Autobiography of Bhogi: Part 5: Yoga’s Power, Nature Cures, and swimming with the Übermenschen
How global yoga and supremacist ideology run on the same Romantic, neoliberal logic.
The idea that Nazis were interested in yoga is not new. This is quite well known. However, here’s a little primer from page 48 of Paul Heelas’s book.
Nazi Leaders Fascinated By Yoga
Yoga is many things to many people-for some it is a spiritual practice while others consider it a physical exercise. But…
As Anne Harrington charts in her Reenchanted Science. Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (1999), ‘Romantic’ mind-body-spirit-earth themes became increasingly widespread during interwar Germany. Of particular note, naturopathic and homeopathic approaches were developed to contribute to the ‘New German Therapy’ (p. 186). And given that #yoga was practised at Himmler’s Wewelsburg Castle, there is little doubt that it was practised elsewhere: especially for the more elitist to pursue the quest to become ‘god-men’.
In Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler, Roger Griffin, explains that, “seeing both the European occult revival that produced Theosophy and Anthroposophy, and the ‘life reform movement’ which cultivated alternative medicine, neo-paganism, and yoga, not as symptoms of a peculiarly German malaise, but as local manifestations of pan-European forms of social modernism bent on resolving the spiritual crisis of the West created by materialism and rationalism.”
The aim of this blog is to point out something different. The logic of neoliberalism and the Romantic ethic of consumerism run together, hand-in-hand, as it were, through global yoga and the imaginative consumption of it by global yogis. I point out how these narratives that centre around nature, awakening to an inner power to become a master of the self, holism, and appeals to purity, mystery and traditional authority are shared between incommensurable social worlds via the consumerist model of discipline and self‐care; which is linked to neoliberal hyper-individualism and broader self‐help discourses.
Let’s start with a quick recap. According to David Harvey, ‘Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit (p.2).’
Now, the thing about neoliberalism, which is difficult to accept, is that it is a vehicle for the continuation of white supremacy. And, before you start stabbing the computer screen at these words you are reading, let me quickly say this – there is more going on than what you might realise – and, if yoga can offer anything, it is the possibility to become more aware of one’s self in relation to one’s surroundings…particularly, beyond some vapid virtue signaling.
It is worth considering how one’s participation in the global popularity and consumption of yoga might be in many different ways, reinforcing the structural inequality one theoretically, at least, opposes. And, while the pursuit of yoga leads many to a realm of spiritual narcissism, while one might not consider themselves racist, implicit within our consumptive practices lays our tacit support for a system that is, at its core, racist. This leads to questioning how to practically decolonise yoga.
What is neoliberalism?
Neoliberalism is a vicious but cunning form of capitalism. And like all varieties of capitalism, it rests on a foundation of white supremacy. Neoliberalism’s goals are not merely privatization and the decimation of unions and the social safety net. It also seeks to manage the social order and ensure the continued political dominance of the ruling class by absorbing social threats. Sisters and brothers, YOUR opposition to racist state terror is a major threat to the normal functioning (and thus the hegemony) of the neoliberal regime. To neutralize this threat and destabilize the most rebellious segments of the population, the corporate power structure aggressively propagates certain false assumptions among the public.
So, a lot of us think that yoga offers us an emancipatory option to divest ourselves of our own culpability in an unequal system…and, that if everyone just did yoga, the world would be a better place. If only everyone pledged to make yoga an integral part of their daily lives…
If you want a real world example; take Lululemon…
Christine Lavrence and Kristin Lozanski explain how “the enormous success of lululemon athletica and specifically how its branding practices appropriate yogic practice into a consumerist model of discipline and self‐care” is linked to “neoliberal hyperindividualism and broader self‐help discourses that define health and wellness as a personal and moral achievement”. They explain how “lululemon branding consistently refers to vague, homogenizing, and orientalist concepts of Eastern spiritualities that instrumentalize yogic practices, and reinforce Western ideologies of healthism along with personal, bodily, and market performance”, and argue that “lululemon folds empowerment into consumerism: discourses of choice and self‐care reinforce the responsibilized self that is the core of contemporary neoliberal societies”.
But, before we start arguing over some imagined notion of ‘traditional core Indian values’ and the marketed sanctity of gurus who are supposedly not goal-oriented like the rest of us…just see how neoliberalised these ones are.
