Yoga and Meditation Instruction is now a Performance Art

This is my second week based in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.  I’m writing this in my home-stay overlooking a rice field, slightly sweating in shorts and a t-shirt while it’s a cold and damp winter back home in Canada.  Thousands upon thousands of westerners come here for the “tropical paradise”, yoga classes, and spiritual teachers, hoping to provoke a meaningful life change.

Quite frankly, I’ve found this “paradise” depressing.  The capitalism and endless shops and services are convenient, but a huge chasm in terms of seeing the Balinese way of life.  And the capitalistic mentality infests yoga in a big way.

Yoga is a huge business here – most of the people I’ve met staying here are doing a yoga teacher training.  And it is a true business – centres maximising profit by having large classes, layers of marketing,  clothing lines, continually selling you not just on a particular technique, but a lifestyle, an experience, a way of being.  An identity.  In the class I attended a couple days ago, the teacher was a walking advertisement for yoga – young, beautiful, graceful, with a voice that belonged in a Club Med advertisement.  In other words, the tone and pacing were very controlled and slow, saccharine sweet, conveying “trust me” in all the overtones – but I had no idea who she was as a person.  She was a yoga performance artist.

If authenticity has any value – and it is part of what is “sold” – there is a major contradiction here.  In her voice, the subtler levels of communication were not at all about listening to one’s own body, which involves developing awareness of the whole of the mind/body system, including inner voices for autonomy and one’s own pacing.   It was about creating dependence.   As I looked around me at the 20 or so other yogis (all female), noticing how they breathed, the anxiety in their eyes, a deep unsettling realisation occurred to me.  I was looking mostly at yoga addicts.  In a cult-like atmosphere.

As far as addictions go, this is likely a far healthier one than heroin.  But I want to call it what it is: when you’re dependant on the yoga “vibe”, the blissed out smiles, trained to an automatic following of everything a teacher says, it’s an addiction, a cult-like dependence.  And like with any addiction, there is a cost.

What is Yoga, really?

This isn’t a dig against yoga in itself.  Yoga is a deep spiritual tradition dating back thousands of years, but much of it has been co-opted by our materialist culture.  From my trips to India I’ve understood Hatha Yoga, with its poses and asanas, was traditionally used as a vehicle to aid meditation, not as an end in itself.  According to Pantajali’s Yoga Sutra, postures are just one part of the journey – it describes 8 limbs, including basic morality and right, non-materialist living. (1)Other branches of Yoga include Jnana (spiritual knowledge, honing the mind – not just learning a bunch of sanskrit), Bhakti (service with the understanding of equality and oneness) and Raja (developing wholeness and union through meditation and transcending dualism).  Yoga is traditionally said to mean “union”, but a full expanding of Sanskrit meaning includes “to strand the ties of the mind together, and “to attain what was previously unattainable”.  It involves acting in such a way that all our attention (not just our spiritual part) is directed to the present activity.(2)Desikachar, “The Heart of Yoga”

The yoga teacher of Krishnamurthi, TKV Desikachar, taught that yoga was meant to be taught one on one, guru to disciple, because only then could instruction about deepening your relationship to your individual body be meaningful.  I took a workshop with one of his students, Oda Lindner, where every movement was slow, designed to focus not on the end result but on the process of motion itself, being present in every slow muscle movement.  It was this that I found incredibly helpful, a step towards a true union with my body.

Modern Yoga and Spiritual Materialism

Mathew Remski wrote recently that yoga can provoke a move towards a “deeper materialism”.  As I understand it, this materialism goes beyond having things, but treating one’s own body as a thing.  The body is a puppet, doing what ‘you’ want – but always trying to conform to the image of yoga postures, putting forward the best image of who one wants to be.  He says “The signs of spiritual virtue in modern global yoga have been inseparable from the visual demonstration of posture, the (usually orientalized) aesthetics of equanimity, and how both of these communicate (a usually ableist) transcendence.”

Ablist, sexy yoga – what does it actually convey?

In other words, it is a performance.  But as an actor, I look at it as a bad performance.  When you see an actor is trying so hard to be the character, force an emotion and body posture that isn’t coming from an authentic place, you call it bad acting.  Why do we not call this bad form of yoga what it is?  

There are indeed well-paid actors like Tom Cruise who act in this manner and are believable in limited roles – simply because there are many people who live their life like this.(3)From the clips in “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, it looks like Tom Cruise is paying a heavy internal price. In my recent yoga class, I didn’t notice any extra anxiety or mixed signals in the teacher, so she was believable as an performance – but again, not as a human being.  No signs of personal emotion, likes and dislikes or personal boundaries were evident.  It make me wonder, if this is her “yoga persona”, what is she really like as a person?

