Thank you to Satish K Sharma.
“If Google is the engine that drives the internet, personal information is the oil that makes it purr … What began as a hopeful, democratic mission to make the internet free for all in the 1990s has, when fed through the late capitalist mincer, resulted in a digital economy that runs on microtransactions of identity” – excerpt from an article in The Guardian, May 2018
In Part 1 of this piece, I drew attention to some aspects of the workings of the yoga marketplace and how they might impact upon teaching and practicing yoga. I contended that the creation of yoga niches and the relentless sharing of personal experience that now characterise the industry are perfect examples of neoliberal capitalism in the digital age. In this second half, I continue my exploration, looking at the ways we present our yoga self to the world, and considering traditional methods of yoga transmission for perspective.
It’s probably very difficult, if not impossible, to enter the yoga teaching industry nowadays without having to expend at least the same amount of time and energy on marketing as you do your actual yoga practice. (Established teachers may simply pay someone else to do it for them.) At least to some degree – and you may engage in this without knowing or naming it as such – you have to create a yoga product to sell. Even though yoga is above all a process, and a process does not easily lend itself to being neatly packaged and attractively presented, offered up to all takers, most of us presume that we have to engage in this process in order to participate.
Because part of the mechanism of the marketplace is to blind us to its workings, we can fall into making yoga into a product without knowing. Commerce is so ubiquitous as to be a social behavioural patterning: as a default setting, we are powerfully conditioned to replicate its modes of operation even with (perhaps especially with) things we treasure, and even if we consider ourselves avowedly anti-capitalist. Teaching what is relevant to our modern lives within the context of modern life and its trappings is a tremendously difficult balance to strike. And god only knows how one goes about navigating one’s realisations about these issues if we’re already paying a mortgage and supporting dependants through our yoga profits. (It can be done. Honesty helps; here’s how one teacher approaches this.) But I want to make a plea here – remind you, if you prefer, of your human rights – to not commodify absolutely everything. Quaint, I know.
Because it turns out, you see, that the endless self-promotion, marketing and networking in the name of “sharing yoga” might also be the creation and cultivation of a yoga-practicing and/or-teaching persona. And, that this might function as a mask more readily than it presents our genuine experience of yoga. As that character acquires status and market power (students, wealth), we become more and more required to perform that character, and to carefully curate her/him and his/her presentation to the world (real and digital) in ways that might, in the end, be deeply damaging to both us and to what yoga becomes through us.
Emma Bonanno, reading Foucault on power and institutions, contends that social media platforms are inherently restricted as regards the potential for presenting a “true”, whole “you”. A Medium article entitled “Instagram Basics for Yoga Teachers” says it even more plainly:
You are a three-dimensional human being with a broad range of interests, opinions, and emotions. However, if you let all of that run rampant in your posts, you’ll dilute your personal brand as a yoga teacher.
For yoga practitioners and teachers, this intersects with fascinating questions about whether we can brand authenticity; whether there even is such a thing, and whether it is inseparable from marketing to such an extent that it doesn’t really exist as we in modern-day yogaland would perhaps like to believe it does. Although we might hold yoga innovators such as Vivekananda, Krisnamacharya and BKS Iyengar in higher regard than, say, John Friend of Anusara over-reach infamy, or franchises such as Moksha Yoga or Lush Tums teacher trainings, it’s clear that such luminaries also engaged in deliberate promotion of their “authentic” yoga in the form of lecture tours, book deals, and influential employment. In some ways there is little difference, other than the means of engagement and the platforms utilised, between the entrepreneurship of the famous old masters and the familiar 2018 yoga hustle.
But deeper than this, I think that regardless of whether we engage with social media as a marketing tool or prefer to stick to photocopied flyers and attractive patter, there is a very real possibility that in making yoga a product, especially if this is intimately tied to our own personal practice, we not only blur the lines between public and private in ways that might have as-yet unknowable consequences down the line, but we also blur the lines between the practicing self, the teaching self, the teaching product, and the self as product. If we sell our practice, how can we be sure we do not sell ourselves as product?
