In a recent interview on the fabulous new podcast Bare Naked Truth with my friend Abby Slate, she and I dished a bit about what makes me a “bad yogi” and what I find so troubling about yoga these days. I’d like to elaborate on some of that here.
I’m not teaching much yoga these days, and I only practice in my home, usually outside on our deck, in those rare moments when I have some quiet time and the willingness to not use that time to do something—literally, anything—else. I never thought I would be here, because for so long now, yoga has been a kind of lifeline for me and a major part of my identity. My closest friends and family have urged me, even pleaded with me at times, to start going to yoga classes out here in CA. They know how central it has been to my well-being and for how long, and they’re hoping that it can provide a sense of continuity for me in this time of upheaval. I was hoping for the same.
But so far I’ve been unable, or maybe more like unwilling, to find my way back to a community and practice that has sustained and nurtured me during some of the toughest times of my life—a brief and wretched marriage, a twisted divorce that lasted three times as long as the marriage, and the rebuilding of my life with a man who had a somewhat complicated story and three children of his own. I want yoga to be there once more, giving me the buoyancy I need to get through this transition and the deep loss of identity with which I am struggling. But walking by a studio in Palo Alto, one that seemed a bit more subdued and understated than the rest (but not without a gaggle of wealthy-looking white ladies huddling inside clutching their green drinks and LuluLemon bags), a chalkboard out front with the words, “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” caught my eye, and I just thought to myself, what a bunch of trite bullshit. I know what people mean when they say that. It’s something like, be cool and cool people will materialize in your own life, and then you can all be cool together and do cool things and post all of your cool vibes on social media, and your coolness will one day make the world a better place. Cool.
You know what is actually most likely to attract your “tribe”? Your socio-economic status, where you live, whether you have kids or not, where your kids go to school, the color of your skin, your gender expression, your sexuality, your marital status, your political leanings, etc. We are tribal people in the worst kinds of ways and nothing bears this out more than a lot of yoga classes these days. The slogans and affirmations that abound in yoga discourse and spaces very often reflect a total obliviousness to the privilege (and even the privilege to publicly denounce one’s privilege in an overwrought social media post) and conspicuous consumption that constitute so much of that culture.
Maybe I’m just sleep-deprived and pissy, and in need of whatever is in that green drink myself. But I am so annoyed and embarrassed by the vapidity and toxicity of much of yoga in the West today that I am having a hard time finding my way back to it. And I’d like to, for sure. I’m hoping that putting some of my thoughts, which have been slowly forming for some time and are still coming together, down on paper, will have some cathartic effect and I’ll get back in the groove soon.
Let me start with two dominant and conflicting narratives, which, despite the fact that they are at cross-purposes, are fairly common in yoga spaces (often, hilariously, even in the same class, workshop, or training). The first goes something like this: yoga is a practice that helps us to recover some innate, authentic and “true” self that we have carelessly lost along the way. The second cuts in the complete opposite direction: yoga gives us the necessary tools to constantly remake ourselves, allowing us to shed our painful past and create a happier, more whole self. (Confession: I have, without a doubt, repeated variations on both of these themes in classes and I regret having done so, for reasons about which I will say more below. Hopefully, I did so in a way that made some sense and was helpful in a moment to students in the room, but I probably uttered these words somewhat mindlessly, as they had been drilled into for me for so long by my own teachers.) I want to say a little about each of these themes, and why I see them as silly at best, and harmful at worst.
