagine.
Without doubt, there are aspects of the yoga selfie that I find horribly depressing and alienating, as well. The problems I see, such as objectifying the body and promoting overly narrow ideas of beauty, however, already exist in spades elsewhere. Selfies didn’t create them; they’re simply manifesting them in a new form.
And, on balance, my best guess is that they’re probably doing more to counter those issues than reinforce them. Of course, it’s impossible to say. But there’s good reason, I think, not to simply dismiss the whole yoga selfie craze as shallow, retrograde, egotistical, and so on. To some readers, this may seem obvious. To others, it may sound Pollyanna-ish and shallow. Either way, I hope the following thoughts on why the yoga selfie fad may amount to more than simply showing off sleek bodies in gymnastic-like poses prove interesting, and even useful.
Democratizing yoga imagery
Extremely few yoga practitioners are ever going to have their photos featured in Yoga Journal or anything remotely equivalent. To score such publicity, you’d have to have not only a marketable body (thin, pretty, bendy, etc.), but some level of fame to boot. That leaves the vast majority of us out. On Instagram, in contrast, we’re pretty much all in, if we want to be. True, there are some economic barriers: you need access to the internet, and it certainly helps to have a smart phone. But, at least in North America, these block relatively few people in comparison.
Why does this matter? The seemingly high-minded response might be that it doesn’t, that true yogis could care less about public photos of themselves doing asana – or images of anyone else, for that matter. But such a perspective is, I think, unrealistic.
The fact is that most people do care about whose images are represented publicly – a lot. By and large, we can’t help it. As humans who have not yet attained enlightenment and are highly unlikely to do so in this lifetime, we are necessarily social beings. And, we happen to live in a very image conscious, visually driven society. So, as yoga practitioners, we are naturally highly attuned to the symbolic messages that yoga photos transmit. If we see nothing but air-brushed pictures of young, thin, pretty white women doing hyper-athletic poses, it has an impact on most of us, like it or not.
And at this point in the evolution of modern yoga – now that it’s a widely popular and culturally mainstream practice – the impact of these stock images is largely negative. Men, people of color, big bodied women, and many others often feel unrecognized, excluded, and implicitly devalued by them. At the same time, women who can imagine fitting themselves into this “yoga body” imaginary frequently suffer in other ways. Rather than being a tool for authenticity and empowerment, yoga becomes all-too-easily harnessed to the dead end project of seeking to create a false self that conforms to this unrealistic, mass market standard of commercially fantasized femininity.
The yoga selfie craze, however, has radically diversified the amount and type of “yoga body” images available. With the hashtag system, it’s super-easy to connect to others who identify with alternatives such as #BlackYogis, #YogaDudes, #fatyoga, etc. I believe that this is an important, and empowering development – not only for countless individuals, but for yoga and the culture at large.
Personally, I’ve noticed this increased diversity of images having a positive impact on me. Even though I’m a white, cisgendered woman who has always been the thin side, I’ve always experienced the standard “yoga body” model as alienating and undermining. For me, it serves as a powerful reminder of the fact that no matter how much yoga has been as a source of empowerment for me, yoga culture as a whole values the same standards of mass market femininity that have always made me feel alienated, and alternately resentful and inadequate.
Of course, the most popular yoga people on Instagram fit neatly into the thin, white, young, pretty, bendy mold themselves. But, rather than being utilized by a corporation as a means to sell product, they’re independent operators. As such, they have more leeway in their self-presentation, and often utilize it to make themselves more easily seen as the multi-dimensional human beings they truly are.
Even when this isn’t the case, it’s still true that zillions of alternative images are only a click away. And while they many not be as wildly popular, there are nonetheless many well-established, powerful alternatives, both in terms of individual yogis and hashtag-based communities of identity and interest.
Forming online communities
To be sure, the word “community” is highly over-used today. Unfortunately, however, it frequently seems impossible to find a better replacement. So, on the one hand, a grouping of photos under a hashtag isn’t really a “community.” On the other hand, social media can and does facilitate meaningful connections among like-minded people.
Personally, I’ve experienced this through yoga blogging, which used to be almost as popular as yoga selfies are now. (Back in the day . . . although it’s only five years ago. The peak of yoga blogging hit around 2010, but feels very long ago and far away.) And while I’m not involved enough in the Instagam world to know if similar relationships are being formed, based on my blogging experience, I’m assuming it’s possible, and even likely.
Presumably, the more that selfies share ideas or information beyond simply posting a picture of a yoga pose, the more such interpersonal connections and communities of interest will grow. Perhaps this is happening to a large extent already; I don’t know. When I see such newly minted Instagram stars as Jessamyn Stanley combining selfies with personal statements such as the one below, however, it makes me hopeful that this sort of quick but powerful means of communication will catch on, and have a positive impact both on countless individuals and yoga culture as a whole.
This may seem overly mundane. But in our unhealthy, sedentary society, simply encouraging more people to practice yoga – even if only as exercise – deserves to be recognized as a good thing. The wildfire-like spread of yoga selfies since Instagram became available a few years ago makes it evident that lots of people find this form of self-expression enjoyable and engaging. And to participate, they’ve got to exercise. We know that exercise is important for physical and mental health, and that most people today don’t get enough of it. So, if yoga selfies can get more people to experience exercise as fun, that’s of benefit to them and society at large.
For sure, there are lots of legitimate concerns that can be raised regarding how the selfie craze can feed into problems of injuries, narcissism, shallowness, and so on. And I think that those criticisms should be voiced, and repeatedly. But again, I don’t feel that those issues were created by yoga selfies – they are evident throughout yoga culture at large. So, I don’t feel that this particular medium should be singled out for condemnation. The problems cross-cut the entire “industry.” Yet, yoga on Instragram offers some positive benefits, such as the diversification of yoga imagery, that I don’t see elsewhere.
Supporting home practice
This is potentially a big one. I don’t know to what extent it’s true that yoga selfies and the new “challenges” that have grown up around them are giving people more motivation to practice yoga at home. But when I scroll through my Instagram feed and see photos of people striking poses in their kitchens, living rooms, gardens, hallways, etc., I conclude that it probably does.
This, I think, is super-important. In the many years that I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard most people find it to establish a home practice. Based on my experience, this is a huge problem for those who want to experience yoga on a deeper and more multidimensional level. While I feel that going to class with a good teacher will always be important, I don’t believe that even the best classes are sufficient on their own (once, of course, you’ve learned the basics).
Without home practice, you are always dependent on being guided by someone else’s experience of yoga. You don’t come up against your own internal resistances, barriers, and fears in the same way that you do on your own at home. And without this, I personally feel that practice is limited in how far it can progress.
Of course, I recognize that fiddling with the timer on your phone so that you can take a good selfie is hardly a scenario conducive to deep internal exploration. So perhaps I’m being wildly over-optimistic on this one. But, my hope is that if yoga selfies help a lot of people set up a home practice, some not insignificant number will eventually move beyond needing to manufacture images to feel motivated to do so – and that their practice will naturally take root, deepen, and grow into something richer and more meaningful over time.