During my ethnographic enquiries into the consumptive practices of global yogis, I am often met with comments that suggest I either do not know what I am talking about or that my knowledge of yoga is exceptionally poor. This is because I too often present an argument that runs counter to the normative ideas about the history of yoga that align with popular appeals promoted through the general marketing of global yoga. Take these Indian government approved advertisements that rely upon orientalist narratives to continue to promote India as a land of sacred mystery. This is deeply problematic, particularly with regards to decolonising yoga.
A common occurrence when discussing yoga with global yogis involves an apparent ‘back to basics’ lesson by someone who might have a decade or two less experience in yoga, yet they feel I have fundamentally erred along my yogic path. The lesson normally includes appeals to authority and tradition with regard to the romanticised notions of what yoga is supposedly about. The tropes asserted run close, if not parallel, to the same tropes used by Hindu nationalists to justify their own position of reasserting brahminical hegemony.
In many ways it is, as Peter Staudenmaier explains in Between Occultism and Nazism Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era, that “analogous ideas appealed not only to occultists but to participants in the nebulous völkisch scene which overlapped extensively with the life reform movement. The plethora of völkisch groups in early twentieth century Germany cultivated a mixture of Romantic nationalism, ethnic revivalism, and opposition to both socialism and capitalism, while promoting racist convictions as part of a hoped-for Germanic renewal.” (17)
These appeals fall quite neatly into the schema involved with internalising desire; which is involved in constructing an identity that enables conformity to the normative expressions of a group; which are undeniably part of the bodily fascist, neo-liberal, biomoral regime of power; and, which sits at the core of the global popularity and consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles. For instance, countless exchanges lead to a global yogi telling me that the definition of yoga is encapsulated in the moral-ethical yamas and niyamas, which are found in the yoga treatise of Patañjali. This is a very common assumption amongst global yogis.
However, this appeal to scriptural authority, in some ways, demonstrates a yogically-fundamentalist attitude, as there is typically no individual articulation made by my interlocutor, apart from quoting scripture, to justify or support the assertions made regarding the function, purpose or history of yoga. In some ways, we are talking about the semiticisation of yoga around the importance of one text, Patañjali’s Yōga Sūtras. This simplification for consumption is another consequence of neoliberalism that rarifies complex histories into more easily digestible and transposable signs. Is it, then, possible that neoliberalism also is quite responsible for increasing fundamentalist attitudes across different cultures and markets?
Yet, no amount of contrary textual or historical evidence one might provide is ever deemed valid enough. This is typically due to the anti-intellectual, epistemically-relative disposition that discounts a scholarly perspective as less legitimate than a ‘serious practitioners experience’. This unquestionable faith in dogma to explain all of social reality that is explained by reference to one indubitable, statically-monolithic entity or principle is one of the defining features of fundamentalism, in general; and, which is visibly present amongst many global yogis who seek to re-enchant their lives through invoking a magical realism by projecting into nature, a yogatopia, of sorts. In effect, this preference for a simpler, binary outlook to describe a complex, dynamica, objective social reality is deeply problematic.
As Yogic Heritage explain, they ‘aim to create magic in your lives’; and:
Our aim is to connect and unite this world under the umbrella of yoga, thus protecting it from the hazards of modernity and providing it the much-needed energy to celebrate and enjoy the gift of life.
Part of the reasons for this being a problem is that, as Khalikova explains, the rhetoric of the popular guru, Baba Ramdev, whose Patañjali yoga and Ayurveda empire is worth billions of dollars, we can appreciate how a ‘neo-liberal quest for health with nationalist sentiments and consumerist desires’ strengthen the individual’s body and the metaphysical body of the nation-state. By extension to the greater area of global yoga in general, non-Indians/Hindus are not immune from the nationalistic fervour inherent within guru rhetoric. Often, the ‘hard Hindutva’ of Hindu supremacism is essentialised and softened for banal consumption as ‘soft Hindutva’ through, as Aramuvadan explains, the transcoding of Romanticism via appeals to identity, community and history; which operate through reconstituted cultural memory, as opposed to documentable influence. In other words, through the clever marketing of global yoga, people’s perceptions of yoga and India are filtered to consume ideas of India’s history, present and future in a particular way that might not be historically accurate, and which might foster a Hindu supremacist agenda on the coat tails of neoliberalism’s white supremacy. And, before one scoffs at the idea that Hindu supremacists and white supremacists are not aligned, let me direct your attention to unholy alliance between Alt-reich supremacist movements around the globe and the publishing house that started in India.
Global yoga is deeply embedded in the neoliberal project AND Neoliberalism is an indelible component of the Indian state’s Hindu supremacist development agenda; which operates on an almost identical logic and uses similar rhetoric as global yoga. This obfuscates the harder end of ideology through romantic appeals to holism and deep ecology that are present, also, in the utopian inspired state-building literature of Nazi Germany.
