Amid all the regimens available in America’s soul-cure marketplace, the unlikely maneuver of folding yourself into a pretzel and standing on your head for five minutes is more popular than ever. Some twenty million people practice yoga in more than twenty-five thousand studios scattered around the country. Yoga is booming—and decked out in the telltale chain studios, retailers, empire-building egomaniacs, and attendant litigation.
If you have not tried yoga yourself, then you’ve surely heard of its amazing popularity and beneficence from middlebrow (or middle eye–brow) magazines, newspapers, sitcoms, and ad campaigns, which bring news of its aphrodisiac effects. You have probably heard of the elite yoga teachers, mountaintop gurus, and ancient sages, although you have probably not heard that nowadays most kick their earnings upstairs to corporate and cycle through franchises as part of the same class of journeyman laborers produced by other bastions of enlightenment.
Yet many lives have been radically altered and improved, lifted out of the mire of physical malaise and the psycho-spiritual illnesses of the times, and there is no reason to believe that the present organization of the industry is natural or necessary. On the contrary! Yoga cultivates generosity of spirit, and its essence (and definition, in Sanskrit) is union. If our present swoon exhibits certain pathologies, these are probably not symptoms of yoga itself but of larger defeats that we have suffered, and continue to suffer, in our history of seeking union.
When the labor movement failed in its public and communal dimension—when it lost its power to champion the union idea—the union idea migrated inward, toward the battered American soul. Once you would have discharged your suffering by joining a march for your (or other people’s) rights. Now you spend hours contorting yourself, suspending yourself upside down, sweating your brains out in private—in short, belaboring your body—as if in some sort of karmic redress of the visions of right living and livelihood that once marched in the streets, partially at the expense of personal practice. When one aspect (or posture) of union is overemphasized, the neglected aspect (or counterpose) is readied for primetime. In the more private arena of yoga today, you find our utopian forebears’ beloved community, with its effervescence, eternity, and spacelessness; you find their urge to dissolve the categories of past, present, and future, to know heaven on earth—so to speak.
The yogic conception of union is an ideal state of being in which objective and subjective truths are fully consistent. You strip the world of layers of projection, free things from their fixed representations, and open yourself to what they might have to say or reflect. This is the path of “absorption” (samadhi), or identity with the superconsciousness that flows through the world and animates all living things, an idea that has resonated with seekers of all stripes, entering the American scene with particular gusto through the transcendentalists and the poetry of Walt Whitman. But there has always been a social and economic dimension to this goal, and so it has real parallels with, for instance, those mid-twentieth-century classics—psychoanalysis and Marxist theory—that attempt to free the self from psychological and historical attachments in order to manifest a new reality in which self and society can achieve greater harmony. Yet these movements have been all but eliminated from our midst, replaced by pundits and pills. After a half-century of enforced conformity to the mythical disunion of the Cold War—without and within—it is difficult to escape its reenactment in any domain. With the idea of union thus already besieged from multiple angles, yoga sings of a “body electric” firmly ensconced in a grid.
The private practice of yoga in America has dispensed with its ritual superstructure and strong sense of spiritual discipline. For thousands of years it was practiced primarily by men in monastic environments, or at the very least taught by teachers with monastic training. The matrix from which the practice developed is far closer to what we would recognize as religious fundamentalism than it is to the new age lifestyle, with its corresponding forms of sexual liberation and radical anti-authoritarianism. Brahmacharya (sexual abstinence) is one of the central yamas (personal strictures)—though it is often translated as “moderation” or “continence”—and the niyamas (interpersonal codes), in addition to a strong emphasis on scriptural study (svadhyaya), are said to include surrender to God (ishvarapranidhana) and firm faith (astikya) in the teacher. Yoga can claim an origin independent of religion, in the strongly dualist Samkhya school of philosophy, but it has been incorporated into Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh contexts, and integrated with their texts and laws. The greatest yogis were not mere pretzel-posers but great scholars of scripture, devotees of prayer—and also scientists and phenomenologists of the depths of the human mind and sensorium.
