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.