According to their recent press release, YJ has “2 million print readers, 1 million unique Web users, 1.2 million Facebook fans, half a million newsletter subscribers, and 11 international editions,” making it “the number-one, leading yoga media brand in the world.” That’s a wide reach, and a lot of media influence. I care about what Yoga Journal does because I care about how yoga is being taught in the world – and magazines, web platforms, and social media are powerful ways in which people transmit ideas and information and, for better or worse, learn about yoga today.
So when I got YJ’s new “Body Issue” in the mail yesterday (I have a subscription through my yoga teacher insurance policy), I was truly interested to see what it would contain. As soon as I could, I sat down and read/skimmed through the whole thing, cover to cover. And because I think that what happens with YJ is important to the yoga community and beyond, I wanted to share my thoughts, and encourage others to do the same.
Bottom line: I found the “new” issue to be both encouraging and disturbing. It’s encouraging in that it reveals the work of a thoughtful, intelligent editorial team, which, by all appearances, seems committed to the project of communicating images and ideas about yoga intended to make the practice safer, healthier, and more empowering for a much wider range of people. The visuals and writing reflect a new dedication to being more inclusive and diverse. There’s also evident support for the growing yoga service and outreach movement. Further, articles promoting fair trade, veganism, and local food sourcing communicate the message that yoga, properly understood, extends far beyond asana to include active concern for other people, animals, and our environment. All of this is really good, and encouraging. There is a lot to celebrate in the new, “rebranded” Yoga Journal.
But. Precisely because of these commitments, the issue also inadvertently highlights just how big the disjuncture between the healthy versus the dysfunctional sides of yoga has become. On the one hand, the magazine shares some authentic, inspiring, and deeply positive stories and images that communicate the healing, transformative possibilities of a truly mindful practice. On the other, thanks to Chelsea Roff’s excellent article, it also presents some exceptionally graphic, hard-hitting reporting on how yoga has been increasingly turned into a practice that can encourage body dysmorphia and physical, psychological, and emotional self-harm.
Of course, insofar as the “rebranding” brings such literally life-threatening problems to light, it’s important and good, regardless of how disturbing the news it communicates may be. But here’s the twister: While the “Body Issue” frankly acknowledges that there’s a huge shadow side to yoga today, it does so in a context that in many ways perpetuates the very same problems it’s critiquing.
The “Body Issue’s” unacknowledged internal contradictions makes reading it a strangely contradictory experience: encouraging for the many positive steps it makes toward developing a more healthy and inclusive practice, and disturbing for the dysfunctional silences surrounding content that’s part of the very same set of problems being critiqued.
A Maze of Contradictions
Here’s some concrete examples of how the “new” Yoga Journal presents a contradictory mix of images and information that’s simultaneously encouraging and disturbing:
Page 40: This is a standout page in terms of breaking out of the “old” YJ paradigm, which tended to make everyone who couldn’t identity with an idealized image of a thin, bendy, beautiful, white, heteronormative yogini feel marginalized and/or inadequate. There’s an eye-catching photo of self-described “fat, black yoga teacher” Dianne Bondy in Ustrasana, looking authentically lovely and real. Part of a set of six short excerpts from the forthcoming anthology, Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, & Loving Your Body, Dianne’s quote also succinctly acknowledges the continued reality of racism in North American societies, an explosive topic that the “old” YJ would have likely avoided entirely.
Perhaps even more startlingly, YJ editors saw fit to highlight a quote form Teo Drake’s essay about how yoga helped him make the transition from female to male. Such de facto support for transgender rights is certainly controversial and a bold move on the “new” YJ’s part.
Pages 42-43: Turning the page to continue reading the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpts, one encounters a strange sight. One the left side of the spread, we find a hard-hitting statement from Kate McIntyre Clere, Director of “Yogawoman,” about how she wants to raise her daughter to be free from body image issues by “bringing a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model.” Yet, on the right-hand side of the spread, what do we find but a full-page ad of Kathryn Budig – the same woman who’s on the cover and the leading figurehead of the “rebranding” charge – in her oh-so-familiar incarnation as Our Naked Lady of Toesox Perfection, Beauty, and Bliss.
Sorry to be snarky, but . . . huh? I found the juxtaposition of content on these two pages to be really, really strange. Surely, it couldn’t have been deliberate irony on the editors’ part? But, how could they possibly miss the contradiction? (which only deepens as you read on).
I flipped back to look at Kathryn’s image on the magazine’s cover. Again, I found it to be a bizarre juxtaposition with the Toesox advertisement. To me, it’s hard to believe that the woman portrayed on each full-page spread is really the same person. She looks so different. Plus, symbolically, the images do not communicate anything close to the same message. The cover says: Natural! Happy! Strong! I don’t need to be Photoshopped to look super-tall and thin to be on a magazine cover! Meanwhile, the Toesox ad says: Cool. Perfect. Beautiful. Untouchable. Effortlessly in control. Absolutely and utterly flawless.
Particularly given the larger context of the magazine itself, the messages that these two images communicate directly contradict each other. Are we not supposed to notice this?
Pages 96-118: Chelsea Roff’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side” breaks important new ground for the magazine with a powerful, emotionally arresting analysis of how yoga is alternately being used to either exacerbate or heal our current epidemic of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. This one article alone is sufficient to command respect for the fact that YJ’s “rebranding” is not simply marketing fluff: there is important, meaningful, and challenging new work being supported and shared. As with the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpt, YJ’s proves that it’s willing to take some risks to present information that has teeth. This is not fluffy, feel-good, mass-market yoga pabulum; it is serious writing on a critically important, literally life-or-death issue.
Pages 99 & 112: Chelsea’s article highlights yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Bo Forbes’ critique of how commercialized yoga imagery can – and often does – have a profoundly negative impact on women’s psyches. “It’s not enough to be thin; female yogis often feel the pressure to be thin, strong, and flexible. They’re critiquing their bodies with unattainable ideals,” Bo states.
A bit further on in the article, Lauren Medeiros, a 31-year old woman suffering from severe anorexia, is profiled as one of several women whose health problems worsened as she became psychologically entangled in this “unattainable ideal” of the perfect “yoga body”: “The image of an ideal yogini as thin, toned, and spiritual – represented in media images and often personified in her classmates – became a yardstick she used to criticize and berate herself,” Chelsea writes.
Back cover: Fresh from Chelsea’s hard-hitting critique, what do I find gracing the back cover of the magazine but a super-glossy Hardtail ad of two yoginis who not only appear perfectly “thin, toned, and spiritual,” but are also performing a super-advanced partner yoga pose with apparent effortlessness and ease. The beautiful blonde’s handstand backbend is perfectly poised on the stunning brunette’s knees (yikes – can bearing all that weight really be safe for such a sensitive and injury-prone joint?), who gazes beatifically up to heaven.
Between these two “yoga goddesses,” Chelsea’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side,” the Our Naked Lady of Toesox ad, and Kate McIntyre Clere’s injunction to bring “a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model,” I’m starting to feel more than a little psychologically whipsawed by all of the unacknowledged mixed messaging in the rebranded “Body Issue.”
Page 59: Of course, I realize that Yoga Journal needs ad revenue, and that ToeSox and HardTail may not have gotten the memo about the ways in which the idealized “yoga body” imagery they’re pushing is causing harm. The contradictions I saw in the magazine, however, were not limited to the ads.
The featured interview with cover model and Toesox goddess Kathryn Budig particularly stood out in this regard. The first surprise of the feature was hearing Kathryn characterize herself as “curvy” – a term that I would have never, ever in a million years have thought of associating with her before. After all, her Toesox campaign – which, according to the interview, has been running for a good eight years now – is nothing if not a parade of images celebrating idealized physical perfection and beauty. The term “curvy,” in contrast, is frequently used synonymously with “fat.”
So suddenly, yoga goddess Kathryn Budig is “curvy”? Say what?
Pages 48-55: Yet, it’s true: When I looked at the photo of Kathryn on the cover of the magazine, as well as in the photo spread in which she demos Uttanasana and Tittibhasana, she does not, in fact, have the sort of exceptionally tall, thin, and yet still inexplicably full-breasted figure that is so favored by our insane “women’s media.” Of course, she’s not the least bit fat, either. But, let’s not get into the horrible process of dissecting a woman’s body in print, other than to say the obvious: she looks strong, healthy, pretty, and great.
But, OK, fine: “Curvy” it is.