Take, for example, the ‘Romantic’ mind-body-spirit-earth themes that were part of an ethic to create ‘god men’ (übermenschen) through naturopathic and homeopathic modalities combined with yoga. Not to mention, the ideal that Nazi physician, Karl Kötschau, promotes; which centres around the machine metaphor. From the 1927 film, Metropolis, we get a glimpse of the machine-people. Automata, designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations, or respond to predetermined instructions. One of the aims of the Nazi ideology is to create ‘super men’.
Machinenmenschen (machine people) are externally controlled. In contrast, the self-controlled (global yogi) people, who develop their own powers through deep connections to Nature do not rely on medical technology, and are capable of surviving without artificial environments.
Why? Because they have mastered the power of themselves.
Who does this remind you of?
And, as secularism’s popularity rose, Nietzsche considered that people would move towards gaining super powers; which Nietzsche articulated in 1883 that people would yearn to become übermenschen (supermen). He also predicted his ideas would later be twisted. 135 years later, at the post-secular event horizon, the middle class are obsessed with improving themselves through the ideal of becoming a yogic, spiritual but not religious, übermensch.
Subhash Gatade explains, that ‘It is not widely discussed how Dr Ambedkar had unravelled the unholy ideological link between Manu, who inspired Nietzsche, who in turn inspired Hitler. And it is common knowledge how Hitler and Mussolini have in turn inspired the Manuwadis of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS: Savarkar, Munje, Hedgewar and Golwalkar. Communalism Combat (May 2000 issue) had collated extracts of Dr Ambedkar’s writings (From Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings & Speeches, Volume 3, published by the education department, government of Maharashtra, pages 72–87) to show how Nietzsche had felt inspired by philosophy of Hinduism which, ..[i]s not founded on individual justice or social utility. The philosophy of Hinduism is founded on a totally different principle. To the question what is right and what is good the answer which the philosophy of Hinduism gives is remarkable. It holds that to be right and good the act must serve the interests of this class of Supermen, namely, the Brahmins.’
So, what is actually happening here? I’m not suggesting that global yogis are Nazis. That is not what I’m saying, at all. I’m also not using the logical fallacy of Argumentum ad Hitlerum, which goes like this: The nazis did yoga, so anyone that does yoga is also a Nazi. Another example is:
Instead, I’m pointing to a meta-discursive level of politics related to how the discourse around the public discussion of culture and morality is shaped; before the conversation even begins, by historical precedents and the Romantic ethic that is inbuilt within the white supremacist logic of neoliberalism; which sits at the heart of the global wellness industry and our passive, complicit consent of it through our literal buying into the idea that yoga is an effective technology to improve ourselves and subconsciously validate our position in society. Clearly, if one wants to, they can not just ask for the god’s help, but take control of their powers.
Better yet, one can curate a wellness package that can “transform your mind, body, soul” so one can “start living a healthy, productive, and balanced life;” which is “all, aimed at making the best version of yourself.”
What we find, then, at the core of the global wellness/yoga/spiritual tourism industries is the neoliberal ethic urging us all to constantly better ourselves, so as to be considered legitimate citizens who are not ‘parasites’ or burdens on society in some sense; which Anne Harrington discusses on page 186.
This combines with the neo-Romantic ethic that is at the heart of consumerism through appeals to nature, purity, mystery, tradition, holism, etc.; which finds expression in spiritual tourism in the following way, this time from a Hindu community in Java, Indonesia.
We see this through the promotion of nature cures, as a fundamental part of the routinisation of detoxing our yogic bodies, which, as Joseph Alter & Co. explains, the ‘Nature Cure in contemporary India, which derives directly from late 19th and early 20th century forms of European practice, involves treatment using earth, air, sunlight, water and a regulated, primarily raw vegetarian diet to treat a spectrum of medical conditions’. Alter & Co continue, saying:
Not only is Nature Cure unique among the plurality of medical systems in India, it is based on a theory of health and disease that is fundamentally ecological. Although generalized “natural” wellness is a feature of “alternative” healing which has gained currency in various circles worldwide, Nature Cure should not be confused with early 20th century “New Age” spirituality or its various derivative forms of practice. There are some interesting and important points of historical overlap in the development of each, especially as concerns Theosophy in the history of Indian modernity. But, contrary to what one might expect — given Swami Vivekanand’s influence in the late 19th century — and, despite the impact of Orientalized yoga on embodied spirituality more generally [9,10], Nature Cure in India — including, perhaps most surprisingly, the practice of asana and pranayama — reflects a distinctly modernized articulation of early 20th century radical theory and practice as articulated by German secular pragmatists who were less mystically inspired than mechanically inclined to bring nature into the urban world of the new middle-class . This techno-holism makes Nature Cure more relevant to 21st century public health issues in India than is the case with other medical systems [8,12].
