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."
"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.
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!"
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.