Occasionally creating art
Many of the images I see on Instagam are interesting, and some are really striking. (I, like literally a million others, am a sucker for @laurasykora’s crazy cute photos of herself and her young daughter doing yoga together in matching outfits. While I know that it strikes the wrong chord in some people and can see why, I can’t help it. It’s just so. Damn. Cute!) Once in awhile, though, I stumble across something that really knocks my socks off. And I think that these exceptions are notable because again, they would never get the same level of airplay were it not for the popularity of yoga on Instagram.
While not a selfie per se, the photo that really hit me hard this week was the one of Richard Widmark, which went viral both in the blogosphere (thanks to YogaDork) and on Instagram this past week. I’m calling it art not because it was beautifully shot or staged – in fact, the fact that it wasn’t is part of what makes it so raw and forceful. I think of it as art because for me, at least, it’s a viscerally powerful, paradigm shifting, and thought-provoking image. And for me, that is what art does.
Some self-disclosure: my father passed away in 1989 of a heart attack, which was likely caused by fact that he had been severely overweight for many years – really, as long as I could remember. The excess weight he carried caused many other health problems, which had a very negative effect on me and my family, including adult onset diabetes, intensified arthritic pain, and highly limited mobility. It also tied into a lot of unaddressed issues that manifested in chronic stress, and unpredictably explosive irritability. So when I see a photo like this one, it brings up a lot of negative personal feelings of fear, sadness, grief, etc.
Yet I feel such a strong sense of buoyancy and spark in this photo that it flips those feelings into something poignantly bittersweet and inspiring. To me, it’s very moving. I find myself wondering what could have been different if my father had been able to engage with something like yoga. In this photo, I sense a spirit opening to new life possibilities. It’s a powerful way of depicting yoga – one that I can’t help but find discomforting, as well as inspiring.
I feel this photo working a change in me, the viewer. While I know that it will evoke very different responses in different people, I believe that as human beings, we have the innate ability to resonate with and be changed by such images. They’re important. For this reason, I hope that the positive possibilities that are inherent in this new photo-sharing culture continue to be explored, and grow. As someone who prefers to work with words, I won’t be one of those trying to do this work. But I’m hopeful that others will.
While I don’t plan to check #yogaeverydamnday, I will stay tuned and am curious to see what happens. I’m also interested to hear your views on the yoga selfie/Instagram phenom. In particular, I’m interested to hear from people who feel they’ve been positively or negatively impacted by it. So, please share your thoughts in the comments below if you’re so moved. And thanks for reading such a long post in the age of Instagram!
Note: I pulled the photos used in this post more or less randomly off of Instagram and didn’t bother to contact each person depicted individually as I figure that the photos were intended to be in the public domain. If, however, your photo was used and you’d prefer that it be taken down, I’m happy to do so. Just message me using the “Contact” page on this blog. Thanks in advance for your understanding.
Yesterday, I stumbled across an interesting sounding post – “How I Went Broke Trying to Teach Yoga” – on Credit.com, a platform I’d never heard of that has nothing to do with yoga. (“Expert Advice. Better Financial Decisions” is its tagline.) A humorous yet harrowing account of the downward financial spiral set into motion when the author went from being a well-paid corporate lawyer to a bankrupt yoga teacher, I initially wondered whether it was satirical. This was particularly true given that I’d read her bio, which noted that she has a JD from Harvard Law School. Surely someone with such credentials would know not to trust her woo-woo yoga teacher’s assurances that “the Universe” would provide if she just “set the proper intention” and was “mindful” enough?
Apparently not. And when I saw her post going viral on Facebook and the flood of sympathetic comments pouring in, I knew that I needed to reconsider my initial reaction. “This wasn’t over the top at all. I feel it accurately reflects what it’s like to be a full-time yoga teacher in the current climate. The studios are churning out 100s of newly ‘certified’ teachers every year and the market can’t support it. Pay has gone way down. I’m a well-established teacher and I really struggle,” wrote one woman. True enough: I knew about these issues. Yet there was still that Harvard Law degree. Because I also know what sorts of doors that opens for you. How to explain the jump from elite lawyering to teaching yoga in such a difficult market, seemingly with eyes tight shut?
Meaninglessness and Depression
Of course, we don’t know the personal details at play in that particular case. But, as it so happened, I got a lot of general insight into my question last night when I decided to brave the brutal Chicago weather and venture out to attend a book talk by William Deresiewicz, author of the recently published Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I’d read Deresiewicz’s viral article, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” and as a former professor who’s currently in the process of starting to think about colleges for my oldest son, I was intrigued.
Deresiewicz taught at Yale for 10 years, so when he characterizes elite Ivy League students as follows, he’s speaking from his own experience:
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
In his talk, he recounted that he’s received countless letters and emails from kids who resonate with what he’s saying. He said that when he goes to speak at elite campuses like Brown and Stanford, students fill up the auditorium and spill out into the hallway. They are grateful that someone’s finally broadcasting their dirty little secret: although society crowns them as the cream of the crop, a stunning percentage feel lost and depressed.
Deresiewicz shared that when he spoke with parents at an elite high school in Palo Alto recently – in the heart of Silicon Valley’s enormous wealth and privilege – he learned that their community was in the process of recovering from a rash of teenage suicides. Five kids from the same school had serially thrown themselves on the tracks in front of oncoming trains during the past year.
Yoga and Life Force
Now I know that some of you more hard-hearted types may be saying, what’s wrong with these privileged little shits? If I had that kind of opportunity, you *know* I’d appreciate it and do better. And that may be true – in your case. But when a society experiences such strange new epidemics of mental health problems, it cannot and should not be reduced to the weakness of particular individuals. There’s something happening in the culture that’s sick, that’s literally sucking the life force out of youth who supposedly have everything to live for.
And that’s where the yoga comes in. I remembered the Credit.com writer with the Harvard Law degree and how much she wanted to find something more meaningful to do with her life than work as a corporate lawyer. Again, I certainly can’t speak for her, and don’t know what her deeper experiences and motivations really were. But the juxtaposition of her story with Deresiewicz’s made me think about just how many people are unhappy with the choices that school and work seem to offer today. Because if it’s that bad at the top, it’s even worse elsewhere – not everywhere, of course, but many are suffering much more, and without the same attention, concern, resources, or opportunities.
At its best, yoga provides a critical space to energize our life force so that we can begin to explore what it is to be human in a meaningful way. A good class, whether at a gym, studio, or jail, creates a safe container in which we can relax into being ourselves without competition or artifice. Where we can tap into something powerful, elemental, and mysterious, without anyone dictating how we should understand that and what we must do about it. Where we can work and play. Build strength and relax deeply. Open up to what we’re really feeling, let that energy move through us, and alchemize it into something newly liberating and empowering.
Navigating the Rat Race
Seen from this perspective, there’s actually really good reasons that a Harvard Law school grad might be driven to suspend disbelief and hope to be able to make a living in what’s become a highly competitive yoga market. But sadly, she ended up jumping out of one rat race and into another. And when teaching yoga becomes another rat race, it undercuts the integrity of the practice. It’s no wonder that more and more yoga teachers have been running themselves ragged and/or coming up with questionable marketing gimmicks. Somehow this downward spiral needs to stop.