For those of us not held within lineage, and who are more or less reliant upon our local communities, peers, kulas and sanghas to provide support and accountability – communities which have at most a few decades of experience in navigating the ever-shifting terrain between personal and public, and which are themselves subject to the same pressures of capitalism and the same steep learning curves that accompany the digital age – how can we be sure that we are not offering up for public consumption that which is deeply intimate and private? Is yoga practice not primarily personal, bound up with our individual internal world? Is yoga not an experience of interiority first and foremost without which we are buffeted around by the whims of the world? What does it become once it is always and forever on display, at the mercy of those very whims? Do we even care at this point?
By building a personal brand based on personal practice experience, we also create a commodified self. My online feeds are full of shiny-haired marketing experts offering me the opportunity to learn (read: pay for expertise in) how to create “a brand called you”, my “best version” of myself, how to “leverage my life”. Some of these are odious and silly, others slicker and more attractive. There are politically-savvy, socially-engaged folk such as Kelly Diels who regularly writes about her astute insights on how to align our marketing with our personal politics in the form of, for instance, “feminist marketing tips” and “a feminist fix for your “about” page”. While at first glance this seems laudable, we should question whether this effectively undermines the inherent capitalist thrust of packaging up our experience, or merely ties us more invisibly and therefore tightly to the marketplace. The fact that we are engaged in creating a self-product to be bought and sold is obscured.
Now, this is not palatable to most yogafolk, but sociologists and political scientists have long noted that commodification is a classic device of neoliberalism. In this schema, the self, and the relationship to both the private self and the public, self-in-the-world, are constructed in highly specific ways. An essential part of its mechanism is promoting the notion that everything is a resource, including our most personal, intimate experiences. In fact, in a world hungry for novelty, the more intimate and raw the better. In yogaland, we call this “authenticity”.
(Note re image: a few days into this blog being online, I am aware that it is getting quite a lot of attention. I took the photo from a public Instagram account which I consider epitomises the phenomenon of visual displays of intimacy being used as a powerful marketing tool. The cat head was added to anonymise the woman. Thanks to all who contacted me and commented on what became a rather more startling image than I intended!)
The normalisation of a yoga self available for consumption in the marketplace, and then rewarded by that marketplace in the form of students, followers, facebook likes (and blog comments!) forms a closed loop in which the tethering of the self to the product becomes invisible – and therefore impossible to critique. We see this at work in the regular online spats between yoga teachers. (Of course, as the lines between “real” and digital become increasingly blurred, real-life conflict often spills over into the virtual realm, too, and vice versa.) When a teacher’s public image is tied to their brand, the fact that that brand necessarily exists in the uncertain territory between private and public, and is very often both at the same time, makes it very difficult to engage in any kind of constructive conversation about what they are teaching – their product.
Given that so much of modern yoga is determinedly severed from lineage, we might think that critical and self-reflective dialogue is inevitable as we all try to work it out as we go along. We might also think that by engaging in this kind of peer support network (as opposed to the vertical power structures that are presumed to characterise traditional yoga, and which modern yoga often explicitly wants to move away from), our discussions and debates should even be fruitful. But what tends to happen is that teachers – here I use the term loosely, to include yoga commentators, academics and “thought leaders”, as well as those who regularly document their yoga progress online – become so attached to their product, because it performs their authentic personal experience, that conversations about the product are also about them as private individuals. Therefore, any critique is viewed through the lens of product-as-self, and is taken as personal attack, if not by the individual her/himself, then by students or supporters. As well as making it very difficult to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion (including ones about this very issue), and it also means that the “winners” are those who are structurally advantaged in the first place. Those with the economic stability behind them to engage in sustained online conversations, rather than those who are continually dashing out of the door to teach their next class in order to cover the rent; those with large social media followings and student bodies and/or yoga cultural cache – these are the determinants of who controls the online yoga narratives.
