Autobiography of a Bhogi: Adventures in Yogaland: Part 1
Essential Items for your next Yoga Adventure
Yogaland is the emic — often euphemistic — term used by many yoga consumers, practitioners, teachers, proselytisers and converts to describe the idea of a dislocated, global yoga community, or tribe. To see the ubiquity of this phrase, one just needs to do an online image search. Below, are just a few of the instances from googling ‘yogaland’.
Increasingly, yogaland’s boundaries expand beyond physical localities, and, particularly, the borders of nation states. This occurs as a way to fuel the utopian possibility of a future, post-national alternative, which might just be possible, here, and now. Take, as an example, my own cyber-ethnographic research within the 20,000+ Yoga Teachers group on Facebook, which demonstrates some aspects of the interconnectedness of dislocated yoga-inflected worlds through social media.
The internet allows people of various subgroups to connect, regardless of physical location. So too, there is an ever increasing number of global yoga festivals that are linked together into a circuit of yoga-related revelry. Wanderlust is a perfect example of a globalised, syndicated yoga festival, which occurs in several locations around the world. Yoga becomes the context for ‘conscious living’ and ‘guilt-free partying’. As the Wanderlust website explains:
For a really insightful overview of the global yoga festival circuit. A chapter in this book by Amanda Lucia, titled: Saving Yogis: Spiritual Nationalism and the Proselytizing Missions of Global Yoga, does a great job of explaining the missiological and proselytising religious rhetoric that is used to legitimise and inspire participation in yoga-inflected lifestyles. As Lucia explains, below:
The portable practice of yoga first migrated through unidirectional networks that transported knowledge from India to the West in the early twentieth century. Today, yoga flows through multidirectional and reverse networks, exposing new forms of hypermobility. […] North American yogis export yoga globally through proselytization, marketing, and yoga sevā (“selfless service”) tourism. It reveals how these modern yogis construct the practice as a universal good, and the benefits of “ doing yoga “ are often parsed with religious language.
Yet, how does one actually travel to Yogaland? Is it on a flying yoga mat, through the sequenced flow of postures, holding one’s breath and clenching a bandha three times, or some other way? Is yogaland a real place? Some argue that Rishikesh is the ‘home of yoga’ or the ‘yoga capital of the world’.
But, that isn’t yogaland…so, does it actually exist, in-real-life? Well, it certainly exists on Facebook, and, it turns out, in Belgium. So, unlike Atlantis, El Dorado, and my new bike I’ve been pining for, but can’t afford, Yogaland is real, and is found in the European Union.
Another way, perhaps, is via a yoga-focused travel company that we might find our bearings for a ‘journey into power’ and our true north, where you can discover ‘your truth’ and:
In many ways, yogaland is a metaphor, or rather, a psychological entity that exists in the minds of those who describe their yoga tribe as such. Yogaland exists, principally, in the social imaginary landscape. As imagined, possible, idyllic representations of what the world could be…they are, instead, mapped onto the different -scapes that surround us. Yogaland is a utopian-inspired meta-space where life is celebrated, and yoga-inflected lifestyles are promoted as the antitheses to the perceived disenchantment that many people feel is a direct consequence of neo-liberalism, which creates a surplus load of what David Graeber refers to as ‘bullshit jobs’.
One of the many fascinating things that Graeber notes is how the capitalist project is meant to reduce the workforce and increase efficient production so that more profit can be redistributed to those that own the means of production. What I find terribly interesting is how global yoga’s success is indelibly embedded in the neoliberal model that it suggests is the very antithesis of, or solution to. While, through sophisticated marketing we are informed that yoga can break the mundane circuit through reintroducing a type of magic and wonder into people’s lives. Yet, the very pursuit of a supposedly anti-consumerist alternative to neoliberalism’s governmentality that yearns to create sheepish, docile consumers, has yoga practitioners consume through the same capitalist infrastructure that is generally despised. It is clear that a large portion of global yoga is an opioid-soaked utopia for flexible fashionistas. As this advert commands, it is important to ‘be more beautiful, yogis!’
One only needs to flick through a copy of the YogaJournal in any country to see that it is probably 65% filled with advertising for clothing or beauty-related products. Also, in Japan, at least, one will find the two most popular yoga magazines — YogaJournal Japan and Yogini — in the women’s fashion section of the book shop or convenience store.
Furthermore, many yoga business owners (and teachers) seek to obfuscate, or at least misrecognise (meconnaissance) their investments in an indelible capitalist framework as bourgeois or petit bourgeois business owners, who employ precariat yoga teachers. And, using a deflective spiritualised narrative, that, for all intents and purposes, appears, and probably is at some level, earnest and genuine, we are attracted to the ideas of connecting to yoga tribes, communities, families, or homes, instead of businesses.