Page 59: Kathryn’s interview goes on to discuss the impact of social media, and how posting endless pictures of “smiling, pretty” people who seem to “have it all” can (in her words) get “really, really dangerous.” Recently, she’s started working to counter that trend by posting photos that show visible “flaws,” such as cellulite. For sure, this is cool, and even brave, given the horrifying level of scrutiny that the bodies of women in the public eye are subject to today. She can have a lot of positive impact doing this, and should be applauded for it.
Yet, when asked by YJ if she has any second thoughts about her ToeSox ads, she replies: “I don’t believe in changing anything, but it has been a challenge to watch my 25-year-old body turn into a 32-year-old body.”
Whoa. As someone who’s 20 years ahead of her on the female body-aging curve, I found that statement quite arresting. Because, oh my oh my: at 32, you are still way, way closer to having a youthful body than you are going to be in just a few short years. Statistically, women’s bodies undergo a major shift at age 35 that makes us less fertile and more prone to gaining weight easily. Plus, if you have a child (or several), your waistline will almost certainly remain forever thickened. And from there . . . well, I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that as an older woman, I found this statement quite poignant, if disappointingly obtuse. Because, of course, most women were never in a position to identify with the vision of perfected beauty that the 25-year old Kathryn Budig represented in the first place.
If she finds it hard to confront images of her 25-year-old self at the still relatively young age of 32, how does she imagine her 8-year long ad campaign went down among aspiring yoginis who really are “curvy”? Or not “prettily” white? Or any number of other attributes that don’t fit this mass marketed ideal?
Or, for that matter, what about the sort of young, pretty, white women portrayed in Chelsea’s article who did identify with such imagery – but in ways that tragically fed their sickness?
I’m not trying to blame Kathryn Budig for other people’s eating disorders, which of course have many causes beyond any single ad campaign, no matter how long-running, successful, and influential. My key point here is not about her as an individual: rather, it’s about the mixed messaging that the “Body Image” issue represents as a whole.
And I really do think it’s awesome that Kathryn is now leading a charge for “curvy” body acceptance. Lots and lots of women love and admire her, and changing her public image by releasing more realistic photos and talking up body positivity is going to have a positive impact. On the other hand, it’s clear that the negative relationship between idealized images of the “yoga body,” body dysmorphia, and disordered eating, which Chelsea describes so powerfully in her article, has not been adequately understood and internalized by the woman who’s leading YJ’s body-positive “rebranding.” Personally, I view this as a problem.
Page 118: Following the same pattern, Chelsea’s otherwise excellent article uncritically presents Tara Stiles as something of a thought leader on the subject of how yoga teachers can best work with students they suspect may be suffering from disordering eating. Yet, this is the same woman who recently made headlines by pushing the envelope on soft-pornified imagery of the idealized “yoga body” with her highly publicized campaign for the high-end W hotel chain. It’s puzzling that someone who was recently being driven around Manhattan performing provocative yoga poses on a bed in a big glass box is so easily accepted as a sage voice of insightful teaching and healing when it comes to precisely the same set of “yoga body” issues that the article is otherwise critiquing.
If such critiques are really going to stick, I don’t believe the yogalebrities can have their cake and eat it too, capitalizing on the idealized “yoga body” one day and advocating for healthy body imagery the next. If such mixed messaging continues unchecked, this pattern is simply going to produce a new round of confusion, dysfunction, and denial in the yoga community, which already has a history of serious problems on all counts.
I’m all for having celebrity yoga teachers (among others) take leadership roles in a new body-positive campaign. But, I think that they need to walk their talk consistently, if necessary taking the time to educate themselves deeply on issues that will almost certainly prove difficult to confront. The same, of course, holds true for yoga advertisers, Yoga Journal, and all of us involved in the yoga world today.
I believe that we can shift the paradigm, and the time is now. But to do it, we’ll need to be radically honest with ourselves and cut the it’s-all-good bullshit. It’s not.
Yet, yoga continues to offer incredible resources for healing, transformation, and renewal. In a world that’s so deeply confused, suffering, and broken, let’s not waste time with anything but meaningful teaching and practice – starting where we are today, yes, but moving forward with honesty, courage, and determination.
If you’d like to support the growing movement to create an authentically body-positive yoga culture, you can follow the Yoga and Body Image Coalition here.
Yoga used to seem so simple. You didn’t need to do a teacher training to develop a sense of the essential roots, structure, and meaning of the practice. Even if you’d started out seeing yoga simply as stretching, you quickly apprehended some sort of bigger picture through a subtle yet powerful process of cultural osmosis. Of course, there were disagreements over questions of technique: props or no props? ujjayi or natural, steady breathing? The level of agreement regarding more foundational issues, however, appeared so rock solid, they could be taken for granted. They didn’t require commentary or demand justification.
Over the past several years, this situation has changed radically. All the key claims that comprised the basic understanding of yoga that I’d first been exposed to as a beginning student back in the mid-90s have been strongly challenged. What was only recently widely assumed to be true has been repeatedly called into question, and not infrequently denounced. At the same time, strong currents of change have been reshaping the practice in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. As a result, there is no longer an easy sense that practitioners will naturally develop any shared sense of what yoga is and why it matters.
Yoga, in short, is experiencing a paradigm shift. Please be clear that in saying this, I’m not claiming that whatever yoga may tap into on the deepest level of human experience has been transformed. Nor am I implying that anyone’s individual practice is necessarily changing. Rather, my point is that the yoga community is currently experiencing a particularly intensive period of cultural change (at least in North America, which is the only part of the global yoga community that I feel I know well enough to write about).
My hope is that if we can gain more insight into the cultural paradigm that used to structure a common understanding of yoga – as well as some of the specific events that are causing it to break down – then we may also more clearly see how our actions today might impact the development of the practice in the future. Times of significant cultural change inevitably cause a lot of anxiety, as well as, at times, painful dislocation. They also, however, generate new creative possibilities and opportunities for social, cultural, and perhaps even spiritual change.
Can committed practitioners read the signs of the times and work with them in ways that are fruitful, both for our selves, our communities, and the world? I don’t know. But I do believe that it’s well worth trying.
The “Old” Yoga Paradigm
I started studying yoga in the mid-90s, became more involved with the practice in the early 2000s, and completed my teacher training in 2008. During that time, I found the following points to be widely shared articles of faith in North American yoga culture:
1) Yoga is a 5,000-year old practice. Concretely, this meant that going to a good yoga class at a good studio offered the possibility of plugging directly back into an ancient tradition that had been passed down through the millennia via countless generations of yogis.
2) Yoga teachers are rooted in guru-based lineages. The structure of yoga as a whole was understood to be based on a set of loosely linked lineages that faithfully transmitted the teachings of a series of enlightened gurus.
3) Dedicated practice guarantees physical health and spiritual attainment. Given that yoga was seen as rooted in the teachings of enlightened masters, as well as time-tested across the millennia, its techniques were naturally assumed to be essentially foolproof if taught and practiced correctly.
4) The “yoga body” is the physical embodiment of this spiritual attainment. The bodies of advanced yogis were regarding as awe-inspiring not simply due to their muscularity, beauty, or athletic ability, but rather because their capabilities embodied a level of spiritual realization rarely achieved.
5) Ancient yoga is authentic; modern yoga is corrupt. Western commercialism, cultural shallowness, and spiritual bankruptcy were understood to have created various ersatz forms of “yoga” that had nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing.
Caveat: In boiling down the “old” yoga paradigm (which, of course, in historical terms is really not the least bit old at all) to five bullet points, I realize that I’m hugely simplifying a more complicated reality, not to mention generalizing from my own, necessarily limited experience. In so doing, I don’t mean to dismiss the bigger picture, or other peoples’ perspectives. In fact, I’m very interested to learn to what extent these points resonate with other experiences of yoga, whether currently or in the past.
Rather, my goal in being so simplistic is to provide the easiest road map possible of where the yoga community has been and is now, so that those who care about it might be better able to see where we might want (and be able) to go next more clearly.
During the past several years, a number of factors have converged to pose a fundamental challenge each of the tenets of the “old” yoga paradigm listed above. Since covering them adequately would require a book-length project, I’ll simply mention some of the most notable, focusing on how they correspond to the five points listed above:
1) Yoga as we know it today isn’t 5,000 years old. Rather, it’s a distinctively modern set of ideas and practices. There’s a growing body of scholarship analyzing the historical development of yoga, and none of it supports the claim that what we’re doing now bears any strong resemblance to what was practiced in pre-modern India. Mark Singleton’s 2010 book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, was, of course, a pivotal work in this regard, both in terms of substance and success in crossing over from academia to reach the practice community.
