Monday, September 12, 2011

Yoga, Postmodernism, and the Search for the "True Self"

Last night, my husband, older son, and I were in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner. My son, who’s 13 and just starting 8th grade, starting talking about how he’s psyched that his Humanities teacher is OK with him doing his report for “Banned Books Week” on the 1950s classic, On the Road, which he’s been reading on and off since mid-summer. 

Illegal photo of OTR scroll via T.Hawk/Flickr

Given that my son is much more interested in skateboarding and socializing than literature, the parental ears perk up on hearing that there's a book that he’s really enthusiastic about. And so, rather than just going into the standard, yes that’s good dear now just go and do your homework! mode, we got into a really interesting conversation that made me think about what it’s like for him and all the other creative, adventurous kids growing up in a culture that feels gnawingly consumed by competitive pressures, reactionary manipulations, and apocalyptic-tinged fears.

He sums up Jack Kerouac’s road-tripping madness - driving back and forth and back and forth across the country with the iconic Neal Cassady at the wheel, who talks incessantly while driving 90 mph (and this back in the days before interstate highways existed) - with an appreciative: “They were just nuts.”

“And you know what Cassady did when winter came and the windshield iced up?,” he went on. “He'd just roll down his window, stick his head out, and keep driving.”

“Well, that’s ridiculously dangerous!,” I counter in Mom-mode. “Don’t get any ideas.”

But that’s just the obligatory responsible parent reflex. I know what he’s getting at. It was in On the Road, after all, that Kerouac wrote about the people he loved in ways that fired the imagination of the crazy-assed 1960s generation to come:

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'

And yeah, growing up at a time when well-meaning parents feel that if they want their kids  to “get ahead” and avoid the fate of a dead-end, low-paying service sector job, they'd better get them into a competitive preschool, have them doing homework in kindergarten, and make sure they keep going nonstop from there – of course you might wonder, as my son did: “Whatever happened to all that crazy stuff that used to be go down? Because there’s nothing like that today.”

Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters

My husband and I said . . . well, you know, back when society was way more traditional and straight-laced than today, there used to be this belief that if you could just break free of the soul-killing constraints of modern society, then you’d be free to fully experience life – full of passion, authenticity, creativity, art, and socially defiant meaning.  

On the Road was one iconic text of this much larger movement, which reached its apotheosis in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s-70s.

“But then, when we finally did tear down all these traditions, a lot of people just crashed and burned."

The hippies, who succeeded the Beat movement which Kerouac symbolized, assumed that liberation automatically generated joy. The next generation of counter-cultural artists, however, was personified by the brilliant, suicidal Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain "mock memorial," Seattle

And Kerouac himself died of alcoholism at 47 in 1969.

“So, no one can really believe all that anymore,” added my husband. (This is what it’s like having two political science professors as parents.) “We have these incredibly creative writers who are brilliant social critics, like David Foster Wallace, but there's an underlying despair.”  

Although of course, there's something oh-so-late-20th-century about being so concerned with, let alone despairing over our seeming inability to experience authenticity and meaning. In 2011, it doesn't seem so cool to care so much. Plus there this (in my mind, misguided) sense that we don't have the luxury - "in these tough economic times" - of grappling with the big questions, anyway. 

But not in yoga – right?

While the modernist avant-garde believed it was possible to reject conventional values and seize authentic experience, the post-modern writer finds himself stranded in endless simulacra. He can respond with irony and/or despair. But there's an apprehension that we've become irretrievably lost in the meaningless hall of mirrors that constitutes contemporary consumer culture.

But - this represents only the (rather hyper self-conscious) worldview of what’s in fact a tiny minority of artists, intellectuals, and others who’re deeply unhappy about the state of our society and share a more-or-less coherent explanation of why we are where we are. I’m pretty familiar with at least certain parts of that worldview, and find a lot of it quite compelling.

But, now that I’m so immersed in yoga culture, I’m also quite aware that what I’ve been writing about in this post so far represents a perspective that most practitioners don’t share – at all.

On the contrary, contemporary yoga is suffused with the language of “finding your true self.” Post-modern despair over the impossibility of authentic experience is completely alien to yoga culture – at least, that is, on any self-conscious, explicitly stated level.

I believe, however, that one of the biggest reasons that yoga’s become so popular is precisely because it claims to offer a direct route to discovering a deep sense of authenticity by tapping into your “true self” – an experience of self which most people lack, but deeply crave.

This promise of “finding your true self” resonates so deeply precisely because we live in a culture that makes it extremely difficult to develop an organic, rooted, vital sense of oneself.

