Coming close on the heels of L’Affaire Toesox, the highly publicized launch of Tara Stile’s new book – catchily entitled Slim Calm Sexy Yoga – has once again got me thinking a lot about the tricky relationship between yoga and North American culture.
And it is tricky. Because even though part of me would simply like to denounce the crass commercialization of yoga and be done with it, an even bigger part doesn’t feel justified in doing that.
But why not?
After all, I don’t think that having prominent yoga teachers push highly commercialized images of “slim sexy” bodies, along with weird promises such as shrinking practitioners from a “size 8 to 00” (see ad below) is OK. On the contrary, I think that it’s pushing the evolution of American yoga in precisely the wrong direction: one that undermines, rather than strengthens, its potential to heal our hyper-materialistic and spiritually disconnected society.
Still, when I listen to those who hold the opposite viewpoint – who think that the images and messages associated with SCSY and the like are inclusive and inspiring, that they’ll bring more people to the practice and that it’s all good – I recognize many of my own, most deeply held values. Up to a point, their arguments really do resonate with me.
So both out of a sense of identification, as well as basic respect, I don’t want to just denounce the pro-SCSY arguments as wrong-headed. Instead, I want to try and parse out why I think that they incorporate some really beautiful values – and why I believe that many in the yoga community are applying these values in confused and confusing ways.
As I see it, the underlying issues boil down to democracy, spirituality, and culture.
“Yoga is for Everybody”
For those of you who haven’t been following the discussion, SCSY hit a nerve in the blogosphere with the following ad:
True, even fans of Tara Stiles have had a hard time justifying these over-the-top promises to “burn bra fat” and so on. Nonetheless, most easily wrote them off as unfortunate distractions from the virtues of the book itself – which, they argue, is a valuable introduction to yoga for a mass market audience.
“Using the language (of weight loss, de-stressing, and sex) that so many people already understand to deliver a yogic message might just be a great step towards a communication that permeates the people more broadly,” wrote blogger Brooks Hall in a popular Elephant Journal post. Most readers loved her perspective: “Yoga is universal with a different meaning for each one of us,” one reader approvingly explained.
I love this very open, inclusive perspective too – but only up to a point.
I love the deeply democratic commitment to bringing yoga “to the people” – making it accessible to everyone by reaching out to meet them where they are right now. And it’s precisely because I share this value, and think that it’s really important, that I can’t simply denounce SCSY, much as it turns me off on a personal level.
Plus, I can’t ignore the fact that numerous testimonials on Tara Stile’s You Tube channel (and elsewhere) demonstrate that she is in fact turning people onto yoga. “Thank You Soooo Much for your Video's,” one fan enthused. “I am Learning so much, I am a beginner and you have made it so simple for me to follow, I have been doing Yoga for about a week now, going on to week two and loving it. You Rock!”
So Who Am I (or Anyone Else) to Judge?
Given such glowing praise, one might well ask: Who am I (or anyone else) to criticize such successful mass-market yoga? It seems churlish, if not selfish, to insist that the “Slim Calm Sexy” approach is moving yoga in the wrong direction if it’s seemingly working for so many so well.
And indeed, some are not shy about accusing critics of being unnecessary pains. “I find this whole debate so irritating,” fumed one commentator. “The idea that someone who is practicing x and x yoga style or at a gym somewhere isn't practicing real yoga is demeaning. Should they just pack up and go home then? It's just another way for some people to be elitist and divisive.”
Tara Stiles herself a similar argument in a recent Huffington Post article (pointedly entitled “Getting Real About Yoga and Weight Loss.”) Here, she criticized those who believe that yoga should be about “something other than weight loss, something wrongly perceived as deeper, more intellectual or psychologically superior”:
There are people who intensely clutch an idea that yoga is a higher system, not to be lowered to the weight loss or even fitness category. This is the same kind of clutching that has kept yoga part of a tightly knit club for so long, since its introduction in America. I am standing up for yoga, because if yoga was a person, she/he would have no part of any superior air.
