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Book Excerpt: ‘From Meditation to Commodification: Promise & Perils of American Yoga’ from ‘Yoga PhD’ by Carol Horton

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Yoga Ph.D.

The following is an excerpt from Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body by Carol A. Horton. Stay tuned for the giveaway!

From Meditation to Commodification: Promise & Perils of American Yoga

Although it was years ago now, I distinctly remember the first time I experienced the intensity that can be generated through a group meditation session. Rather humorously, this breakthrough occurred in the ultra-mundane setting of an enormous conference hotel set in an unglamorous corner of Wisconsin. It was my first big yoga conference, a weekend of intensive asana and meditation practice along with hundreds of strangers (and a friend who’d driven up with me from Chicago). Whipsawed between the intensity of my own inner experience and the genericism of my outer surroundings, it was a remarkable experience.

As I sat in the middle of a sea of mats, I was bemused to see that the vast majority of my compatriots looked like prototypically Midwestern, Middle American women. While most everyone was well outfitted in tasteful yoga gear, there was nary a whiff of old-school hippiedom nor au courant hipsterdom in the air. This wasn’t the edgy young tattooed crowd I’d grown used to back in my Chicago studio (admittedly after some initial trepidation – not being particularly hip or young, let alone tattooed myself). By all appearances, these were normal, everyday Wisconsinites. As such, they didn’t fit my stereotype of what yoga, let alone meditation practitioners should look like.

I’d never been in such a setting or done such an exercise before. And I wasn’t expecting much. But as the session leader progressively led us deeper and deeper into a guided meditation, I sensed the energies in the room palpably shifting. I started to feel that my own mind was being supported by the sea of minds around me. We were collectively creating a powerful experience without exchanging words or even making eye contact. I felt the intangible but intense charge generated by a focused group collectively shifting into deeper gear. And it was arresting – really, strikingly different than anything I’d ever experienced before. Without question, it helped me to still my own mind and enter the meditation more deeply.

After we’d finished, I looked around the room with new eyes. The soulless genericism of this corporate space with garish wall-to-wall carpeting was infused with a new sense of possibility. The women around me glowed with a softer aura, as if lit up from within. And for a moment that somehow felt both long and short at the same time, there was a deep sense of quiet.

The stillness was broken as people began rolling up their mats and collecting their belongings. Still, their movements embodied a newfound sense of deliberateness. There conveyed a quality of attention that distinguished them from normal, everyday actions.

As the process of packing up and leaving accelerated, the mood shifted again. And my sense of being cocooned in a collectively generated spell dissipated. As we dispersed to go to our next engagements, “reality” came rushing back: A sea of white women looking slightly nervous in their pricey yoga pants. Scattered rounds of well-meaning small talk. A hurried checking of hotel maps. People rushing through long, dim, low-ceilinged hallways. A sense of hope, purpose, and excitement mixed with stale air and vague unease. Food in plastic boxes. Water in plastic bottles. Crews of Hispanic workers who cleaned up after us with eyes averted.

I was powerfully struck by the pronounced weirdness of a bunch of seemingly ordinary Midwesterners exploring a surprisingly esoteric practice in this cookie-cutter conference hotel perched on the edge of two intersecting freeways (right next to a huge cornfield that was probably growing biodiversity crushing GMOs). On the one hand, the meditation session worked so powerfully because we were collectively willing to open our minds to an experience that took us beyond the boundaries of everyday consciousness. On the other hand, we seemed to snap back into our socially defined identities, habits, roles, and statuses the moment we left that room.

The contrast between the mysterious richness of the internal space we’d entered in meditation and the utter ordinariness of the conference hotel turned up the volume on my feelings of incongruity. The meditation recalled the best of what I’ve experienced in churches or temples: an affirming, collective embrace of the universal. But maneuvering through the endless corridors to get to the next class – or luncheon cart or rest room or huge hotel wing devoted to selling yoga mats, apparel, and DVDs – felt like a slog through a middlebrow shopping mall. Both experiences were seamlessly integrated into the same yoga conference experience. Yet they also seemed stunningly different.

