Two iconic images haunt the collective unconscious of American yoga.
They’re not real. But they are powerful pop cultural archetypes. Let’s call them the Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru.
The Beautiful Babe
She’s all of your favorite images from glossy magazine covers rolled up into one delectable package.
She is, of course, beautiful. But not in a way that’s threatening or exotic. Rather, she’s girl-next-door prettiness dialed up to stop-dead-in-your-tracks perfection.
She’s the shimmering image of radiant health. We instinctively know that only the most picture perfect, healthy and of course organic foods ever cross her lips.
Her appetite is ideally balanced. Not too much; gluttony is unknown. Not too little; she’s never abstemious.
She is strong – but not too muscular. She is super-bendy – but without contortionist weirdness or strain. Her perfectly proportioned and just-so toned leg glides effortlessly behind her head as she smiles her serene megawatt smile.
She is “heart-centered.” She is warm and engagingly kind. She feels deeply, but it’s all positive. If she’s ever been sucked into her shadow, it’s all safely behind her now. Lessons learned.
And the fruits of her success are evident for all to see.
Her knowledge has no hard edges. Her wisdom is comforting and nurturing, sweet as honey.
The Beautiful Babe is an imaginary icon of mainstream cultural perfection. She meets the challenges of contemporary life with almost effortless grace and ease.
Ancient yogis were always believed to have superpowers. And in her own cover-girl way, she most certainly has hers.
The Fierce Guru
He’s the flip side of the Babe’s sweetness and light. Not that he’s bad – oh no. He’s good beyond our ordinary imagining.
And because he’s located in such unknown territory, he’s heavy with mystery and portent.
The Guru is most conveniently Indian. (As in Southeast Asian, not Native American.) If Western, he’s been deeply steeped in Eastern spiritual wisdom. He knows the ancient texts. He divines still extant paths of archaic power.
He channels all the dark unknown forces of deep spiritual knowledge that our florescent lit, chemically sanitized culture seems to have banished.
His physical body is not so important. He is beyond that. He may be big or small, fat or thin. While he’s likely to have a beard, it’s not necessary.
He’s a profoundly accomplished yogi, but has no need to demonstrate any mad asana chops. His yoga is bigger, deeper. It manifests on subtle levels invisible to the untrained eye.
While we know he’s benevolent, he feels unapproachable. His presence demands respect in a way that removes him from the realm of ordinary interaction.
He could be your Guru. But he can’t be your friend.
(Or, if you are one of the few who are Chosen, you could be his Consort. But we don’t talk about that.)
Being in the presence of the Guru doesn’t allow for idle chatter. You can’t talk shop or gossip or shoot the shit. You watch what you say, remember your place, and perhaps hope to ascend the hierarchy that leads closer to him.
Like the fabled yogis of old, he possesses powers that most of us don’t understand. But we may be imbued with some of it simply by being in his presence. We sit at his feet and hope to absorb some of his inestimable knowledge.
A Strange Division of Cultural Labor
Considered in tandem, the Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru represent a strange division of cultural labor. All of the socially acceptable and culturally non-threatening aspects of yoga have been channeled into the image of the Babe. At the same time, all of its mysterious, challenging, and culturally marginal dimensions have been built into the icon of the Guru.
This puts the collective unconscious of American yoga in a somewhat schizophrenic state. We chase the cover-girl spotlight of the Babe and bask in her comforting light. But we also lay claim to the fierce wisdom of the Guru and weighty spiritual ballast he brings from the East.
Many strange disassociations are in play – masculine/feminine, East/West, exotic/familiar, challenging/comforting. This list could be expanded. But you get the idea.
It all seems pretty dysfunctional. Because yoga, after all, has always been about the union of opposites; the integration of dualisms. It’s about harnessing the energies of paradox and making them generative.
So to the extent they exist (and of course it’s just my perception), the Babe and the Guru form a disempowering dyad in American yoga culture.
Missing in Action: The Sorceress and the Hero
We also miss a lot of alternative archetypes when we cathect too heavily on these two.
The image of the Babe shines so brightly that she white-lights other ways of imagining the power of the feminine right out of the picture.
Many of the traits traditionally associated with femininity have been banished. The Babe embodies no deep mystery, no dark power. She’s neither a Priestess nor a Witch. She doesn’t read the Oracle or speak with a Familiar. And she’s certainly no Crone.
All of that sense of mystery and power has been exported to the Guru. And with it, the possibility of a strong masculine icon is transferred out of our everyday reality to reside in the imaginary of the exotic East. The Guru is not a boy who grew up among us, went on a quest, and came back a man. He’s no homegrown Hero or returning Warrior. (Do we even imagine them to exist?) No, he’s the ultimately unknowable Other.
While real life doesn’t fit these images, they still have a powerful pull. (Or so it seems to me. I’m interested to know if others share this perception.) And because of the strange cultural splits and erasures they embody, they’re essentially disempowering.
That’s not to say that there is absolutely nothing empowering for anybody at all embodied in these icons. If that were true, they wouldn’t have the appeal that they do.
Arguably, the Babe has helped make the health benefits of yoga more accessible to the average American, who wouldn’t have touched the Guru with a 10-foot pole.
At the same time, the Guru has served as a repository for the magic and mystery of yoga that many of us don’t want to lose.
So yoga got to have its acculturation without completely losing its edge.
But maybe it’s time to get past that. Maybe it’s time to imagine more interestingly integrated icons.
It might be good to see more feminine imagery that embodies mystery and deep power, not just sweetness and light. It might be good to imagine masculine icons that root strength and knowledge in the complexities of our own culture – not in some purified imaginary of Western Civilization, or the Exotic East, or even Indigenous Wisdom, but rather the mundane, wonderful, terrible, hybridized messiness of the here and now.
The time is also ripe for a reinvention of the icon of the ambiguously gendered, that more rare person who naturally embodies neither a strongly masculine or feminine energy, but something more fluid or androgynous.
All possibilities are open to our collective imagining – but by the same token, beyond anyone’s control. Of course, since an effective yoga practice works as a force of cultural deconditioning, whatever collective icons exist aren’t necessarily an impediment to us individually. Nonetheless, it might be interesting to participate in a collective imagining of what the future could bring.
Cross-posted on Elephant Journal.