Yoga also promises to deliver something like that sense of overflowing, life-affirming energy that Kerouac’s riff on "those fabulous yellow roman candles" evokes. And again, that’s something that’s relatively difficult to find in most of our culture today.

In other words, whether we realize it or not, a big reason that yoga’s so popular is that it offers an antidote to post-modern despair.

If that’s true, then the gazillion dollar question (irony intended) is: Can yoga really deliver?

If you're interested, you can read my companion post, "Yoga and the Commodification of the True Self," over at Elephant Journal.


  1. Interesting post, Carol. The thing, as you know, is that even "finding your true self" may be fast becoming a sound byte, something for savvy entrepreneurs to market. Perhaps a certain amount of marketing has to accompany any economically feasible attempt to get anything (even something as exalted as yoga) to a greater public. Perhaps the question is: Can such marketing be done without "watering down" yoga? Or is the answer to this question already too obvious? or perhaps another question may be: Just what is yoga supposed to really deliver? (Sidenote: Doesn't "deliver" already presuppose an exchange of goods?)

    As you can see, I have no answers, only unanswered questions.


    It is interesting to compare these two reviews of the new documentary "Magic Trip" - an impressive archival restoration project, which no doubt is tailored to a centrist position stripping the original footage and the lived experiences of radicality, but nevertheless deserving of a watch.

  3. From FB: Stewart Lawrence
    Antidote to postmodern despair? Worth contemplating, I guess. I found it in my chosen faith. Many people actually don't feel that despair. Any seriously pursued avocation hobby can provide it also, perhaps. I really think people need to resist this evocation of yoga as some final or all-encompassing "solution" to anything. A lot of yogis would do us all a great favor if they STOPPED practicing yoga for a while, and then came back to it, after a period of surrender, of deconstructing the idol they've created. Despair in fact, and the emptiness one finds within is often best not filled, at least not willfully.

    (and my reply): Thanks, Stewart. Just to clarify, the point is not that yoga SHOULD be such an antidote (although I think that it could be) - more that it's (widely, if mostly unconsciously) perceived as such, which explains a lot of its popularity. This is an empirical, social science-type claim, not a normative, this-is-what-one-should-do quasi-ethical type claim.

  4. This was an interesting post and comparison-analysis. I think you've definitely struck something here.

    That said, I don't believe that Yoga 'could' be an antidote or cure-all to a person's (or a society's) social apathy, emptiness, despair.

    I believe Yoga 'can' provide tools to help the person explore different facets of themselves and (hopefully) help them connect with... something... (community, self, culture, planet whatever).

    I believe that no matter what Yoga gives us as tools, it's the person themselves that needs to be the antidote. I feel as if there's a lot of empty 'yoga-isms' because many people are trying to 'fill a void', instead of building a firm foundation.
    Even if we take those yogis who experience yoga in all it's teachings (reading scriptures, practicing meditation daily, asana daily etc etc) I would say that unless that person does the internal, emotional and psychological work of building a strong sense of Self, all the studying and yoga practice in the world won't help.

    but then- maybe we're just talking semantics? :)

  5. Flying recklessly down the road into the night feels a lot edgier than finding equanimity on a sweat soaked yoga mat.

    However, if Jack Kerouac was here today, he'd be another outrageous cat in a world of outrageous cats. When the rules are all broken and rebel means killer instead of anti-old order establishment individual,when it's fine to say or do anything in public, the person on the yoga mat turning the other cheek,being quiet and thoughtful seems like the hero.

  6. Forgot to answer the question. No yoga is not the solution to despair despite the tragic hero essence of someone truly in despair trying that.Dancing, running, yoga; movement helps and music helps and music with movement helps.Friends help and so does community and yoga offers that. Moving to music with friends; all good and all keep despair at arms length but alone on the mat or on the couch, sitting with sorrow will not make it disappear. Good thought provoking post.

  7. My new Lululemon clothing provides me all the yogic authenticity and meaning I need, thank you. And when it ceases to, I'll whip out the Enlightenment Visa Card and buy me some more. What is it about postmodern spiritual fulfillment you don't understand?

  8. Feckin great perspective Carol- but why do you persist at Elephant, it is sooo lame...

  9. Yay Carol!

    No "manufactured" "image" here: you are one rockin' yoga goddess! Really, really appreciate your perspective in this piece.

    In touching on yoga's traditional move against asmita (self-construction), I think you are pointed at what perhaps is the crux of the matter. I mean, why wouldn't yoga become commodified in a culture that hyper-valorizes the 'self' and 'self identity' such as ours? Where it truly does seem to be all about 'branding' and protecting one's brand?! For me, I keep seeing images of cows and branding irons!

