Yoga Trash Talk and Self-Righteous Crusading: Wasting Time While the World Burns

Copyleft Nina Paley mimiandeunice.com

Copyleft Nina Paley mimiandeunice.com

 

Several weeks ago, I found myself hanging out late one night after a meeting of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network, sharing thoughts about yoga and life with a diverse group of people. Some were friends, some were strangers. They were Black, White, and Asian; 20-somethings to 50-somethings; gay and straight; married, divorced, single; high school dropouts and Ph.D.s; raised in setting ranging from upper-middle class suburbia to low-income inner city Chicago. But we all shared the same passion for yoga, and for working with the practice in ways that uplift our selves, our communities, and the city we call home.

Talk turned toward how we apprehend the heart of our practice. Someone spoke reverentially of the Yoga Sutras. Another talked about how yoga made the Christianity he’d been raised with meaningful in ways it had never been before. One woman shared how her practice enabled her to connect to an independent sense of self beyond the socially prescribed roles of daughter, wife, and mother. Another shared her passion for helping people unplug from the incessant busy-ness of their everyday lives, and tap into their innate resources for insight, connection, and healing.

To me, this was the essence of yoga. There was no conflict or tension between the teacher who’d found meaning in the Yoga Sutras, and the one who’d rediscovered it in the Bible. We felt, we knew, that we were all on the same page.

This wasn’t something that had to be analyzed or proven. There was a sense of heart-felt, soul-felt connection. In my old church, we would have said that when the Spirit moves, it moves. And it was moving, and that was beautiful.

 

Meanwhile, in Social Media Land . . .

Meanwhile, on the Internet, I’ve been tracking a seemingly endless stream of ever-escalating vitriol about how horrible yoga in the West truly is. I wonder why people who dislike it so much stick with it nonetheless. I also wonder why it seems to be so impossible for them to find the positive experiences that I find so easy to access.

Of course, I understand the problems with shallow commercialization, commodification of the body, and thoughtless disregard for the depth of the yoga tradition that plagues yoga in America. I’ve written extensively about such issues myself. But in so doing, I’ve never sought to simply trash the practice. The reason for the critique was to uplift the deeper dimensions of yoga, not to denounce it. And by this, I mean that deeper dimensions that I’ve seen manifest in the unglamorous world of everyday life — not some imagined realm of yogic purity that only the select few can enter.

Online, however, I see a lot of full-throttle negativity about yoga. A dismaying amount of it seems to be driven by the zealous, perverse joy that can be found from feeling oh-so-superior to those being denounced. And there are so many juicy targets! All those pretty, bendy white women: obviously, shallow airheads. All those yoga teachers who market themselves and their classes: clearly, neo-liberal automatons and soulless sellouts. All those apostates who don’t hew to the proper line of “yogic” spirituality: certainly, colonialist exploiters and cultural appropriators. So many enemies; such a select club of those with real virtue!

In many cases, I suspect there’s some heavy psychological dynamics going on behind the bombastic posturing. My guess is that many of the passionate denunciations of yoga I’ve read have been fueled by some deep hope that was dashed. And, then, an even greater fear of setting one’s heart on something similar again. In other cases, resentment seems to play a central role.

Whatever may be driving it in individual cases, however, it seems that bashing yoga online has become quite a popular trend.

Yet on the ground, in the world of old-fashioned interpersonal interaction, I find very different dynamics playing out. Here in Chicago, I don’t run across the self-righteous yoga crusaders that I see so frequently online. On the contrary, I can easily think of many, many people in my local yoga community who I like and respect very much. I don’t see them wasting their time and energy denouncing each other, or the practice. I see them working hard and doing their best, often in pretty challenging circumstances.

 

Everyday Life

There are the owners of small studios who work endless hours for a pittance, striving with such heart to uplift their clients and support their communities. There are teachers who are pushing themselves to share the best of their practice with others, running themselves ragged going from gig to gig. There are volunteers who teach yoga in schools, jails, juvenile detention centers,  community centers, and other non-standard spaces all over the city.

Yoga is Chicago is also pretty diverse. I definitely see it taking off in the African American community on the South Side, where I live. I also know native-born Americans who have lived for years in India, and Indian-Americans who are passionately committed to improving our city. One Indian-American yoga teacher I know organized International Yoga Day here, featuring the two African American teachers who I  know are Christians, and one White woman who teaches Sanskrit and traditional Indian texts such as the Gita – often to Indian Americans who want learn more about their cultural heritage.

No one is calling each other out about how inappropriate it is for us to cross lines of race, religion, class, and education, and come together around our shared passion for yoga. The idea is absurd. We’ve got work to do. We believe that yoga and mindfulness can make an important contribution to our city. We know how high our murder rate is. We see yoga as our way to make a difference.

Not the only way; not the silver bullet. But valuable, nonetheless.

