Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Hostile New Age Takeover of Yoga

Here's a great article in Slate (thanks, Chris) that articulates some of my squicky feelings about the narcissistic yoga culture that's been oozing out of control among American spiritual seekers over the past few years...

I'd love to be able to do yoga. I've tried many times, and my too-short limbs and meatball-shaped body have resulted in failed efforts and giggling through class, which I don't think is conducive to other people achieving the deep peace they're looking for. I have lots of people in my life that are serious aficionados and whose yoga practice obviously contribute to their physical health, emotional groundedness and spiritual loveliness. They're not the strivers I see zooming around Whole Foods in flared pants and exasperated expressions chugging on Fruit Water by Glaceau and making dagger-eyes at me for lingering too long over the artisanal cheeses and getting in their way. True confessions, time, yoga people: I don't so much shop at Whole Foods as use it as free therapy. I shop at Trader Joe's and Stop & Shop. I stroll through Whole Foods to fill my nose and eyes with aesthetic ideals of beauty and health. Because seriously, their pears cost like $3 each.

A lot of today's yoga culture seems to me to be about the re-inscribing of upper middle class values: competetiveness, acquisitiveness, materialism and humorless self-importance, and my very favorite -- Just Making Up My Own Religion As I Go Along.

Of course if the liberal church was doing its job and showing people a deep, meaningful spiritual path and giving them unapologetically directive teachings on how to transform their inner lives through prayer, study and service, yoga people might be able to keep their Thursday morning class in better perspective. That is, those yoga people who attend liberal churches might. Hey, if the liberal church was doing its job better, I have to think that more people -- including yoga people -- would be attending.

Or maybe not. Maybe the idea of disciplined religion is so ruined in the eyes of spiritually liberal seekers that they'll never embrace it, and those of us in the liberal churches are presiding over a funeral. There's never going to be anything but a tiny market for floppy, "Gee-I-dunno-what-do-YOU-think" religion, no matter how much it dresses itself up in prophet's clothes and claims to be the Truth-Telling Group.

One Truth the liberal church has been telling for years is that conservative folks Just Want To Be Told What To Believe. That's so easy, so dismissive, so snotty and so mostly wrong. All people want a religious life that actually shakes them, demands something of them and transforms them. Liberals, unfortunately, join the effort with the attitude that while this process is occurring, they should be comfortable and even indulged. They join the project with the attitude that there are no rockbound truths, so everything is relative. Who can really be transformed with a permanent orientation of skepticism and self-preservation?

My understanding is that real yoga requires a guru. Some nice guy teaching "Hot Yoga" at your health club is not a guru. A guru makes demands on us and teaches us a path to enlightenment that requires sacrifice and the painful dissolving of ego.

My guru is named Jesus, and his form of yoga was about achieving personal and social change through healing. I kind of wish he taught some form of physical practice beyond walking around, preaching, healing people and eating with people, but he didn't. He also would be very against spending $3 on one pear.


Blogger Shaktidas said...

Great post, PB. Yeah, I wish Jesus had started some sort of tai chi or yoga program, too. In the meantime, I'm doing a "Jesus diet" of eating fish (not other meat) and trying to avoid overly processed foods. It's not too bad, really. You can still have wine.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Shak. Be sure to read it again, as I was noodling around editing when you commented, and have since published the final version.

Blogger boyinthebands said...

I dunno PB. Jesus might have really gone for the Whole Foods produce --

After all He taught,

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pears:
Who, when he had found one pear of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it."

Matthew 13:45-46, KJV

Blogger YogaDawg said...

Although the piece entitled “Fundamentalist Yogis Emerge” on the "Yoga News" page of my Yoga website is completely satirical, I would not be surprised if a movement like this comes to pass with all the hooey, hokum, hogwash, hype and hocus-pocus that has become part of the contemporary Yoga scene.

Blogger Jane R said...

Thank you! I've been doing yoga on and off for forty years (my mother made me do it, I'm serious) but I am about to let my subscription to Yoga Journal lapse, helpful as some of their stuff is, because the CLASS stuff, I mean class as in socio-economic class, upper, is just too obnoxious. Once in a while they have a token Black person or a token non-rich person as a model or story-teller, but that's the exception. It's sad.

What I have found is that getting a really good yoga teacher is enormously helpful. Back in my West Coast days (not so long ago) I had a teacher at the Y in Berkeley who was a middle-aged man, former Vietnam vet and former [psycho-]therapist, who was certified in Iyengar yoga, so the very classical stuff, but who understood middle-aged bodies and had a great sense of humor. It made a huge difference. This past fall I snuck in, with the instructor's permission, to the intermediate yoga class at the college where I teach, and her very slow, careful, classical technique was great and made me think outside of yoga class about things like how I stand on my two feet when I am waiting in line at the check-out counter.

Thanks for the great rant. And Yogadawg, I'm going to check out your site.

For the record, I am committed to continuing some kind of yoga practice, but the commodification of yoga (and of many many forms of spirituality) makes me nuts, even as I am glad yoga is more accessible (e.g. at YMCA types of places).

I'll ramble on about food some other time. Thanks again.

Blogger Juanuchis said...

I have found that in the in the course of my spiritual and religious development, that while I'm fairly liberal and/or progressive (a little left of "moderate"), an "anything goes" is a losing situation, IMO.

I so agree that my "guru" is Jesus, and his methodology is difficult -- the eye of the needle, so to speak.


Anonymous parisa said...

One of the most hilariously tragic conversations I had recently was with a self-proclaimed yoga aficionado who was surprised when I made a comment about yoga being a spiritual discipline from India. She had no idea. Even seemed to doubt my truthfulness. I guess they didn't include that information in her package with the mat, the mat carrier, the brick, the band, and the cute pants. Or, sadly, in the classes at the local gym.