In my advanced feminist theory seminar, I used to teach a book by Cressida Heyes, titled Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics and Normalized Bodies. In it, Heyes argues that modern subjects are too frequently compelled to undertake significant physical transformations—ranging from seemingly harmless weight-loss programs to cosmetic surgery to “sex change” operations mean to bring a body into alignment with a preferred gender expression—in a relentless (and relentlessly failing) attempt to discover and reveal one’s “authentic self.” The belief that we have, in some real way, an authentic, internal self, and that this self needs to be brought in alignment with an outer self that is expressive of all of our beauty, purity, and goodness within is what drives much of the late-modern subject’s aesthetic and ethical choices, the argument goes, and this, even more than the harmful and unrealistic beauty norms that have for so long been the target of feminist critiques, and even more than the brutalities of a heterosexist gender dichotomy, is what really does us in. I am not wholly unpersuaded and find most of the arguments persuasive and nuanced enough that it’s hard to argue with the key points. What I do find odd about the book, however, is the author’s turn to yoga as a “soma-aesthetic practice” that she believes asks us to be fully absorbed in the present moment and in our bodies as they are right now, thus encouraging a turn away from an “authentic” and “natural” self and towards a more malleable and accepting self. Sure, yoga is about “presence” but it’s also very much about nature. In my experience, most yoga instructors and methods encourage precisely the thing that Heyes spends the entire book urging us to reject: a realignment of the practitioner with some authentic self buried beneath a body, mind, and set of identities that get in the way of our “true nature.” And very often, there is a set of accompanying products—retreats, a 16-week series, a membership to a gym, a cafe that specializes in some detoxing something-or-other, etc.—that we are encouraged to partake in so that we can “get back to ourselves” and feel “whole again.” To this, I say bullshit. Yoga is like running. You need very little to do it well. Decent shoes for running, a mat for yoga. So the next time you are asked to participate in purchasing as a means to personal freedom, wholeness, or bliss, ask yourself what’s really going on there. If there is real learning, instruction, or education on the other side of that swipe, okay, fine. If not, you’re likely being duped by some version of the your-vibe-attracts-your-tribe mantra and remember that yoga requires very little beyond your breath. It’s fine if you like fancy mala beads, cushy mats, essential oils, or Satya jewelry. If you know me, you know that I am fond of such things. But it is ridiculous to pretend as though such things somehow make you more centered, pure, whole, or dedicated. They don’t. Nor does that stuff have anything whatsoever to do with yoga. It just means you’re wealthier than most and like to spend disposable income on yoga crap.
But let me get back to my real concern about yoga and the “authentic self.” One might ask, what is so wrong with the idea that yoga helps us to access some lost part of ourselves? Surely, so much of our unhappiness and trauma is related to a disconnection or break from a person we once were and might like to be again. To that, I want to say, sure, it’s okay to acknowledge a continuity of beliefs, desires, and values. But the danger comes in when we are held captive, as Wittgenstein would say, by a picture of our “inner” self—our true nature—that is out of alignment with our “outer” self—our body, vibe, or aura—and we buy into a program wherein the physical discipline of yoga is meant to reintegrate these two and restore us to some pre-trauma state of being. Although I believe that yoga, like many, many practices, *can* help us to sort and move through trauma, it is in no way inherently or necessarily well-equipped to do so. And why must we tell ourselves that we are naturally this or that, and so drive ourselves crazy attempting to recapture some part of our past that may well not serve us anymore or even be intelligible to us; or, worse, may be a complete fiction. I am wary of systems of power that engage disciplinary regimes and self-management in the name of restoring or honoring our natural self (yoga absolutely does both), and I quite often see these regimes as mechanisms of subordination, abuse, and docility that we should seek to interrogate and resist. (Today, no one does this critical work on yoga better than Matthew Remski, by the way.) I hope to write a more sustained piece on this in the near future, but will leave it here for now.
As to the second dominant trajectory in yoga, that of remaking ourselves “in each moment, in each breath,” I suppose my worry here is pretty much the opposite of my concern around authenticity and naturalness, which is that the “go with the flow” and “just get connected” mentality can often discourage us from sitting with the trauma, dis-ease, vulnerability, and loneliness that comprise so much of our lives. These things, though sometimes awful, give our lives a shape and meaning that make us intelligible to ourselves and to others. Often yoga instructors make moving forward in our lives sound as easy as just taking a few deep breaths and “showing up on the mat” (a phrase I cannot stand for its turning a thing that is really nothing into something), when we all know that shifting harmful patterns, breaking bad habits, or coming to terms with serious trauma and abuse, usually require all manner of things besides yoga—therapy, rehab, material resources, resilience, community, medication, justice, etc. To suggest that yoga is all we need to make ourselves new and whole is disingenuous and dangerous. Yoga can help us to shed parts of ourselves that are no longer serving us, sure. But when yoga discourse goes too far in emphasizing starting over, reinventing oneself, or “beginning again,” it runs the risk of causing more trauma or turning a blind eye to those aspects of the self that are more recalcitrant and resistant to change. (Sidenote: another real danger here, of course, is when this idea is exported to non-dominant cultures and takes the form of colonization. Yoga is great, but it doesn’t put food on tables, buy school supplies, secure social services, get you a job when you finally get out of prison, reunite kids with their parents, or just jive with everyone everywhere. I’d like for us to all get real about this when we talk about bringing yoga to “under-served populations.”)
