It’s ironic that a practice originally dedicated to transcending the self has become a prime vehicle of everyday self-realization. It’s also true, however, that there are ways in which these two projects, while substantively antithetical, share parallel ambitions for transformation and produce experiences with a profound, if distant, resonance. (Yoga PhD, p. 96)
*Trigger warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of domestic abuse.*
I feel like Carol Horton is a prime example of what can happen when a smart, but unwitting, fitness enthusiast falls into yoga. She transforms her physical experiences into psycho-spiritual experiences and skillfully navigates Jungian and Reichian territory to translate on-the-mat epiphanies into evidence of yoga’s sympathy with and for contemporary psychology. She even makes karma seem like an accessible idea to non-believers in reincarnation, all while self-consciously acknowledging that she is freely borrowing from different, and perhaps unwilling, traditions. She is a postmodernist par excellence, and I find myself nodding in agreement with her constantly.
In addition, I find her combination of vulnerable self-disclosure and academic rigor so unbelievably likable that it actually pains me to criticize her. So I won’t.
No, seriously. I find all her arguments totally credible. I do, however, think her own self-awareness creates something of a blind spot in terms of recognizing the potential problems of giving physical vitality and a lot of “me” time to a perhaps less thoughtful, perhaps more psychologically damaged, “everyman.”
So, then, here’s my reading question for the week: what happens when modern yogis aren’t Carol Horton? That is, what happens when the people who fall into yoga aren’t self-conscious, or vulnerable, or able to acknowledge possible mistakes or philosophical misalignments? What happens when people don’t get transformed by the process, but instead get physically stronger and increasingly self-obsessed and self-righteous?
I want to believe in the inherent beauty of modern yoga’s hybridization. But the reality is that the preponderance of yoga as fitness and self-exploration sometimes goes wrong.
I’m going to tell a story now.
I have this friend. She is beautiful and talented. An academic and artist. She had this boyfriend. Also an artist. He did yoga six days a week at a fancy studio in a Southern suburb where it was frowned upon to discuss yoga as a spiritual path. OM and banal east-meets-west platitudes were as deep as it got. I watched his muscles get bigger slowly over the years and his movements become more refined. His ego seemed to do the same.
One night we were out, and they were having problems. Maybe they had even broken up, but she was around and so was he. They fought. He spit on her. I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe that people really do that to each other.
People also do worse.
Two days later I met her at a bar. She was covered in bruises and bite marks, talking so fast that I could barely keep up. They had met the night before to talk and something had gone wrong. Something that ended with her face being repeatedly slammed against concrete.
She raged and cried and I listened and all I could think was, “But he’s a yogi.”
So, how is it that someone who spends six days a week on the mat self-realizing can beat the shit out of another human being?
I am not trying to insinuate that yoga should be able to heal all ills. But I actually do think that our beautiful postmodern yoga hybrid can be a terribly dangerous thing that we need to take responsibility for.
If you take an individual with an inflated ego and make their muscles strong and beautiful and limber and encourage them to acknowledge themselves and the contribution they are supposedly making to the world by just showing up on their mat and they have a lot of anger and don’t have a lot of self-awareness and they don’t have the tools to deal with these things and they don’t know where to get them and all the yoga teacher says is “breathe” and “trust yourself” then what happens in the moment that they want to punch someone in the face?
They just breathe. And trust themselves.
So, while I love Horton’s exegesis of yoga’s developing history and her contagious love of its destabilization of tradition, I have some reservations about whether it’s uniformly okay to borrow this already postcolonialized product and subtract all the ethics from it. To be fair, Horton does discuss the value of the yoga sutras and yoga philosophy in an asana class setting. But, the impression I get is that they aren’t necessary additives, that the realizations will come as a natural result of the asana practice alone. (This is, also, perhaps, me misreading Horton to account for what I perceive as the dominant position of modern marketplace yoga culture.)
As a yoga teacher, I feel like it is my responsibility to at least allude to yoga’s cultural, historical, and spiritual contexts, even if I can’t fully represent them in all their complexity. I think it is my responsibility to get to know my students. I think that ethics are part of the practice. If they aren’t, and the students that come to us are damaged or dangerous, then what? Then we, the yoga teachers, might become part of the problem.
…yoga is psychologically healing because it integrates parts of ourselves that we commonly experience as separate: mind and body, reason and intuition, the conscious and unconscious minds – and, ultimately, our everyday sense of self with a deeper level of awareness…(p. 62)
Yes. Yoga can and should do that. But what if whatever pop-up yoga shop we’re practicing in doesn’t facilitate that kind of experience? Or worse, actively discourages introspective integration? I know that I will be accused of being overly dramatic by insinuating that any yoga studio might discourage self-realization, but let’s be for real. The problem with postmodern yoga in the marketplace is that it encourages you to stop thinking and start buying.
Yoga in modern practice, then, isn’t just the glorious intermingling of disparate practices. It’s also a potentially dangerous commodity fetish, and one that, I think, becomes more dangerous the more sanitized and neutral it becomes.
Latest posts by Tracey Duncan (see all)
- In Defense of “Smart People” - July 16, 2014
- Domestic Abuse and Everyday Self-Realization (or YFSP Reads Yoga PhD, Part 2) - May 7, 2013
- Sacred vs. Profane: The Smackdown! (Or YFSP Reads Yoga PhD, Part One) - April 30, 2013
- Gotta Getta Guru - April 22, 2013