The yoga community needs to find better ways of helping people connect the deeper experiences they discover through practice with the rest of their lives. Yoga teacher training is often an incredible experience, and well worth the investment even if you can’t subsequently make a living as a teacher. But everyone who does want to try to do so should understand the real world risks they’re taking on. Telling struggling teachers that “the Universe” will provide if they only “set their intention” mindfully enough is dishonest. It also undercuts studios and teachers who are managing to offer meaningful yoga classes and still make it financially by flooding the market with more and more competition. Plus, it reinforces that horribly insidious sense that if you don’t become a yoga superstar, it’s because there’s something deeply wrong with you as an individual. In the overwhelming majority of cases, this simply isn’t true. The reality of the labor market is what it is, whether we like it or not. And it’s a tough one.
I wish I had easy answers to offer on these issues, but I don’t. I do know that I don’t want to see talented college students dragged down by meaninglessness and depression. I also don’t want to see yoga’s ability to offer a meaningful space of refuge and regeneration to them and everyone else be undercut by market dynamics. But changing the educational system or the “yoga industry” isn’t easy. Perhaps the first step is to see what’s happening more clearly (Vidya) so that we can be more discerning about how to navigate these difficult realities (Viveka) and more compassionate to ourselves and others in the process (Karuna).
Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.
To be sure, both books make notable contributions to their respective fields. Tigunait, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, writes as a lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition. The Secret of the Yoga Sutra offers a user-friendly entry into the complexities what I found to be an essentially religious approach to the text. White, a chaired Professor of Religious Studies at the UCSB, writes as a “just the facts, ma’am” scholar who’s openly skeptical of contemporary yoga culture. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography evidences a prodigious amount of archival research, which attempts to trace the most important references to the work made during the past 1,600+ years.
Due to the singular lens each book uses to look at the YS, however, I found them more interesting considered in tandem, rather than independently. It’s ironic that although the Secret and Biography approach their shared subject matter from polar opposite perspectives, they actually inform each other reasonably well. For example, Tigunait explains that he’s part of a tradition that interprets the YS using a combination of yogic, Tantric, and Vedantic philosophies. This would have struck me as strangely arbitrary, except that I knew from reading White that this sort of syncretism has, in fact, represented a well-established tradition in India since at least the 16th century.
That said, there’s no question that White’s Biography is designed to debunk precisely the sort of claims to timeless interpretative authority that Tigunait’s Secret explicitly makes. Consequently, despite the fact that they complement each other in some ways, one might ultimately feel that it’s necessary to choose one approach and reject the other, given that it’s logically impossible to embrace both perspectives at the same time. However, I don’t believe this to be true. Other alternatives can be created. Personally, I’d like to see some sort of new synthesis between them, one which takes the experiences of practitioners seriously, but that also contextualizes them in the broader perspective that a cultural history of the YS provides.
Before going into a more detailed discussion of each book, I’d like to provide a bit of background regarding where I’m coming from in reading them. On the whole, it’s always been true that discussions of the Yoga Sutra in contemporary yoga culture generate a certain sense of inner conflict for me. On the one hand, I’m very much drawn to the project of engaging with this ancient, cryptic, compelling, and mysterious text. On the other hand, I’m really turned off by the all-too-common tendency to want to put it into some neat-and-simple conceptual box.
This reaction is rooted in my dual background as a yoga practitioner and social scientist. Like many practitioners, I’m enthralled by the fact that some parts of the YS feel highly resonant with my personal experience of yoga. Unlike most, however, I’m equally fascinated by the fact that other parts of the text feel utterly foreign, and don’t resonate at all.
I believe that any work that has spoken to so many so deeply across the centuries must have something unusually compelling about it. As a social scientist, hwoever, I also assume that any claim to know its true meaning as universally understood by adepts across the centuries is necessarily wrong. Whether it’s the Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon, Bible, or even the U.S. Constitution, there are always multiple interpretations of the essential meaning of iconic texts. And, although certain interpretations will emerge as more compelling than others at any given time, such meanings will also always change over the course of history.
Given this perspective, I’m interested in the interplay between the enduring resonance of the YS and the constellation of culturally specific interpretations that have surrounded it historically. I’m looking for insight into what has made it so enduring, as well as how it’s been understood in radically different ways in different places and times.
Yet, our tendency today is to reject such complexity in favor of readings that claim to explain the entire work as a split package deal: either as an unchanging guide to spiritual practice, or as a transient cultural artifact. Hence my frustration with both the Secret and Biography: like most contemporary discussions of the YS, the core questions I have about it are never asked, let alone investigated.
The Biography: 1
Be that as it may, I do appreciate the prodigious research effort that obviously went into White’s “biography.” At 236 pages (not including notes and index), The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a sprawling, ambitious work, providing detailed discussions of the various ways in which the YS has been interpreted 1) in ancient, medieval, colonial, and post-colonial India; 2) among influential Western individuals and movements the British Orientialists, German Romantics, and Theosophists; and 3) by key commentators in the Muslim world. On top of this, While provides detailed discussions of the significance of Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the modern “revival” of the YS, as well as extensive discussions of many other significant Eastern and Western writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers.
Unfortunately, the high level of detail devoted to sketching out this sweeping history is not tightly organized around a set of simpler thematic points or embedded into a clear narrative structure. This makes it something of a challenge to pick out precisely what the central points of White’s “biographical” story are. By my reading, however, the main point is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons for this include:
- Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
- Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).
Weaving various iterations of these claims through many, much more particular historical discussions, the Biography appears dedicated to debunking the “ongoing fetishization of the Yoga Sutra by the current yoga subculture,” which is more than happy to have it be “venerated without being understood” (215).
I believe that White is right that such “fetishization” exists, and to some extent share his impatience with it. That said, I had major problems with the way that he attempted to address this issue in his book. First, White never makes any serious attempt to analyze contemporary yoga culture. As a result, it’s easy for him to set up a straw man argument about it: that is, that there’s widespread belief that the YS has provided an unchanging guide to yoga theory and practice from the 5th-21st centuries that needs to be debunked.
However, it’s questionable to what extent contemporary practitioners are really invested in this as a serious historical narrative. In my experience, most wouldn’t care if it were pointed out that, in fact, the YS has been interpreted in different ways at different times. Because really, what they care about is simply that it’s a meaningful text for them now. Plus, to the extent that they believe in the tradition of Parampara, the “problem” of historical discontinuity is solved by investing interpretative authority in a series of designated lineage holders (which is, again, precisely the position that Tigunait’s Secret takes).
Conversely, from a social science perspective, no cultural historian would ever take the claim that the meaning of some iconic text has held constant across the centuries seriously. It’s simply too self-evidently wrong to be worth debunking. As a result, there’s a profound mismatch between White’s central argument, which is organized around a non-academic debunking project, and his research method, which is basically an enormous amount of fine-grained archival research. The result is that we have neither a nuanced discussion of how the YS figures into yoga culture today, nor a compelling analysis of what to make of all of the historical data White has so assiduously assembled.
The Biography: 2
To make matters worse, the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity. For example, as noted above, White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).
Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.