    Our culture places such an onus of meaning, centrality and responsibility on 'the self' that of course it would crumble under the psychic weight. And then we'd need to posit a 'true self' and begin the cycle all over again. David Loy and Mark Epstein are two wonderful teachers who have written extensively on this idea, that due to existential angst in the face of feeling 'inauthentic' and 'lacking a center,' we do all sorts of things to fill it up (with things and experiences that simply cannot do so), and create a 'self center' which ends up making us feel even more inauthentic because we KNOW what we've done to create this identity!

    The radical step the Buddha suggests is actually moving into that 'lack' for when we do, we see what Thich Nhat Hanh calls 'interbeing.' Thus a sense of deep intimacy is what is found in that 'emptiness'! As Thay has said, "true self is not self." (Of course, one needs to take even this lightly or risk reifying not-self as a thing!).

    thanks again!

  10. Thanks everyone for the comments. I have been reflecting on how this post isn't so clear - it caught fragments of what I wanted to expressed but they never crystallized. So, the comments are really helping me get close to that . . .

    It's not so much the marketing that bothers me as 1) the sneakiness of contemporary marketing strategies (Lululemon being the prime example in yoga) that try to worm their way into people's core identities in such diabolically ingenious ways (read the links in the Lulu section on my EJ post if you have no idea what I'm referring to here), and 2) the pronounced lack of interest in most of the yoga community in reflecting critically on these dynamics.

    I agree with Eco Yogini that yoga gives us the tools, but we have to do the work - but, still, having powerful tools is really important - not to be taken for granted. In reference to Hilary's comment, these tools don't make sorrow disappear - but they enable us to move through it and grow from it, rather than being stunted by it. Which in a way is even better (much as we would prefer that it be otherwise).

    Frank Jude as usual hits the nail on the head - thanks so much Frank! You said it much better than I did . . .

  11. Hi Carol,

    What great timing! I've recently been revisiting the work of some Beat-Generation poets and have been surprised at how my feelings toward their work have evolved. Maybe it's all the austere Japanese poetry I've been ingesting, but as I re-read Michael McClure's "Scratching the Beat Surface" I can't help but notice how full of asmita, or Self-creation, so much of it is, and how so many of the images of unity, consciousness, and nature are viewed through the filter of ego. The text of the essays in the book speaks on and on about the "one-ness" of all creation, yet the poems themselves are riddled with "I," "me" and "my" (hmmm., kinda sounds like modern yoga) and continually strive to set themselves apart from, or above, the everyday world. I still love those passionate, mad cats of course, but I'm less inclined to think they had it all figured out. But, just as Hot Power Flow yoga can serve as an entry into a deeper spiritual practice, for many of us Kerouak's Road leads to Philip Walen, the San Francisco poets, and maybe even Dogen.

  12. Hi Sheryl, thanks for commenting; I always love your comments. There is much to unpack there and I wish I knew enough to really do it well. But a few thoughts.

    1. This project of self-creation you reference seems very much in line with the trajectory of Western thought at the time - e.g., existentialism - no? That was the project, and there were deeply considered reasons for it (not to say that this means that they were "true.")

    In the 1950s, understandings of Zen etc. were much less well developed in this country then they would be later - there were many fewer resources to draw on - so it seems like the Western self-creation and Eastern no-self realization projects could simply be in an earlier historical stage of interaction at that point (to simply horribly).

    2. I love those passionate mad cats too - there is something about that which I still find very compelling - we must be careful not to romanticize "the East" and assume that they had the answers either. Just remember the place of women in those societies and it helps put things in perspective and appreciate Western values too - at least for me.

    3. I feel that a creative synthesis of what we can for shorthand refer to as East and West is more compelling - a functional, psychologically healthy self AND an openness to experiencing no-self; a passionate embrace of life AND an openness to letting go of it all as impermanent . . .

    but maybe in the end I am just a relic of the last gasps of a Romantic-influenced mind. I think so. Running on nothing more than fumes these days - although sometimes I can get a little momentum coasting down a hill and for a moment, it feels freeing and fun. But then I encounter the next hill (or think about the 2012 election) and realize . . . oh. shit. Almost out of gas.

  13. Fabulous article and string, all. I am inspired and will follow. I'm on the mat on the bus. :)

  14. So those $100 rose quartz mala beads won't fill the void . . . oh that sucks!

    As usual, your post and the comments leave me feeling like I've been out of university far too long. I don't think I can write like that anymore even if I tried.

    I like what you said in your last comment in point 3, that's sort of where I am trying to figure out all this yoga stuff, but I, too, have a romantic-influenced mind and my self likes that!

    BTW, I was around your son's age when I started gobbling up all those existential writers.