As the 21st century has unspooled yoga has increasingly taken on the after look in a before and aftermath crime-scene photo. One hundred years ago it looked like a lot of class. Fifty years ago it got a makeover and looked better than ever. Today it looks like something dolled up to be better seen from a distance of a hundred years.
Yoga used to have something to do with simplicity and self-discipline, non-attachment, and the spiritual life. Hatha practice and karma in the world were means to an end, steps on the way to an expanding awareness. It had more to do with what went on off the mat, especially in your head, than the asana postures done on it.
“It’s been less than fifty years since the first group yoga class happened, but in that short time the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice,” wrote American Yoga School founder James Brown in ‘The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga’.
In many respects awareness isn’t what it’s about anymore. It’s about exercise classes with folks all doing the same thing. It’s about a little bit of ad hoc spirituality and a lot of anatomical science. It’s about whatever works for me, never mind the past fifty centuries.
Sometimes it seems like modern yoga can’t get any respect, especially since it’s gone the way of mass merchandising, of sticker shock sticky mats and neat-o clothes to match, the butter and egg man Bikram Choudhury, and the bigness of big events at big venues.
However, if you’re flying out to Burning Man, don’t bother bringing yoga attire, since loincloths and hot pants are more appropriate at the 70,000-man-and-woman festival.
There isn’t anything simple about organizing thousands of yogis to flip up on their heads at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Times Square in New York City. It takes organizational skills and business smarts to assemble sound systems, food trucks, and port-a-potty’s.
Om’s and namaste’s ain’t going to get it done.
While the postmodern world streams, the shape of yoga tradition has shifted, so that a CGI-inspired vision of the practice has steadily morphed the once flesh-and-blood story to the pixels of flat screens. The new yoga body and yoga lifestyle have become the new Truman Show.
Once people came to the practice looking like they’d just climbed out of a wreck. They were hungry as schoolboys. Now they come in Lexus SUV’s. They’ve had their grass-fed beef brisket sandwich and kale salad and aren’t hungry, at least not in the same way.
Even meditation, which was once a quiet practice meant to make silence even more silent, has become a for-profit enterprise, sold as a balm for the wailings of the wealthy. They empty their heads for an hour-or-so, making like a church collection plate on a Wednesday morning, and once refreshed it’s back to business as usual.
There is even a branch of yoga, known as Padmini Vidya, which is devoted to one purpose, which is making money. It’s the yoga of pleasure and prosperity. “It is said that people who rapidly amass enormous wealth must have been yogis in previous lives who devoted themselves single-mindedly to Padmini Vidya,” Linda Johnsen wrote in ‘Be Wealthy, Be Wise: Yoga’s Guide to Prosperity’.
Although it’s true that there’s always a little good in everybody, there is sometimes only a very little in those who never have enough. There’s hardly ever any sympathy in their smiles, like they’ve never forgiven anyone for anything.
It’s as though yoga has become an ever-smaller rowboat bouncing around in a squall while cruise ships sail in their own tranquil seas. Some cruise lines, such as Radisson Seven Seas, offer yogic-centric voyages starting at $2,987.00 a person, double occupancy only and no refunds.
After stretching and sweating on the mat, the ship’s four restaurants, where waiters and wine stewards outnumber passengers two to one, are a gangplank to champagne buckets and plates of sea bass. “As a luxury yogi I would never neglect dinner, indulging in everything,” wrote John Capouya, author of Real Men Do Yoga, in Travel and Leisure.
The travel destination of yoga used to be the union of oneself with the true self, which is why the word yoga is defined as union. It wasn’t the largely non-union staffed Royal Carnival dropping anchor in the Bahamas. It wasn’t a luxury. It was a necessity.
But, what used to be one man’s meat and potatoes is now another man’s indulging in everything. The sense of yoga’s purpose can sometimes go dark under more than a tropical moon, subsumed by the tastiness of a hundred-foot-long buffet spread.
Yoga was once something that meant everything to somebody. Now it means anything to everybody, so long as the yoga teacher is groovy and the soundtrack is rocking, or mellow, as the case may be. The Teflon-like catchphrase “It’s All Yoga” has become commonplace to the extent that it has become meaningless. It’s like reaching for a life preserver and grabbing liquid nothing.