Shanti Mandir (Temple of Peace) offers Ayurvedic treatment at its ashram in southern Gujarat; which it describes as:
Now, this all sounds quite good and wholesome. However, Shanti Mandir have only recently entered the wellness space in such a conscious way. When I was doing my PhD fieldwork in this ashram in 2012–13, they had only just started offering massage to visitors. This came about because some devotees with these skills trained some of the local men and women in basic massages skills. Today, there is a fully operational wellness centre in the ashram, which is clearly an enticing extra beyond the idea of austere monastic life. This ashram caters for the higher end yogi (#4 from the list below).
In exploring the social life of yoga, Mimi Nichter’s (2013, 244–246) typology of yoga identities is helpful to understand the degree of commitment and investment of various lifestyles:
- the Yoga Professional is an advanced practitioner, certified yoga teacher and long-term student of a guru who regularly travels to India, who earns a full or part-time income from teaching yoga;
- the Going to the Source type is a dedicated yoga practitioner with a long-term, near daily “practice”, who believes that yoga taught outside of India is inauthentic, and has a more serious approach to travelling to India for more focused yoga-related reasons than;
- the Yoga Traveller, who sees travelling to India more as a secular (possibly spiritual) ritual, which could be a counterpoint to the mundane life at home, who is either a first-time or repeat traveler to India, but who has entered an ashram or yoga course while in India to learn about yoga, which could be a respite from the hardships of low-budget travel in the sub-continent; which is contrasted with
- the Yoga Lite traveler, who does not imagine their yoga destination as an austere Himalayan ashram, but instead prefers the idea of an ‘ultra-luxury retreat’ that includes the benefits of spa culture, such as: yoga classes, ayurvedic massage and treatment, and a sheltered, peaceful haven where the harsher reality of India is buffered.
But, the way in which the discourse is pre-fabricated at a meta-political level distillates us toward the notion that detoxing the physical body is commensurate with spiritual journeying towards becoming, as the presenter in this video asserts, ‘pure vessels of consciousness’ through ‘decalcifying the pineal gland to awaken the third eye’. However, the detoxing and deeper links to nature in order to access super yogic powers is underwritten by the neoliberal logic.
So, what to do? I don’t necessarily have any answer to this predicament. I don’t feel obligated, either, to come up with one.
From a Japanese perspective, we find yoga maps onto to other practices related to finding cures to modernity’s perceived ills through being and walking through nature. This has a long-standing practice in Japan through the
However, to wind this up, I think it is worth discussing the ethical implications of suggesting certain practices like NOFAP/brahmācarya/celibacy are to be taken seriously. And how they are promoted within the neoliberal framework as ways to become ‘superhuman’; and how they tie in directly with all that has been outlined above. Much to the willful ignorance of the promoters.
It is interesting how this particular former professional ice hockey cum online ‘enlightened vlogger’, The Blissful Athlete, shows scant regard for his audience — his target demographic seems to consist of young.white.celibate.male — and the potential health implications of following his advice not to ejaculate.
The thing is, however,…congestive prostatitis is NO JOKE. And, having asked the vlogger via the comment’s section on his Youtube channel about this issue, his response was less than satisfactory.
Perhaps, this response is indicative of the general ambivalence towards one’s own culpability in the consumption of serious leisure; which is decidedly myopically nihilistic in line with the central tenets of the consumerist model of discipline and self‐care; which is linked to neoliberal hyper-individualism and broader self‐help discourses.
Coincidentally, his wife, whom he met in his guru’s ashram in India, presumably while experimenting with NOFAP, also operates as an 'enlightened vlogger' through the moniker, Kundalini Yogini.
Together, they work in tandem to promote similarly titled videos about, ostensibly, how to become model, perpetually improving, citizens, who gain yogic superpowers thru nature cures.
