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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The Body Is A Vibrating Field

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“The roar of joy that set the worlds in motion

Is reverberating in your body

And the space between all bodies.

Beloved, listen”.

From The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche

2 stories:

I am midway through my yoga teacher training when my first child is born. When he is a few weeks old, I attend the weekly training session with him, at the behest of my teacher and fellow trainees.

As usual, we sit in meditation to begin. My son sleeps peacefully next to me on the mat, swathed in the blankets I have used countless times to pleat in complicated pranayama lifts, allow slippage and therefore safety of my neck in sarvangāsana, lie under to stimulate my surrender to savāsana.

I follow the map I have used before to settle my body, breath and mind, drawing in my antennae and opening up to my inner world. I dilligently follow my teacher’s instructions to return to my breath with gentleness towards myself. And yet – my child. Is he part of me? Should I include him in my awareness, or do I accept his proximity, his shiftings in body and breath, as some kind of benign distraction, the way I do with my fellow trainees? Should I withdraw from him, or is he part of what I am supposed to open up to? Where do I end and where does he begin? What and where is the “me”  and “mine” I am meant to be concentrating on?

The space between us hums, filled with he-and-i-ness, as obvious as my sitting bones pressing towards the ground, the sound of my teacher’s voice, the bright winter light filtering through my closed eyelids. I feel I am standing on the edge of something. I have no map for this territory.

*******

Several months later. I am strung out with exhaustion from night feedings and the intensity, demands and overwhelming emotion of new parenthood. I cry if I drop a teaspoon, get on buses going the wrong direction. I do not sleep in the day, when my son does, as I am constantly exhorted to do. I am a yogi, I plan to return to teaching soon, and I need to keep my thoracic spine from closing, to soothe my squashed hips, to massage my shoulders and arms, aching from constant carrying and feeding, with yoga. I haven’t been to class since before I became a mother, and my practice is a strange, shifting mix of quiet, still and restorative, and extremely physically demanding. I don’t know in advance of actually being there on the mat which extreme will predominate; like the rest of my life, yoga seems driven by something that, if not exactly external to me, is not in my direct control, either. I don’t know if my poses are the best they’ve ever been, because the effort required is so much more than muscular, or the worst – my body feels so strange and is often beset by aches, weaknesses, misalignments. I don’t know if I am freer than I have ever been, or if I am actually now enslaved by the constant feeding, changing, carrying; the soothing, caring, and loving that pours out of me like an un-dammed river.

It’s the hottest summer for a decade. Naked for much of the day and all of the airless, too-short night, I melt and dissolve in the brutal heat and the call of my child’s flesh for mine, mine for his. The shimmering space between he and I expands, condenses; stretches, retracts as we come together for feeds, leave each other as he drops into the arms of sleep while I practice, he lying on cool sheets next to limp curtains; me sweating in the stillest of sitting poses. I am at once grateful for this embodied experience of oneness, amused by its mundanity – nappy changing can be a self/other meditation! – confused by its proximity (do people engage in lengthy retreats to understand this spiritual fundamental? Am I kidding myself that this is even what is going on here?), and, somewhere, enraged that what I know of spiritual practice has never, ever led me to believe that it’s right here, in the muck and the mire and the mess of my utterly normal life. I am buoyed by this voyage of discovery, while deeply, unendingly alone as I undertake it.

Sleep train him“, friends, family and colleagues advise, when they see how ragged I am. “Then you’ll have time and energy for your yoga”. One sultry evening my husband and I droop with exhaustion and, after the extended feed that usually presages a few hours of deep sleep, we put the baby in his moses basket in the spare room, rather than next to our bed. He awakens almost immediately. Never having been left to feel the truth of his isolation in the world, his body as separation and loneliness – always having known his flesh as treasured, precious beyond measure, the co-generator of the mysterious connection between he and I, his snuffles quickly become gasps, then sobs, then screams, then high, bubbling wails. My husband and I sit in increasingly panicked silence on the other side of the wall. Is this normal? How does this lead to “self soothing”? How do other parents steel themselves against the agony playing out in the other room – and our own bodies?

The only way I can make sense of it is to commit what feels like a grievous violence – to ignore, even deliberately rupture, the thrumming space between my child and I. The space that comprises the physical relationship between my son and I has been filled, mainly, with coos, whispers, and giggles, soft sighs, intermittant exclamations, very occasional cries. A lovemaking of sorts. Now it vibrates with pain and need.

I am in tears within minutes. The act of going to him and bringing him back to us, and to himself, has set the tone for my parenting and my yoga practice ever since. I am following a meandering, deeply personal path to find the most precise tools that will allow me to hear and see the resonances between myself and my not-self: to investigate the communications and connections that flow, ceaselessly as the seasons and frequently as unheeded, between me and my immediate world – children, partner, the patch of wild Sussex countryside that seems to have claimed me as its own. Some days, I call the deliberate, patient tending to these relationships yoga. Some days it is parenting; others, partnering. Rarely at the moment, it is “teaching yoga”.  Increasingly, my practice both on and off the mat feels like ecology.

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In a fragile, uncertain and rapidly changing world, I want to have trust and faith in the invisible threads that connect us all. I view my parenting and my yoga as ways of exploring, honouring and nurturing those contact points, communications and connections. Along the way I have learnt that for me, my immediate world contains and generates all the fuel, practice opportunities, challenges and rewards that the most luxurious yoga retreat might promise. My horizons have narrowed, certainly: which means I can attend to the tiniest nuance of relationship.

I use the wonder of the relatively untraumatised flesh of my children, born at home, breastfed for years, snuggled in our bed for longer, as a kind of lodestar to draw out my disembodied, lost selves. What does untraumatised flesh, bodymind that knows itself as the centre of a spreading web of interdependence, look and behave like? How might it call to mine, and how might mine respond? If the gap between my flesh and others is as obvious as these two tales illustrate, mundane as they are, might the spaces between me and everyone else be more permeable, fluid, than I (maybe you?) previously thought? Might the call and response of flesh to flesh, both me and others, and me to myself, be trustworthy? Might this relational field in fact be the most trustworthy thing in my life? How might it deepen my understanding of myself? What memories, and new possibilities, of wholeness within myself might be called forth?