I’ve taught classes in Cook County Jail and offered trainings in upscale studios. Regardless of the setting, the quality and depth of human connection facilitated through a shared yoga practice has remained pretty much the same. True, I prefer the non-glitzy locations. In the fancier ones, I see more people whose interest in yoga seems to be driven more by their obsession with maintaining an illusion of control and pseudo-perfection than anything else. I find that dismaying. But I also see the desperation under the facade. And I certainly don’t condemn them.

Still, anyone who thinks that there aren’t people who have connected to something profoundly meaningful through yoga even in the most commercial of locations hasn’t been asking others about their experiences, and hasn’t been open to listening. I’ve asked. And listened, and learned from what I’ve heard.

What I’ve learned is that some people who can spout off the most arcane details about the Vedas or the Gita or the Tantras can be the most ego-driven and mean-spirited around. Conversely, there are some who can get more depth and meaning out of five minutes in Savasana in a run-of-the-mill class than others seem to acquire in years of ostentatious study and practice. Grace moves in mysterious ways.

 

No Time to Waste

The Internet can be a fantastic means of connecting with like-minded people, sharing valuable information, and encountering new ideas and perspectives. But, it can also suck us into an ersatz world that disconnects us from life on the ground. Anyone who learns about yoga exclusively from reading about it online could only conclude that it’s a pathetic business at best. If you want something better, however, it shouldn’t be all that hard to find — or, if necessary, create.

Of course, different places are different. I’m fortunate to live in a diverse and dynamic (if deeply troubled) city. Regardless, the fact is that I’m super-sick of all the negativity about yoga on the Web.

Five years ago, I remember feeling disgruntled that public discussion of yoga seemed locked into a gauzy pink bubble filled with hearts and rainbows and fake positivity. Well, that bubble has sure burst. And the proverbial pendulum has swung so far to the other side that it’s replicating the same imbalanced, ungrounded, inauthentic and unhelpful state, only this tine in determinedly negative, rather than stubbornly pseudo-positive, form.

That’s why I wasn’t all that surprised to read that the University of Ottowa had cancelled their free yoga class that served 60 students, including many with disabilities, due to a complaint that yoga in the West is a form of “cultural appropriation” that carries forward historic harms of “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy” (except, of course, when properly vetted and controlled by the self-appointed guardians of “authentic” yoga). Such a move is the logical extension of the sorts of blanket denunciations of yoga (and self-righteous assertions of purity and ownership) that I’ve seen online in recent years.

This entire phenomena strikes me as yet another example of how we human beings are horribly good at trashing the many gifts that we’ve been given. And yoga – and by that I mean the much-vilified “modern yoga,” yoga as we know it today in all of its multifaceted, confusing dimensions – is one such gift.

Consider T.K.V. Desikachar’s words on how his father, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, taught:

The purpose of my father’s erudition was not to preserve the past, but to serve the present and the future. The astonishing range and variety of his studies all combined toward a single end. This was to place the promise of Yoga at the service of humanity, without regard to age, sex, race, nationality, culture, station in life, belief, or nonbelief . . . My father was a celebrated healer in his own lifetime. This ability, too, owed much to his willingness to adapt past practices to present needs . . . He further proved the value of Yoga in sustaining a lucid, balanced mind in our distracting, stressful, and difficult societies. Toward these ends, he experimented and explored ways to refine Yogic techniques to fit the busy routines of modern life. Even the healing and sustaining powers of Yoga, however, were only a part of his mission. The true purpose of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was to bring Man into contact with something beyond himself, and far greater.

The words and concepts that we use to frame that experience of connecting with something greater than ourselves don’t matter. What matters is the connection, the experience, the learning, the healing, the evolution and the growth.

The world is in crisis. This isn’t the time to be endlessly bashing pretty yoga babes for being too commercial, or policing the Internet to bully those who aren’t hewing to your “right view” of the-one-and-only “authentic yoga.” This is a time to work with the resources we’ve been gifted to foster connection, healing, and growth. This is a time to fiercely assert a commitment to meaningful democratic values. This is a time to drop the petty squabbling and ego-tripping, and get down to the meaningful work of regenerating our selves and uplifting our communities. This is a time to stop the bullshit drama and get down to something real again.

 

Quote from K.V. Desikachar with R. H. Cravens, Health, Healing, and Beyond: Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya (New York: Aperture, 1998).

 


13 Comments

  1. You are walking a thin line here. Aren’t you writing a book with Matthew Remski that trash talks and crusades based on Singleton’s flawed theories?

    • chorton

      No, I am not writing a book with Matthew Remski. He was, however, a contributor to a 2012 book that I co-edited with Roseanne Harvey called “21st Century Yoga.” Regardless, why should my connection (or lack thereof) with Matthew determine how one reads this particular post?

  2. Thank you for this article, so clear, so true.

  3. Wonderful piece and so refreshing. I’m exhausted by all the yoga snobbery out there. Whatever gets people to dip a toe into the practice in some way, shape or form, pause and breathe is a good thing, whether they are wearing Lululemon or not. Thank you for this!