There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” in northwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra is the first volume in a planned series of commentaries in the YS. It focuses on the first chapter of the YS, the Samadi Pada. Written by a self-described lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition, it offers an exceptionally thorough exposition of how to read the YS from this particular, essentially religious perspective. Although not a position that I personally find compelling, Tigunait does an excellent job at systematically building what gradually emerges as a complex doctrinal system with steadily ascending levels of detail and complexity. His clear exposition of a wide array of complex concepts enabled me to apprehend the internal logic of his position reasonably well – a notable feat, given the difficulty of many of the ideas discussed.
The Secret’s method of devoting multiple pages of commentary to each Sutra allows Tigunait to dig deeper into the substratum of beliefs that support his interpretation of text. For example, Sutra 1:26, which is translated as “He is the one who has been the preceptor of all previous teachers for He is not limited by time,” is followed by four pages of commentary (which represents about the average length for each verse). Here, he explains many points that seemingly go far beyond the statement at hand. These include:
- the human tendency to put spiritual authorities on pedestals rather than “to turn to the One who is eternal and immortal – Ishvara”;
- what happens after death (“buried in the deep tomb of non-being, we are virtually non-existent”); and
- the process through which we are “born again” (“The light of the Omniscient Being guides us to the right place and the right time to begin our life”).
And this is only a highly simplified snippet of the full discussion, which also includes explanations of the interplay of Prakriti and Purusha, the multiple dimensions of Ishvara, and the nature of the gradual process of becoming “free from our karmic bonds and the ignorance that sustains them” (128-132).
The deeper I got into the Secret, the more it struck me as an essentially (if non-traditionally) religious work. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation in no way comports with Tigunait’s intent. On the contrary, he emphasizes that “God and liberation as described by Patanjali are quite different from God and liberation as described by most institutional religions”:
Patanjali’s God takes away all our fears, for it is an exalted state of consciousness – pure, pristine, all-pervading, and eternal. God is our inner guide, the source of inspiration. Even the prospect of experiencing this divine presence fills our mind with indescribable peace. The God of religion, on the other hand, evokes fear, and the religious concept of heaven kindles greed. Fear and greed fuel inner unrest; they agitate the mind and can never be the ground for peace . . . The purpose of Yoga sadhana is to cultivate this inwardly flowing, peaceful mind (67).
Uncharitably, one might say that such statements amount to the same “my religion is true and yours isn’t” perspective that anyone who’s been exposed to any sort of exclusivist religious tradition will be familiar with. More generously, one could say that it invokes the difference between spiritual experience that’s rooted in a yogic process of progressively quieting the mind and deepening awareness, as opposed to internalizing slews of pre-determined religious doctrine. However, the Secret itself is brimming with detailed answers to key questions that religions traditionally address: the nature of God, what happens after we die, etc. As such, it is difficult to read it as anything other than an essentially religious work.
While this may (ironically) sound blasphemous to some, I personally don’t have a problem with it. I believe in respecting different religious traditions, provided they are being interpreted and practiced in ways that generate more positivity than negativity in the world. Given that many of the most dedicated, skilled, and service-oriented yoga teachers I know have some affiliation with the Himalayan Institute, it seems that to the extent that the faith that informs the Secret has impacted their practice, it’s been in exceptionally positive ways. Consequently, although characterizing the interpretation of the YS provided by the Secret as “religious” rejects its own self-understanding, it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations that Tigunait’s own use of the term would imply.
Ostensibly, White’s Biography aims to debunk precisely the sort of “timeless” interpretation of the YS that Tigunait’s Secret claims to offer. On closer reading, however, it actually provides evidence that to the extent that there has been a tradition of YS interpretation, it has been one of reading the text through whatever mix of philosophical, religious, and cultural influences conjoin to form a compelling narrative at the time. Of course, to a cultural historian, this isn’t the least surprising: one wouldn’t expect the popular understanding of any such iconic text to stand without change across time and space.
By the same token, however, the Biography illustrates how seemingly arbitrary and erratic this ongoing process of reinterpretation can be. It shows both how much such “timeless” meanings are changed, and how closely these changes track with the dominant patterns of power, culture, and belief of their time. If unsurprising from an historical perspective, having so much such evidence of this collected in one work offers an important corrective to contemporary yoga practitioners accustomed to taking authoritative pronouncements on the “timeless” meaning of the YS at face value.
Ideally, knowing more about the constellation of meanings that has historically surrounded the YS can enable us to see more clearly how our own cultural biases may be informing how we read and interpret it today. For practitioners, having such heightened cultural self-awareness may be helpful in the process of cultural deconditioning that is part of the historic yoga tradition. More immediately, it may also enable us to orient ourselves better in the often confused and confusing context of contemporary yoga culture.
Conversely, yoga scholarship would benefit from taking the experiences of practitioners more seriously. Whether investigated using the framework of neuroscience, mind-body integration, or comparative mysticism, it’s evident that Patanjali’s exploration of yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind” is profoundly important. It’s possible to recognize both that the Yoga Sutra has been interpreted in radically different ways in different times and places, and that it’s an exceptionally compelling and important work. Although the core of what makes it so can’t be definitively answered by scholarship (or, for that matter, by anything else), investigating the question nonetheless remains a powerful means of deepening human knowledge.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
The “Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2015” just released by the American College of Sports Medicine once again placed yoga on their Top 10 list. Fitness industry experts noted that the staying power of yoga is remarkable. “The yoga folks surprise me every year,” study author Walter Thompson confessed to NPR:
He thought yoga would’ve gone the way of Pilates, quickly dropping off the top 20 list. But people who promote yoga, he says, have figured out ways to get new people to try it. Whether it’s Bikram yoga or power yoga, “they reinvent themselves so it continues to be popular.”
Ah, yes. Isn’t it great? From Ashtanga to Polga, yoga covers the waterfront. Whether you seek an ascetic spiritual practice or hedonistic yoga party, we’ve got it all. This incredible flexibility (pun intended) is what’s enabled yoga to remain a “recession proof” $10.3 billion industry. Viewed from a strictly commercial, big business perspective, the yoga world is in exceptionally great shape. The best of times!
Yet as J. Brown recently noted, “it’s hard times for yoga teachers.” Whoever’s making those billions, it’s not your local studio owner or teacher. On the contrary, most are finding it harder than ever to make a living in what’s become a badly over-saturated teaching market increasingly dominated by corporate studio chains.
Things may be rocking for the Core Power Yogas of the world (up to 25 studios and counting in my hometown Chicago), but it’s a different story for the little guy – perhaps even the worst of times in recent memory.
A New Low
Unfortunately, however, the problems plaguing the yoga world today get much, much worse than that.
Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the high-profile yoga “scandals” (Anusara, Kausthub Desikachar, Bikram), a new one hit the headlines. And as bad as the others were (not to put them all in the same pot – to be fair, each must be considered separately), this one, which involved the ongoing sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of children at Australia’s Satyananda Yoga Ashram during the 1970s-80s, is even more tragic, shocking, and deeply disillusioning than the rest.
True, the crimes at the Mangrove Mountain ashram are decades past now. The fact that it took this long for the survivors to be heard and that the center was under the auspices of the prestigious Bihar School of Yoga that entire time, however, is yet another disgracing stain on what had long been seen as a venerable yoga lineage.
