The hostile New Age takeover of yoga.

Scrutinizing culture.
March 21 2007 4:37 PM

The Hostile New Age Takeover of Yoga

There's nothing worse than narcissism posing as humility.

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"What part of no don't you understand?" his note said. "I never want to hear from you again." Cruel, true, but maybe "cruel to be kind."

"What part of no" does she not understand? Just about every single part of no there is.

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What does this have to do with yoga wisdom and its Western use? One might think yoga would counsel acceptance of his feelings. Instead, she takes it as an invitation for further intense inward gazing. Her interpretation: He's afraid of being hurt again. He just doesn't understand her: He thought "I clearly hadn't changed if I was expecting him to give me something (forgiveness) along with everything I'd taken from him." (Don't worry, it took me several readings to figure this out too.)

"I sat down and started to cry. I felt as if I'd been punched in the gut. What could I do now? How would I ever be able to move on?"

So, using her deep yogic intuition again she decides there is one way of "moving on": She can write a several-thousand-word article for Yoga Journal about him and her and how we all can learn something from this about "forgiveness."

"Moving on"? Somehow one wonders if she sent the article to him, perhaps with another poem. And an invitation to "journal" their way to a mutual understanding. Or maybe meet to discuss "closure"?

But look, it's not really her fault; we've all been there. As my sharp-witted friend, who is herself an editor, points out, it is here one has to question the deep yogic wisdom of the editors of Yoga Journal who don't seem to be able to—or want to—see what is going on and instead encourage the writer's "journey"—her quest, her stalking—of "self-discovery."

Thus, we get the classic Western women's magazine "relationship story" translated into Eastern yoga-speak. Indeed they give it prominent placement in the issue and subject their readers to the endless New Age clichés of pablum-dispensing yoga-wisdom "experts" who further encourage the hapless writer not to move on but to dwell endlessly, excruciatingly, on the microanalysis of the situation.

Instead of counseling her just to leave the poor guy alone, they direct her to dwell on her need to forgive herself: Some "research associate" at Stanford tells her "when people can't forgive, their stress levels increase which can contribute to cardiovascular problems."

The poor young woman! All she wants is help, and now she's told she's going to have a heart attack.

Another yogic savant, a "clinical psychologist with Elemental Yoga in Boston" even disses the poor guy and further encourages the writer's obsession, clearly getting the whole thing wrong: "He's the one that can't let go," the "yoga therapist" opines. Right. I guess he wrote that poem to himself.

More yogic "experts" are brought in to prescribe even more "work" on herself. Instead of advising her to leave the whole thing behind, and perhaps perform some act of compassion for someone who needs real help (the admirable Eastern tradition), the yoga experts advise her to enmesh herself in a tediously obsessive spiral of self-examination, which the magazine compounds by prescribing a five-step forgiveness ritual for achieving—you guessed it!—"closure."

The interminable ritual, which is the work of the purportedly steeped-in-yogic-wisdom editors, not the unfortunate writer, begins with "a ritual bath" complete with "scents" and "candles."

Then there's the inevitable "journal" in which you must write down all your "thoughts, feelings and memories." ... "What you learned ... what you'll change ... anything that comes into your head." It's a full-time job!

But that's not all there is to the endless forgiveness ritual (which, remember, is not about forgiving him but forgiving herself because he won't forgive her), there's the semi-demi witchcraft aspect: "Write down the patterns you seek to change in yourself; then burn what you've written." (They neglect to add, "Use this as reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detector.")

But it's not over, the endless ritual. You must next and last, "Send yourself flowers when you've completed letting go."

No premature floral deliveries, mind you. Only when you've "completed" letting go, which sending yourself flowers certainly signals. OK maybe one more poem, but that's it! This is the kind of misguided narcissism (it's always all about you; metaphorically, it's all sending flowers to yourself) that gives yoga, an ancient, honorable tradition, a bad name. This is what is meant by the "hostile New Age takeover of yoga." All this hectoring about the right way to feel. Yoga and other Eastern disciplines are supposed to work from the inside out and not depend on product placement candles, scented bath oils, and "yoga therapists."

And it's still not over! If the ritual bath and flower-sending don't do the trick, there's a "four-step practice rooted in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that can take us through the process of making amends." You could spend a lifetime "moving on" from some imagined 20-year-old incident. Then move on to the next incredibly elaborate "Moving On" ceremony. You never get to move in, or move out.

The final step in the great journey of self-understanding the Yoga Journal editors have force-marched her on is realizing it's all about her "relationship with herself." Whitney Houston yoga: I found the greatest love of all—Me! It's the return of New Age Me-generation narcissism. And there's nothing worse than narcissism posing as humility.

Hey, if Buddhism and other Eastern traditions are about compassion, why not skip the scented bath, skip making amends with the self, skip realization of "the opportunity to embrace aparigraha or non-grasping." Instead, go down to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and help some people who don't have the resources to send flowers to themselves, people who actually need help. Rather than continuing the endless processes of anointing yourself with overly scented candlelit self-love.

After all this self-indulgence, it's almost refreshing to turn to a yoga magazine that offers stuff like, "BURN FAT FASTER!"