“A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest… We must free ourselves from the sacralization of the social as the only reality and stop regarding as superfluous something so essential in human life and human relations as thought.”
~ Michel Foucault, “Is it Really Important to Think?”
In the last year I’ve been more befuddled by the myths of present-day yoga than ever before. While I appreciate that myths can be extremely useful in giving us meaning, literal interpretations of myth, ie, taking them to be truth, are unhelpful. And I mean, really unhelpful. There are so many meaningless, contradictory platitudes thrown around in the service of “healing” that I ask what the hell we are doing here.
For example, the “ancient” tradition of yoga. You have hopefully heard that what we are doing in American yoga studios is not ancient. The yoga asana practice popular in the west is about 100 years old, though there are certainly asana that have a history of at least 1000yrs (see Mallinson, 2011), probably longer. There is no evidence that these postures were ever practiced in any certain order, much less linked, before the 20th Century. And the way we practice them in class bears little resemblance to how they were practiced in India even 100 years ago. Not because we are egoistic and grasping for “better” asana, and not because we aren’t “spiritual” but because we have changed the poses, their execution, and not least, the discourse (the way of communicating yoga), with a massive injection of New Age spirituality and healing.
It is fabulously interesting that this New Age element, with its Christian origins, has come to be understood as “Eastern.” The romantic, mystical Eastern other will save us. A student once told me that another teacher she practiced with was much more “Eastern” in her teaching. There are a few problems with this, aside from being incorrect and reductive (see Said, 1979). First, instructing students to “blossom your heart open” and to “let your shoulder blades kiss” to the beat of Girish is not “Eastern,” and a quick review of Indian yoga teachers will document this. Second, it encourages white Americans to run around in saris, dhotis, and bindis, preach about Hindu Gods, and otherwise unreflectively appropriate culture, somehow believing it secures their authenticity, spirituality and authority when it is, in fact, offensive to many.
I am not condemning behavior, nor am I promoting a disingenuous political correctness that can stifle real, transformative dialogue if people are too afraid to share their thoughts—thoughts they have shared or not, thoughts more likely changed if shared openly and respectfully than if kept shamed and hidden—for fear of being labeled inappropriate or wrong. I’m just asking that we think about it.
Two days after I wrote these first paragraphs (I’d stopped after the last, a bit stuck and annoyed by my tone), there was a a piece in the Guardian by Rashmee Kumar about a new Coldplay video. She writes: “If cultural appropriation means that a privileged group adopts the symbols and practices of a marginalized one for profit or social capital, then yes, Coldplay’s video is committing cultural appropriation” (Coldplay: only the latest pop stars to misrepresent India as an exotic playground, February 1, 2016). The video trended in Indian media, as Indians debated whether it was offensive or not. It seems that many weren’t offended so much as disappointed that after Coldplay had come and hung out with India’s hipsters, explored the music scene, and met with PM Narendra Modi, this cliché was the best they could do.
Coldplay’s video reinforces the rampant romanticization of India in American yoga culture (a quick search turned up a piece Kumar wrote while at Rutgers, “The Myth of the “Body Beautiful”: Representation and Commodification in Contemporary American Yoga Culture”). And while some may say, “This is harmless, don’t be so sensitive, this is better than being portrayed as gang rapists and beggars,” look at the power dynamics operating underneath the appropriation. Can you see how the idealized representations and the negative representations reinforce one another, depend on each other as the polarities of a “primitive” stereotype? If this sort of analysis isn’t your thing, then maybe just take in that it’s offensive to many. Why do you need to do it? What are you getting out of it? Be aware, and make your decisions accordingly.
With something like yoga, which is now (and long has been) an intercultural phenomenon regardless how we might feel about it, there is always risk of appropriation. Some feel the very act of doing yoga, if you aren’t Hindu, is appropriation. Others, Indians included, see no harm in appropriation or exotic representation, as in the the Coldplay video. My point here is not to rehash all this again, but to suggest we take a look at how we might appropriate culture in our yoga practice and teaching, myths and philosophy included. Are you comfortable with it? Do you know why you do it? Is it necessary? Can you talk about it? Is it serving you? Or is it just cool? Is it even authentic? Or is it New Age?
Why is so much of New Age yoga rhetoric and practice attributed to India and “the East”? It’s not only incorrect. At root, it’s not even about India. It’s about the hyper-rationality, hyper-literalism, and the sterile, affectless modernity of our own culture (which exists in the East as well). Can’t we be a little smarter than this?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Bhagavad Gita are certainly ancient. But historically, they had little to do with our asana-laden physical yoga until the modern age. More on this next time. Or the new age thing.