2) Guru-based lineages have lost their former status due to multiple scandals and generational change. A shockingly high percentage of prominent gurus have been charged with sexual exploitation and abuse of power. Previously, knowledge of such incidents was hard to come by. Now, it’s splashed all over the Internet. At the same time, the generation of teachers trained by modern yoga legends such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois is aging. The new generation of popular teachers is quite different, often dedicated more to developing their personal brand than in transmitting a lineage.
3) Yoga can cause injury and there are no foolproof methods. Logically, this point follows from the discrediting of the two above: if yoga wasn’t developed by enlightened gurus and time-tested across the millennia, then why would it necessarily be foolproof? Further, William Broad’s recent book, The Science of Yoga, dramatically broke the silence on yoga injuries, which are now being acknowledged and discussed in unprecedented detail.
4) The “yoga body” has become a controversial cultural symbol. As yoga expanded from the counter-cultural margins to the commercial mainstream, the “yoga body” came to be represented by young, thin, pretty white women performing advanced poses with beatific expressions on their faces. Cultural critics started exploring the often-negative relationship between yoga and body image that subsequently developed, and more and more people are listening.
5) There’s no agreement over what constitutes “authentic” yoga. While various micro-communities share common perceptions, there’s no longer any overarching frame of reference that seems to unite them. If anything, there’s a growing refusal to have any standards regarding anything related to yoga at all, on the grounds that such distinctions are “judgmental” and “unyogic.”
Of course, the details of each of these points can be debated. The overall picture, however, is clear: every major element of the “old” yoga paradigm is being questioned, attacked, refuted, or simply ignored. What had until recently worked well at organizing widely shared understandings, experiences, and beliefs into one coherent package suddenly seems misleading or irrelevant to many. The old paradigm has lost its power, and nothing new has yet emerged to take its place.
Turning Loss Into Opportunity
Boiling cultural beliefs about yoga down into such summary lists may strike some as cold-hearted or even offensive. And it’s certainly true that there’s an inevitable feeling of debunking that comes with such analyses, particularly when talking about something like cultural beliefs about yoga, which had been operating at more of a vague, fuzzy, quasi-mythological level before. My intent, however, is not to criticize the “old” yoga paradigm or applaud its breakdown. Rather, my hope is to bring both sets of cultural developments into sharper focus so that we can see what’s happening in the field more clearly.
Beyond this, I’d like to suggest ways in which the breakdown of the “old” paradigm offers new possibilities for positive change. Because so many of the critiques of it are so recent – scholarship detailing the recent vintage of contemporary asana practice, in-depth analyses of the conditions contributing to yoga injuries, denunciations of the negative messages communicated through popular images of the “yoga body,” and so on – it can be difficult to see beyond them. And when that happens, the cultural climate can start to turn sour, dominated by a negative sense of disillusionment rather than positive feelings of possibility.
I believe that the current moment calls those of us who care about the future of yoga to explore such positive possibilities in collaboration with others. Rather than responding to see the loss of old verities with cynical disillusionment, we can see it as an opportunity to explore the practice more deeply. For example:
1) As we learn more about the particularity of the modern yoga tradition, the rich diversity of its pre-modern precursors becomes more apparent. Believing in an eternal, unchanging tradition flattens out the many fascinating, provocative, and potentially important alternatives to contemporary practice that a more accurate reading of yoga history reveals.
2) Dissatisfaction with the guru-based lineage model can be channeled into a commitment to developing new ways of training teachers and transmitting the practice that are better suited to our society today. As more people start to see that both yoga gurus and yogilebrities often generate the same sort of problematic interpersonal dynamics, there is more interest in investigating the psychology of the teacher-student relationship, and developing healthier and more empowering alternatives.
3) Opening up the discussion of yoga injuries creates new incentives to investigate different varieties of modern asana practice in more depth, and make them safer and more effective. Once yoga teachers are freed from the myth that asana should be timeless, unchanging, and foolproof, they are free to change and refine methods based on concrete feedback regarding what works well for whom, under what conditions, and for what ends.
4) Critiquing the standardized model of the “yoga body” empowers practitioners to develop new ways of visually representing yoga, and new methods of body-positive teaching and practice. Seeing the contradiction between selling yoga using images favored by the diet- and beauty-industries and teaching it as a means of holistic health and empowerment raises critically important questions of how best to adopt a body-centered practice to speak to the needs and concerns of a body-shaming society.
5) Giving up the belief that there’s only one authentic form of yoga invites us to reflect on what’s really important to us about it and why. If the yoga tradition is understood to be multi-vocal and ever-changing, then the criteria for authenticity must shift away from an imaginary ideal rooted somewhere long ago and far away, and toward an investigation of what constitutes a meaningful practice right here and now.
Of course, what’s meaningful for different practitioners is going to vary tremendously. Still, simply sharing a sense that yoga can be meaningful – that it can offer more than stretching and stress relief, that there’s a deeper tradition to carry forward – can create a vital sense of connection. The trick is keeping that common ground open and vibrant without lapsing into division and conflict. This isn’t easy, as it’s high stakes territory. Nonetheless, with practice, it can be done.
When you stop to think about it, there’s a strange silence surrounding the question of the intersection of yoga and feminism. After all, yoga has been hugely popular for years now. As everyone knows, women overwhelmingly dominate the practice. Yoga is also widely seen as a means of self-empowerment and consciousness raising. Consequently, it seems that the subject of yoga and feminism should occupy at least some little corner of yoga culture. In almost 20 years of involvement in the yoga community, however, it’s remarkable how rarely I’ve even heard it mentioned.
Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule. I’m proud to say that one, Melanie Klein’s essay on “How Yoga Makes You Pretty,” appears in my co-edited book, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. I also love Janice Gates’ beautiful book, Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. And just last week, there was an interesting article making the social media rounds, asking “Is Your Yoga Studio Feminism Free?” Such questioning and discussion, however, doesn’t happen often. And, it never seems to generate much momentum on the rare occasions it does.
The Sounds of Silence
Why is this? One obvious reason is that feminism can be an intimidating subject to discuss (at least if you’re not in feminist circles to begin with). Passions run high and divisions run deep. Many people don’t want to risk inadvertently offending someone and being blindsided by a negative reaction. It seems safer to stay quiet.
This is particularly true given the fact that the yoga community encompasses a wide range of political and cultural orientations. And, a key reason that people practice yoga is for stress relief and greater peace of mind. Generally speaking, bringing up controversial topics isn’t helpful on either count.
Yet the issues are important, and burying them under a blanket of silence doesn’t make them go away. As anyone who’s experienced emotional releases and/or psychological shifts through yoga knows, over time the practice connects us to core issues of the self (if we’re open to it). Feminism is one important discourse that does the same. And for women in particular, it raises critical issues of identity and meaning that will inevitably affect us – whether we consciously choose to grapple with them or not.
Ideally, the yoga community could be a safe space in which to explore such issues with a relatively high degree of honesty and openness. Yoga practice involves learning how to acknowledge and work with our emotions, rather than being swept away by them. In theory, a community of dedicated practitioners could be an ideal space to work through challenging issues of politics, culture, and identity together. In practice, however, this seldom seems to be the case.
There are signs this may be starting to change. If so, I believe that the shift toward discussing issues such as yoga and feminism needs to be nurtured carefully. There’s a real danger of muddying up what is for many a safe space for personal exploration with political division and supercharged rhetoric. On the other hand, there’s also a very real set of problems that comes with shutting down any consideration of a huge set of issues that matters enormously to women (and, by extension, everyone) today.
Navigating the difficult course between maintaining silence on challenging questions, on the one hand, and allowing the divisions they carry to cause harm, on the other, requires an agreement that working with them is part of the practice. Holding the space necessary to explore such issues isn’t easy. So, part of the process of opening up more discussion must be agreeing on common ground rules intended to maintain safety. Ideally, however, we can aim higher, setting our sights on co-creating a shared community experience of learning, discovery, and growth.
Personally, I’m not a fan of essentialist conceptions of “the sacred feminine,” or dualistic discussions of “masculine versus feminine” traits. I’m more interested in the complex intersections of race, class, gender, identity, and culture, and how they manifest in particular historical contexts. So, the following reflections on the relationship between yoga culture and feminist values are only meant to communicate my experience of the practice in the U.S. during the last 15 years or so.