I am not knocking the positive potential of yoga to bring people together. I have experienced it myself. I just do not really see how yoga enables different or better interpersonal connections than other discrete social worlds, because there are many less than positive stories from the dark side of yogaland about dysfunction and abuse. So, we know, it is certainly not all good. And, choosing to bypass around the bumpy bits is definitely not recommended.
It is interesting, then, following the narratives of people who come to yoga as a career change. I have a certain predilection for trawling through yoga studio websites to collect the stories of yoga teachers. The testimonies of countless yoga teachers, who left their careers to follow what is, ostensibly, in their opinion, a higher calling, normally comes after what is described as a spiritual or physical crisis. As Samantha explains, travel and yoga combine for deeper exploration of multiple ‘worlds’.
An example from Kyoto, Japan is Studio Bindu; which, as a boutique yoga studio, it offers a quality over quantity yoga experience. Still, it is interesting to note the way in which ‘yoga as [an] accelerator for your life’ is woven into an escapist ideals of an ‘oasis in Kyoto’ where ‘transformation’ is attainable through ‘organic growth of modern community’.
If you are anything like myself, even after a couple of decades of teaching yoga and attending classes in different parts of the world, I am always quite nervous about going to a yoga studio for the first time. It is silly, really. It is mostly because I am a total fashion failure. I do not own expensive, trendy yoga apparel. I probably look like I would be more comfortable, I don’t know, somewhere else. I have seen the look on many a receptionist’s face when I sheepishly stumble in to the foyer. You know, that quick once over when someone ‘beyond fashionable’ turns up. But, thankfully, Studio Bindu is not like this. It is, instead, a yoga oasis. This is palpable, as soon as one enters the quiet street in east Kyoto and walks up the narrow, cobbled, winding path to the front door. There are many yoga studios like this. The aesthetic is important to cultivate a suitable mood. I often wonder how much of this feeling is actually a result of the yoga, as opposed to the intelligent interior design, calming music, and other accoutrements affiliated with a modern yoga studio’s oasic vibe.
Still, I cannot help but think about the magical appeal that yoga seems to have for a lot of people. Yoga has a real pull for people, which lies beyond glossy marketing campaigns that promise a better life, generally on a beach, somewhere else. It is palpable. But, this feeling is possible in many places. Like, sitting in front of a still lake at dawn, watching the golden concentric ripples expand across the liquid mirror, as a duck takes flight up through the spring-time blossoms into the blue sky. While many disavow a religious affiliation or context, at least in an organised sense, the sense of the spiritual, and super-sensorial, is ever-present and never too far away in yogaland. I often wonder about the possibility of yogaland becoming an actual nation-state. Who would be president? And, would it be a theocracy? Would it be Hindu? Who would get to decide?
Even though the gaze and rhetoric of many people is directed to otherwordly aims, as the sociologist Max Weber offers, ‘The most elementary forms of behaviour motivated by religious or magical factors are oriented to this world’ (Weber 1993 : 1). Harvie Ferguson contextualises this, below:
Privileging the life-worlds, perspectives and experiences of others is challenging for a skeptic, like myself. Especially when discussing the workings of the extra-sensorial magical realms that many people earnestly believe to be real, even if this subjective idealism and epistemic relativism preclude any ability to provide much in the way of objective ‘proof’ to the doubters. This article by Jack Hunter stimulates an interesting discussion about, ‘the inadequacy of Western distinctions between the natural and the supernatural when addressing the beliefs of their informants. However, we cannot assume that rationalism and skepticism are the sole domain of the West, which has arrogantly exported and imposed these frames on other cultures. It seems that, these days, skeptic is often used as a pejorative term to shut down dialogue. However, as Sukumari Bhattacharji reminds us, the Greek term skeptikos meant ‘inquirers’. It is worth quoting at length some of Bhattacharji’s ideas on the inception of skepticism in Vedic literature (pp. 193–196)
Just like in the ancient world, today, materialism is considered heretical by many citizens of yogaland who seem to prefer an epistemology that privileges supernaturalism. Skeptics lived through and beyond the Vedic period (1200–300BCE) to create the materialist philosophy of the Lokāyata and Cārvārka schools. To this day, orthodox spiritualists use skeptic as derogatory term to discount the critiques of opponents. However, as the IAP explains, Indian Materialism ‘rejects the existence of other worldly entities such an immaterial soul or god and the after-life. Its primary philosophical import comes by way of a scientific and naturalistic approach to metaphysics. Thus, it rejects ethical systems that are grounded in supernaturalistic cosmologies’. Furthermore,
Also, today, in India there are nearly 50 rationalist, atheist, skeptic, secularist and science organisations that come together under the umbrella of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations to uphold fundamental duties of the Indian Constitution (Article 51a), which demand, amongst other things: h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform; and e) to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women. However, such ambitions have fatal consequences, as several rationalists and journalists have been murdered over the past few years. Over the past several years, it has become commonplace for people, particularly members of the VHP (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal (Hanuman’s Army) to demand (extra-)judicial justice for ‘insulting religious sentiments’. These same people gloat after the cold-blooded assassinations of people in their own homes. These are the horrors of mocking Hinduism. For a deeper look into the history of organised rationalism and criticism of religion in India, this book by Johaness Quack is worth exploring.