Many of us studying the history and geo-politics of yoga as part of our practice have a keen interest in understanding where we stand as regards the guru/student relationship. Historically, this was an integral part of the methodology of yoga transmission. In some circles it has been getting a bad rap for a good while, but fuelled by larger tides of social change, yogaland is currently undergoing a systematic dethroning of an astonishing number of its beloved teachers. To be clear – I believe that we absolutely should all work to bring to light the appalling abuse that has occurred within the traditional guru/student model, and the abuse, exploitation and heavy-handed wielding of power that Westerners who fall or step into the guru role all too often perpetrate.
Of course, yoga, to be effective – we might say to be yoga at all – has to be relevant, and it is inevitable that in its waves of expansion and contraction, it will lose some elements and gain others. Yoga has always done this anyway, showing up in particular cultures and at particular historical junctures in different forms, manifesting in specific ways. So on the one hand, it is entirely appropriate that we interrogate the guru-student relationship, assessing its suitability, safety and relevance for our modern lives. But – if, at the same time as stripping out some of yoga’s elements, we do not then replace them with something workable, sustainable, and grounded in the reality of – here’s a radical suggestion – actual yoga, it seems to me that a void will open up. And in that space, our most hidden conditioning will kick in, and we’ll call it “freedom”, “safety” and “modernity”. All sorts of ideas and beliefs find a foothold in this shadowy place, and yoga starts to get organised around them. In short, by deconstructing traditional yoga supports and frameworks such as guru-student in order to bring them in line with our modern sensibilities, we might be opening up a dangerous space for the ultimate sacred cow – free market ideology – to become the new authority. Yoga, simultaneously emancipated and unmoored by its decoupling from cultural specificity, its gatekeepers thoroughly demonised, becomes subject to our most invisible, insidious dominant norms. And so the most saleable ideas become yoga’s guiding principles. Those with market clout become the new gurus. Suddenly yoga is all about fascia, or biomechanics, and it has a whole host of new gurus, happy to take up that mantle when it applies to their particular area of expertise rather than fusty old Indians.
There is a marked modern proclivity towards trashing traditional yoga teaching relationships that is troubling on many levels. To reiterate – we must be unstinting in our efforts to uproot power structures that enable abuse, and we must hold those responsible to account, and interrogate how we might uphold dominator-paradigm dynamics within our own yoga communities. However, it’s not clear to me how this justifies the systematic diminishment of the guru-student relationship, especially when it also seems to involve the keepers of the yoga flame being replaced by imperious Westerners with minimal direct experience of such matters. There are surely at least as many healthy and productive guru-student dyads as there are appalling cases of manipulation and exploitation; the fact that we hear far more about the latter says as much about our own proclivities than it does the bare facts. Just because the internet is not a-buzz with accounts of yoga students happily receiving teachings within a traditional framework doesn’t mean they are not happening. Moral imperatives do not mean that we need to undertake a pre-emptive rescue mission on the behalf of Western students who might, apparently, find themselves entangled within a cult or a dupe of the right-wing nationalist Hindu project without it.
Quite why all of this isn’t seen as grossly entitled neo-colonialism surprises me. It seems both entangled within but wanting to set itself apart from the uneasy relationship between the West and India. It begs the question of quite who, if anyone, is qualified to undertake such delicate and nuanced work, especially on the behalf of others. The tendency also intersects uncomfortably with other problems in the yoga industry. Systemic, ingrained racism and Hinduphobia take many forms, from our chronic inability as white folk to look at how we might benefit from these, and therefore have no impetus to uphold or amplify Indian voices and authority, right through to feeling we have the right to right to present the multiplicity of student-guru relationships in ways that suit our agenda and bank balance.