I hope, however, that these reflections might be useful in sparking further conversation on the intersection of yoga and feminism in North America today. Particularly given today’s disturbingly high levels of neurosis and dysfunction surrounding issues of body image – particularly, although not exclusively, with regard to female bodies – I feel that it’s a much-needed discussion. In my view, it’s past time to reclaim yoga as a practice that connects us with our bodily experience on an internal, emotional, and subtle level. This requires rebelling against messages telling us to harness it to the project of mimicking an externally-defined “yoga body.”
Doing this requires being more discerning about how yoga is currently being taught, experienced, and practiced. It means considering not simply the method and format (vigorous or gentle, music or no music, gym or studio), but the deeper intention threading through all such surface differences. It also requires considering the level of skill needed for teachers to manifest such intentions in practice. Desiring to create a safe space for students, for example, isn’t enough by itself. Teachers need to invest in the self-study and professional development needed to transform good intentions into lived experience.
Feminism and Yoga: Positive Intersections
There are a lot of well-deserved worries about the over-commercialization of yoga and the under-preparation of many teachers today. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize and celebrate some of the many ways in which yoga today offers untold numbers of people a profoundly healing, and potentially liberating practice. Here’s a few positives – all of which I see as informed by feminist values – that I’ve regularly experienced:
1) Creating and holding safe space. In today’s hyper-competitive, aggressively individualistic society, the commitment to creating and holding safe space for people to engage collectively in a mind-body-spirit practice embodies feminist values. It is an ethical, and even sacred practice.
2) Engaging passionately with the physical plane of existence. Traditionally, many cultures (both Eastern and Western) have denigrated the body, the earth, and the physical plane of existence in general as inferior to the realms of mind, spirit, and the (real or imagined) realm of the metaphysical. At the same time, the bodily and earthly were associated with the “feminine” and the spiritual and metaphysical with the “masculine.” In terms of cultural history, asserting the value of the body, earth, and physical realm is profoundly feminist.
3) Harnessing the power of asana for emotional exploration and healing. In keeping with the denigration of the bodily and earthy, the realm of the emotions has traditionally been dismissed as “weak” and “feminine.” Even in its modern incarnation, asana practice was not designed to work intimately with the emotional realm until female teachers such as Ana Forrest targeted and developed this dimension of the practice.
4) Claiming the freedom to work intensively with our bodies in a shared space without worrying about others’ sexual agendas. Again, many traditional societies, both Eastern and Western, have maintained rigid controls over women’s bodies. Creating a network of shared public spaces in which women can work intensively and intimately with their bodies and minds – while wearing revealing clothing designed to facilitate freedom of movement – is in many ways a revolutionary cultural development.
5) Cultivating compassion for self and other. Again, today’s hyper-competitive, aggressively individualistic society devalues compassion as weak and overly indulgent – slurs that have been traditionally associated with the feminine. Practices that cultivate the capacity to embody compassion for our selves, each other, and the world play a critical role in the transmission of an important set of alternative values that are completely compatible with feminism.
Blind Spots, Dead Ends, and New Possibilities
If much of contemporary yoga culture embodies important (if generally unacknowledged) feminist values, many aspects of run counter to (my understanding of) them, as well. In the interests of being even-handed, here’s a list of my top five problem areas in this regard:
1) Endlessly chasing after an imaginary ideal of individual “health, beauty, and fitness.” Health and fitness are vital to quality of life and well worth working very hard to achieve and maintain. And beauty is a blessing. But a never-ending chase after them that disconnects us from others and rejects the realities of aging, illness, and death is unhealthy and ultimately self-defeating.
2) Embracing infantilizing images that depict femininity as an eternal state of happy and innocent little-girlhood. It seems that some unspoken norm has developed that insists that women appear nice, happy, and unthreatening at all times – a pastel-colored whitewashing of the real multi-dimensionality of women’s experience. This is rampant in contemporary yoga culture, and not just in commercial images, either (witness Pinterest and Instagram). (Note: Despite my recent rapprochement with Lululemon, I have long seen them as a primary offender in this regard. I hope their imagery changes, and soon.)
3) Using passive-aggressive techniques to control others while maintaining a “nice” façade. The classic one in this regard is an aggressive insistence on the supreme value of “non-judgment.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen it used to shame and shut down voices expressing ideas that make some “non-judgmental” overseer uncomfortable, I’d be rich.
4) Engaging in self-censorship out of fear of not being “nice” enough. Although the problem of silencing one’s authentic voice out of fear is certainly not limited to women, the dynamics by which this happens are often gender-specific. Female self-censorship fits the pattern of unhealthy obsession over an imaginary health-beauty-fitness ideal and internalization of infantilizing imagery mentioned above. Personalities that are less prone to passive-aggressive manipulation may instead maintain the “nice” façade simply by repressing any aspects of themselves that they fear may rock the boat.
5) Retreating into an isolated “yoga bubble” as a means of escaping from the world – and the authentic self. The more that yoga is sold as a means of entering into a pristine, pastel-colored bubble that will protect us from the world, the more it distances us from our authentic selves, which are connected with all that is. Although this is the opposite of what yoga is really about, it’s a seductive fantasy to buy into during the extraordinarily stressful times that we’re all living through today.
Perhaps ironically, I feel that many the above problems could be solved by injecting a good dose of what have traditionally been considered “masculine” traits into today’s highly feminized yoga culture. Specifically:
- more critical thinking,
- more value placed on assertion of the authentic, creative self,
- more willingness to deal openly with conflict, and
- more value placed on confronting the challenges of the world.
Ultimately, I believe that we are all better served by embodying a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” traits, and refusing to let ourselves be limited or defined by either. The richness of human experience extends beyond any such neat categories and dualistic pairings. Nonetheless, reflecting on how and why feminism matters in yoga and in our lives remains a much-needed, and potentially revolutionary praxis.
If you had told me a few weeks ago that I’d soon be spending a weekend in NYC as a panelist at a Yoga Journal conference event along with Seane Corn and the CEO of Lululemon (among others), I’d have laughed and said you were crazy. And if you had nonetheless insisted on going on and telling me that not only would I be part of this event, but that doing it would radically reorient my feelings toward Lululemon – a company that I’ve long had a visceral aversion to – I’d have felt worried.
Why? Because the first thing that jumps to mind in such a scenario is a simple equation: Struggling yoga writer + unexpected corporate support = co-optation. And I’ve poured far too much of my mind, heart, and soul (not to mention, family finances) into my yoga madness to want to entertain that possibility. (Rationally, however, I remain well aware of the power of that basic formula, and that it happens all the time.)
Nonetheless, I want to take ownership of the fact that participating in the “Practice of Leadership” panel last Saturday has left me with a much more positive feeling toward Lululemon than I would have ever expected. And I’m OK with that. I’m willing to change my views as circumstances alter. And it seems to me that both Lululemon and the larger North American yoga culture that it’s a part of are changing – fast.
Times of rapid change create new openings. Could interested members of the yoga community step up to work proactively with the new possibilities being generated? Might this time offer an opportunity to (among other things) dialog with Lululemon about how best to shift the collective energies generated by yoga and yoga-based businesses in more socially conscious, positive directions?
I don’t know. But I think it’s worth a try. And from what I understand, the leadership of Off the Mat, Into the World, which organized the “Practice of Leadership” event, shares this perspective. If we want to leverage such a paradigm shift, however, we need all the support we can get. That means that if you care about how yoga interfaces with the world of which we’re a part, we need you (if you’re interested).
Cynics and skeptics may well ask: How the hell can a corporation known for lionizing Ayn Rand, defending child labor, and fat-shaming women possibly contribute anything worthwhile to yoga, let alone positive social change? Certainly, something like this would have been the first question to pop into my mind until quite recently, when I started researching the company more thoroughly in preparation for the panel.
Now, however, I’d say that while this is a legitimate question, it’s based on incomplete information. Because what I discovered in prepping for the panel is that such an uncompromisingly hostile orientation toward the company is unfair. Which is not to say that it’s entirely wrong, or that the many of the criticisms that have been made of Lululemon aren’t warranted. They are. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the entirety of the situation is (as is often the case) more complex and multi-dimensional than any such simplistic all-bad (or, for that matter, all-good) assessments allow.
