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.”
|↑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.|