Wow. That’s quite a statement: If you believe that yoga is about more than weight loss, then you’re a part of an elitist, exclusivist clique!
IMHO, that’s a very weird position for a yoga teacher – not to mention one who’s the official instructor to Deepak Chopra – to take.
The Pitfalls of Yogic Populism
But then again, maybe not: after all, this kind of quasi-populist reasoning is all too common in America today. In my view, however, it’s precisely where the democratic commitment to bringing yoga to the people goes wrong.
American society has largely embraced a lowest-common-denominator approach to democracy, one that accepts no standards other than what’s popular in the mass market. It’s the “tyranny of the majority” - now fueled along by manipulative, aggressive, and lavishly funded marketing and advertising campaigns.
By this logic, if weight loss is more popular than spiritual growth, then it is, by definition, wrong to insist that the latter is more valuable than the former. Following this line of reasoning, the contemporary “yogic” desire to sculpt a hot bod must be elevated to a status of at least equal importance with more traditional commitments, such as cultivating non-violence, truthfulness, and non-covetousness. To suggest otherwise would be (I suppose) divisive and elitist.
Say what? Much as I try to wrap my head around it, it still boggles my mind that I’m living in a society where prominent yoga teachers teach that it’s wrong to believe that spirituality is more valuable than weight loss.
How did we arrive at such a confused and confusing place?
The Problem of Standards
While I can’t fully answer that question, I can think of some things that help explain the weirdness of American yoga culture:
- When yoga was transplanted from India to North America, it lost its organic connection with any guiding spiritual tradition. Although yoga was never exclusively tied to Hinduism, in India there was (and is) a natural connection to its vast religious and spiritual resources. In North America, no such deep cultural link between yoga and spirituality exists.
- Many people – including many yoga practitioners – are extremely uncomfortable with the term “spirituality.” It’s very vague and has off-putting, flaky, New Age-y associations.
- In contrast, improving our physical and mental health – both as individuals and a society – is an important, pressing, and popular cause. It’s very concrete, and has many positive associations.
- We hold strong democratic values. So, it makes sense that anything that’s seen as contributing to a popular cause (health, or more broadly, improving our physical bodies) trumps an amorphous, counter-cultural, and confusing value (spirituality).
- All of this is unfolding in a context in which democracy has been made into the servant of neo-liberal capitalism. Alternative visions of American democracy – ones that don't put materialist, market values at the center of everything – have been under attack and in remission for the past several decades. (The main groups protesting the eclipse of non-market values have been religious fundamentalists, who, it's safe to say, aren’t exactly a strong presence in the yoga community.)
The result? A society in which yoga practitioners and even teachers can – no doubt with the best of intentions! – advocate the view that it’s elitist to believe that yoga should be about something more meaningful than weight loss.
Yoga, Spirituality, and Democracy
I disagree. I don’t think that it’s elitist to hold fast to a higher vision of yoga. I don’t think that it’s exclusivist to believe that the work of the yoga teacher is to help people connect to their authentic selves; their inner spirits. And I don’t think that it’s democratic to accept the mass market as the arbitrator of our values.
The reason that I want to hold on to the truth that yoga is about more than feeling slim, calm, and sexy is not because I want to put down people who find that ideal attractive. It’s because I believe that it’s really, really important to offer them something much more valuable – something that will really help them in their lives – if we can.
A good yoga teacher can and should work with students who want nothing more than a hot bod. Or to help a bad back. Or to de-stress. Or whatever. I totally agree that it doesn’t matter what draws someone to yoga; it’s all good.
But I also believe that the work of a real teacher is to provide students with experiences and resources that will (if they are open to them) lead them to a much deeper connection with their bodies and selves – one that, ultimately, touches the mystery that I call Spirit.
Anything else is selling us all short. And no matter how much it sells, or how many people love it, I still believe that we are all being done a profound disservice if we don’t continue to value the deeper dimensions of yoga – which are, when you stop to think about it, really the only ones that will ultimately help any of us in the end.