I like to research issues that I’m interested in. This is not only my personality, but what I’ve been trained in and practiced professionally for many years. So, when I was (much to my shock) invited to be on this panel to discuss “corporate responsibility and spiritual values” with Lululemon execs and others, I started doing research to prepare.
My research progressed on several fronts: 1) studying the company website, 2) reading relevant news and blog coverage, 3) upping my knowledge of labor and environmental issues in the international apparel industry, and 4) last but not least, reaching out to a number of yoga teachers and studio owners I know personally who’ve been (and in some cases, remain) involved with Lululemon as Ambassadors or studio partners.
What I learned was extremely interesting – and, for me, paradigm shifting.
In a nutshell, I found that while research strategies #1-3 tended to reinforce my negative perceptions of the company, the personal feedback provided by #4 did not. Instead, I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of receiving some passionate testimonials about how great a company Lulu is – at least on the local level – from people who I not only like, but hold in high esteem for their intelligence, hard work, and commitment to contributing meaningfully to both the yoga community and the world.
For example, one woman who I have the highest regard for shared the following feelings about squaring her personal experience with Lululemon with its recent corporate fiascos:
I haven’t spoken publicly about it because my experiences are mostly personal. But I have experienced the people who work at Lululemon to be extremely, almost over-the-top supportive, and with no personal or corporate gain. No other company or organization (including yoga studios), in my experience, goes out of their way to make a personal connection with the community (in and out of their store), to create community experiences that people remember (whether that’s large yoga events, a weekly free fitness experience, or just making a personal connection at the store and genuinely caring about a person).
Their culture is very unique. The comments that are associated with the founder – I don’t know that that’s the common mindset throughout the company. At least it’s not the mindset that I’ve gotten, and have just chosen to ignore it because it’s inconsistent with my experience . . . I realize that there is a bigger corporate culture and corporate system, but I would say that my experience at the local level is uniquely and extraordinarily positive.
I have the ultimate respect for the way that they support their staff and team members to set and reach goals in their lives. What other kind of community, whether professional, religious, or social does that? I think the people who I’ve known who work there get farther in their lives than some yoga teachers due to this support system. I’ve never walked into a situation where people I’ve just met have been so generous to help with a project or networking, or taking on your particular project as if it’s their own as they have at Lululemon. And that is what I associate with the company and the brand.
In a personal conversation I had with someone on the regional level, it sounds like they’re not too happy when they hear those comments from their CEO. They worked very hard to create their quality of culture, which is what I personally have experienced and associate with the brand. When I hear people boycotting the brand, I take a stand too, and support my local Lululemon stores knowing that I support the jobs of these individuals.
To be sure, not every response I received was so passionately pro-Lulu. But none were strongly negative, either. One woman, for example, was alienated by the company’s mandatory “goal setting” exercises, and felt that they couldn’t understand – let alone respect – why she refused to participate. Nonetheless, she had none of the vitriol against the company evidenced by many others who’ve commented on it publicly. In all cases, having personal dealings with the company at the local level dramatically tempered whatever negative feelings were held toward its corporate policies and/or the controversial statements made by founder and ex-CEO Chip Wilson.
While hardly a scientific survey, the consistent line that threaded through the various personal reflections on the company I collected was that there were a lot of really kind, well intentioned, and supportive people working in their local Lululemon store. No one was happy with Wilson’s offensive comments. One woman said that they made her feel “ashamed” to be an Ambassador. Most, however, reported that much as they disliked the messages coming out of HQ, they chose to ignore them because they were so incongruent with their exceptionally positive experience with the company on the local level.
I try to listen to other people’s experiences and take them seriously, even – and in some cases, especially – when they’re incongruent with mine. In this case, the fact that I had previously had no personal experience whatsoever with Lululemon other than reading about it and walking into some random store a few times (I don’t own any of their clothing) made me feel that it was particularly important to listen carefully to the perspectives of others who have been directly involved. Doing so changed my perspective on the company, causing me to believe that there was a surprising disjuncture between what has been happening on the ground with many (perhaps most?) local stores, and what we’ve seen coming out of national headquarters.
My perspective shifted further as I had the (entirely unexpected) opportunity to talk with several company executives, both as a part of the panel and in one case, over coffee in Chicago. I had expected “the corporate brass” to be arrogant, smug in their taken-for-granted social position, and disdainful of all but the most elite sectors of the yoga community. My experience, however, proved this negative projection wrong. Much like my friends who had had positive experiences with store employees at the local level, I’ve found the Lulu execs that I’ve interacted with to be unpretentious, respectful, intelligent, likeable, and good listeners. In short, my gut level sense is that I like these people.
I think it’s worth noting that many people who share my own left-of-center political orientation tend to unreflectively dehumanize (and therefore demonize) many, if not most individuals who work in the corporate sector as stooges of a monolithically evil system of global capitalism. Without digressing into a dissertation on 21st century political economy, I’ll just say that in this case, I believe such projections are not only unwarranted, but unproductive.
Lululemon has an exceptionally good base of local level operations to build on. They have new leadership at headquarters, including a CEO known for his commitment to corporate responsibility. They are willing to dialog with interested voices in the yoga community, including outspoken progressives such as Seane Corn. So, why shouldn’t those of us who care about social issues try and work with them to shift the company – and the larger yoga culture that it’s part of – in a more consistently positive direction?
Personally, I feel like this is an opportune moment to explore the possibility of win/win/win scenarios that might be good for both Lululemon, the yoga community, and the world.
To skeptics and cynics, this will undoubtedly sound like deluded idealism at best. That’s OK. Bring on your critical commentary and incisive questions. (Just be civil about it.) We need such perspectives to keep any potential initiative from falling into meaningless rhetoric and/or PR fluff.
To staunch loyalists who love the brand and can’t understand why so many people have problems with it – do your own research, and reconsider. To those who simply want to focus on their own practice and aren’t interested in related social issues – that’s OK, maybe later.
But for those who are curious about what concrete steps might be taken to leverage some potential win/win/win paradigm shifts, I have a few suggestions. Obviously, I’m not a business consultant, so they may be full of holes I don’t see. That’s one reason why we need a growing conversation – to get more, and perhaps better ideas on the table.
Another reason is that even if nothing remotely like what I envision ever transpires at Lululemon, simply getting the yoga community more engaged with questions of corporate – not to mention, consumer and civic – responsibility will be a tremendously positive change, in and of itself. After all, if and when a solid level of interest in these issues is generated, if Lululemon proves impossible to work with, we can move on to greener pastures.
Here a few paradigm shifts that (best case scenario) I can realistically imagine happening within the next five years:
1) Transforming the “Yoga Body.” The dominant cultural understanding of the “yoga body” could shift from that of a young, thin, beautiful, bendy white woman to one that includes a diverse array of ages, body types, genders, races, and ethnicities – all united by a shared experience of working with the body/mind through asana to discover new resources for healing, transformation, and liberation. In the process, the default orientation of yoga newbies could shift from one of inadequacy (“I’m too fat/old/inflexible/etc. to do yoga”) to one of open possibility (“What’s special about yoga is that it adapts to work with every body.”)
Lululemon (along with other corporations, studios, and even individual yoga teachers) could leverage this change by strategically selecting the images used to represent yoga so that they’re as inclusive as possible. At the same time, they/we could chose to work with photographers and designers who are skilled at crafting images of yoga that illuminate the inner experience of the practice. Shifting the “inspirational” element of yoga photography away from its current fixation on gymnastic-style advanced asanas and toward the practice’s ability to revitalize the life force within would make it appear much more accessible and meaningful. Given that successfully doing this would actually widen the market for yoga, it’s not an unreasonable commitment to make from a business perspective. And, having more people feel less intimated by (or even excluded from) yoga would be good for the yoga community, and the world.
2) Improving Labor and Environmental Standards in Yoga-Related Industries. This would be a far tougher shift than changing the public image of yoga. In my opinion, however, it’s a substantially more important one to make. Why? Because it has the potential to positively impact the lives of untold numbers of people who don’t share the social privileges of the average North American yoga practitioner. If we care about being socially conscious, then the circle of our concern needs to widen to include those outside of our own particular communities, and even nations.
These are complex issues and would require a separate post of their own to even begin to unpack adequately. That said, imagine a scenario in which yoga clothing manufacture becomes known as a sector of the apparel industry that’s leading the way in terms of progressive labor and environmental practices. This would give “yogic values” some relevant cultural meaning in an age of global corporate capitalism.