Piled on top of the earlier history of reported abuses by prominent yoga gurus, one can only wonder why anyone would remain loyal to the guru-based lineage model. Because whatever valuable role it may have played in the past, it’s evident that it’s produced unacceptably high levels of dysfunction and tragedy in our world today.
To be sure, not all modern lineages have been plagued by abuse. But the most important of those that stood untainted by scandal are gone: B.K.S. Iyengar passed in 2014, Pattabhi Jois in 2009. Further, the all-too-human foibles of these venerable teachers are being openly discussed in ways that was simply not done in the recent past. In today’s jaded, commercialized yoga culture, the godly halo that was once projected onto such leaders is gone.
The upshot is that the narrative that once assured sincere practitioners that a series of great gurus had arisen – men with the power to plug us directly back into the power and wisdom of an ancient spiritual practice – has cracked. In fact, it appears broken beyond repair.
This generally isn’t a concern for the newest generation of students, most of whom have no clue whosoever what the significance of the lineage model might be. For many longtime practitioners, however, its breakdown has produced a profound sense of disorientation and loss – as well as, in some cases, grief, anger, and shame.
At least in some quarters, then, there’s a painful sense that yoga writ large has fallen into very bad times indeed – a veritable season of Darkness.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
– “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen (1992)
When you put these two trends together – the boom in corporate yoga and the bust of the lineage model – the state of yoga today can look quite bleak. Of course, if you’re only interested in “workout yoga,” none of these bigger picture issues matter. The more that you’re invested in yoga as a meaningful mind-body-spirit practice and/or an ancient (if diverse and evolving) tradition, however, the more there’s cause for concern.
Nonetheless, I personally feel much more hopeful about the future of yoga than I did a few years ago. In part, this is because I’ve become more accepting of things that I don’t like about the field. I’ve also become more confident, however, that what I love about it really does matter. Plus, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to connect with a lot of great people who are doing exciting, inspiring work in the yoga community, both in Chicago and beyond.
From this vantage point, I see the breakdown of the guru-based lineage model as opening important new avenues for yoga teaching, philosophy, ethics, service, community building, and more. I’m jazzed by path-breaking collaborative writing projects (Yoga and Body Image, 21st Century Yoga); newly ambitious social service and activist organizations (Yoga Service Council, OTM); and unprecedented studies of the lived experience of contemporary practice (WAWADIA, Survivors on the Yoga Mat). I’m also excited about the explosion of interest in the healing power of yoga for trauma, and in bringing yoga to major social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons.
There’s also a lot of great work going on that I’m less directly involved in. The Bhakti Yoga/Kirtan scene is vibrant. The field of modern yoga studies is slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the academy. New approaches to understating anatomy, movement, and the physical body promise to enhance our knowledge of asana tremendously.
In these and other creative, yoga-inspired initiatives, I see people integrating their passion for yoga with the rest of their lives – and their communities, and the world. This is exciting, promising, and badly needed in a society that’s inundated with physical, emotional, and spiritual malaise and suffering. Plus, I believe this new wave of work is well in line with the spirit of the modern yoga represented by leaders such as Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Many of the leading figures in the development of modern yoga in early 20th century India were revolutionaries. And they weren’t afraid to change tradition in order to keep its deeper spirit alive.
My hope for the yoga world in 2015 is that more and more practitioners will make the warrior’s choice to practice in ways that seek the Light and stare down the Dark. That strive for wisdom while accepting the inevitability of foolishness. That keep the faith without doing so blindly. That inspire hope while having compassion for despair. And that learn through hard-won experience that no matter how bad the times may be, the human spirit has infinite capacity for renewal.
This post was written for YogaDork’s “State of the Union 2014-15″ series and is cross-posted with permission here.
I watched the video footage of Eric Garner’s arrest and death last night after I heard the verdict, which shocked me. And now I can’t get those images and the feelings they generate out of my mind and heart.
I find myself thinking back to when Obama gave his acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008 and how those of us who had supported him and worked for the campaign felt that we were witnessing history, that this election was a pivotal event we’d collectively created together. I remember how that night felt suffused with a sense of joy mingled with disbelief. I remember seeing two women in the crowd at the rally at Grant Park hugging and spontaneously falling onto their knees together, laughing and crying, overcome with emotion. They were African American and I’m White but I felt their feelings were my feelings, and that we were both part of a bigger wave that was carrying this country up and out of our history of racial tragedy toward something brighter.
Now it’s six years later and I’ve never felt so dispirited about the state of American society. I read comments about Eric Garner and Michael Brown on social media and am unspeakably dismayed to see endless strings of excuses about why they deserved to be choked or shot by police, as if reasonable people should easily see that this is all perfectly acceptable, not out of line at all. I can’t find the words to adequately express how I feel about this; everything sounds trite.
I want to change those beliefs, but I don’t know how. I think that denouncing people as racists only fuels more reactivity and hate. I believe that education can change hearts and minds, but it takes a long time and supportive circumstances. And that’s very hard to come by today.
I thought through this territory years ago back when I was in grad school and came to the conclusion that until a critical mass of Americans understands that our problems of race and class inequality are and always have been intertwined, and takes action to address both at the same time, we’ll never be able to unwind the patterns that fuel those divisions. Racist beliefs have historically been bound up with the larger gulf between wealth/power/status and impoverishment/disempowerment/marginalization, and that remains true today. But these class dynamics are legitimated and hidden from view, while the racial ones are amped up and distorted.
Seeing this pattern doesn’t give me the answers I want about how to change them. When I was younger, I’d assumed that it would, but it didn’t. I’m still looking.
I so appreciate the people who are out in the streets protesting while keeping it peaceful because they’re showing me that it’s still possible to transform rage and grief into hope and determination. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here at my computer, feeling lost and depleted and sad. But sometimes we need to take some time for grieving. And so for the moment, I’m OK with that.
But I can’t imagine how enraged and scared for my children I’d be right now if I were Black. My oldest son is 16, and I’m well aware that in the past few years, I’ve felt a sense of worry when he goes around the city with his Black friends that I don’t feel otherwise. There’s no question in my mind that he’s much more likely to get in a confrontation with the police when he’s with them. One, the son of two doctors, was already stopped by the police while driving in Lincoln Park, one of the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods in the city. In that case, nothing bad happened, but it’s still sobering and scary. I could give numerous anecdotes like this.
Looked at from the more positive side, though, I see connections between kids today that bridge racial divides much more openly and authentically than I ever experienced back when I was that age. It may not be the norm, but it is happening. And it gives me some hope.
And I start to think that maybe that the wave of positive feeling I experienced back in 2008 wasn’t a mirage, as it often now seems. I do believe that there are a lot of us – Black, White, Asian, Latino, whatever – that want to create a more just society. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, and am not sure it ever will. But when I remember how much good will there still is out there, it gives me heart. Which I realize seems woefully inadequate. But I’m still hoping that it will somehow lead to something more.
And that’s all I’ve got at the moment.
