Woo Woo II: The Yogi Kool-Aid Reconsidered.

Via Scott Robinson
on Dec 4, 2010
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The glory of God is the person fully alive. –St. Irenaeus of Lyons

First of all: it’s none of my business. Really. Whatever people see fit to make fun of is fine with me; satire is potent social commentary, and laughter is the best medicine.

Nevertheless, when I read Joslyn Hamilton’s very funny article, The Plague of Woo Woo: Signs That Your Friends Have Chugged the Yogi Kool-Aid–a heads-up for those of us who fear our yogi friends may have crossed the “sanity line”–I remained haunted by a sense of something missing. Something subtle, like molé rojo with the cinnamon left out.  And after some thought, I believe I have identified the missing ingredient as compassion.

Now, I hasten to say that unlike Joslyn, I have not spent ten years in the company of goji berry-scarfing über-yogis, so I can’t really critique her assessment of that world from an accuracy standpoint. Neither have I ever been emotionally injured or abused by anyone in the yoga world.

I have, however, done my time in both the Miraculous Medal and the What Would Jesus Do-bracelet neighborhoods of Christianity, so I do have a grasp of spiritual hooey.  And after many years hanging around the church–including an ugly and painful foray into the pre-ordination process–I am prepared to compare lacerations with anybody. (We could reenact that scene in Jaws where Quint and Hooper get drunk and show off their scars.)

I’ve no doubt that many people turn to yoga in a misguided attempt to avoid the moral strictures that conventional religion would enjoin on them. (In doing so, of course, they show how poorly they understand yoga.) And naturally, plenty of people turn to ‘Churchianity” in order to have all their moral decisions made for them, allowing them to sit in judgment on everybody else–while enabling the faux yogis (fauxgis?) to judge them right back.

So I’m not saying there isn’t hypocrisy, posturing, and all manner of mischegoss in yogaland. There is, of course.  I’ve gone to kirtan sessions and seen people all dressed up in their yogi costumes. I’ve known people who’ve replaced their birth-certificate names with “spiritual” names (I don’t believe the nun at the front desk in St. Joseph’s Hospital was christened “Sister Kevin”) and I’ve known enough Twelve-Steppers to learn the difference between “faking it till you make it” and plastering over our real selves with bogus “spiritual” selves.

But why do people put on strange clothes, names, and affects, if not because they desperately want to replace something in themselves with something they believe to be better? Maybe Jesus’ strange metaphor is more relevant than it appears at first glance:

When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.[i]

Maybe, having told their old selves where to get off, people sense the need to replace them with something right away, lest the bad old selves come back with a vengeance. Maybe they don’t understand that the “self” that needs dethroning is not the real self, but a “demon”–a false self made in the image of the fallen, maya-tossed world. Maybe, when we mock the new false self conjured up to replace the old one, we might, in the interest of compassion and equanimity, encourage the real, true, God-given self to step forward and be fully alive?

So here’s the point: there are hypocrites and compartmentalizers and spiritual predators and everyday dumbasses in the yoga world, of course.  (And in the church, too.) But I try to look at it as Socrates–and, if I understand Buddhism correctly, the Buddha–did: hypocrisy and greed and selfishness are not the root problems. The root problem is ignorance.

Everybody, Socrates believed, is doing the best they know how. Some people behave badly, not knowing they are behaving badly, while others know they are behaving badly, but believe they must do so in order to be happy. If any of us knew for sure how to do better, we would.

When I was living in a very conservative county, one of my neighbors went to a church that only used the Authorized (or “King James”) Version of the Bible, believing all other translations corrupt.  I remember a friend explaining to him that the language of the AV/KJV was not, as he believed, some kind of sacred God-speak, but the way people actually talked at the time the translation was made. The man, who honestly hadn’t known that, was flabbergasted and confused. After he left, my friend’s Dad said,

“You didn’t do that for him; you did that for you. You just messed up that guy’s faith.”

In contrast, the biblical Book of Isaiah describes the archetypal “servant of God” this way:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.[ii]

I would rather give any number of genuine hypocrites and charlatans the benefit of the doubt than risk messing up the faith of sincere, though possibly misguided, seekers. Because I have been a bruised reed myself, I am loathe to risk snuffing out the smoldering wick of love in anybody.

Does that mean I leave ignorance alone? Hardly. But on my good days, I remember to ask myself whose benefit I’m battling it for–the other person’s, or my own?

So let me talk to Joslyn for a minute, OK?

Joslyn: if I didn’t think you were wicked cool, I wouldn’t be telling you all this; if more people called out the Emperor on his no-clothesitude like you do, the world would be a saner (and funnier) place. And because I am not always the most aware person, it’s very possible that the compassion I missed in your article was a moonwalking bear that I lost track of amidst all the amusing surface hoopla.