What would encourage companies like Lululemon to invest in upping their game in this notoriously difficult to navigate arena? That’s easy: Demand from their customer base. “We” can’t ask “them” to do the hard work required for no reason other than their own socially responsible values – because even if top execs hold them, they’re still responsible to company shareholders. In order for the company to invest more resources in improving labor and environmental standards, shareholders need to see that the yoga community cares about how the clothes we practice in are manufactured – and that we’re paying attention to what different companies are doing. The more that this happens, the more there will be compelling business reasons to orient the company’s branding, reputation, and investments in such socially responsible directions.
3) Integrating Personal Growth and Professional Development with Social Awareness. The yoga community is heavily into “personal growth,” and from what I know, Lululemon shares this orientation so much that it’s part of their professional development program. The most notorious element of this commitment is, of course, the company’s investment in sending employees who’ve been with the company a year to Landmark Forum. Bracketing all of the (in my mind, well deserved) controversy surrounding Landmark, I think it’s safe to say that this type of training is one that focuses very much on the individual and personal, and very little, if at all, in the social, cultural, political, and economic realms.
Yet if a company (or an individual) wants to become more socially responsible, it stands to reason that they actually have to know something about the society of which they’re a part. And in today’s highly complex and rapidly changing world, this requires education and training. What if programs designed to explore yoga’s social position, and real and potential relevance in our society (and the world) became an optional component of Lululemon’s professional development training? For example, employees might be given the option to do their one-year company training either at Landmark, OTM, or the Leading Change Network. This could have incredible ripple effects not only throughout the company, but the yoga community and, by extension, society at large.
4) Connecting Local Community Building to the Yoga Service Movement. As noted above, Lululemon’s exceptional strength as a company (beyond their product line) seems to be their track record in creating a strong sense of community centered around their local stores. While I don’t know the details, my understanding is that each store has considerable discretion in terms of envisioning what that looks like and how best to pursue it. While this sort of decentralization is great in many ways, it doesn’t generate a shared vision or strategy when it comes to supporting positive work in the world that goes beyond the immediate task of helping the company’s chosen Ambassadors and studio partners.
What if local store managers were regularly briefed on important developments in the rapidly expanding world of yoga service and outreach (i.e., bringing yoga to nontraditional setting such as community health clinics, low-income schools, prisons, V.A. hospitals, mental health centers, etc.)? And, what if they were given concrete strategies for reaching out to local yoga teachers engaged in this work, in order to better support and connect them to other parts of the local community?
Such a paradigm shift wouldn’t require significant corporate restructuring or reallocation of resources. Rather, it would simply require working with what’s already in place more deliberately and strategically. This could be a “win” for the company in terms of branding, morale, and corporate culture. It could also be a “win” for the local yoga community by integrating its “mainstream” and “service” components, which almost certainly have much to offer each other. And, most importantly, it could be a “win” for the larger community, which, at least in most places in the U.S., will include many people who would love to access yoga’s healing capacities, but lack the means to attend classes.
While these ideas are ambitious, I don’t believe they’re unrealistic or out of reach. That said, realizing them (or anything similar) demands collaboration and synergy, with the yoga community and yoga-based businesses working together to leverage change. While this is a good time to focus on Lululemon, there’s no reason that the conversation needs to stop there. Rather, the initiative launched by the “Practice of Leadership” event can and should be an opportunity to spark an ongoing dialog about how best to realize the potential of yoga to be a powerful force for healing, justice, and liberation in our troubled and divided world.
To receive updates on the ongoing “Practice of Leadership” series from Yoga Journal LIVE!, click here.
Yoga and mindfulness have grown exponentially more popular in the U.S. in recent years. As a dedicated yoga practitioner, I’m naturally inclined to see this a positive and even important development. Yet when I consider that the growing popularity of these practices has been paralleled by an expansion of economic inequality, social insecurity, political dysfunction, ethical corruption, cultural division, and environmental devastation, I have to wonder. As a social scientist, I can’t help but ask myself such troubling questions as: Is there some sort of correlation, or even cause-and-effect interaction, between these two trends?
Put differently, I find myself wondering whether the reason that yoga and mindfulness have become so popular is that they offer an effective means of coping with an increasingly dysfunctional society. And, if that’s really the core reason that they’ve become so widespread, are there good reasons to see that as a problem?
Perhaps not. Personally, I’m not against coping mechanisms. On the contrary, I regularly use yoga and meditation as means of coping with stress myself, and am thankful to have those resources in my life toolbox.
What concerns me, however, is the possibility that these practices have become so bound up with the dominant culture that they’re becoming tools for training people to cope with excessively high levels of stress, while at the same time tacitly teaching them to ignore, deny, accept, or even perpetuate the ideas and practices that are causing this stress in the first place.
To the extent this is true, it means that practices designed to help us to wake up to the world so that we can live more meaningful lives are being turned into tools that enable us to sleepwalk through the difficult realities of our time without truly seeing, let alone confronting them.
By and large, I don’t think we’re there yet. But I do see worrying signs that we may be moving in this direction. If so, that’s certainly a problem. Because what’s needed in this time of growing national dysfunction and global crisis is to harness the creative powers of yoga and mindfulness for positive transformation – not to turn them into coping mechanisms that passively support, or even actively perpetuate the status quo.
From Margins to Mainstream
Yoga and mindfulness have moved from the scruffy, vaguely disreputable social margins into the spiffy, elite-sanctioned cultural mainstream. Despite the protests of religious fundamentalists, the cultural profiles of yoga and mindfulness have been scrubbed squeaky clean. (“Mindfulness,” of course, itself being a recent American reinvention of Buddhist meditation practices.) This is good in that it makes these beneficial and potentially even transformative practices accessible to a much bigger percentage of the population. It’s problematic, however, to the extent that this gain in accessibility entails a loss of greater possibility, meaning, and purpose.
This isn’t to suggest that I believe that the only legitimate reason to practice yoga or meditate is to “seek enlightenment” or something like that. I don’t (although I certainly have nothing against it, either). On the contrary, I’m enthusiastic about the ways in which these practices have been adapted to help people with everyday, pragmatic concerns of physical and psychological health and well-being.
I do believe, however, that such practical issues should remain embedded in a larger framework of meaning and practice that offers much more. And, I feel that until recently, this was usually the case. Back in the mid-90s when I first started taking yoga classes, for example, I told myself that I was only in it for the stretching. Still, I was aware that yoga had blossomed in the U.S. back when I was a kid as part of a counter-cultural movement full of visionary, ambitious agendas.
So, I wasn’t surprised to find my yoga classes being taught by post-hippieish types who regularly said odd things, floating ideas that seemed culturally foreign, but substantively deep. On the contrary, since it was yoga and not step aerobics, I expected it. It was part of the package deal: stretching, plus some odd stuff that I didn’t (yet) understand.
Of course, it remains true today that yoga teachers are expected to throw in little nuggets of information that make their classes seem different from other exercise classes. But my sense is that this has become much more formulaic. And, the substance often seems different as well.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the past. But I used to feel that my yoga teachers offered me a glimpse into a very different, and decidedly non-mainstream set of ideas, practices, and values. Now, while I don’t go to that many new classes, I regularly read writing by yoga teachers whose perspective seems tailor-made to encourage students to embrace the status quo without question. “Everything is perfect just as it is.” “Don’t be judgmental.” “Think only positive thoughts.” And so forth and so on.
The underlying message seems to be that if you see any problems in the world, you’re being overly negative. And if you experience any problems yourself, it’s your own fault.
I’m all in favor of taking responsibility for one’s own life choices, and facing the world with as much positivity as we can muster. But it seems pretty obvious that these values only really become meaningful when they’re placed in a bigger context that recognizes the enormous challenges of our world.
Remaining positive in the face of tragedy is courageous. Enforcing positivity by practicing denial is dysfunctional. They’re not the same thing, at all.
Mindfulness or Mind Control?
It may seem silly to take such New Age platitudes as “everything is perfect as it is” seriously. But my concern is that to the extent they’re advocated in conjunction with practices that teach you how to direct your attention and control your mind, they can become a form of self-induced brainwashing that keeps practitioners literally tuned out.