Which is to say that when yogic intelligence is awakened today, it does not necessarily have a clear outlet, and it can easily overwhelm. The journey from the pathologies of our unnatural society to full reorientation toward the eternal light is not as smooth as a drive-thru. As Carl Jung once said, the highly potent breath-based (pranayama) practice of Kundalini yoga could lead you to either the monastery or the mental institution. So long as the spiritual practice of self-perfection lacks a public sphere to carry it, all such visions of self and society, all revelatory impulses, miscarry into a simulacrum of transformation, and yoga is reduced to a regime of righteous consumption and an accessory of snobbish superiority. Imagine svelte acolytes with mats hung over their shoulders, strutting through the streets of upscale urban neighborhoods in the late morning, stopping for a latte, and scowling at lower forms of life, and you have glimpsed yoga’s social class problem. It’s written all over the glossy magazines and resort packages.
The attractions of a professional career in yoga have led to a flourishing of teacher-training programs, a dubious accreditation system, and a glut of teachers with questionable credentials. The seemingly wide variety of training options—with more or less anatomical rigor, devotional practice, contemporary style, and studio heatedness—obscures the essential homogeneity of these programs. They might incorporate the study of essential texts like the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Ramayana, in addition to contemporary Buddhist works. Some might integrate accompanying material like chakra science or bodywork, astrology, herbalism, chanting, or sacred dance. All these magical arts certainly have something to be said for them, especially when measured against what is drummed into our souls by measurement addicts wielding the latest version of the DSM. But few of these programs attempt to connect with critical thought, history, and the arts, and certainly not with biblical hermeneutics, liturgy, or the sacred poetry and song that springs from and nourishes the Abrahamic traditions, or for that matter with ecology, psychoanalysis, the history of science and madness, educational reform, or avant-garde dance and performance art. We remain victims of our own narrowness, even as we attempt to correct for it.
Too often, today’s yogis flee from precisely what holds the unique power to give balance and stability: rootedness not only in a posture, but also in time, through historical truth. This atrophied aspect of union is a particularly conspicuous absence because yoga teachers are charged with both training the bodies of practitioners (for which all too few teachers are truly qualified) and supplying souls with one to two hours of accompanying homiletical and philosophical material. Of course, a few excel at this dual calling naturally, sharing the fruits of their own practice with their students, or bringing alive metaphors from the classical texts. Some allow the practice to speak for itself; some focus on alignment, believing that the true philosophy inheres in its perfection. Some yell at you, according to the franchise formula. And the rest muddle through aspirational language, taking on the added responsibility of guarding (or policing) the souls of those whose bodies are under their control. This is a lot of power for one person to hold—precisely when students are at their most vulnerable—and it is especially dangerous for someone who may never have heard a sermon, much less studied homiletical literature, political rhetoric, or the language of union rallies, and may not even recognize the form of authority he or she wields.
Yoga in America has produced a growing number of master teachers who unite several strands of yoga and instruct with generosity and grace. Georg Feuerstein, Wendy Doniger, Richard Freeman, and Roberto Calasso are excellent historians and philosophers, more than equal to the tradition’s rich heritage of thought. A new generation of yogic musicians is making kirtan (devotional chanting) into their own. Still, whatever general voice yoga once had in India to address the various infringements of psychology, society, government, and economy on the principles of union and communion has been lost in translation. When the monastic contexts that thrive in India do take root over here, they’re headed almost exclusively by Indian sages (or charlatans) who, while providing a much-needed and invaluable contemplative respite, fail to integrate their message into a broader program.
Because of the rifts between Indian and American traditions, Hindu and Judeo-Christian roots, Sanskrit and English, many senior teachers today remain stuck in a cultural double bind: they cannot adopt the devotional life of their Indian gurus, rooted deep in Vedic thought and Sanskrit language, but they cannot resurrect what shards of the sacred they inherited from mom and pop, because these are associated with the bugaboos of dogma and Western domination. Those teachers who leap into the rich, disorienting, and perhaps over-enchanted universe of Sanskrit find themselves purveyors of exoticized pearls to audiences without a frame to set them in.
