Not My Vibe, Not My Tribe. Or, Why I’m Apparently Taking a Break from Yoga
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, shedding our painful past and creating 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 I find it 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. Firstly, 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.
On Marriage, Perfectionism, and Reconciliation
“Not every fateful moral choice, every judgment of good and bad or right and wrong, is a matter for public debate…[T]he issues in moral perfectionism are not crises of conscience of this kind…they are deciding on what kinds of lives they wish to live and whether they wish to live them together, to consent to each other, to say yes to their lives and their life together; nothing has happened between them that requires more than their mutual forgiveness.”—Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words*
In one of the greatest remarriage comedies ever made, the dazzling and insufferable Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) cries out in anguish halfway through the film, “Oh, to be useful in the world!” It is a strange line given to such a sharp and capable woman, one who is almost too useful, we might say, a woman who always has the higher moral ground and never hesitates to make this known to others when they fall short, and they inevitably do. She is so perfect as to make her frequently unpleasant and simply no fun to be around (though not always, it should be noted), haranguing her own mother at times, for not breaking with her scoundrel of a husband, Tracy’s father. Tracy’s desperate words are said in response to watching the man she loves, but whom she has divorced some years earlier (Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant) and for whom she continues to display a deep disdain, storm out after having called her down, not for the kind of immorality Lord is herself so fond of pointing out in others, but rather for her inability to see herself as she really is and to make herself intelligible in just that way to others. He gets her, and the audience gets that he gets her from the very start. Why, we wonder, is this woman, always ten steps ahead of everyone else, so incapable of getting herself?
My husband is fond of saying that I am the Hardrock 100 of wives. This is a 100-mile footrace through the San Juans of Colorado that he has run a few times. For a while, I beamed at this comparison, because I assumed by this he simply meant that I was the prettiest. The beauty of the Hardrock Endurance Run, as anyone who has run it or spent a significant amount of time on the race course will tell you, is without question one of the most stunning courses in all of ultra-running. It is perhaps the most storied and legendary of all the 100-mile races in the world. It also turns out to be one of the hardest to conquer. The terrain, altitude, and elevation gain all combine to make it one of the hardest races to complete and one which many will reasonably decide, after having toed the line at the start, is simply not worth finishing. Over the years, I have come to understand that it is this latter aspect of the race—its difficulty and tendency to make even the best runners drop out—that my husband is referring to when he draws the analogy (perhaps our good friends knew this all along).
There are probably many things that Joe finds difficult to take in his marriage to me, as is the case for all married people, to be sure. But, knowing him as I do, I suspect that what he really means by this is not merely that my relentless “nagging moralism” is exhausting and that he and others could never live up to my many expectations of them. More than this, he means to point out that this particular feature of mine is an even harder pill to swallow in light of the fact that the source of my unhappiness and restlessness (and certainly of his) is frequently not the moral failings of others, but instead my own inability to see myself rightly and to understand and come to terms with my own complicated desires.
Tracy wants to be useful, by which is meant important, in big and small ways, and, ultimately, right. Right about her family members’ lives and how they ought to live them, to be sure, but also right about public matters of great importance—gender relations, class allegiances, spousal abuse, rights to privacy, and so on. Front-page sorts of moral questions, which are really not questions or crises of conscience for decent folks at all. Most of the people in Tracy’s life find her endless quest to settles these scores tiresome, not because they disagree with her regarding right and wrong, but because they are simply trying to go about the business of living the best life they can, which very often entails making daily compromises, accepting their own failings (for Dexter, it is drinking to excess, a habit that Tracy finds utterly repulsive, as do I, much to my husband’s chagrin), and turning away, perhaps only momentarily, from Big Moral Questions, in a way that Tracy simply will not abide. They all take for granted that she is Right, and so does the audience. Yet, there is something about her that is not quite right, not quite whole.
I recognize some part of myself in this story, and something about our recent move out West has amplified this for me. In my own endless quest to be right, and to be recognized as right by my husband and by nearly everyone, I have neglected what the late philosopher Stanley Cavell called Emersonian perfectionism, that is, a kind of moral perfectionism that is concerned less with Big Picture rights and wrongs, and more with how we stand in relationship to those with whom we have said we wish to live, to give our consent to and to have our own consent asked for in turn, and to allow ourselves to be made fully intelligible by them.
