Essay by Carol Horton; author, social scientist, yoga instructor & practitioner, and one of our panelists on Thursday, October 24th “Stretching to Bliss” discussion on the Great Oom’s Nyack, NY retreat and the birth and evolution of yoga in America.
Yoga in America today entices us with utopian visions of holistic beauty and transcendent bliss. Models on magazine covers and yoga-themed advertisements strike eye-catching poses designed to telegraph not simply physical loveliness, but serenity, happiness, and effortless grace. In this commercialized yoga imaginary, mass market images of feminine beauty shimmer with a patina of non-threatening spiritual bliss. The booming “yoga industry” of the past 20 years attests to their allure: Lululemon stock has soared throughout the Great Recession, while yoga classes have popped up like magic mushrooms wherever a core demographic of sufficiently affluent women can be found.
This utopian vision of beauty and bliss casts a cold shadow, however, on those who feel ignored, excluded, or inadequate in its presence. While no one would ever say that you must be thin, white, young, pretty, and female to practice yoga, the endless stream of popular yoga images suggests otherwise. This can cause men, as well as older, heavier, and/or non-white women and others to feel that yoga must not be for them. Plus, even those who identify with mainstream yoga marketing are subtly undermined by it whether they realize it or not: After all, no one remains effortlessly serene, everyone eventually gets sick or injured, and youthful beauty always fades over time.
Nonetheless, it would be a terrible mistake to write off yoga as yet another case of faddish popularity fueled by false advertising. As someone whose personal practice has evolved in tandem with the yoga boom of the past 20 years, I can attest that there’s much more going on with this ancient, yet continually evolving practice than initially meets the eye. Despite the materialism, marketing, and hype, countless classes continue to offer what’s always formed the heart of the yoga tradition: that is, a set of practices that enable us to work systematically with our bodies and minds in ways that spark, energize, and enlarge that mysterious life force within which many refer to as “spirit.”
It’s unfortunate that our hyper-commercialized culture routinely sells yoga on terms that invert what it’s really about. Most yoga marketing turns beauty and bliss into commodities that we alternately aspire to attain and despair at not having. In contrast, a strong yoga practice enables us to enjoy beauty and bliss as transient experiences, rather than needing to “own” them. At the same time, we learn to be less resistant to loss, pain, and other challenges by cultivating greater equanimity. In the process, negotiating the cultural conundrums of American yoga can become a meaningful part of the practice itself: Air-brushed images of beauty and bliss lose their power to manipulate our psyches as we experience the authentically holistic magic that threads through the ups and downs of everyday life.
–Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor 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. For more information, visit her website.