I guess, then, that this is the rub, which Callie Maddox cogently summarises, that the ‘perceptions of authenticity that inform both the Ashtanga practice and the travel expectations of yoga tourists function to maintain Orientalist imaginings of a timeless, exotic, and mystical India defined in opposition to the materialistic and rational West. Consequences of these discourses include a rejection of the syncretic evolution of yoga, a denial of India’s vibrant postcolonial present, and the construction of Otherness’.
Was I not talking about magic and yoga?
It seems I got a bit lost, perhaps my GPS steered me into a darker recess of yogaland? One that we perhaps not ought speak about, at least till later on, in the Part 2 of Adventures in Yogaland.
Let us return to the paranormal, where Jack Hunter reminds us, through a quote from E.E. Evans-Pritchard, that:
To us supernatural means very much the same as abnormal or extraordinary. Azande certainly have no such notions of reality. They have no conception of natural’ as we understand it, and therefore neither of the supernatural’ as we understand it. Witchcraft is to Azande an ordinary and not an extraordinary, even though it may in some circumstances be an infrequent, event. It is a normal, and not an abnormal happening (Evans-Pritchard 1976:30).
This reminds me of a fascinating ethnographic account into spiritual healing in a remote part of Timor Leste, which, if you are not sure, is an island country not that far from the Indonesian island of Bali. After being a Portuguese colony, followed by annexation by Indonesia, now, in the second decade of sovereign independence, Timor Leste looks for its place in a globalised world. This includes yoga tourism.
Michael Rose provides a charmingly honest reflection into the ways in which magical realism exists in this highland area, and the tension that exists between various social actors, which is coupled with his observations regarding the epistemological hegemony of the paternalistic developed-world narrative. Rose mentions how a blurring of identities is an essential part of the act of navigating the space between, which acts as a conceptual space in which acknowledgement of the past has become an essential part of making any sort of plan for the future.
I think this is an interesting way to frame movement and space within yogaland. As, it is not just a physical movement in physical space. Instead, there are in between worlds and liminal spaces that we move into during a flow, or during that endorphin-filled, post-movement euphoria.
It is also a metaphysical movement within oneself, and, more importantly, between imagined identities related to the sense of ‘self’.
There is a seemingly endless array of choices related to yoga retreats, courses and meditation workshops offered around the world. These might include packages incorporating: surfing, scuba diving, raw food and detoxification, as well as the ever-present holistic and symbiotic balance and re-connection to nature. As, anyone with an instagram account can attest, the salutary yoga pose photo in nature is necessarily ubiquitous, as J.P. Sears explains.
Evidence in the growth of yoga-related tourism is not hard to find. In 2015, Book Yoga Retreats offered 2713 options, offered by 1704 organisers, across 70 countries. This included 20 different styles of yoga. In 2018, this has expanded to 7312 options, by 3081 organisers, in 118 countries — 251 destinations—and 70 styles of yoga that are often repeated across the four different categories mentioned above.
This explosion in yoga-related spiritual tourism to other countries beyond India, such as Indonesia, does not necessarily focus on the burden to the local environment that travel demands. Yoga-related tourism is still framed as eco-sensitive, and as something that supposedly has a net-positive impact for the world. But, we know that the eat, pray, pollute style of yoga tourism has consequences through increased ecological and economic burdens on the locals, whom we should not paternalise as hapless victims in this dynamic accord. Yet, the commodification of yoga is endless. Like this one representative example, it is now popular to have, not just a professional photographer take photos of someone doing yoga while on their holiday; but, some yoga teachers also operate as yoga-focused photographers. This, in some ways, is due to the overabundant supply of yoga teachers, which means that many proletariat yoga teachers need to diversify their income streams through creating some sort of distinction.
The town of Ubud, which is located on Bali, Indonesia, seen in many images below, is imagined in a particular way, and has become something of a yoga magnet, for both the casual and more serious yoga tourist/spiritual seeker. Bali is a beautiful island, no doubt. And, due to Ubud’s relaxed and romantic highland location, nestled amongst terraced rice paddies, plus the continuing Hindu culture of Bali, this has created a syncretic and prosperous tourism sector, which is centred around the movement of yoga bodies. This relates to what Dallen J. Timothy and Paul J. Conover (p. 145) suggest, that the appeal of ‘holistic holidays’ is that they possibly facilitate the spiritual tourist’s deeper engagement with themselves to identify and reconcile any possible internal discord. Yoga, then, purportedly operates as a way to access inner, spiritual health through strong physical health.
