The Beautiful Babe & the Fierce Guru.

Via Carol Horton
on May 26, 2011
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Contemporary Icons of Yoga Culture.

Two iconic images haunt the collective unconscious of American yoga.

They’re not real. But they are powerful pop cultural archetypes. Let’s call them the Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru.

The Beautiful Babe

She’s all of your favorite images from glossy magazine covers rolled up into one delectable package.

She is, of course, beautiful. But not in a way that’s threatening or exotic. Rather, she’s girl-next-door prettiness dialed up to stop-dead-in-your-tracks perfection.

She’s the shimmering image of radiant health. We instinctively know that only the most picture perfect, healthy and of course organic foods ever cross her lips.

Her appetite is ideally balanced. Not too much; gluttony is unknown. Not too little; she’s never abstemious.

She is strong – but not too muscular. She is super-bendy – but without contortionist weirdness or strain. Her perfectly proportioned and just-so toned leg glides effortlessly behind her head as she smiles her serene megawatt smile.

She is “heart-centered.” She is warm and engagingly kind. She feels deeply, but it’s all positive. If she’s ever been sucked into her shadow, it’s all safely behind her now. Lessons learned.

And the fruits of her success are evident for all to see.

Her knowledge has no hard edges. Her wisdom is comforting and nurturing, sweet as honey.

The Beautiful Babe is an imaginary icon of mainstream cultural perfection. She meets the challenges of contemporary life with almost effortless grace and ease.

Ancient yogis were always believed to have superpowers. And in her own cover-girl way, she most certainly has hers.

The Fierce Guru

He’s the flip side of the Babe’s sweetness and light. Not that he’s bad – oh no. He’s good beyond our ordinary imagining.

And because he’s located in such unknown territory, he’s heavy with mystery and portent.

The Guru is most conveniently Indian. (As in Southeast Asian, not Native American.) If Western, he’s been deeply steeped in Eastern spiritual wisdom. He knows the ancient texts. He divines still extant paths of archaic power.

He channels all the dark unknown forces of deep spiritual knowledge that our florescent lit, chemically sanitized culture seems to have banished.

His physical body is not so important. He is beyond that. He may be big or small, fat or thin. While he’s likely to have a beard, it’s not necessary.

He’s a profoundly accomplished yogi, but has no need to demonstrate any mad asana chops. His yoga is bigger, deeper. It manifests on subtle levels invisible to the untrained eye.

While we know he’s benevolent, he feels unapproachable. His presence demands respect in a way that removes him from the realm of ordinary interaction.

He could be your Guru. But he can’t be your friend.

(Or, if you are one of the few who are Chosen, you could be his Consort. But we don’t talk about that.)

Being in the presence of the Guru doesn’t allow for idle chatter. You can’t talk shop or gossip or shoot the shit. You watch what you say, remember your place, and perhaps hope to ascend the hierarchy that leads closer to him.

Like the fabled yogis of old, he possesses powers that most of us don’t understand. But we may be imbued with some of it simply by being in his presence. We sit at his feet and hope to absorb some of his inestimable knowledge.

A Strange Division of Cultural Labor

Considered in tandem, the Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru represent a strange division of cultural labor. All of the socially acceptable and culturally non-threatening aspects of yoga have been channeled into the image of the Babe. At the same time, all of its mysterious, challenging, and culturally marginal dimensions have been built into the icon of the Guru.

This puts the collective unconscious of American yoga in a somewhat schizophrenic state. We chase the cover-girl spotlight of the Babe and bask in her comforting light. But we also lay claim to the fierce wisdom of the Guru and weighty spiritual ballast he brings from the East.

Many strange disassociations are in play – masculine/feminine, East/West, exotic/familiar, challenging/comforting. This list could be expanded. But you get the idea.

It all seems pretty dysfunctional. Because yoga, after all, has always been about the union of opposites; the integration of dualisms. It’s about harnessing the energies of paradox and making them generative.

So to the extent they exist (and of course it’s just my perception), the Babe and the Guru form a disempowering dyad in American yoga culture.

