“Fuck yoga!” was perhaps the biggest laugh line I heard during at the screening of Bridget Jones’ Baby, arriving as it did while Bridget is in the final throes of labor and has just been informed (by Emma Thompson, no less) that she’s too dilated for an epidural. As she howls, Patrick Dempsey’s character, a tech guru who enjoys mindfulness and staying calm, urges her to remember what she learned in yoga. Zellweger’s Bridget growls as she unleashes the aforementioned two-word declaration, which all but brought the audience to its feet. I laughed along with them, having just endured an artificially-induced labor which, in the moment at least, made my months of work in prenatal yoga feel useless.
Welcome to the yoga backlash, a cultural wave of parody, investigation and skepticism directed towards the mindful exercise craze that can now be found everywhere from urban centers to strip malls. Novels, non-fiction books, and television shows are playfully or sincerely taking aim at yoga culture even as it proliferates. Of course, you can’t parody or critique something sacred — a religion, a genre, a way of life — successfully unless both you and your audience understand the target of your satire. In other words, everyone in that Bridget Jones screening was familiar enough with yoga and its adherents to get the joke.
And it’s no surprise that one subcategory of people most likely to be seduced by yoga are also the people most likely to pillory it in their work: writers and artists. As it happens, those of us who are hunched over our desks all day — staring at the computer, our eyes and shoulders (and brains) aching — are very likely to benefit from opening of our chakras, closing our minds, and pushing our beleaguered backs into downward dogs. That’s certainly the case for me; I began my “practice” after a spending a winter writing articles about the Tea Party all day in my poorly-heated apartment, under a snuggie. I’ve been in and out of yoga studios ever since, but the critical brain that made me a writer also makes me cringe when I notice that yoga culture is full of visible hypocrisies. After reciting Om together and declaring ourselves free from attachment, I’m often amazed to see my fellow practitioners giving each other derisive once-overs or otherwise acting rudely.
Yoga has become mainstream, a complement and salve for our busy late capitalist society, yet its manifestation as part of that society also shares some of its bad qualities: obsessions with perfection, profit, cults of personality, competition, abuse of power, and pettiness. Or to put it less academically, take this song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘, which includes the immortal line, “Greet each day, Namaste/ Screeeeeewww you, you‛re fat.”
Beautiful Valencia sings the song (which is clearly a projection from insecure Rebecca Bunch’s head):
We’re in a yoga class
Now is the time to let your mind go blank
And focus instead
On how awesome the yoga teacher is.
Look at me, look at me
I‛m so good at yoga!
You’re not supposed to look at anyone else, most yoga teachers will say. “Check in with yourself.” And yet trendy “Athleisure” yoga tops and bras have gorgeous designs meant to show off shoulder muscles. Since you can’t exactly check in with your own upper back, the entire point of this fashion trend is to show off to the person standing behind you in class. Free from attachment, we are not. Like Rebecca, many women spend yoga class feeling both empowered and diminished in comparison with their neighbors.
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A few years ago I noticed yoga starting to creep into women’s literature. Both the breezy Friendship by Emily Gould and the darker, more experimental Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill featured protagonists attending yoga classes during attempts at self-actualization; it felt like a casual choice in both, a temporary escape from the mire. For Offill’s character, the best part of a yoga class was its conclusion, during which “the teacher covered you with a blanket and you got to pretend you were dead”, providing a chance for a beleaguered working mother to return to childhood or just check out of existence. For Gould’s Amy, the idea of God was like a chill yoga teacher.
I bookmarked this coincidence in my mind, asking, “Are yoga references becoming a fixture in literature about women today?” Recently, two smart and juicy new novels — Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Jessica Grose’s Soulmates — went further, basing entire plots around yoga studios that end up being fronts for con artists, cults, and perhaps worse. In both these novels, the people most easily seduced and fooled by the ethos of yoga turn out, at least at first, to be middle aged men desperate for a stab at meaning, as well a chance to commune with svelte young things in their Lululemon.
In Modern Lovers, we meet Andrew, a sort of hapless musician, a grown-up rich kid who is a softie. On the verge of 50, with a son nearing college application season, he’s having a midlife crisis (“He didn’t want to feel old,” writes Straub). Andrew falls in with Dave, a guru at a local studio who is obviously bilking him for his trust fund. The guy is so clearly shady, and Andrew so pathetically unaware, that the latter becomes as much an object of pity as exasperation. Andrew’s foolish behavior is compared to the five or six other characters who are also obsessing and acting out; in particular, there’s a clear parallel between Andrew and the two teenagers in the book, an indication that he never got past a certain adolescent mindset. As the novel ends, he’s finally beginning to grow up, not because of yoga, but because of his humiliation at Dave’s hands.
Grose’s treatment of a similar theme in Soulmates is more directly aimed at yoga culture — beginning with a double-murder given a “Nama-slay” headline in the New York Post. Two yogis, a couple, are found dead in a cave in the Southwestern desert and we follow Dana, the estranged wife of one, as she tries to unravel the mystery of how her husband and his nubile yogic paramour died. Ethan, Dana’s deceased husband, seems to be initially more reprehensible than Andrew, a similarly entitled white dude who doesn’t just dabble in the “practice” but upends his entire life for it, leaving his wife for another woman.
Yet throughout the course of the novel, Grose teases the idea that the yoga cult that enmeshed Ethan has its appealing side, especially for someone as tightly-wound and success-oriented (and now, deeply guilty feeling) as Dana. “I was so used to being on a workday schedule and responding to my bosses’ needs, it was nice to float around in a timeless netherspace,” Dana writes of her experience, even though she’s at a yoga retreat to investigate the suspicious guru who had her husband in thrall and possibly killed him. “A good teacher,” she labels this guy, hilariously named Yoni, after he corrects her posture. The delicious and dark twist that arrives the end of Dana’s journey makes Soulmates more of a mystery and dark comedy about cults, whereas Modern Lovers is a gentle novel about growing up and love. Still, the parallels between the two plotlines are notable: they point out how inherently appealing and positive yoga can be, but how that seductive quality carries a whiff of peril for those who are vulnerable (for instance, middle-aged men who feel emasculated, or like failures).
Today, the attraction-cum-skepticism we feel towards yoga echoes many of our reactions towards religious observance: the feeling that anything that seems divine, once organized by flawed human beings, becomes a thing of ordinary hierarchy. Yet we’re reminded that this is a feature, not a bug, by experts like Andrea Jain and Michelle Goldberg, whose respective books, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture and The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, tackle the idea (in very different ways — read their conversation here) that modern yoga is “perpetually reinvented and therefore lacks any static core or essence.”
In her introduction to The Goddess Pose, a biography of western Yoga pioneer Indra Devi, Goldberg writes something that explains why I keep going to yoga when I can, even while balancing a job and a new baby. “I loved that I could find psychological solace and a workout at the same time,” she wrote. But she wrote the book because “while I loved yoga, I often wondered about it.” She discovered in her research that in its journey from India to the West, the practice has always been vulnerable to manipulation, sexual abuse, reinvention and commercialization. In that sense, it’s like any spiritual practice — full of beauty and emotional nourishment, and also subject to becoming as flawed and damaging as the people who participate. If yoga is a modern religion, no wonder pop culture has begun to treat it with both the seriousness and the satire that religion demands from artists.