Tag Archives: Off the Mat Into the World

(Black Flag) Back to the Mat

black flag men's white anarchist tee tshirt

“Anarchy is the only slight glimmer of hope.”  Mick Jagger

In the 21st century yoga has gone do-gooder. It has gone the voice on a soapbox. It has gone bully pulpit.

It has lost its mind.

After more than five millennia of minding its own business, it has lately been sticking its nose into everyone else’s business. The first of the eight limbs of yoga are about giving peace a chance, don’t steal the other guy’s stuff, truthfulness, the right use of energy, and self-reliance. There isn’t a word about consciously deliberately engaging with the wider world through good deeds.

Salvation through good works is a Judeo-Christian conceit, not a yoga concept. The Epistle of James makes plain that “faith without works is dead.” In the Jewish tradition, mitzvah means doing something kind charitable beneficial from religious duty. Even the Puritan work ethic is conceptualized as a duty that benefits both the man and his society as a whole.

In the beginning yoga was about suppressing the activities of body mind and will so that the self could realize its distinction from them and find liberation. Then it became a discipline that involved meditation, breath control, and bodily exercise postures for life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now it’s connect participate get involved.

“Yoga is something we do to connect and engage with the world,” says Kate Saal, a teacher and educator at One Flow Yoga in California.

When did that happen?

It happened when yoga sprang to life in the Land of Californiacs in the 1970s, but it happened even more in the new millennium when Seane Corn, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling dreamed up Off the Mat Into the World. It is marketed as a bridge between yoga and community action and a broader expression of service on the planet. The organization works tirelessly to “train leaders worldwide in social change.”

Although worldwide is everywhere, and everywhere is too much to handle, the activist Seane Corn believes everyone needs to start somewhere. “What are you doing for the people in your own backyard” she says, getting you started. It’s not just hashtag activism, either. She means make things actually happen in real life.

Off the Mat Into the World is Karma yoga writ large for the new world.

Karma yoga is doing your duty, whether “as a homemaker, carpenter, or garbage collector, with no thought for one’s own fame, privilege, or financial reward, but simply as a dedication to the Lord,” says Harold Coward, a scholar of bioethics and religious studies.

Karma yoga is a “disinterested action” idea found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as yoga. However, in the yoga tradition, it is derived from the Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem composed for the benefit of the warrior class back in the day. Its goal was to get the troops back on the battlefield for the next day’s carnage. The reasoning was simple cunning brazen.

“Set firmly in yourself, do your work, not attached to anything. Remain even minded in success, and in failure. Even mindedness is true yoga,” says Krishna with a straight face.

The reason we have breakfast lunch dinner is so we don’t die of true yoga. The truth often depends on a walk around the lake, or a good nap, not necessarily blood and guts, as gods and world leaders would have it. It isn’t always what’s right, either, no matter the medals on the chest of the madman at the front. The truth isn’t always the gospel truth.

Yoga used to have its hand on the gospel plow. Now it’s full speed ahead, two hands on the steering wheel. Instead of making you a better person, it’s make the world a better place. The small portrait of the guy or gal on the mat has been replaced by see the big picture.

There’s the Purple Dot Yoga Project battling domestic violence. There’s the Yoga Bridge supporting those healing from cancer. There are the Yoga Gangsters who “utilize their thoughts, words, and actions to empower humanity.” It’s a tall order, but desperate times demand desperados.

Yoga supports many causes, giving back to the community, helping those who are less fortunate, such as the St. Jude Medical Center, Advance Housing, Ronald McDonald Charities, iFred, and Prevention Works. The practice has even offered a helping hand to the Council for Prostitution Alternatives.

Searching out alternatives, however, begs the question, why is it punishable to get paid for an act that is legal if done for free?

Off the Mat Into the World has expanded yoga from transforming ourselves to transforming our neighborhoods, nation states, and the world. “Rooted in compassion and connection,” they say, “we are called to awaken to suffering and take action in response, creating a peaceful, just, and connected global community.”