They simultaneously produced vlogs about white supremacy and yoga. Unfortunately, their analysis is blurred due to the cognitive bias of their enculturation into a particular yogic community, which is run by a guru currently under investigation for rape. This type of spiritual bypass, where we avoid looking at the stuff within ourselves and communities that we should be looking at, is better understood through the idea of pathological altruism. Scott Barry Kaufman suggests that ‘extreme compassion can have downsides such as difficulty passing judgment of right vs. wrong, and forgiving all transgression and failures of those in the in-group while acting highly protective and aggressive toward those in the out-group, even sometimes in the absence of actual provocation and injustice.’
Still, in the Blissful Athlete video below, he assuages our fears by asserting that both he and his guru are ‘authentic yogis’. So, alles wird gut sein…
The irony, which I think is quite clear, is that these ‘vlogis’ (vlogging yogis’ claim to denounce white supremacy while vainly trying to separate yoga and themselves from any connection to the neoliberal project of perpetual self-improvement and accumulation of power to become übermenschen.
While also, in an oblique way, victim blaming people for not manifesting the life they want…really, the hypocrisy could not get any clearer, especially as they embed advertising into their videos in a for-profit, goal-oriented ambition to continue their lifestyle choice. As these entrepreneurs demonstrate, mobility is key to the self-improvement narrative. This is something that Nicolette Makovicky discusses
We find these ideals at the core of the global yoga aspiration. As Jim McGuigan explains, ‘The neoliberal self combines the idealised subject(s) of classical and neoclassical economics – featuring entrepreneurship and consumer sovereignty – with the contemporary discourse of ‘the taxpayer’, who is sceptical of redistributive justice, and a ‘cool’ posture that derives symbolically – and ironically – from cultures of disaffection and, indeed, opposition. In effect, the transition from organised capitalism to neoliberal hegemony over the recent period has brought about a corresponding transformation in subjectivity.’
Until the Neoliberal Yogi really engages with understanding the Neoliberal Self and the neoliberal water it swims in, there is little possibility of reaching the emancipatory shore promised by the self proclaimed promoters of yoga, whether via some imagined ‘traditional’ ideal or the heretical options of the mature phase of global yoga’s industry cycle. In closing, I argue that one of the reasons we have seen such a huge expansion in yoga related options for the consumer is also directly related to neoliberalism and the necessary entrepreneurial spirit that demands brand distinction. Industries typically have four phases.
1) Introduction 2) Growth 3) Maturity-Saturation 4) Decline
It is without a doubt that the global yoga industry is in the saturated part of the mature phase. The question is, just how long before the decline starts? Or, has it already begun? I argue that even though the figures (economically, at least) suggest the industry is still maturing, the signs of the looming decline are already quite visible. Like this…transcendental tantra…
Transcendental Tantra — Orgasm & Biokinesis power to rejuvenate & heal the body
It is no longer enough to market yoga as simply an incensed-laden temporary pause where one steps out of the fray in to a yoga studio for 60-mins of stretching. It’s now a 24/7 régime du corps articulated through a ‘yogic way of life’ or ‘yoga(-inspired) lifestyle’; which can also be a euphemism for something much more nefarious. Still, the yogic body must continue to move, and flow, and purify itself with perpetual, neoliberal-inspired, self-improvement.
And, because the market is near to complete saturation, it also now involves weed, beer, dogs, goats, death metal, hiking, zen meditation, tantric sex, SUP, ad infinitum…ad nauseum. A closing example of this is Zenthai Shiatsu; which, the founder explains in this interview below, is akin to a merging of rivers in which we have an opportunity to swim…with the other übermenschen who have thrown off their corporate shackles and suits and jettisoned all that conditioning to be…free.
And, for an impressive presentation of how this marketing comes together through the romantic ethic, nostalgic mood, and deep ecological theology that ties it all together, if you can, watch even just the first minute of this promotional video for his teacher-training retreat in Bali.
Patrick McCartney, PhD is a JSPS Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan; a Research Associate at Nanzan Anthropological Institute, Nanzan University, Japan; a Visiting Fellow at the South and South-East Asian Studies Department, and Member, South Asia Research Institute, Australian National University, Australia; and, Research Affiliate, Organization for Identity and Cultural Development, Kyoto.
Building upon an anthropological premise, Patrick’s work intersects the commodification of desire and consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles. It explores the consumption of global yoga through the politics of imagination and the sociology of spirituality. Patrick’s current project focuses specifically on the Japanese yoga industry, which includes understanding the aspirations of Japanese yoga consumers and how modern yoga is reconstituted in unique ways into Japanese culture. You can follow this project at Yogascapes in Japan, and also find his articles and films there too.
Unless otherwise stated, all content is licensed under: CC Attribution 4.0 International