Blogger Ian said...

The yoga practitioners out there will have to correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't there a distinction between yoga and meditation? I have understood that yoga is a method for exploring the flow of chi in the body, which can lead to spiritual experience but sort of requires some spiritual framework to accomplish; thus the ability for so-called "Christian yoga."

Interesting that the author of the Slate article practices tai chi. I have been doing tai chi for a couple of years now myself. It has helped me learn some spiritual lessons (but then what doesn't?) but it is martial art, so it helps me understand my body, not necessarily my spirit.

Maybe the liberal church needs to do more to involve bodies in our spiritual practice, including calling for us all to take better care of these bodies of ours.

Anonymous kim hampton said...

dI've always been rather floored by the discipline that real Yoga practictioners have. It's not just the positions, but the movement between and through positions.

Those hoity-toity spiritualists out there will never get much out of Yoga; patience and discipline are mainstays of many Eastern practices that are truly lost virtues in this culture.

But if you're looking for something akin to Yoga, try Pilates. It's non-impact and also has a spiritual aspect to it (although I didn't notice that until much later). Pilates saved my back and try to get as many people as I can to do it. If you're lucky, your local Y might have it; that way you won't have to pay the astronomical rates that some of the private studios charge.

Anonymous MissConduct said...

Disagree, Parisa. One shouldn't be ignorant about the origin of yoga but it does work perfectly well as a purely physical exercise. One of my constant irritations with yoga practice is the faux cafeteria-style spirituality. I already *have* a religion that I like very much. I don't need my yoga teacher to open my mind--just my hips. I'd be delighted if I could find anyone willing to leave all that "shanti, shanti" stuff behind and focus on telling me how to square off my hips in Warrior 1 without throwing my knee out.

Anonymous parisa said...

Sorry, missconduct, I don't really think it's so cool for spiritual traditions that were built on the *integration* of body and mind to be transported to the west, appropriated for only their benefit to the body and then not even acknowledged as having come from a venerable tradition, culture, and lineage of their own. That it "works" as purely physical exercise is great; so do many other things. If yoga is what you're choosing, have a little respect, is all I'm saying.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm probably getting it all wrong, but yoga at the gym is not Yoga.

However, I do find the practice of Yoga, like Centering Prayer or the labyrinth, can help me get to the quiet in which to pray. Not a substitute, just an aid.


Blogger Chalicechick said...

Can I still DO yoga at the gym as long as I don't pretend that it's bringing me enlightenment?


Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

A week ago, the DH and I saw an infomercial for "Yoga Booty Ballet." Now, I've nothing against folks getting their fitness groove on, but something about that name just puts me into a fit of snorgles (snort giggles). And it looked kind of stupid, too. But if it works, it works. Although I won't be ordering their three DVD set or what-have-you.

My gastroenterologist suggested yoga for my IBS a few months ago, but I've never done anything about it. I'm fine with running, dumbbells and stretching. Kickboxing sounds good, too!

I don't see anything wrong with building your own theology, though. Most people do this anyway, within their own religious traditions - picking and choosing what they will follow and what they won't.

Blogger Jaume said...

I tend to agree with parisa here. We Westerners tend to partialize and divide experience, whereas Eastern thought is holistic and integrative. The body-spirit continuum is an essential element in Eastern practices, but here we believe that we can practice Yoga or Tai-Chi or any other Eastern technique and ignore its spiritual dimension.

I have been a regular practicioner of Tai-Chi (Yang style) for years, and a part of the training was to be aware, without dogma, of how the physical and the spiritual sides constantly overlap and interconnect. (Of course, New Age "Tofu Tai-chi" is to be avoided if one wants to practice seriously -and even if you do it only for fun or frivolity, it is better to avoid practices not grounded in tradition). So it is important to keep your eyes open and your mind inquisitive and curious during your training.

Blogger Juliana said...

Interestingly, we Gnostic Christians on the left coast are quite sincerely interested in bringing yoga back to its origins for those of our flock - newbies mainly - who are deeply in need of an integrating force between spirit and body.

Many have been seeking, and not quite connecting with the Buddhist and Hindu traditions that have long held sway around Berkeley and the rest of the Bay Area. They're essentially Christian and sort of wanting to remain so (or return).

You sort of can't be in California without slamming head-long into yoga etc. any time you bring up the subject of "spirituality." Most of our newbie students and parishioners have practiced yoga or meditation. None within the context of a Christian tradition, however. They like the idea, and so do we.

Like many chez PB, we've discovered the watering down of yoga etc. has done some subtle, but important damage. That gnawing, corrosive sense of losing the real meaning of anything because it's too "undisciplined" I think was PB's phrase.

How sad and true that discipline's gotten such a bad rap! And who'd have thought a bunch of renegade Gnostic liberal Catholic types would be carrying a banner for discipline?

When and if we do integrate yoga into our parish in San Francisco, it will come full throttle with the rest of the tradition, coexisting peacefully with Christ's message. (Now over to Rajiv, who'll do some light levitating...)

What Californians often lack in adhering to formal liturgical tradition, I like to think we make up for by returning to other ancient roots - in liturgy and Eastern practice. The challenge remains doing it with some measure of discipline.

At any rate, this is fast becoming the corner stone of our Gnostic following here. The embracing of ancient "stuff" - I hope with a sense of seriousness, and preservation. That seriousness really distinguishes our flock, and it's been quite a revelation to me.

Failing that, we shall turn out buff folk in cute pants. :)

Goodness but PB is looking glam. How is it possible to be both cute AND have the gravitas one needs to hold forth from the pulpit each week? Alas, I have much to learn. The Mac counter at Macy's is calling...


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