  4. Nina

    Yes! I am also super sick of all the negativity! Thanks, good article x

  5. Linda

    Please read to see how media misrepresentation played a role in the University of Ottawa situation. Otherwise, thank you for this.https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=998985310140932&id=239192692786868

    • yes. there were huge issues with how the U of O story was reported on. Matthew Remski has written a post about this here: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/yogagate-the-downward-dogwhistle-story/
      and also this: http://murkygreenwaters.com/2015/11/24/the-yoga-controversy-a-disabled-persons-response/

      • And I would argue that there is still room for critique about yoga. Yes, it’s unfortunate that some people trash talk it online. But that’s not what the U of O was doing–they were trying to have a nuanced and critical conversation about how to practice yoga respectfully, and the story got wildly misinterpreted. The fact that the world is in crisis does not preclude us from having critical conversations about yoga.

        • chorton

          I agree that there is plenty of room for critique! In fact, I am all for it. My issue is differentiating between constructive criticism and crusading denunciations and unbalanced negativity. They are obviously not the same thing, and it’s a critical (pun intended) difference 🙂

          I read Matthew’s Ottawa piece carefully, as well as the critique of it by Yar Pal. I actually do not think that Matthew’s post “set the record straight” at all – in fact, in several crucial respects, it was quite misleading. I also read the email “interview” exchange that he conducted with the yoga teacher whose class was cancelled (it was previously available on her blog), and found it extremely problematic. The questions were not fair, and her answers were not reported accurately.

  6. allise

    So many thankful thoughts to you, Carol, this morning. I truly hope that all yoga teachers and yoga classes can impart a welcoming, even secular, feeling. Free of dogma and free of the horrible oh-so-superior blap. It may even be time for the yoga teacher/studio to open the yoga spaces for people to practice With No Teacher 50% of the time. I know this is on offer in many studios, in a limited way. Maybe it’s time to allow ~~just the space more than not. Private one to one teaching as more normal, and group classes as pure joy.
    Dharma talks should be uplifting and referential to ‘something greater’ than ourselves, but not in such a way that people feel that the notion is somehow focused on a ‘personal diety’. Perhaps ‘social justice work’can be that which is greater than oneself, eh? The trick is: How to have everyone in the room comfortable. No onus from the front of the room.

  7. Natalie

    Thank you for blogging about substantive topics and sharing your experiences.

    People come to yoga with diverse motivations and experiences, and I think it’s important to validate that. Your story of the beautiful things you have encountered is wonderful and yes, refreshing. Maybe many people who do yoga are able to easily access positive experiences in a direct way and that’s fine. However, dark or negative experiences are not less worthy. Of course, writing mean things on the internet is not a constructive way to deal with complicated emotions or history, but personally I felt a surprising amount of judgment in an article critiquing self-righteousness. Profound positive experiences are good, just not gauzy pink or rainbow positivity. You don’t “condemn” the women in high-end studios who seem to struggle with a superficial (about control and perfection) relationship with yoga, but I think you somewhat deny the complexity and even universality of that experience. Yoga involves making particular shapes with the body and that’s hard. In a few instances you perpetuate the dynamic you are trying to critique but in a more subtle, measured, and perhaps insidious form.

    Loss, disappointment, and fear are valid and inevitable human experiences. We could agree that yoga has value in learning to work with challenging feelings (body/mind/breath) in ways that are kind, patient and wise. What would it look like for your proverbial pendulum to swing closer to the middle, or to explore an inclusive interpretation of yoga that holds space for those who feel disconnected, fragmented, and lost as well as those who feel peace and healing? I don’t know but I’m curious. Maybe what I’m describing is some sort of special category of trauma-sensitive yoga for broken people. But I guess I believe that’s all of us, and our willingness to see and allow the darker stuff relates to our capacity to hold the light. Thank you for the opportunity to ramble and reflect.

    • chorton

      I am actually a big believer in yoga as a means of working with and through difficult emotions – in fact, I trained with Ana Forrest, and that’s pretty much all thatI focused on for many years. Similarly, I am very involved in work that reaches out to people in particularly challenging circumstances through my involvement with the Yoga Service Council, as well as teaching in non-traditional locations such as Cook County Jail. So, my sense is that I agree with your perspective much more than your reading of this made you think.

      This post was a response to what I saw as a wave of negativity online; if you didn’t see or experience that, it wouldn’t make much sense. Also, while I referenced the very large amount of critical writing on yoga I’ve done, if you’re not familiar with that at all, the reference would pass by fast and not mean much. So, for various reasons, I think that much of what I intended to communicate didn’t come through as clearly as I would have ideally liked.

  8. If you feel confident in your teaching, confident that your not harming anyone and sincere in a desire to share how wonderful asana practice, meditation, etc.. can be and you focus on YOUR teaching, YOUR students… . who the heck has time.. to worry about what other teachers are doing?? I may not agree with their style of their promotion of fancy yoga clothes (silly in my world) but I don’t really care… about what the other teachers do.. I am too busy doing the best I can do on behalf of my students..I suggest everyone mind their own business, do your best, follow your heart, keep getting education.. there is soooo much to digest and learn all the time.. no time to care what the teacher in the town down the road is up to,.

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