That barrier of a “public persona”, always putting forth one’s best face, can over time create much anxiety and stress.  There is a constant battle with an internal censor, often at a pre-conscious level.   It was possibly a factor in what lead to Buddhist teacher Michael Stone’s accidental overdose of fentanyl. It certainly was a major factor in my own burnout from the corporate world.  But when authenticity is sold in the package of wellness, this is an inherent contradiction and source of stress.

Meditation Marketing

In the world of meditation, I can see a similar trend.  Meditation has its own form of marketing, a vision of a peaceful world, and so people gravitate towards teachers who seem to emanate bliss and calm.  Yet I have not met a meditation teacher yet up close in North America who did not have a public persona, that “split” in the personality.  (This wasn’t so on my previous trip to India, though they were in the small minority).   I don’t mean this as an attack on teachers: I believe it is natural to teach what you most want to learn.  But if what is being taught is to be with what is, in the present moment, then teaching as a performance communicates one shouldn’t be present.  And that disservice to the teaching needs to be made evident.

Think of it: when there is an “ideal self” to show as a teacher then if anxiety, doubt, resentment or other “negative” emotions arise, it will be in some way suppressed or sublimated.  Yet something is shown in the present moment when this occurs, which is often heard by students at an unconscious, limbic system level.  We know when we’re being told surreptitiously to be numb, to suppress emotions and impulses.  It’s part and parcel of our education system, close to two decades of learning to be a “good student” instead of just learning by one’s own intrinsic curiosity.  Often what is not shown speaks volumes.   There is a huge difference, for instance, between a dynamic, vibrant silence with a free and expressive face, and a blank, static version of equanimity.  There is also a difference between a calm but generic advertising voice advocating bliss by yoga and a satisfied, full voice expressing the personal satisfaction gained by the practice.  The quality of a voice communicates so much.  Students will pick up on the difference at some level.

It is unfortunate that sometimes this turns into more of a cult dynamic, where the conscious mind of the student battles mostly unconscious body perceptions and the resulting doubt.  The doubt is taken to be an enemy, a sign that the student isn’t good enough, and so must dedicate themselves with more veracity.  But then again, it is rare that active exploration of subtle, covert messages are encouraged.

There is one western teacher I still love listening to who does seem to show where she’s at: Pema Chodron.  I’ve watched her and listened to her countless hours over the years, and I don’t see or hear the tightness or blankness that I’ve associated with many teachers.  She talks about anxiety like an old friend, and the continuity of the subtleties of her body and voice have helped me greatly in understanding being present.  She never intended to be famous, and it shows – she has a gentle laugh about it.

Authenticity is the real teacher

It’s helpful to understand to understand performance as the antithesis of mindfulness and being with what is.  At a basic level, mindfulness is about loving attention – not just to a part of one’s self, the “spiritual” part, but to all parts.  It’s the parts exiled from our public mask that need that kind attention the most.  And they can only come to the surface to receive that compassionate awareness when the need for performance is dropped.  Authenticity is itself the teacher.

Likewise, so much of what’s in our psyche shows up in our bodies.  There are movements and exploration that embody loving awareness of the physical, enhance proprioception, and lessen the divide of “possessing” a body instead of simply being with a body as a mode of awareness.  In every moment, the body is speaking its intelligence, which is often where emotional intelligence comes from – the gut.  Training one’s body to become a follower of some external yoga authority – joining the yoga ‘cult’ – lessens that awareness.  The body is in itself a great teacher, and one ignores it at one’s peril.

So when you go to a yoga class, or any spiritual teaching, ask yourself in the moment:  does this teacher help me be a whole self, undivided?  Even if the movement is small but definite, that is a teacher worth listening to.  If not, give yourself permission to leave before the class ends and treat yourself to what the core of your body wants to do.  That movement of self-care will help you move towards union.



1 Other branches of Yoga include Jnana (spiritual knowledge, honing the mind – not just learning a bunch of sanskrit), Bhakti (service with the understanding of equality and oneness) and Raja (developing wholeness and union through meditation and transcending dualism).
2 Desikachar, “The Heart of Yoga”
3 From the clips in “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, it looks like Tom Cruise is paying a heavy internal price.
November 9th, 2017|authenticity, meditation, transformation, Travel and Places, yoga|Comments Off on Yoga and Meditation Instruction is now a Performance Art