Actually, upon reflection, I’m almost certain it was, because back when you and I first started writing for Elephant, you posted a piece that really summoned the trolls and bade the snotty comments fly. And in response to one of the most poisonous, cynical, nasty comments I’ve ever read, you wrote, simply and unguardedly,

I love you.

You know what I thought of when I read that?  The Sacred Heart of Jesus, exposed to the brutal world even while crowned with thorns. Or the Immaculate Heart of Mary, open to view despite being pierced with a sword. Or the “soft spot” in the unarmored heart where bodhichitta is awakened.

It was my memory of that response that led me to write what amounted to an apology for an earlier post that offended a lot of people, even though I believed those people were mistaken. Your response, in the language of my evangelical brothers and sisters, “convicted” me.

So mock those Shanti Shakti Sivanandas on with your bad self! And I, meanwhile, will look a little harder for the compassion that I know is there under the funny surface.

[i] Matthew 12:43-45a

[ii] Isaiah 42:3


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


22 Responses to “Woo Woo II: The Yogi Kool-Aid Reconsidered.”

  1. Hi, Scott. Thanks for this beautifully written and thought-provoking article.

    I think it's always tricky to write serious criticism of out-and-out satire. Your article made me think of Joslyn's hilarious blog in a new way.

    But at the time I read Joslyn's blog, I was imagining the targets of her piece, the "Yoga Zombies" as she called them, laughing as hard as the rest of us and saying, "Yep, that's me". I didn't see a lot of comments from deeply offended Yoga Zombies.

    But now, because of you're article, I'm thinking, perhaps they just weren't willing to identify themselves, or were too deeply wounded to reply. Yoga Zombies of the world, rise up and defend youselves!

    As you pointed out, beyond the realm of cultural satire, we and certainly Joslyn, accept and love everyone just the way they are. One person's excessive Yoga is another person's inner spiritual joy. My deeply Roman Catholic sisters (I have one who, along with her husband and all four kids went to Notre Dame) think I'm pretty weird for reading and loving the Bhagavad Gita.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Jennifer says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks! Especially like the artwork above right corner. May i ask who the artist is? Many thanks and have tweeted this post. Namaste

  3. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Jennifer; if I would a good person, I'd be able to answer that–but I'm not, and it's just something I swiped off the web somewhere. I do recall that I didn't see an identified artist on the site where I found it; I always ask permission before using the work of identified artists.

  4. YesuDas says:

    Thanks! And yes, the reason I took so long writing this was that I didn't want to seem to be undermining the whole Recovering Yogi enterprise, which I think is a great idea.

  5. YesuDas says:

    Keep those pants, Natalie! And thanks for writing. Yes, the crap stage needs to be got through; there's all kinds of churchy crap people get caught up in as well.

    One question: my understanding was that yoga–as opposed, say, to Vedanta–specifically *is* dualistic; that the practice is meant to "yoke" the soul to the divine, yes?

  6. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Bob. Yes, I was more or less assuming the Yoga Zombies were unwilling to come forward–like what Gallagher used to say about making fun of ugly people in his act: "Who's going to come up after the show and complain?"

  7. Hi, Scott.

    That's a long and deep issue, Scott. But the short answer is that there are schools of Yoga that are both non-dualistic and dualistic.

    Vedanta itself is a school of Yoga, not separate, with not only its own life, but a very heavy influence on all other schools of Yoga, even those that don't call themselves "Vedanta".

    "Vedanta" refers to the Yoga of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and all its direct offshoots. So it's pretty core to all Yoga philosophy, predating the Yoga Sutra. These three together are considered by many to be the "big three" ancient Yoga texts (although there several other contenders, and hundreds of ancient texts).

    When it comes to the Yoga Sutra, it gets tricky. You will find both Vedantists and all most other schools claiming the Yoga Sutra as their own. In the hands a Vedantist commentator, the Yoga Sutra becomes a Vedantist, "all is one" text. But in the hands of the minority "material vs. spiritual" schools of Yoga, it becomes a dualistic text.

    To further complicate matters, distinguished commentators like Desikachar feel the Yoga Sutra is dualistic (separation of material and spirit), but that this, even in Patanjali's own mind, was just a helpful stepping stone to the ultimate Vedantic non-dualist (all is one, material and spirit alike) point of view.

    Please just browse Gita in a Nutshell for a quick overview of prevailing Yoga thought. This is pretty standard stuff, just translated into plain English for practical everyday use. The same is true of Yoga Demystified. (I've had people complain that this is over-simplified, but rarely that it is wrong.)

    I hope this helps.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  8. Love the Gallagher quote. Someone else has heard of Gallagher? Is he still around?