And so the ancient streams of devotional practice and self-discernment that flowed into and made possible Gandhi’s transformative conception of satyagraha have failed to produce anything of the kind over here. Instead, we have Yoga Journal, which recently celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary atop the yoga pile amid the “rich, ore-like glitter of the city dump” (to cop a phrase from that great crypto-yogi and enthusiast of inversions, Vladimir Nabokov), and which is perhaps the poorest excuse for a magisterium ever devised. What is being sold or promoted is hopelessly entangled with what is supposed to be the message, as if saying: “Breathe free, pose well, and buy enlightenment, sexiness, joy, and peace!”
Yoga is an engine for clear, focused vision and peaceful, powerful breath. Through it, you strip yourself of the garments that confound your best intentions, and you enter the dynamic experience of what is real, here, now. You come to understand how often and ingeniously you hide away from what is, and could be. You learn to distinguish what is pain and what is transformation. And along with the pathologies within yourself, you bring light to the pathologies of everyday life. You see the place of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and salt in our cities, cultures, and brains. You see the cruel claim of professional sports, commercialized spectatorship, and “modeling” over our experience of the body and what it means to be beautiful and free. You see what cars and computers do, literally and figuratively, to our hearts. You feel the limits of the medicalized view of the body and what is needed for healing. You experience how we take historical traumas into ourselves—individually and collectively—as root scars (samskaras), and suffer because of them.You recognize how many of our habits and systems are married to the goal of self-destruction. You might even see how many people bring these very complexes with them into yoga, and abuse themselves (or others!) through it, eventually causing serious injury—and giving yoga a bad name.
And then—what? What do you do? How does vision forged in strenuous practice (tapas) emanate out from corpse pose (shavasana)? Will yoga become the next “portable ecstasy corked up in a pint bottle” (as De Quincey referred to his laudanum), relegated to high status in the feeling-good industry for a spell, until it is thrown away? Will we be able to choose a path of union now, or will we have to wait—as so many of us do in our lives, and as so many civilizations have done—until a major collapse forces our hands from our algorithmic games into a unified gesture of reverence toward the sky?
A social movement for yoga has already begun. Cooperatively conceived, donation-funded studios are still a tiny segment of the market, but they are growing, and more classes are moving to public recreation centers, hospitals, churches, and synagogues. Small, underfunded nonprofits are delivering “wellness practice” to the kids who most need it, in poor schools; and even monastic centers-cum-retreat havens are beginning to come out a bit. Academics are approaching yoga in a more integrated way, while activists, having noticed how youth obesity and school diet have become political issues, are linking yoga to a more complete physical education as well as a quantifiable long-term investment in health.
If yoga as a social movement is to grow, it will need yogic artists, activists, and philanthropists offering it to truck drivers, graduate students, retired athletes, and policymakers—to break the stranglehold of studio culture. From the variety of experiences thus accumulated, a new educational union must form to challenge the current monopoly on posture (physical and metaphysical) as exhibited in museums, ministries, and health centers, with respectful reaching toward the unified roots of these domains, and to remind yogis of their duty to rigorous self-observation and composition. We need to crack the walls of the laboratory, opening to flowing “interdepartmental” breath and sensorial self-practice fields like experimental psychology, or what could be called metaphysiology. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the mysteries that the body-mind holds, and I, for one, will go on the record for all time with the assertion that far more of these will yield themselves to the sharpened inner gaze than to the primitive MRI.
Maybe yoga’s maturity will come not when it carves out a new cultural zone, but when it is integrated into what we already aspire to do. Even now it could be doing its work in a more underground way, helping our collective roots to breathe—as collectivist movements and religions never quite did. Perhaps it will fulfill its function precisely by disappearing, when it becomes such a natural component of our pursuit of union, without and within, that we no longer need to notice it.