There is yet another, even more unsettling to me, narrative in yoga emerging today, which runs something like this: yoga is a unique practice that brings us together to help make the world a better place. (Indeed, I found this aspect of Jivamukti Yoga, with its intense focus on animal rights and environmentalism, to be deeply appealing some years back, before I realized how toxic and harmful that particular culture show was.) Picking up on the winds of change in the wake of numerous yoga scandals, exposes, and serious critiques from insiders, some pretty big yoga names have successfully pivoted to this model and the “be-the-change-you-wish-to-see-in-the-world” refrain that attends it. And I’ve no doubt, none whatsoever, that some are sincere in their beliefs and their efforts. Nevertheless, I am skeptical about the efficacy and usefulness of such projects for several reasons. First, yoga has a very long history of physical and mental abuse, misogyny, racism, classism, exploitation, sexual violence and harassment, silencing, and cult-related trauma. (Again, for more on this, read Matthew Remski.) Second, yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry and very often messages of coming together to affect political or social change come at a high price, encouraging practitioners to give up material resources to teachers and brands that could otherwise go directly to specific causes and organizations doing social justice work out in the world. Most of us don’t need to attend a yoga workshop to learn how to be useful. We know we can make financial donations, volunteer our time, canvas, encourage kindness and tolerance, vote, etc. Come on, we know these things already, don’t we? Third and finally, although I am no longer inclined, as I once was, to say anything definitive about what yoga essentially is or is not, this much seems clear: yoga is ultimately a practice that has to do with the self (thus making it such a prime vehicle for the sorts of technologies of the self and disciplinary bodily techniques about which Foucault was so concerned) not with the polis. Sure, work on the self can strengthen (or weaken) the wider community, but it cannot stand in for politics. When we come together as members of the polis to deliberate and make judgments about how we wish to live, it is and should be as democratic citizens that we do so, not as “yogis,” whatever that means. The role of citizen should be held conceptually apart from “yogi,” or “mother,” or “democrat,” or “vegetarian,” or whatever. Citizenship has a kind of primacy to it and special status that is critical to the well-functioning of our democracy. Again, yoga, like lots of other things, can facilitate positive social change, but it should not be seen as synonymous with the work of politics, which requires a broader skill set, knowledge, and orientation to the public good than does yoga. And although yoga can help us to become more and better engaged politically, it cannot be our only connection to community, our primary “tribe,” if you will. And it cannot on its own create a more just world. That idea reflects an impoverished view of politics and the many demands it places on us.
I guess right now, with the state of the world being what it is and basically everything seeming so completely dire, I choose to put my time, energy and resources not into the next alluring yoga retreat or weekend workshop but instead into political candidates who can actually affect real change and enact legislation, people and organizations doing on-the-ground work to literally save lives, and making my voice heard as a citizen any and every way I can. A lot of yoga today just feels like a luxury we can’t afford, which is an ironic and somewhat insensitive thing to say, because it has been that for so long to so many populations, and still is.
On a more positive note, I’m encouraged by that the work of people like Michelle Johnson, Karen Rain, Jessamyn Stanley, Karla Helbert, whose work on yoga, trauma, and grief, is hugely important, and Mathew Remski, as well as organizations like Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga and Social Justice, and The Prison Yoga Project, to name just a few. These people and projects move us all in the right direction, towards a more just, honest, and equitable world. I’ve learned a lot from all of them. That said, their work is deeply political, if what we mean by that is that they are primarily concerned with the use (and misuse) of power, the good of all, and how we might better live together.
These days, I find that these people and projects set me to rights and clarify my thoughts way more than any yoga class could, at least for the time being. The breath is always here, and I’ve got a few fancy yoga mats lying around here somewhere. That’ll do for now.