And so it goes, more often than not, with American yoga.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Common Cultural Pitfalls

(T)he North American yoga community needs to develop a much stronger capacity for critical self-reflection and awareness. Otherwise, the drive toward highly commercialized forms of cultural accommodation will sooner or later tip today’s weird balance between authentic mind-body-spirit exploration and packaged “body beautiful” mystique way over to the latter side. While this wouldn’t prevent asana from remaining a vital practice for a small number of practitioners, it would turn its socio-cultural presence into more of a liability than an asset. Because rather than being an accessible route toward mind-body-spirit health and transformation, it would become yet another impetus toward disciplining the body to reach an idealized state of pseudo-perfection (thin, pretty, lithe) – and feeling frustrated, ashamed, and inadequate when one falls short (which, sooner or later, everyone will).

Based on my own experience as a long-time yoga practitioner, I believe that the following issues particularly merit critical attention today:

1.  A Culture of Self-Commodification. We’re inundated with commercially crafted, idealized images promising that yoga can deliver a beautiful body, calm mind, and happy heart. Consequently, the difference between using yoga as tool for connecting with one’s true self versus concocting a false one (with a presumably higher market value) can be disturbingly hard to distinguish.

2.  The Psychology of Putting Teachers on Pedestals. Yoga classes can spark the same processes of transference and counter-transference that psychologists are trained to handle. Yet yoga teachers and students typically have no awareness of them whatsoever. Consequently, the tendency for students to idolize teachers, and for teachers to unconsciously encourage their adulation runs unchecked.

3.  An Allergy to Critical Thinking. If yoga is rightly described as a mind-body-spirit practice, American yoga tends to over-focus on the body. Reinforced by ill-considered directives to “turn off your mind,” the resulting imbalance discourages critical thinking. This not only prevents grappling with such important issues as self-commodification and teacher worship, but also encourages a vacuous culture dedicated to “spirituality lite.”

Each of these tendencies reinforces the others, creating a pernicious dynamic that threatens to gut the power of yoga as a positive social force. Consequently, it’s important to raise awareness of them, while at the same time strengthening counter-currents that promise to move yoga in more empowering, alternative directions . . . one of the most important moves that North American yoga culture might collectively make would be to encourage more self-reflection, critical thinking, and social awareness. Needless to say, this needs to be done with compassion and grace: lambasting ourselves and others for not being sufficiently self-critical gets us nowhere. The more that the yoga community is able to reflect on both the positive and negative aspects of its engagement with contemporary North American culture, however, the more discerning practitioners can be about how the practice fits into the larger picture of their own lives – as well as, ideally, what it offers to our society as a whole.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is author of  Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body and Race and the Making of American Liberalism, and co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. website: carolhortonphd.com.


9 comments… add one
  • Nancy

    Thank you for this wise, thoughtful excerpt. Perhaps the body-centered nature of yoga in the U.S. has spawned a recent focus on injuries and injury prevention. While this is practical, equal time for the other aspects of the practice and the pitfalls/benefits there is crucial as a balance. I’m delighted to see that there now appears to be a substantive book addressing this integration. Kudos to Carol Horton.

  • Kit

    Where to start…I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation for over 30 years (in California and the Midwest). I have worked with many amazing teachers and students…and what I have learned is that I need to take complete responsibility for the choices I make about who to work with.

    I don’t feel a need to do any collective yoga community soul searching. I simply have continued to work with teachers dedicated to their craft. Those are the kinds of people in my yoga community.

    “North American yoga culture”? That seems about as nebulous a term as “prototypical Midwesterner”

    • Lala

      I don’t know, Kit. I think in the coastal areas, particularly in the big, more liberal cities like San Francisco, there is a definite yoga culture. It’s hard to find teachers who are totally dedicated to their craft because most of them want to please their students I have had better luck finding teachers who don’t pander to yoga culture in more conservative places.

      By the way, I checked out your website. I laughed when I saw that you are in Delaware, Ohio. I grew up between Delaware and Sunbury.

      • Kit

        That’s where I live! Between Delaware and Sunbury!

  • Lou

    In reading this essay, I was constantly distracted by the ads for yoga pants, yoga mats and other yoga commodities on the side of the page.

  • Kealy Dedrick

    There seems a collective fear regarding the spiritual power found within each of us. This illustrates our focus on convention verses contemplation. As a nation, we look outward for validation rather than trusting our inner self.

  • Yoga is : Physical Healing Direction

  • Honomann

    This article is so dry and boring that I an not surprised Susan posted in the wrong thread.

  • Loved this book. Thanks, Carol.

    Bob W.

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