By Ed Staskus
When the wiseacres known as the Babarazzi, a New York City-based black-clad collective devoted to getting in their two cents’ worth about commercial yoga culture, called it quits in January 2014, after a two-year run, they announced their closing by saying, “We have decided to finally set the monkeys who write our pieces free.”
They were being unduly modest. It’s well known monkeys have always refused to read and write so they won’t be forced to work for a living.
Starting with their first posts during the debacle that became the end of John Friend and Anusara Yoga, the Babarazzi raised the skull and crossbones, firing broadsides at a yoga community they saw as a “silly cocktail party.”
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.
Their TMZ approach targeted what they called yogilebrities, or ”those who trade in the likes of such stupidity as yoga image, yoga fashion, and yoga lifestyle.” said Aghori Babarazzi, the official unofficial spokesman of the group.
“That’s how cheap yoga marketing works. It turns the seeker into a consumer.”
Reactions in the yoga community ran the gamut. One puzzled reader wrote, “I don’t understand this blog or the writer’s intention.” Another wrote, “Hey, it’s all yoga.” At the same time a curmudgeon wrote, “It’s high time someone shone light on the turd-fest of shameless, salivating self-promotion that has infiltrated the yoga world.”
The tag line of the web site was “giving contemporary yoga the star treatment.” It might as well have been Richard Pryor’s gag line, “I ain’t no movie star, man. I’m a booty star.”
But, behind the trash talk and cutting edge sarcasm was an earnest attempt to point out the many disconnects between the principles of yoga and the actual bread and butter practice of it in America.
“What goes on behind the scenes in yoga studios is the stuff daytime soap operas are made out of,” said Aghori Babarazzi about the wild and wacky world of modern yoga.
“Students who have never crossed that line in the studio have no idea how pig-ish some of the more fame-oriented teachers can be,” he said. “And I’m not talking about the nice piggies that live on farms.”
Although celebrities worry about illnesses and mortgages like everyone else, the magician Penn Jillette has pointed out that “we celebrities are desperate pigs.”
No sooner had the Babarazzi gotten their feet wet than they ran afoul of yogi entrepreneur Sadie Nardini and Elephant Journal by posting an article on Elephant Journal’s site titled ‘Is YAMA Talent More Harmful to the Yoga Community Than John Friend’s Penis Pursuits?’
YAMA Talent is a New York City-based management consultant and booking agency for teachers and brands seeking to be front of the line life of the party and profitable as possible in the yoga marketplace.
Sadie Nardini saw the piece as a below the belt blow aimed at her, YAMA Talent cried foul – “How dare we waste time criticizing our fellow yogi’s?” – while Elephant Journal disappeared the piece from its site, protesting its lack of attribution, arguing that the Barbarazzi was not a person, so could not have an opinion.
This was before the Supreme Court ruled in the recent Citizens United case that corporations are people, just like real people.
“What we do here at Babarazzi HQ is intentionally provocative,” the collective answered the back seat drivers who had forgotten to buckle up for the ride.
For the next year-and-a-half they posted, every three or four days, stories like ‘Whatever Western Yogi’s Touch Turns to Gold (Or Pooh?)’ about the big money leanings of bigger-than-life yoga events; ‘What’s More Boring than Athletic Wannabee Yoga Companies Suing One Another?’ about companies like Yogitoes and Lululemon keeping their steely eyes firmly on their spreadsheets; and ‘Snowshoeing and Yoga: Obviously You Need to Do This in Order to Be a Better Person’ about the endless proliferation of hybrids as subjects for yogic workshops.
The tabloid-style havoc of the Babarazzi’s journalism raised the ire of many in the American yoga community, from Colleen Staidman Yee to Tara Stiles, from Off the Mat Into the World to YogaNation. It’s difficult to take criticism. It’s difficult to take without resentment. It’s difficult to take without lashing back, no matter how much breath control meditation third-eye concentration you’ve done. Standing on your head is easier.
It can be painful, but it’s meant to be. It serves the same function as pain, calling attention to something unhealthy.
“The Babarazzi is a great asset for yoga in this modern world where concerns for what yoga is are increasingly tempered with concerns over what yoga isn’t,” said Paul Harvey of the Centre for Yoga Studies.
Although the Babarazzi seemed to reject the notion that there is one true pure twenty-four carat yoga, they also spurned the cult of personality, the sideshow of personal appearances and trade shows, and the endless merchandising of a practice for which stuff and more stuff is ultimately valueless.
In the commercial world it is a truism that men exploit men for the supposed greater good of everyone. In the world of yoga self-awareness is the same as doing good. Exploitation of oneself and others isn’t the yellow brick road to anywhere. Yoga is more on the order of being between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, not shopping for something everything anything.
“The Babarazzi does a good job at pointing out the hypocrisies of so many self-proclaimed gurus,” said Jacob Kyle, a philosophy graduate student and yoga teacher in New York City, “and reminds us, in its own way, that the true teacher lies within each of us.”
The bad boys of mindfulness “drew a bead on the wide-ranging techniques and linguistic gimmicks being used to advertise, market, and sell yoga to middle class consumers,” wrote Stewart Lawrence in ‘Yoga’s Court Jesters’.
For all its wit and whistle blowing the Babarazzi were tilting at windmills. The imperative to exploit yoga in America is too strong. There are tens of millions of customers. Lululemon isn’t a multi-billion dollar company because it failed to notice the commodity yoga could be transformed into.
It’s a yoga rave with see-through pants!
Bikram Choudhury, for example, thinks he owns thirty five Rolls Royce cars, but isn’t sure of the exact number. Other than the YogaLife Institute few, if any, yoga companies are Certified B Corporations, or for-profit companies certified as being motivated by more than just a hunger for profit. Hand over fist has long been a fundamental pose on the mat.
Yoga Journal, notwithstanding its endless proselytizing, is not a fair trade concern. It is an arm of Active Interest Media, a privately held company. The principals of the company are privateers, not necessarily interested in the public good. The bottom line, not the eight limbs of the practice, rules. After B. K. S. Iyengar died in August 2014 Yoga Journal celebrated his long life by immediately e-mail blasting advertisements far and wide selling Iyengar DVD’s.
The cult of personality, the creation of an idealized and heroic image, has long been a trick of tyrants. Not anymore. Constant media exposure has changed all that. It’s all fair game now. The practice of yoga is not free of its charms. When Helen Hunt gave credit to Mandy Ingber, a popular LA yoga instructor, for getting her body “Oscar-ready”, out came more cool contemporary yoga advice called ‘Yogalosophy’.
“It’s truly cool!” gushed the magazine Glamour.
Emma Watson and Ryan Kwanten have become certified yoga teachers, completing the circle of yoga teachers becoming celebrities to celebrities becoming yoga teachers.
The Babarazzi’s announcement that they were publishing their last post and desisting from further antagonizing celebrity yoga teachers and organizers of national yoga events both celebrated and snarked the status quo.
“The Babs is Closing Up Shop. Everything Must Go. Crazy Sales and Deals.”
Even though it is uncertain whether the Babarazzi ever had a bunch of monkeys pecking away on keyboards, writing their material, it is certain they never sold out to buy bananas for the monkeys. They doubtless were chronically short on greenbacks, since they never had anything to sell other than their dismantling iconoclasm, which is rarely a commodity in any marketplace.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.