The Hostile New Age Takeover of Yoga
There's nothing worse than narcissism posing as humility.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against yoga—or Eastern disciplines in general. In fact, I've done tai chi exercises for many years.
No, it's the commodification and rhetorical dumbing-down of yoga culture that gets to me. The way something that once was—and still can be—pure and purifying has been larded with mystical schlock. Once a counterweight to our sweaty striving for ego gratification, yoga has become an unctuous adjunct to it.
There is the exploitative and ever-proliferating "yoga media." The advent of yoga fashion (the yoga mat, the yoga-mat carrier, and yoga-class ensembles). And worst of all, the yoga rhetoric, that soothing syrupy "yoga-speak" that we all know and loathe.
It all adds up to what a friend recently called the "hostile New Age takeover of yoga." "New Age" culture being those scented-candle shrines to self-worship, the love-oneself lit of The Secret, the "applied kinesiology"-type medical and metaphysical quackery used to support a vast array of alternative-this or alternative-that magical-thinking workshops and spa weekends. At its best, it's harmless mental self-massage. At its worst, it's the kind of thinking that blames cancer victims for their disease because they didn't "manifest" enough positive vibes.
One "manifestation" of this takeover is the shameless enlistment of yoga and elevated Eastern yogic philosophy for shamelessly material Western goals. Rather than an alternative, it's become an enabler. "Power yoga"! Yoga for success! Yoga for regime change! (Kidding.)
And then there's what you might call "Yoga for Supermarket Checkout Line Goals." Or as the cover story of Rodale's downmarket magazine YogaLife put it, yoga to: "BURN FAT FASTER!" (Subsidiary stories bannered on the YogaLife cover: "4 WAYS TO LOSE 5 POUNDS"; "ZEN SECRETS TO: HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS ... INSTANT CALM.")
Gotta love "Zen Secrets to Instant Calm," right? It goes right along with other cover lines like "Double Your Flexibility Today!" and "Heal Winter Skin Now!"
Clearly what the ancient inventors of yogic wisdom had in mind: Now! Instant! Today! Very Eastern, calm, and meditative right?
But even more insidious than the easily satirizable but at least down-to-earth and honest magazines like YogaLife—or ethereally serious ones like Yoga + Joyful Living (which coaches readers in "The Breath of Self-Understanding")—are the mainstream yoga publications such as Yoga Journal, one of the most popular, prosperous, and respectable yoga magazines.
In fact, my impetus for this examination of yoga media came from a sharp-witted woman I know who practices yoga but frankly concedes that—for her, anyway—it's less about Inner Peace than Outer Hotness. She called my attention to what she called an amazingly clueless—and ultimately cruel (to the writer)—decision by the editors of Yoga Journal to print a first-person story that was ostensibly about the yogic wisdom on forgiveness in relationships.
The story, which appeared in the December 2006 issue, was titled "Forgive Yourself." It's by this woman who tells us about an "intense" friendship she once had with a guy nearly 20 years ago, when they were 16. She says it was "never romantic," and it clearly wasn't—on his part.
Somehow she picked a fight with him—remember, this was 20 years ago. She defaced some "artwork" he'd done on the back of her jean jacket and danced with some other boys in an attempt to make him jealous.
She claims he gave her a "stricken" look.
Then, 20 years later, she starts to hound the guy. She claims she just happened to be going through some boxes and found a journal of his. She claims the journal convinced her that what she needed to do was apologize and ask his forgiveness. So she Google-stalks him, or, as she puts it: "With the help of an Internet search engine, I tracked him down and sent an e-mail. I told him I was sorry and that I hoped we could talk."
She "got no response but figured the e-mail address was out of date." Right.
Anyway she doesn't let that stop her. "After more digging"—by what methods we're not told—"I found a phone number and left a message on his machine."
Her message: "Wow, what a trip to hear your voice! … I missed you!"
He didn't call back.
But no response doesn't really mean no, to her. So, "a month later, in desperation, I sent him a short letter," in which she tells him, "You deserved better. I betrayed your love and friendship and I'm sorry. I made life worse for you and I regret it."
Doesn't regret it enough to stop pestering him now though. And notice how at first she'd disclaimed there was anything romantic, but now she's all "I betrayed your love." And then there's the poem: "I hope you can forgive me," she concludes the note, adding: "I included a poem I'd written for him some years earlier."
Restraining order time!
Instead he makes the mistake of responding. "About a month later an envelope arrived," she writes, "addressed in that familiar handwriting. I opened it with trembling hands and found a short note wrapped around my letter and poem."
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of people doing yoga on Slate's home page by Ryan McVay/Photodisc Green.