I think it’s safe to say that none of us outside of the system are in a position to comment with authority on guru-student relationships, and that includes me. It’s also clear that as is par for the course within yoga in India, its forms and manifestations are far too numerous and divergent to be effectively captured within a blog post. The impossibility of pinning the phenomenon down notwithstanding, simply for the purposes of highlighting aspects of the formulation of the Western yoga self, perhaps we can make a number of broad generalisations. For instance: within some traditional teaching relationships, a student was expected to undertake the process of determining a teacher’s suitability for him or herself, and would not devote him or herself to a teacher without due diligence. (Texts exist to help students make the relevant assessments.) A teacher would assess a student’s suitability and readiness to receive teachings at the same time. Teacher and student would therefore engage in a mutually supportive and satisfying relationship, within which the time-honoured teachings of yoga would be preserved, at the same time as being honed and refined for that specific relationship. The individual guru-student relationship would form the newest link in a chain of transmission stretching back through the particular lineage, intersecting with other lineages along the way, both immersing and locating the student in a web of connection.
Never having had the privilege to study at source, I have only vague ideas about the workings of parampara, the student-guru relationship and oral transmission. Some will no doubt say I’m naïve. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that the truth, at least for most practitioners, lies somewhere in vast territory between guru-as-saint and guru-as-despicable-abuser. This polarisation seems emblematic of Western modes of thinking in itself; its insistence on categorisation, on either/or, and its discomfort with both/and. And I am confident that despite the current onslaught of stories of abuse and exploitation that the system, and its Western copiers, has enabled, traditional methods of yogic transmission can also act as a crucible for experiencing, understanding and teaching yoga in ways that offer a radically different relationship to the self from the dominant Western one. The Self as discoverable in relationship, self as relationship, self embedded within community, self guided by another through careful, respectful, mature, reciprocal teaching, not to “be its best self” but to uncover the true nature of self: these are very different experiences to those of the tight little bundle of I-ness at the centre of the world fostered by modern yoga culture.
And so here’s the thing that I want to scream every time I see yet another heinous yoga mashup, yet another new training on the block advertised with yawn-inducing imagery and shallow new age pop culture, all owing something to their existence to and dependent upon the glorification and gratification of Western selfhood. Yoga is and always has been primarily concerned with the true nature of selfhood and its relationship to reality.
As a quick introduction to this topic which I explore in Part 3: I could pick any number of pithy quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, which states clearly in numerous places that yoga is a practice of self-understanding. “Yoga is the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self” (6 20). The Gita, of course, is based in an understanding of yoga as a spiritual practice, and so perhaps doesn’t speak to modern Western practitioners, lovers as we are of asana, and ever more mistrustful of religious trappings as we are being conditioned to become by the Western yoga industry. So let’s turn briefly to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which even the most perfunctory teacher training at least nods to. Edwin Bryant, in his translation and commentary, states that it is a text “concerned with realization of the true self” (pg 188). Alistair Shearer’s translation and commentary, which has a definite Buddhist flavour, speaks of “the quest for the Self” (and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is the title of Stephen Cope’s Vedanta-, Western-psychology-influenced 2001 book). My first introduction to yoga philosophy came in the form of Iyengar’s translation-commentary, which one the very first page posits “self” and its “shape or form as ‘I’” as the central concern of the yogic project.
Modern-day yoga culture, however, has certain factors within it, and has entangled with certain others (social media, visual culture, celebrity culture, the entertainment industry, the wellness industry) which obscure and distort this central concern. Further, they simultaneously construct the self, and the relationship to that self, in highly specific, sometimes conflicting ways. And it turns out that every single one of the ways that modern-day yoga culture encourages the view and experience of the self is in direct opposition to the nature of the self according to classical Yoga, which, let’s remember, is supposed to bring us freedom from suffering.
In Part 3 of this piece, I look at yoga’s philosophy and ethics, and how this provides us with tools to locate and make sense of our selfhood. This is used to illuminate the restrictive and dissociative yoga “self” neoliberal capitalism demands of us. I also consider ways in which we might integrate anything herein we find resonant, both at the level of the individual practitioner/teacher and as members of our yoga communities.