This may seem hyperbolic, particularly when it comes to yoga. Even though it’s constantly referenced as a “mind-body” practice, most people assume that it’s really only the body that’s affected by asana. However, if you believe that there really is a mind-body connection, and that even a reasonably well-instructed asana class is designed to spark it, then it becomes clear that the “mind” aspect is worth taking seriously as well.
Concerns about mind control, however, are much easier to apply directly to mindfulness – which, after all, focuses more or less exclusively on the mind. Consider, for example, this report on recent developments in the mindfulness field from yesterday’s New York Times:
Two and a half millenniums ago, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, and began to meditate beneath a tree. Forty-nine days of continuous meditation later, tradition tells us, he became the Buddha — the enlightened one.
More recently, a psychologist named Amishi Jha traveled to Hawaii to train United States Marines to use the same technique for shorter sessions to achieve a much different purpose: mental resilience in a war zone.
“We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory – that is, the added ability to pay attention over time – stable,” said Jha, director of the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. “If they practiced less than 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded in their functioning.”
The article goes on to explain that despite such stellar results, there may be a fly in the ointment: Too much laser-like mental focus may block creative problem-solving. Therefore, the author concluded, we need to learn how to make our minds focus or wander at will in order to maximize desired results.
I hope it’s obvious what’s missing here. The troubling implications of having mindfulness techniques scientifically honed to train minds to maximize efficiency in performing whatever social roles they’ve been assigned aren’t even flagged – let alone, explored.
Personally, I find such nonchalance about harnessing the power of mindfulness to whatever socially utilitarian purpose the Pentagon (or whoever or whatever) prefers to be creepy. It seems pretty obvious that training people in efficient techniques of self-induced mind control isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Yet because there are a lot of warm, fuzzy, positive connotations surrounding anything having to do with yoga and mindfulness, the negative possibilities of this often don’t even appear on the radar screen.
Yoga and meditation practices were traditionally rooted in a commitment to liberation. And, there were widely shared frames of cultural meaning, as well as well-established sets of social practices, that supported this vision. In the U.S. today, however, we lack such historically-rooted bases for these practices. And, in our effort to make them widely accessible and pragmatically useful, we’re increasingly divorcing them from ideas and practices that might create discomfort by causing us to question the status quo.
Of course, this sort of super-aggressive acculturation is only one dimension of a much wider field of practice, which encompasses many different ideas, commitments, and directions. But, it does seem to be growing. (Amishi Jha, the psychologist who’s working with the Marines, for example, reports that the word “meditation” only started to become acceptable in her field in 2005. Now, she has a $1.7 million grant from the Defense Department.)
I don’t think it’s worth trying to stop this trend, which seems inexorable. But, I hope that there’s more and more work that counterbalances it. Yoga and mindfulness can be powerful practices. As much as possible, I’d to see the commitments to integration, transformation, and liberation they traditionally embodied be reanimated in ways that are meaningful not only for individual practitioners, but for our society and the world at large. We can harness the power of our minds to move in many possible directions. Let’s challenge ourselves to choose meaningful ones.
I first realized I had a yoga history problem back when I was pitching my ideas for what eventually became Yoga Ph.D. to literary agents. My book proposal had gotten some bites, which was exciting. But business-savvy agents weren’t necessarily taken with all of my yoga writer enthusiasms.
“Take all the history out,” one well-established agent instructed. “No one cares about yoga history. Put in more about celebrities, instead.”
I sat on the other end of the phone mulling over how best to respond when she delivered the coup de grace. “Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history,” she added in no uncertain terms.
Now I really felt knocked off balance. Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history? Is that true? I didn’t know and there was no way to find out, conclusively.
From a purely commercial standpoint, however, I believed that this woman knew what she was talking about. After all, she had successfully marketed a number of books on yoga and related topics. I hadn’t . . . and suspected that it wouldn’t be my forte, either.
So, I was faced an unpleasant decision. Take out the history, put in the celebrities, and land this agent? Or stay stubbornly independent – keeping the history, forgetting the celebrities – and lose potentially valuable support?
I chose the latter course, which was almost certainly foolish from a financial standpoint. Without question, however, it made writing the (subsequently non-agented) book more meaningful to me personally. I was interested in yoga history then, and remain so today. Yet in some ways, that interest continues to cause me problems.
Certain problems, of course, are not bad ones to have. For example, you might have the “problem” of desiring more spiritual fulfillment in your life. From a purely pedestrian perspective, this can be most inconvenient, and therefore a problem. From a bigger vantage point, however, it’s probably a very good thing
I believe that my yoga history problem is one of those (at least, most of the time I do). I find yoga history both compelling and vexing. Here’s why.
How to Sell History
I think it’s true that yoga history is never going to hit it big on the mass market. It seems way too abstract and removed from everyday life to matter to most people. I’ve observed, however, that certain takes on it can develop something of a cult following. And that’s another part of my yoga history problem: when people do get invested in it, it generally seems to be in ways that I don’t like.
Basically, the more yoga history is turned into a neatly packaged set of claims that supposedly offers “the answer” to the questions and difficulties of life, the more marketable it will be.
True, it may not reach as big a market as something like “yoga for weight loss.” But there’s always a substantial subset of people searching for a direct plugin to some mythic past. You know, back when the gods spoke directly to men (very rarely, it should be noted, to women). When the sages had it all figured out. When the timeless sacred texts were written. When the one true instruction manual for how to live life the right way was easily available.
In other words, if you can turn yoga history into some sort of pseudo-sacred commodity, it will be much easier to sell.
In Search of a “Usable Past”
I’m not making this critique to denigrate sacred texts or ancient knowledge. On the contrary, the more I know about yoga history, the more respect I have for the depth of spiritual, physical, psychological, and philosophical creativity and exploration it represents.
Nor is my rejection of prepackaged yoga history due to any lack of desire for what historians call a “usable past” that is, a set of historical referents that provides meaning, direction, and guidance for the present. Personally, I’d love to be able to connect my practice back to some sort of meaningful “yoga tradition.”
I am, however, hostile to anything that turns yoga history into a commodity. And I’ve seen that happen quite a bit.
Not too long ago, I listened to yet another popular yoga teacher spout off with perfect confidence about why his philosophy and method were perfectly aligned with “the” yoga tradition – and thus, of course, uniquely well-equipped to plug students back into the true fount of yogic wisdom.
Yet again, I looked on with a combination of irritation, resignation, and dismay as his claims were seemingly lapped up with relish by perhaps everyone present but me – although really, who’s to say? I can never tell what other people truly think in such situations because there’s never any real space provided for meaningful questions or discussion.
In these sorts of yoga lecture scenarios, it generally feels like it would be horribly rude, if not downright disruptive to break the frame of belief that’s just been so powerfully constructed. So I keep quiet – and suspect that at least some others do, too. There’s no way to know, because there’s never any open communication.
Part of my yoga history problem is that while I want a usable past, by and large I’ve found that popular yoga culture offers quite the opposite.
History as Creative Resource
The sort of neatly packaged yoga history that claims to deliver all the right answers if you’ll just buy it without question is the opposite of what I want – and believe we need. This is true for two reasons. First, it’s just factually wrong. Even a beginning-level knowledge of yoga history will reveal its enormous complexity and diversity. Any claims to have the “one right answer” represent ideology or religion, not history.
Second, it’s disempowering to be spoon-fed simplistic ideologies, whether yogic or otherwise. We grow stronger by working our minds as well as our bodies. It may feel more soothing in the short-run to have someone hand you a list of “right answers” to memorize. Sooner or later, however, it will be become impossible to hold onto them without engaging in damaging amounts of denial.
I want to engage with yoga history in a way that’s creative, open-ended, and conducive to life-long learning. I want to be able to use it as a resource that offers ideas and inspiration. I want it to spark my imagination. I want to learn about yoga history in ways that challenge me to open my mind, just as asana challenges me to open my body.
Working with yoga history in this way is not necessarily easy. As I’ve intensified my study of it over the past few years, I’ve found myself veering between highs of feeling excited about new insights, and lows of feeling discomforted, alienated, or just plain confused.
Either way, the more I learn, the less I feel I know. The subject is too vast to be thoroughly explored unless perhaps it’s your full-time occupation for years, if not decades. After all, we’re not only talking about thousands of years of history, but multiple schools of philosophical ideas and spiritual beliefs (and more besides).
While this can feel overwhelming, it’s certainly not boring. And it’s enlivening to feel tapped into a well of learning that’s too deep to run dry.
