Gotcha: modern western yoga culture and toxic mimicry

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Many disparate and wide-ranging factors are combining to create a culture in which what we commonly view as “yoga” is in fact a toxic mimic. A term I am borrowing from permaculture, toxic mimicry describes the present situation more starkly and effectively than the constant bandying about of esoteric terms such as avidya or kali yuga (meaning ignorance/misconceptions/misunderstandings and the present-day era of strife, war and material focus, as described by Hindu scripture). (Incidentally, although permaculture is of course a world populated by complicated and flawed individuals with unacknowledged shadows, it is one with far more of a focus on ethics than the modern yoga one has*.)

Toxic mimicry describes a situation within an ecosystem in which an animal lures prey by taking on characteristics and/or behaviours in order to mimic the healthy food source. Applied to yoga, the teaching of poses and breathwork, chanting and devotional singing that has proliferated in the west within the last fifteen to twenty years certainly bears resemblance to practices described in ancient texts, and in some cases passed down in what is claimed as living tradition (parampara). But while modern yoga looks like something we assume to be yoga, I contend that very, very few of us in the west, even in a small way, know what yoga actually is. I include myself in this. We may certainly have inklings and flashes and partial understandings. But because our society is so profoundly disconnective – it actually requires disconnection in order to survive, and therefore has evolved multiple insidious means of separating us from ourselves, our fellow humans and non-humans – our resultant perspective of fragmentation, alienation and atomisation ensures that we are unable to say what it is to be whole. We are further entangled in the confusion by our society’s immature spirituality – who of us can say that they have a true teacher, who can light our path to wholeness because they are intimate with it themselves? And, do we even want one? Are we able to make wise, discerning  choices as regards surrender and trust?

Yoga has become a toxic mimic because although it may bear hallmarks of what we presume to be “the real thing”, it has the paradoxical effect of separating us from yoga as a path to wholeness and freedom. Yoga has taken on the characteristics required to be accepted by our culture. It values the effervescent surface over depth, privileges male voice over female, replicates uneven power structures, and positions yoga as a package to consume rather than a ceaseless, intensely personal process. Let’s make no mistake – there is nothing that is accepted or propagated by late capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal, colonising white culture that wants you to feel whole, worthy, or connected. Happy people don’t buy Product, and are disinterested and even bored by the notion of having power over others. To be accepted by mainstream culture, yoga has had to stop being Yoga.

This is not to say that there aren’t pockets, here and there, of what may be the Real Thing. But they are rare gems, and one has to get exceedingly lucky (“ripened karma”?), or mine a terrifying lonely seam, in order to unearth them. As practitioners in our costly, purpose-made yoga trousers, at an expensive retreat on a tropical island thousands of miles from home, sipping from plastic water bottles and lying on mats made of a finite resource – no matter the quality of teachings received – we will be under the impression that what we are doing is Yoga. As teachers, posting shiny pictures of ourselves in advanced asana, or gushing that we’re “inspired” by those photos (hashtag soboredofreadingthat), clamouring to cover classes when our teacher goes away to teach that retreat (and secretly hoping that we’ll be able to do the same one day); rather than promoting or supporting yoga, we ensnare ourselves in our culture’s myths about freedom and happiness, and we add a brick of our own making into the edifice of that shameful culture. Don’t think you can beat it at its own game. It’s bigger and stronger than you, with all your oms and your many hours of practice and your acolytes … bigger, even, in the final analysis, than your moments on the mat broken and teary and lost and bewildered that feel like truthful, breakthrough practice.

Human beings have an innate need for attachment and belonging, and as little ones we evolve highly creative ways to prioritise our primary bonds. If our authenticity bumps up against the relationships with our caregivers, we are hardwired to at ignore, squash and even disown our individual truths. This pattern continues throughout a life, particularly an un-looked-at life, in which the inner work of mature individuation from groupthink (which is in fact indivisible from being able to experience that oft-used yoga translation, union) is not undertaken. I believe that we are all to some degree drawn towards a path of wholeness, but in the most common scenario, practitioners and teachers both seek out these kind of “yoga” scenes again and again in order to meet our needs of fellowship and inclusion. Perhaps one in a hundred of us will meet and study with a true teacher who can mirror us our wholeness, perfection and unique preciousness. (Maybe the number is way lower.) The rest of us, driven by the unconscious, unslakeable need to be accepted, plus a bite-sized morsel of apparent spiritual teaching, will take what’s on offer.