Note: Most people reading this are probably be too young to remember the 1980 election and Reagan’s “Morning in America” themed campaign. But I remember it well and trace many of our current problems back to the negative political choices made during that time. My title for this post is in part a reference to that.
As a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, I’m pleased to see public discussion of the problems of having yoga so strongly associated with images of bendy-pretty white women (finally) taking off. As an “older yogi” who’s also been around the block a few times, however, I’m also well aware that progress on one set of difficult issues inevitably generates new ones in its wake. In this case, I’ve become concerned that the well-justified backlash against the role of “skinny white girl” imagery in contemporary yoga culture is encouraging some misguided, and at times misogynistic put downs of people who happen to fit that demographic.
In her recent Quartz article, “How Americans Ruined Yoga for the Rest of the World,” Michelle Garcia reports how disgusted she was to find that even in what should rightfully be the white chick-free zone of the “new studio around the block from my apartment in Harlem,” the receptionist working the front desk was a “blonde waif with a face scrubbed free of character.” Her contempt for such bimbos is palpable: “This is the land of pricy Lululemon gear where yogis fit their lotus between a mani/pedi and a cocktail . . . Only in yoga will people chant in a foreign language, oblivious to the meaning of the words and then closely examine their curves in pants now worn by porn stars.”
What shallow idiots, right? What stupid women.
Stereotypes and Misogyny
To be fair, Garcia goes on to say some positive things about yoga (“it works”), highlighting examples of work that’s “changing the conversation about yoga and femininity.” By the time we get there, however, we’ve already gotten the message that the specific group of Americans that has “ruined yoga for the rest of the world” is none other than that same herd of self-absorbed, body-obsessed white women who colonized her Harlem studio. These people, it’s suggested, are contemptibly shallow, happily trampling an ancient spiritual practice in the dirt in the stampede to hone their “yoga butts.”
Just because a woman wrote this article doesn’t mean there can’t be any misogyny there. On the contrary, it’s incredibly common for members of socially stereotyped groups to internalize many of the powerful cultural messages relayed to them via that typecasting, whether they want to or not. Even women who’ve worked hard to develop a strong feminist consciousness can find themselves falling into thought patterns that reduce other women – and/or themselves – to dehumanized objects, rather than multi-dimensional beings.
And, of course, there is a racial angle at play here as well. Everyone is well aware that the ubiquitous “yoga babe” image is prototypically white. As always, this intersection of race and gender carries a particular cultural valence (which in this case, it should be added, also has a distinctively upper-middle class “aspirational” dimension as well). Stereotypically, this white feminine imaginary may be celebrated as a representation of happiness, serenity, and “niceness.” By the same token, however, it’s not championing female intelligence, courage, or power.
As a result, it’s easy for the reaction against “yoga babe” imagery to conflate pretty white women with shallow stupidity in real life. When this happens, the power of the stereotype remains intact: it’s simply turned around from being an object of “inspiration” to one of denigration. Either way, however, the true humanity of the flesh-and-blood, body and soul person whose looks fit that basic mold is erased.
Just yesterday, the webzine Well + Good published an article asking “Does Yoga Have a Skinny White Girl Problem?” The provocative title had little to do with the post’s content, which was a nice report on the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, this popular site knows its click bait. There’s more than one way of exploiting images of pretty white women: If it’s not time to idealize them, you can always hate on them.
Reaction vs. Liberation
In all honesty, I can relate to the sense of rage Garcia expressed in discovering that what she’d assumed to be a personally safe, culturally comfortable space (i.e., a local studio in her Harlem neighborhood) seemed instead to have been colonized by women whose self-presentation alienated her on a deep, visceral level. Back when I first started exploring the yoga blogosphere in 2010, I was scandalized, upset, and disoriented to discover that something like “yoga for weight loss” was infinitely more popular than anything I cared about when it came to yoga. And while I’ve more or less come to terms with it, I still often find the endless parade of images of impossibly skinny, pretty, bendy young white yoga babes in print and social media deflating and depressing.
But, I also know that while this much-hyped “yoga body” is a maddeningly effective sales tool, it’s not real life. This isn’t to say that it’s not important in the “real world”: on the contrary, it most certainly is. (At least, as much as anything is today that doesn’t directly address our most pressing issues, like climate change.) But the reason it’s important is because it’s a cultural symbol. As such, it doesn’t even try to represent the true complexity of a real human being. On the contrary, the unstated goal is precisely the opposite: to reduce us (or at least, those of us who are part of the targeted demographic) to a simpler, and presumably more manageable version of ourselves.
The yoga babe image that’s now causing such a backlash taps into a lot of highly charged tropes concerning the meaning of beauty, control, power, respectability, and achievement. But, like all successful commercial imagery, it’s designed to sell some targeted demographic the sense that they can easily obtain these qualities by buying into this one neat package (whether literally or figuratively). Thus, those who identify with the image find it “inspiring.” Those who don’t identity with it may alternatively find it irrelevant, hurtful, or enraging. Very often, however, it provokes a strong emotional response – even when we might wish that it didn’t.
What we really need are better alternatives, not angry reactions. That’s why the work of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition is so important. We understand that this movement is not about tearing down pretty-bendy white women, or anyone else. On the contrary, it’s about defusing the power of cultural tropes that define the “yoga body” in terms of stereotypical feminine imagery. To the extent it’s successful, it will be liberating for anyone who’s affected by such imagery – which means most of us, as it’s exceedingly rare to have advanced in your practice enough to have fully unraveled the imprint of such cultural conditioning.
Yoga is hard work. But when we support each other in our practice, it’s a lot easier – and more fun. We don’t have to be driven by negative emotions to participate in projects of cultural critique and political change. Working together, we can co-create a joyful process of conscious evolution.
I’ve watched and appreciated the burgeoning conversation over yoga and body image, and am a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, truth be told, issues of body image aren’t that compelling to me on a personal level. I know they’re important, and care about them for that reason. But my interest is more sociological than personal. Ever the ex-political science professor, I want to figure out: Why do so many women today seem so overly wrapped around the axle on body image issues? Why do most of the middle school girls in my son’s school insist on dressing up in super-short, super-tight, super-revealing dresses and high heels they can hardly walk in on special occasions? Why the explosion in eating disorders? Why don’t more women fight back more fiercely against the media barrage of Photoshopped imagery? Why do they seem to stay overly obsessed with it, even as they criticize and reject it?
All these are interesting questions (at least to me). But, I’m not going to try and answer them here. Instead, I’d like to contribute to the one relatively small side-current of the yoga and body image discussion that does feel more personally relevant to me: that is, the one concerning (as the inspiring Charlotte Bell put it recently) “the aging yoga body.”
I’m 52. And I do find myself regularly marveling at “how old” I am. I’m well aware of the fact that my age makes me relatively ancient in the yoga world, not to mention the blogosphere. (Most women my age only deal with social media if they want to track their kids’ activities, not as some independent project of their own.) When I reflect on aging and yoga, however, my thoughts aren’t about not being able to do the kick-ass poses of my youth (easy enough as I never had a particularly kick-ass practice anyway), that I’ve become more “creaky” (I’m actually substantially more flexible now than when I was younger), that I can’t keep up with the hot babes on Instagram (which I can’t imagine wanting to do even if I could), or whatever. None of those issues seem interesting or relevant to me.