On the other hand, another part of my yoga history problem is that whatever I think I know, I also feel that my knowledge will remain inadequate. This is humbling. And sometimes, I don’t like that.
The Problem of Freedom
Then there’s the problem of connecting the past to the present. As anyone who’s been following the discussion knows, the explosion of the “yoga industry” has created a very new terrain and caused much consternation. It can be hard to see how yoga today links back to yoga as it was 20 years ago – let alone, 2,000.
I feel, however, that if engaging with yoga history could be reframed as part of the ongoing journey of yoga practice, it could become newly relevant. Rather than being sold as a neatly packaged commodity, yoga history could be taught as an opportunity to engage with a vast kaleidoscope of alternative, but interconnected ideas and practices in flexible, creative ways. Ideally, yoga history could then be seen as a way of expanding the meaning and depth of the practice, both individually and culturally.
But back to my yoga history problem: I’m not so naïve as to think that this vision of yoga history will sell, either. Without even a pretense of providing the “right answers” to big life questions and difficulties, how marketable can it be? Not very.
Re-narrating yoga history in ways that emphasize its complexity and diversity, while empowering practitioners to ask their own questions, identify their own commitments, and generally think for themselves, however, does offer one thing that’s always been central to the yoga tradition: Freedom.
Of course, freedom itself is a problem. Buying into a prefabricated belief system can provide a seductive sense of security. Freedom is inherently insecure. Many of want security, but crave freedom. We practice yoga to give us the courage to be more free.
It’s a good problem to have (at least, most of the time, I think so . . . )
I didn’t particularly want to read the entire Vanity Fair story on the Bikram rape cases. I’d read the online excerpt, and found it sordid and depressing. Why pursue it further? I wasn’t psyched to learn more about yet another yoga scandal whose horrific details make what had only recently seemed shocking (e.g., the Ansusara debacle) seem disconcertingly banal. Nonetheless, when I saw the magazine cover staring back at me in a supermarket checkout line, I decided to buy it. With a sinking feeling of morbid curiosity driven forward by the ingrained habits of a zealous researcher, I reluctantly shelled out my $4.99.
Still feeling like more negative news what not what I needed, I promptly read the article that evening. Already knowing the basic situation, it didn’t add anything really new: rather, it fleshed out the details of a system of psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse that had metastasized to the point of multiple cases of alleged criminal conduct. Nonetheless, reading it felt as emotionally deflating as I’d expected. My curiosity and sense of thoroughness had been satisfied. But that didn’t bring any satisfaction or pleasure. Rather, it left me feeling disturbed, dissatisfied, and distracted by yet another wave of negative feelings about yoga culture.
Return of the Repressed
I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like I’ve learned more than I want to know about the shadow side of yoga during the past two years. It’s peculiar to look back and recall how quickly things have changed. Only a short time ago, it felt like virtually any controversial, let alone disturbing information about yoga had somehow been censored from public view. Nothing but cloyingly positive affirmations of the transformative, beautifying, and bliss-inducing powers of yoga filled the air. A good number of people got fed up with the falsity of this pastel-colored discourse, however. Many started posting more honest commentary online. A new conversation opened up as the yoga blogosphere grew more and more robust.
As the world of yoga discourse expanded, however, more and more damaging information, as well as negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences started circulating. Talk about the return of the repressed! While mainly salutary, this newly opened pipeline of less-than-sunny yoga news also grew wearisome over time. At least, it did for me. (While I can’t speak for anyone else, my guess is that I’m not alone in my sense of critical exhaustion and outrage fatigue.) To be sure, I genuinely appreciated the new wave of honesty and openness, and had a good bit of critical commentary to add myself. But I hadn’t anticipated just how much disturbing information was out there to learn, or how I would feel once I’d learned it.
Of course, I also added to my own personal pile-on by digging up old stories that help put contemporary issues in a larger context (obsessive researcher drive, again). Much of what I found out didn’t reassure me: No, yoga scandals are not a new development. No, such problems are not confined to Western cultures. No, “traditional yoga” was not ethically purified, either.
I started to feel like I knew too much about the shadow side of yoga. My revulsion to what I’d learned started interfering with my practice. I found myself wondering if it might not make more sense to switch to sitting meditation combined with some alternative physical workout instead. I started to feel that much as I’ve enjoyed my own asana practice, I really didn’t like yoga culture very much. Perhaps it was time to consider a new direction. Perhaps I didn’t want to have that much to do with yoga, after all.
Not wanting to add to the negativity overload problem, I’ve avoided sharing these feelings up until now. Instead, I’ve been waiting for them to pass. The rational part of my brain reasoned that with time, I’d buck up to the fact that yoga (like the church, like politics, like everything else) has its share of corruption; get over my sense of disillusionment and revulsion; and move on to celebrate the dimensions of the practice that are meaningful to me. Logically, it seemed obvious that this was the mature thing to do.
It also seemed inevitable given that my nascent plans to drop asana practice never materialized. The fact of the matter is that nothing else makes me feel as good in body, mind, and spirit as yoga (to trot out what now seems like a tired cliché to my wearily jaded ears).
The problem, however, is that this weight of troubling knowledge – story after disturbing story of emotional manipulation, mind control, sexual harassment, and even rape – hasn’t fully lifted. It keeps gnawing at my mind. It’s like I’ve eaten something gnarly that I’m having a hard time psychically digesting. My litany of things I don’t like about yoga culture won’t shut up and go away. It’s like having a really annoying song stuck in your head. You don’t want to have it there on repeat. But try as you might, you can’t make it stop. Even when the volume’s turned down, if you listen closely, you can hear it faintly playing in the more distant corners of your psyche. And the longer it goes on, the more draining and enervating it feels.
A few days ago, however, I read a short post on Yogadork that inspired me to break my self-imposed silence. Basically, the post was a (polite) rant of irritation that the yoga blogosphere has been largely silent on the Bikram lawsuits, even now that a major magazine has published a feature article on it:
This Vanity Fair article on Bikram’s rape accusations hit the interwebs last week with, well, not much fanfare. Maybe it’s because it’s holiday time and no one wants to hear about it . . . or maybe it’s because we’re already desensitized to yoga scandals, especially ones involving Bikram Choudhury, to the point that it’s not news anymore.
Maybe it’s not news, but it should be. Because when the yoga community is all wrapped up in debating whether or not teachers can have sex with their students, there are some real injustices and seriously heinous crimes going down. In the past few years, five women have come forward and filed lawsuits against Bikram Choudhury, with charges of sexual harassment and rape.
I’m not saying you must have this on your mind 24/7, nor do you have to get on your soapbox or write a 3000 word dissertation making a case for either side, but ignoring it really isn’t a way to make progress either . . rape is NOT OK. Sexual harassment is NOT OK . . . if you ask me, avoiding the conversation, whether Bikram is guilty or not, is exactly what’s wrong with the wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light attitude that seems to pervade the yoga community.
BOOM. The author’s dismay at having five sets of sexual harassment and rape charges filed against one of the most successful yoga teachers of our time pass by without comment hit home. After all, I’d been following the story, but keeping silent about it too. Perhaps needless to say, that wasn’t because I was caught in some “wanderlusting, Rumi-quoting, all-encompassing love and light” vibe . . . on the contrary, it’s been precisely that combination of ungrounded, pseudo-childish lite-ness and creepy, sinister, Bikram sex scandal-style shadow that’s been making me feel like maybe I should distance myself from the yoga world altogether.
I do believe, however, that it’s possible to cross the flood of dark knowledge about the shadow side of yoga that’s been unleashed and come out stronger and wiser on the other side. Since I’m not giving up asana practice, I’m working on it. Hopefully, others out there doing the same. Maybe, a new synthesis is brewing that’s more mature, grounded, and real than what’s come before – an understanding that can openly recognize the shadow side of yoga, while working compassionately to balance it out with a stronger light.
Regardless, for me the only thing to do is to keep practicing anyway. At this moment, sharing my sense of dismay, disillusionment, and disorientation feels like part of my way of doing that. Because it doesn’t feel right to simply sweep multiple rape charges under the rug and move on to celebrate the joys of yoga. Even if it’s simply to bear witness to the heartbreak that so many have suffered, the reality of the problems that keep generating scandals needs to be acknowledged, in the yoga world as elsewhere.
Ideally, this will spur meaningful reform so that there are fewer such problems in the future. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, it’s important to do it anyway. At least, that’s my feeling. I’m curious to hear what others think.