Despite the many attractive aspects of this transition, it has often times felt like a struggle in which I am the loser and my husband the winner. And I have even, in my lowest moments, said exactly this to him and, indeed, to anyone who would listen. Look at all that I am giving up! My career, my friends, my family, a huge support system, a house that I loved, a life that I have made for myself. All of that and more, so that he can take a “big fancy job” (yes, I even say it just like that!), fly first-class to glamorous places and drive convertible sports cars around, while I stay home with the kids full-time, and assume the role of housewife and helpmeet. I say these things because they are, of course, in some sense true and unsettling. And his new set-up does quite reasonably make the eyes roll. But I would be deceiving myself and you, if I did not admit that I also say these things because I know they are the things that I am supposed to say. I am a feminist, after all, committed to gender equality and all that such a notion entails in a modern marriage, and if you are a nagging (liberal) moralist of the sort that is Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, you are likely to find choices I have made perplexing at best, untenable at worst. For how will Hollie be useful in the world?
Although he is generally sympathetic, Joe finds much of this production from me to be a waste of time and energy, not because I am wrong about how exhausting this transition has been and how hard it is to stay home with small children (to deny either would be to put his own life in harm’s way), but rather because he knows very well that there is much about this new life that I have been wanting and craving for years now, if I would just be honest with myself about those desires, conflict though they may with certain deeply held principles and ideals.
And I suppose that is the point I want to make—to myself and to you. Sometimes in life, very often, in fact, we find that commitments to some particular moral or political ideal clash with deeply held desires, desires that it may well not serve us to turn away from, even if we knew how to do that. In and through my conversations with my partner, which are sometimes less verbal than I would like, and so perhaps I should say “conversations,” I return over and over again to the fact I am most at home in the world when I am in communion with nature and, in particular, the expansiveness of the American West, when I am with my children on our own terms (an extreme privilege, I realize), when I have the freedom to write and to think without the expectation that I will produce anything at all worth something in an academic market that I don’t really believe in to begin with, when I can decide what I shall do and with whom I shall do it on any given day, etc.
But, far more relevant, is the education that I receive daily in my marriage regarding what it means to be true company, an actual helpmeet, if you will, to one another. I could have chosen any number of others, and I very nearly did. And those others might well have been in complete agreement with me right on down the line, sharing my “values,” in a way that my current husband may well not. But I refused them, I suspect, because I had the unsettling suspicion that their imaginations were impoverished in a way that I probably never could have lived with and would likely never have received the education that I needed to, an education about what it means to be human—frail, imperfect, complicated, a walking mass of contradictions. When he calls me down for my relentless insistence that things be this way and not that, I know, in my calmer moments, that he was the only one to whom I could have given my consent to respond to my own lack of education and my demand to know something that will alter my deep unhappiness with the way things are in the world, and the way I am in it.
When my feminist theory students used to ask me what was one thing—the most important thing—they could do to maintain equality in a marriage to a man, my answer was automatic: work. (Well, I probably also said something like, try not marrying a man. Try a woman instead, if marry you must.) Don’t give up your exit option, maintain some identity independent of your role as wife and mother (if you want kids), do something out in the world, be useful, and, above all else, make your own money. My mother was the best role model in this regard, and she and my father maintain separate checking accounts to this day. I said this because I really do believe it to be very important to maintaining equality in a relationship (not to mention sanity and economic independence). But it will not secure the deep sort of freedom a person like me is also after. That sort of freedom has everything to do with the kind of moral perfectionism that concerns itself not with the right behavior of others, but rather with the placement of serious demands upon oneself, demands that have to do with the care of one’s own soul and the hard work of becoming intelligible to oneself.
Stanley Cavell wrote that what makes remarriage comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Philadelphia Story so compelling, and what makes us interested in these relatively privileged couples at all, is “their pure enactment of the fact that in each moral decision our lives, our senses of ourselves, and of what, and whom, we are prepared to consent to, are at stake.” They are a reminder of Aristotle’s great teaching on friendship: we choose to live with those who make us better, who can provide us with the education we need, and not the education we want, so that we may live a flourishing and first-class human life. I think what The Philadelphia Story teaches us is that so often one can never be sure we have chosen correctly, but we nevertheless consent to the one that has the courage to call us down, who has put the picture of our self together rightly, and can help us to do the same.