“The problem is that it is framed within a paradigm of self-improvement,” said Ed Conley, a meditation teacher in Blackstone, Virginia. Before posture practice became the rage the subtle body, not the mechanical body, was the rage. The transformation of yoga to YogaWorks is the transformation of a series of small things leading to equilibrium to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Yoga once had a longing at the heart of it, a mystery no one lived long enough to educe or forget, a reckoning of the right stuff the man and woman on the mat tried to find for themselves. It wasn’t conjuring up a laundry list of getting from ineffective to effective, which can be just another way of losing your way slowly.
“It has become space and time without the black hole,” said Mr. Conley.
Back in the day yogis slept on beds of nails, walked barefoot on hot coals, and even endured being buried alive. They meditated on mountaintops. They were loner mendicants who might or might not have had a ministry. Joining up with them was like hitching a hayride with Frankenstein.
It was a hard-core commitment, not a stop on the side of the road for a soft cone. Yoga was a risky business practiced by dodgy people. It was impossible to discourage them. They didn’t give a damn what anybody said. Anything could happen.
Today’s state-of-the-art yogis are bendy charming plausible entrepreneurs flying in jet liners to retreats at sunny resorts and arriving at Estes Park in Caddy SUV’s. The practice they preach is like an unopened box of razors, gussied up and bloodless. The business has got the face of an angel and a heart of greenbacks.
The hole at the heart of yoga is that it has been buffed polished sparkled and turned into a commodity. It’s not about anybody anymore. It’s on the grocery shelf for everybody, a sensible product packaged by sensible people for sensible consumers.
Once upon a time it was Hanuman, a great big daring jump into a burning sky, but now it’s a dancing monkey at the beck and call of an organ grinder. Progress isn’t possible without change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean historical revisionism is the sharpest lens back to the future. Sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion of the fast forward dreams you’re trying to make come true.
“Teachers tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say,” said James Brown of American Yoga.
It’s meant to make you roll over on your back with your paws in the air while your belly gets rubbed. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” warned Bob Dylan in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.
The black hole at the heart of yoga is the self.
In the workaday world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who you are. It uses up the future. In the yoga world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you can’t find out who you are. It leaves you teetering on the edge of eternity with no way out.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali propose that the body, mind, and senses are not the self. The reason is that the body, mind, and senses all change over time. Although everyone has aspects of their lives that change in the ebb and flow, what the Sutras call the guide, the inner voice, or the true self, is unchanging.
“The most important relationship you will ever have is your relationship with the self,“ wrote Kate Holcomb, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, in ‘How to See Your True Self’.
Yoga classes are full of relationships, with the receptionist, the teacher, and everyone else in the class as everyone does the same thing. Anyone can create or re-create themselves in a yoga class. No one can find themselves. There’s always somebody else telling you what to do. There’s always mind chatter as you peek through your legs in down dog at the person behind you. There’s always somebody snoring in corpse pose.
The true self is a loner. It’s not a version of somebody else. “Be that self which one truly is,” said the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. It’s when you’re alone that you look at things differently than other people. Who finds their true self when they’re mashed up in the mosh pit? Everyone needs to be left alone when they’re lonely. It’s only when someone is most solitary that they are most exceptional, most themselves.
Nobody is ever lonely in a yoga exercise class, or eating a pastina salad, for that matter, because they both require so much attention to detail. Yoga is about a fire in the belly, but you can’t fill yourself up until you empty yourself out. Everyone breathes in yoga classes, although there’s never a minute to catch your breath because it’s so busy.
No one can be unmistakable, can be their clear-cut self, can go to a place they’ve never been, if they tag along with the crowd. It’s been said that the loneliest place to be is lost in a crowd, like a case of mistaken identity, another face in the House of Mirrors. It’s like being alone without being alone.
In the postmodern 21st century many people think the past is like the scene of a crime, that there’s nothing left to find there. What matters are now and the next now. But, it always catches up with you, like shoes that are a half-size too small. Sometimes it’s called karma, which can be a pair of very tight shoes.
There aren’t many places to find your body mind spirit in the world as we know it. A good place might be wherever you are, because no matter where you go, there you are. A better place might be yoga, since that’s what the practice has always been about. The best place is probably what the Yoga Sutras call the true self. If you’re not there you’re not anywhere, not really all in.
“When the agitations of the mind are under control,” according to Patanjali, “it has the power of becoming whatever form is presented, the knower, the act of knowing, and what is known.” There is no ghost in the machine. The way in which yoga has been sliced and diced in the past fifty years is not the answer, assuming there is one. Which begs the question, what is the answer?
The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be Sam Spade to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it.