For me – I have no problem with admitting that I don’t know what liberation, or true happiness, or unending compassion looks like, feels like. Stretching back to childhood, I have had regular flashes of experience that I could label with these attractive-sounding buzzwords. But I’m starting to understand that an aptitude for such states has probably predisposed me to try and get this fix in my adult life any way I can. What is on offer in order to support this to full maturity is, I’m sorry to say, woeful. It’s groundwork at best. Apologies, yoga friends, but most of it isn’t even that. It is a lure. The hook can’t be yoga, because it’s a hook: they are totally at odds.

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Sure, some of these will be fun, and challenging, and supportive on some levels. But … yoga?

And thus, through attending teacher trainings and workshops and immersions and retreats, and 200-hour or even 500-hour “Yoga” Alliance-accredited trainings in this stuff, we’re ensnarled in a cycle of consumption and being deafened to our own barely-glimmering wisdom that leads us ever-further from liberation, because liberation simply cannot be bought or sold. We cannot buy insight or truth. They cannot be sold, because they belong to us to begin with, and to try to conveniently package them is therefore a heinous theft. There are the result of the steady, determined, tortuous journey of unpicking our inner, secret selves, and our worldly selves, and the relationships between them. If the worldly self plays the game of the world and thinks it can win, the inner self will suffer. This is not to say that there is no value in teacher trainings, or in having a teacher. It is not to say that what is called yoga has no value, either. But it is certainly a call to waking up to what it is we are training in, and teaching, and not misrepresenting them because we gain personally from that.

* See this list if you think the modern yoga world is peace, union, love and light.

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2 thoughts on “Gotcha: modern western yoga culture and toxic mimicry

  1. Yoga is a way to explore the self. Of course when it reaches mainstream, then the mainstream self will explore the self, never the less the self gets explored. To go beyond the self the watcher has to look back at himself. Waking up is when awareness is aware of itself and this view is stabilized in daily life. Then living from awareness, the ground of being, happens effortless. You become a Dzogchen yogi, which is fearless, because he/she does not need to fear the illusions and dying of the self anymore. From the ground of being qualites like compassion, gratitude, humbleness, loving-kindness, will arise effortlessly.
    In the words of Dogen:
    “To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others”
    Mainstream yoga is maybe like kindergarden of spiritual development, where – like in human development – the ego has to grow at some point. But this step will be outgrown like any step in human development. All the young and coming yogis will eventually look for awareness teachers. There are many, rooted in buddhist tradition or advaita-vedanta. As well as integral teachers. Waking up on a planetary scale is a possible reality and once it is here, we will look back with more appreciation at the yoga movement and our times where it all started.
    E ma ho. What a revelation.

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  2. hi matthias. thanks for reading and commenting. i don’t disagree with your analysis at all (and my husband is a dzogchen practitioner), but you’ve left out part of the equation.

    when people are making money out of peddling what we might graciously call teenaged spirituality, for many it follows that there is little incentive to level up from that. in fact, being able to pay one’s mortgage off teaching profits acts as a disincentive, since moving away from a seemingly bottomless pool of potential students will bring economic risk. that means that only certain people will be in the position to offer teachings that have substance – those without a family, or who have financial backers, for instance. so the current structure of the industry privileges some and disadvantages others. we can’t just wave this away with “it’s all good; everyone wakes up eventually” platitudes. we might as well say that about trump. i carefully cultivated this sort of attitude for many years. now, i’m astonished at how entrenched my ignorance was about the realities of living under late capitalist settler colonial patriarchy. and not a little annoyed at the ways my alleged spiritual practice allowed me to not have to look at these facts, meaning i was actually complicit.

    peace x

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