Although get up stand up is yoga, getting up and standing up for a just peaceful connected global community is not yoga practice, unless you say it is and go on missions of mercy no matter what. In the past fifty years yoga has been co-opted by corporations, the military, and western culture. The latest Johnny-on-the-spot is the Good Samaritan.

What yoga has to do with the global community is moot, open to debate. What yoga has to do with a person’s essential being is an open and shut case. Yoga is more in the way of an anarchic undertaking than a recipe book of groupthink or mother knows best. It’s not a team game.

Even the Boy Scouts, paradoxically, believe the same. “Character training is to put responsibility on the individual,” said Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouts. Individuals have to make the effort to define values and principles for themselves, apart from man-made authority and teamwork.

Anarchists, like yogis, do not believe that the collective needs of the group are head and shoulders ahead of their individual interests. When you’re one of the gang, you’re in a gang. Who needs gangsters? Playing the gangster game is the same as playing the society game, just with slightly different rules.

Although anarchy has long been regarded as mayhem, nihilism, and lawlessness by the forces of law and order, it is more the case that it is a belief in the absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a societal and political ideal. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines anarchy as “an absence of law.” Even though, if there was ever an anarchist on the planet, Jesus was the one.

The brain wave of anarchy is that individuals aren’t made to widen the scope of society, but that society is made to widen the choice of individuals. Anarchism strives to dream up a society as efficient as possible, leaving it at that, so that society can provide individuals with the widest range of choices. Anarchy comes from the Greek word anarchia, meaning the absence of government. Anarchists believe they don’t need policemen to make them behave.

In other words, good people don’t need laws, while bad people don’t obey them. Spend enough time on a yoga mat by yourself and you’ll become an anarchist sooner or later. If everybody got down dog there wouldn’t be any need for laws jails judges the end of the line.

The flaw of the Good Samaritan is that they, like the state, like its agents the agencies of government, like its enforcers the forces of law and order, like its arbiters the halls of justice, believe they know what is best for you. Anarchists, on the other hand, don’t stick their noses into other people’s business. They don’t make causes out of thinking they know what is best for one and all.

“Charity begins at home and justice begins next door,” said Charles Dickens.

“God helps those who help themselves,” said the political theorist Algernon Sidney.

Like anarchia, Sidney’s well-known phrase originated in ancient Greece, the first democracy. Athenian direct participation democracy had more in common with anarchy than any modern bourgeois democracy. It was bottom up. Today’s state is top down. Even our day-to-day sustenance is contrived as the result of trickle down. Everyone, even the rich, is trying to help you out, they proclaim. Republicans and Democrats alike fight it out for the right to say the same thing.

Fight for your right to belong to the wrong party.

Yoga practice is a party of one. On the mat doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else, not your neighbor, not the brightly colored flag you wrap yourself in, and not the world.  When Off the Mat Into the World says it is getting off the mat, they mean exactly that, however much they don’t mean it. Socially conscious causes have nothing to do with yoga, which is a living current of consciousness within the individual self.

Just like yoga isn’t exercise, touching your toes and flipping up into headstand, it isn’t something you do for others, either, jetting off to third-world countries to eradicate malaria or digging wells in sub-Saharan Africa. Yoga is who you are, or who you want to become, like the anarchist looking for freedom. It isn’t feeling good because you’ve done something, done good works, made the world a better place to live in.

It isn’t the narcissism of accomplishment. It’s about making you a better person from the inside out. It’s better to be self-made than letting somebody else cook you up.

Even though we all live out in the open, yoga is not about shifting the perspective of the world. It’s not about doing right. It’s about getting right with yourself.

It’s about focus strength stamina all together tilting windmills toward an inner shift of perspective.

It’s about standing on your own two feet.

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Bye Bye Babs

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When the wisecrackers 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.