  9. YesuDas says:

    Will do, Bob–thanks!

  10. Kris Nelson says:

    Hey, thank you for the link, Scott! And, to be clear, it was the Self not the self that I was telling to fuck off. But the self telling the self to fuck off would also sometimes be accurate. And, in certain terms, it was the Self telling the Self to fuck off. Heavy!

    I really enjoyed your article, by the way.

  11. health says:

    sure did keep up the pace. She?d been drinking too much Kool-Aid. And we begged her not to go. But they stole her precious medicare. So she went to tell Ms. Maddow she?s a….. When they found her Christmas…

  12. natalie jobling says:

    interesting! in the current translation of the bhagavad gita that i am ready, there is a part about shedding the three gunas and a lot of NON duality. but i see how it can be both, maybe according to just the way we look at it, or a certain translation. shakti and shiva need to unite…well obviously they are not the same if they are separate and we are trying to unit…very confusing. the non duality works for me for now. i need the unity.

  13. Hi, natale. The Gita is clearly the ultimate non-dualistic philosophy overall, but the last third of the text confuses that a little by launching into what some view as a contradictory dualistic philosophy.

    Some scholars reconcile this last third (ch. 13-18) as just a stepping stone to absolute oneness. Other feel it was a disconnected add-on and should be under-emphasized or even ignored. Even the great Georg Feuerstein calls ch. 13-17 "supplemental".

    See Gita in a Nutshell for more.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  14. Yogi Mat says:

    "The Gita is clearly the ultimate non-dualistic philosophy overall".

    Well, there is a rather important branch of yoga philosophy that is generally suspicious of this type of blockbusting ontology and I would therefore, respectfully suggest that you do not encourage it, especially for the sake of directing people towards your own work on the subject – this is my opinion and that is all – I am not suggesting that I am an ultimate authority on the subject that is out to threaten your belief or anything spiteful or LOOMING like that.

    BUT – and it is a BIG BUT – at BEST, Bob you must realise that these are speculative views – which doesn't make them WRONG – just OPEN TO QUESTION.

    I AGREE that the Gita is quite coherent in posing the ultimate nature of the world as you describe as "Absolute unity" – and this is something that many yogis seem and "crave" – especially since most people think that yoga IS all about "unity" – right ? well – it surely is – but only for those that like to take their yoga rather like soma.

    But many students are not aware that the Gita assertion(s) can be deconstructed to absurd consequence using some fairly straightforward Buddhist logic based on (but not restricted to) the doctrine of Sunyata.

    If you want some of that I am happy to provide it off EJ – but it comes with a health warning – it is not for those that think of yoga as either being holistic or transcendental – which rules out I would guess about 95% of all yogis today.

  15. Yogi Mat says:

    Natalie – This is my OPINION – I am not an authority on the subject (but then who is?)

    Please don't make the mistake of believing that the Gunas are entitative. It is very tempting to take them onboard as being something like the Triune God. OK – they CAN BE – and ARE (for many) but that doesn't make it any more "right" – most people thought that the world was flat – what – only about 500 years ago?

    Succorance is a vastly underated trait in modern yoga but the consequence of getting caught up in discrete value judgements based on such texts esp. as to a logocentric conception of yoga as "unity" is not at all pretty – ultimately (pun intended) no lasting good can come from this type of formulation of an entitative metaphysics esp. when linked to such a powerful methodology – religious or otherwise.

  16. Thanks for writing, Yogi Mat. We can agree to disagree!

  17. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Kris!

  18. Yogi Mat says:

    Scott – excuse me – but when did compassion become an INGREDIENT of anything? Here – I have some COMPASSION for you right here – oh – darn it – it slipped right though my fingers!! I swear I HAD SOME to GIVE – now I need to GO GET SOME MORE.

    OK – so maybe that sense of something "missing" is a VOID – the "silence of the known and unknown universe" so to speak ?

    I am sure it is too cliched to say "SILENCE can be GOLDEN or AWKWARD" – right ? but nevertheless it is true.

    So what IS it you found exactly when reading Woo Woo I ? I think you found your IMAGINATION – and I have to admit – wrt painting pictures you are f'in awesome anyway – so maybe that is enough for now – eh ?

  19. candicegarrett says:

    I have to say, I enjoy the woo-woo, to a degree. One of my favorite parts of attending the Anusara grand gathering was watching all of the people parade around in their cute litte outfits. They (the outfits) were expressions of these people, and brought them joy. It was a pleasure to see (I'd much rather see interesting outfits than someone doing yoga in a bikini, altough they were those too…)

    Great article. I enjoyed it very much.

  20. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Candice. I don't think anyone could deny that there is a place for cute little outfits!

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