Even if it’s true that (as one recent blog put it) “old is the new fat” in our youth-obsessed yoga culture, my gut reaction to such statements feel positively connected to my age, not negatively impacted by it. Which is to say that: I’m old enough that the first rock concert I attended was seeing Patti Smith on her “Horses” at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I remember the 1970s counter-culture and absorbed enough of that post-hippie, second wave feminist, punk rock vibe to be able to say: I don’t care.
And I wonder if today’s young women are suffering because they don’t have the benefit of being able to tap into the same sort of rebellious, defiant, yet also in many ways hopeful alternative culture that I did. I can’t really say . . . I have two sons, and no daughters, and feel out of touch with the deeper currents of that part of our culture. But what I see from afar is a lot of young women making themselves crazy trying to fit into socially prescribed categories that they’d be better off simply rejecting in favor of something more authentic, empowering, and meaningful.
I sense a constriction of the cultural imagination today that didn’t exist when I was younger. And yes, I know that the competitive pressures in education and the job market are much more intense. Still, I don’t see why more women just don’t say “f*ck that noise” when it comes to a lot of these body image-related issues. I see a lot of discussion that appears to go around and around, with endless reassurances that we’re all beautiful in our own way, perfect in our imperfection, etc., etc.
But wouldn’t it be simpler to reject the beauty-and-perfection paradigm altogether? In my mind, the answer is obviously “yes.” But I don’t see a groundswell of young women doing that. Maybe I don’t know where to look. But I do feel that being older helps me to just not care so much about such paradigmatic feminine pressures. Age – in this and many other respects – is really not so bad. In fact, it can actually be a source of relief from the bullshit pressures and preoccupations that otherwise drain your energy, and dirty your line of connection to deeper sources of meaning in your life.
Yoga has played and continues to play a key role in enabling me to remain absorbed in a wholly different set of issues. My practice enables me to refocus my attention, over and over again, on very different dimensions of life, such as: Seeing, really seeing, the magical beauty of the autumn leaves, the frost-tinged grass, the prairie sky, the century-old trees when I take my dog out for a walk on an otherwise ordinary Chicago morning. Being amazed that after so many years of doing Down Dog, I’m still discovering something new in the pose. Developing a greater and greater ability to experience joy, pain, frustration, anxiety, love, sadness, and the full spectrum of human emotion while still staying in touch with a peaceful inner core of awareness. And so much more.
I’m so, so bored by articles that chirpily reassure women that it’s possible to be “50 and Fabulous!” Because what they’re really communicating is that it’s possible to be 50, but look younger, and therefore not feel fully washed up. This is just such misleading bullshit. And while I get why there’s a market for it (and don’t deny that I’d prefer to look younger than I really am, too), it makes me feel sad for older women and even more worried about younger ones who buy into that mentality.
It must be really depressing to grow up feeling that the best you can hope for as you age is to find ways to make it seem like you’re really not growing older at all. What does such a standard give younger women to look forward to? Getting successful face-lifts? Discovering the best new anti-aging diet? What sort of way is this to spend your life? It is a waste; an utter squandering of your energy and life force.
The friends that I’ve have stayed closest to through the decades agree that however we feel about aging, the bottom line is that we’re much happier now than when we were younger. And that happiness doesn’t rest on the fact that we’ve “succeeded” or “failed” in getting married, having kids, getting degrees, landing jobs, buying houses, or any other such standardized markers of adult achievement. Not to say that such things aren’t important – of course, they are. But as you get older, you inevitably find that even if you hit the goals you wanted, they don’t turn out to be what you thought they were.
What matters is developing yourself as a human being. That means growing into a state of being where you’re as ready to die with grace and gratitude for a life well lived as you can possibly be. Aging can be your ally in this process. Whatever your age, gender, or appearance, you have the power to reject the hype that says that your worth depends on what you look like.
That’s easier said than done, I know. But one thing that aging really brings home to you is that life really does go by quite fast. I believe that it’s worth fighting for what you feel is deeply meaningful in your life. And I think that you should rebel against whatever forces pressure your psyche to shut that process down.
Without question, such shut-down pressures will come, and come back again. But true beauty is found in the determination and struggle to live full out. You can’t find it in the mirror. If you look closely, though, you’ll see whether that spark of spirit is still alive in the eyes. And even if it’s not, human beings are blessed with amazing resilience. With love, courage, and faith, even the dimmest embers can be reanimated with the breath of life.
That’s why the ancients called it Prana.
Note: It was just announced today that Patti Smith received a personal invitation from Pope Francis to perform live at the Vatican Christmas Concert this year, and accepted.
Having tracked news stories on yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for several years now, I’ve become accustomed to the endless stream of announcements of relevant books, blogs, conferences, workshops, festivals, research initiatives and the like that cascades through my news feed daily. Simply because there’s so much of it, today’s high level of interest in these mind-body practices has come to feel natural, even inevitable.
When I stop to think about it, however, I realize just how remarkable this situation really is. Personally, I’m old enough to remember when yoga was seen as a weird practice favored by hippies, while meditation was only for Buddhists and mindfulness largely unknown. Plus, having studied the history of these practices, I know that their current level of popularity is – strange as it may seem to say it – unprecedented in human history.
This fact becomes even more remarkable when I reflect that the recent explosion of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in the U.S. has coincided with plummeting levels of public confidence in the value, integrity, and functionality of our foundational institutions, as well as the social fabric more generally. Again, I’m old enough to remember when there was a sense of widespread faith in promise of American democracy (strange as that may sound today). Yet, I’ve become so used to the endless stream of negative news about American political dysfunction, economic inequality, racial conflict, environmental irresponsibility and the like that this, too, feels natural, and even inevitable.
Distrust in government is at record highs; faith in the future at historic lows. Divided into mutually hostile “red versus blue” blocs that don’t understand or respect each other, the only thing Americans seem to agree on is that the overall state of our society seems dismal.
This inquiring mind wants to know: What’s the connection here? Why have the popularity of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness hit unprecedented highs, even while levels of cultural confidence, cohesion, and harmony have fallen dismally low? Is this simply a coincidence? Or are there important connections here?
We don’t need to answer such questions conclusively to make thinking into them worthwhile. Doing so opens up other, even more important areas of inquiry, such as: How can those of us who care about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness work with these practices most skillfully today? More pointedly, do these traditionally individualistic practices have a potentially important role to play in healing our sick society?
Of course, many yoga, meditation, and mindfulness advocates have a ready response to these questions: How to practice? Just do it! The main thing is just to get started with something and stick with it as much as you can. Will it help society? Of course! As you can’t change society without changing yourself, any practice you do automatically improves the rest of the world in the process.
I don’t know how to say this nicely, but . . . while I recognize that such views are widely, fervently, and most sincerely held, I also believe that they’re rooted in wishful thinking and unconscious denial, not real life.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no truth to them at all. Certainly, I agree with the view that it’s best to remain open-minded about how best to begin (and continue) with mind-body practices, as different people need different things at different times. There’s no one-size-fits-all “right answer.” Anyone who claims otherwise is either blinded by fundamentalism, suffering from megalomania, or trying to sell you a bill of goods.