Ni Made Citrayanthi explains, that:
Ubud’s imagination as a spiritual place is a result of the incorporation of individuals’ perceptions, including those of members of Ubud’s local community and foreigners who live in Ubud that lead to certain behaviours, which in turn contribute to giving the place its meaning. The imagination of Ubud stands for different approaches to spirituality of local people and foreigners’ or tamu yoga’s spirituality and the combination of both. This is despite the fact that the approaches or practices to spirituality of Balinese Ubud local community are, to some extent, conflicting with those of foreigners. (p. 5)
Citrayanthi continues, using Fechter’s idea of ‘expat bubbles’, to demonstrate the fragility and suffocation of the privileged ghettoisation that occurs within the expat yoga community in Ubud; that is, generally speaking, an isolated community of foreigners who admit they ‘do not socialise with members of local community’ (p.75). A striking comment by Citrayanthi elucidates the disconcerting nature related to the idea ‘that foreigners made local people “responsible” for not being able to communicate in English well’ (p. 75). In conclusion, Citrayanthi explains (p. 79) how the differences between the local and imported spiritual practices conflict, and that this relates:
To the idea of sacredness and silence versus noise or individualism versus communality. Tamu yoga’s approaches to spirituality often relate to the idea of the search for the deeper meaning of one’s life, which involve individual diving into one’s own soul. This might relate further to the individualistic character of their approach, which is sometimes applied in a self-centred way by some of tamu yoga. For instance, some tamu yoga may complain about Balinese spiritual activities, which sometimes could have a noisy character as it is done communally and it disturbs the tamu yoga spiritual quest. This is how I relate some tamu yoga to Macpherson’s (2010) idea of possessive individualism or how individuals are identified as the main owners of their own capacity that does not owe anything to the society.
To understand what is meant by possessive liberalism, Daniel Little’s brief overview is sufficient, in which he explains how the crux of C.B. Macpherson’s critique of a certain type of liberalism — the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other.
Pointing to page 3 of Macpherson’s book, we learn:
What has this got to do to with yoga in Ubud?
At least on Book Yoga Retreats, which is one of several yoga tourism-related search engines, there are 194 retreat options offered in Ubud. One example is from Radiantly Alive, which explains on its website, in a similar way to Studio Bindu above, that:
In this promotional video, we notice popular rhetorical strategies that focus on the confluence of ‘spiritual’ and ‘powerful energy’ that is ‘ultimately nourishing’ through ‘ritual’ and the ‘sacredness’ of place (i.e. Ubud, Bali); which, combined with the idea that yoga’s power is ultimately ‘transformational’, it allows for someone to become one’s ‘authentic self’. However, according to reviews on Trip Advisor, not everyone seems convinced of the alluring videos, or, at least, of their experiences at Radiantly Alive. Sometimes, haters are going to hate, regardless. Still, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. It is also interesting to look at the languages used to write the reviews.
We covered a lot of territory in this quick journey across yogaland. Between East Asia, South-east Asia and beyond, we explored the notions of yoga community/tribe/family, and how they are woven into a capitalist framework to arguably obfuscate and legitimise vested interests and ‘this worldly’ pursuit of yoga business owners, and how an eco-sensitive aesthetic combined with an escapist gaze often fall short of producing sustainable, intergroup communal links, beyond fragile and insular yoga expat bubbles.
Even though the commodification of yoga has its problems, it would not have reached as many people, changing and enriching lives along the way without the globalised opportunity that has occurred. As yoga offers a chance to re-enchant disaffected lives, there seems to be a sense of magic to the way in which the yoga body moves and inspires, at least, we are taught to imagine this through seductive suggestions based on colonial, orientalist, romantic, perennialist philosophy; however, we also see that this supernaturalist and anti-materialist temperament has a violently murderous and fundamentalist edge, which has been at war with skeptics in South Asia for millennia; but, which is intensified in the last few years.
Therefore, in the attempt at being a yogi, whatever that means to you, ought not preclude discarding the necessary twin of faith, which is, of course, doubt. However, this is easier said than done. So, in Part 2, our journey will get a little bumpy, as we explore some of the darker gullies of yogaland that many choose to bypass, spiritually, that is.
Patrick McCartney is a JSPS Post-Doctoral fellow at Kyoto University, Japan, a Visiting Fellow at the South and South-East Asian Studies Department, Australian University, Canberra; and, a Research Associate at Nanzan University Anthropological Institute, Nagoya, Japan. Patrick explores the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, the anthropology of religion, and the economics of desire in relation to the imaginative consumption of global yoga. Patrick’s current project focuses, specifically, on the Japanese yoga industry, and more peripherally on yoga in Asia. You can follow this project at Yogascapes in Japan, and stay in contact via various social media options found on the website.
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