*Stanley Cavell passed away on June 19, 2018. I learned much from him about Emerson, moral philosophy and classic Hollywood film, as well as animals and Wittgenstein. His work was quirky and impossibly hard to follow. I keep trying.
July 13, 2018
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
[Scene: I have taken my little boys to the park, a park that they absolutely loved on our first trip to it last week, in the hopes of getting some writing done in the shade of an ample oak tree the the center of the park while they play. This has seemed completely within the realm of possibility on several occasions, and so I didn’t think myself a complete idiot for having tried on this day.]
I used to think that Virginia Woolf was so passé.
[After typing just this first line, Oliver has interrupted me for the first of what will turn out to be countless interruptions, thus making this particular trip to the park to play and write a complete and utter failure.]
[Next scene: Several days later, at my kitchen table, while the boys scream and run around naked, waiting for breakfast to appear….]
Having taught feminist theory at the college level for some time now, until recently anyway, I always taught Woolf with some trepidation. The irony, however, in this instance is too rich and her relevance too real for me to let pass without further remark.
A room of one’s own, an actual physical space where a woman can cultivate intellectual, literary, creative, artistic, and even moral capacities necessary to her flourishing and general well-being. A room, if you can imagine, constitutive of her very freedom. All of this once induced much eye-rolling from me, seen as the epitome of white privilege, the least attractive kind of feminism, appealing only to naive first-year English majors from good, clean, unbroken families.
Now that time has passed and life taken its course, I see it was I who was naive, to imagine that such a thing was superfluous to the struggle for women’s emancipation (something, by the way, which sounds very old fashioned, but which I still believe is a real thing worth fighting for). Having taken for granted for so long expansive time, solitude, space not constantly invaded by others, a body that was mine in some real sense and not always pulled, poked and prodded by others who put their own needs above my most basic ones. No, now V. W. is my muse. I cling to her and the idea of that room day and night. Sure, it’s true that many are less free than me. I get that. And I am acutely aware how bothered some will be that I write these words at all, let alone while mothers are presently having their children ripped from their arms in this Land of the Free. And though that is a horror unimaginable to me and to most of the mothers I know, and I certainly would never put my own emptiness these days in the same category as that kind of suffering, it is also true that a woman can be made unfree in a myriad of ways. I used to say that to my feminist theory students all of the time, with the sadness of someone who cares for them and knows how many times they will rediscover this truth over the course of their lives. And I suppose that my present circumstance, in which I, unlike the women about whom Woolf wrote, have played some role, for sure, has helped me to see how the denial of time for oneself, specifically time to improve oneself and to make moral, intellectual, and artistic contributions, is a kind of oppression that is most pernicious, not least of all because to carry out of all the little tasks and functions for children and spouse necessary to their own flourishing is to put yourself in the service of others as you watch your own status and capacities diminish. If you are not watchful, ever-vigilant. And people say to me, “It is the greatest gift you could give your kids and family,” or “you will never get this time back,” (yah, that is exactly what I am afraid of, thanks) or “you’re actually taking on the most important role there is—mother.” I find most of that trite and cold comfort, if not offensive. I love my children, yes. I want to spend time with them, yes. But not at the expense of my own sanity and flourishing. Anyone who knows me must know this. (All my friends nodding vigorously now and rolling their eyes. Don’t worry, I am more to say to you later about why I chose this and how I didn’t fully.)
For someone like me, writing, reading, and thinking are what feed my soul. It cannot come last—after my kids, husband, community, politics, etc. It’s not a luxury, to have that time and space, like I once thought. I cannot find myself any other way. My center just will not hold. There’s no self, no family, no community, no politics, no nothing without this. So at the risk of being just another nitwit with a blog, the gift of social media and technology that keeps on giving, here goes.
*Ignore the typos and bad writing. I wrote this in less time than it took you to get ready this morning, while doing more things than you will likely do all day today. So, there.