I also agree that yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be transformative for individuals, and that even more mundane versions of these practices (e.g., a good yoga class at the gym) can – and frequently do – have very positive effects. I think it’s critical to keep in mind, however, that they can have negative ones as well. These may be physical (e.g., injuries from asana or even an overly zealous sitting practice), psychological (e.g., practicing in ways that support emotional distancing or delusional beliefs), or even spiritual (e.g., becoming deeply entangled with powerful teachers on abusive power trips). All these problems (and more) are actually quite common.
Logically, if individual outcomes are so variable, then any related social outcomes will be even more so. Of course, it’s quite possible to practice in ways that inspire, inform, and support positive engagement with one’s community, society, and environment. In order for this to happen, however, it has to be intentional – and integrated with everyday life, not restricted to the mat or cushion. Like anything else, we have to work at it. Otherwise, there’s no necessary connection between yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices and pro-social outcomes – or even any pre-packaged set of outcomes at all.
While simple enough, this basic fact of the potentially variable outcomes of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness tends to be widely unacceptable, if not controversial in practitioner circles. In part, this is because it can be legitimately confusing. As a longtime yoga practitioner, for example, I know that while the practice has benefitted me enormously, pursuing it has also led me down some blind alleys that I had to work hard to get out of. And if it’s true that that’s all part of the practice, it’s also true that it’s possible to get stuck in some dark places.
The fact that even committed and experienced practitioners can (and almost certainly will) encounter some challenging twists and turns on their path can be difficult to accept. It may be hard to see it at all, even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s scary to think into the reality of uncertainty. And while this, too, it part of the practice, it’s much easier said than done.
And, of course, confessions of uncertainty don’t sell well.
In fact, I think the primary reason it’s so difficult to have yoga, meditation, and mindfulness enthusiasts accept that these practices have widely variable outcomes is that they’re so commonly hawked as virtually foolproof techniques for improving health, reducing stress, gaining insight, finding inner peace, or whatever – and, as an added bonus, automatically improving the whole world in the process.
There are a lot of factors feeding into this marketing juggernaut, including the need for teachers to sell their services to survive, the widespread belief in mechanistic models of healing, and the easy faith in practices presumed to tap into the ancient wisdom of the “mystic East.” Combined with the fact that these practices do, in fact, work wonderfully well in one way or another for millions of people, it’s easy to see why they’ve been sucked into the standardized marketing machinery that processes so much of American culture. We’re sold these practices as infallible cure-alls. We want them to deliver, and in many ways, they do. That’s a powerful combination, and offer an attractive psychic anchor to hold onto in our rapidly changing, high-stress society.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Slavoj Žižek’s critique of “Western Buddhism” has resonated so widely among politically-minded practitioners of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness alike:
Although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement . . . Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of techno-logical progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being . . The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.
In fact, one could argue that it’s even worse than Žižek imagined. It’s not simply that “Western Buddhism” provides a set of ideas and practices that enable people to feel comfortable disconnecting from any sense of social engagement. It also offers an alternative set of beliefs that reassure those who want to effect social change that the best way they can do this is by simply sitting on their cushions and meditating (or, by extension, practicing asana or mindfully drinking tea). Whether you want to improve or renounce our crazy society, in other words, you can feel supported in pursing an identical course of social withdrawal and political disengagement.
To a certain extent, this is a compelling critique. And, it’s one that I feel that anyone who’s teaching yoga, meditation, or mindfulness today should at least try to understand. Ultimately, however, I find it to be irritatingly myopic, one-sided, and self-righteous.
There are several reasons for this. First, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do help many people cope with the stress of everyday life today in remarkably healthy ways. Even if their practice never moves past the point of being a coping mechanism, pure and simple, I still see it as a good thing. Certainly, this way of coping is much better than many others out there, which are often unhealthy, if not addictive and destructive (e.g., substance abuse, shopping addiction, eating disorders).
Second, who’s to say that a well-considered world-renouncing position is inherently wrong? In my view, we only have one life to live, and if someone wants to spend it meditating in a cave, exploring the outer reaches of consciousness, more power to them. To be fair, Žižek was not, of course, writing about traditional renunciates. Still, the same point holds by extension. If someone has seriously considered their spiritual commitments (as opposed to blindly swallowing some preset package of beliefs) and concluded that social engagement is simply not part of their path, I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s not for everyone, and that’s OK.
Third, Leftist critics such as Žižek have a maddening tendency to recycle new iterations of the same old quasi-Marxist paradigm over and over again without even attempting to come to grips with the enormous legacy of problems associated with it. Abstracting from any concrete consideration of historical experience and current conditions, capitalism is sensationally presented as an all-encompassing, monolithic system that must be smashed at any and all costs in order to usher in some undefined utopian society. The upshot is a traditionally masculinist romanticizing of “revolutionary” violence that takes great pleasure in denouncing all that currently exists without feeling any authentic sense of caring or connection to anyone or anything at all.
We can do better. I’d like to propose that politically-minded practitioners critical of our culture’s easy tendency to sell yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as cure-all pills with no possible side effects (that will solve your problems and those of society in only 15 minutes a day, etc.) stop citing Žižek as an authoritative critical voice. Instead, let’s start sharing ideas and practices that promise to integrate processes of individual and social transformation in ways that speak to the needs and concerns of our selves, our society, and our planet today.
Of course, there’s a lot of great work going on in this regard already, and some of it has been around for awhile (e.g., socially engaged Buddhism). By and large, however, these efforts seem very disjointed. The yoga community, for example, tends to be siloed off from the worlds of meditation and mindfulness. Yet, anyone who’s experienced the deeper dimensions of yoga knows without meditative awareness (or mindfulness if you prefer that term), asana practice is nothing but exercise. Alternatively, meditation or mindfulness practices that instill a sense of disconnect from the body foster emotional disconnection and even dissociation.
If yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are being sold simply as exercise, performance enhancement, and stress relief, experienced practitioners know there is much more to them than that. In my view, all are essentially modern methods of working with the modern self: that is, systematic methods of exploring and developing the nature and mystery of our own being that work well within the particular contexts of modernity and post-modernity. In many respects, they are not that different from psychoanalysis, which initially emerged during the same historical period. But, that’s a story for a different time. (Note: This isn’t to suggest that asana and meditation practices don’t have ancient roots; they do. Rather, it’s acknowledging that the constellation of ideas and practices that we’re familiar today represent distinctly modern formations that first emerged during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.)
Ever since translations of Indian sacred texts first became available in the U.S., some of our most important cultural and political leaders, such as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., have felt these ancient ideas and the practices associated with them offer something important, and potentially transformative to our modernized, globalized, and technologically-driven world. I share this feeling, and am confident many others do as well. The trick is to coalesce our work into a more coherent movement that challenges contemporary social and political dysfunction, rather than simply accommodating to it. In the process, we can co-create a new vision of an alternative culture in which holistic health and spiritual meaning are actively embraced as social, and not simply individual values. Given the unprecedentedly high levels of public interest in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness today, the time to launch such a collaborative project is now.