Missing in Action: The Sorceress and the Hero

We also miss a lot of alternative archetypes when we cathect too heavily on these two.

The image of the Babe shines so brightly that she white-lights other ways of imagining the power of the feminine right out of the picture.

Many of the traits traditionally associated with femininity have been banished. The Babe embodies no deep mystery, no dark power. She’s neither a Priestess nor a Witch. She doesn’t read the Oracle or speak with a Familiar. And she’s certainly no Crone.

All of that sense of mystery and power has been exported to the Guru. And with it, the possibility of a strong masculine icon is transferred out of our everyday reality to reside in the imaginary of the exotic East. The Guru is not a boy who grew up among us, went on a quest, and came back a man. He’s no homegrown Hero or returning Warrior. (Do we even imagine them to exist?) No, he’s the ultimately unknowable Other.

New Imaginings

While real life doesn’t fit these images, they still have a powerful pull. (Or so it seems to me. I’m interested to know if others share this perception.) And because of the strange cultural splits and erasures they embody, they’re essentially disempowering.

That’s not to say that there is absolutely nothing empowering for anybody at all embodied in these icons. If that were true, they wouldn’t have the appeal that they do.

Arguably, the Babe has helped make the health benefits of yoga more accessible to the average American, who wouldn’t have touched the Guru with a 10-foot pole.

At the same time, the Guru has served as a repository for the magic and mystery of yoga that many of us don’t want to lose.

So yoga got to have its acculturation without completely losing its edge.

But maybe it’s time to get past that. Maybe it’s time to imagine more interestingly integrated icons.

It might be good to see more feminine imagery that embodies mystery and deep power, not just sweetness and light. It might be good to imagine masculine icons that root strength and knowledge in the complexities of our own culture – not in some purified imaginary of Western Civilization, or the Exotic East, or even Indigenous Wisdom, but rather the mundane, wonderful, terrible, hybridized messiness of the here and now.

The time is also ripe for a reinvention of the icon of the ambiguously gendered, that more rare person who naturally embodies neither a strongly masculine or feminine energy, but something more fluid or androgynous.

All possibilities are open to our collective imagining – but by the same token, beyond anyone’s control. Of course, since an effective yoga practice works as a force of cultural deconditioning, whatever collective icons exist aren’t necessarily an impediment to us individually. Nonetheless, it might be interesting to participate in a collective imagining of what the future could bring.


About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.


35 Responses to “The Beautiful Babe & the Fierce Guru.”

  1. mteague says:

    We need more "regular, everyday guys" represented in yoga, too, IMHO.

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Since the birth of my children (a girl and a boy), I’ve paid more and more attention to male and female role models. You nailed their yogic incarnations perfectly! I think there’s more work being done to re-create the sorceress archetype in some circles, but male archetypes are in a state of crisis. No one writes hero stories any more. Look at the recent Disney films. Tiana and Rapunzel are clever and hardworking. Yay! But what about their lovers? Egotistical fools! We need to deepen both archetypes, not diminish one to empower the other.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Carol I think that you are representing the categorizing, because it is spiritually secular, with archetypes. If we were to look at archetypes more like the 5 elements (or 4 elements); Space, water, fire, earth, wind, then we would know that each individual element is imbued with the other 4 as well. If we look we may see that each one of the characters you describe above contain some degree of all of the others. But it does seem to me that the use of archetypes among the more secular leaning "yogis" could be a desire to be on a path of spirituality without, what they may term, all the trappings of "dogma" and guru. Do you think that this kind of intellectual endeavor is capable of yielding spiritual fruit?

  4. SherylFromMadison says:

    Oh Carol, you flatter me. I wouldn't say my legs are "perfectly" proportioned. 😉

    I know just enough Jung to embarrass myself, but I'll throw this out. If these are truly archetypes, do we have control over where and when they manifest? Are they less of an indicator of the current state of popular culture than a result of the entire evolutionary history of our species? And can we simply will new archetypes into being because the ones that exist don't paint a very flattering picture of our collective instincts? What are the specific stimuli that trigger us to be instinctively drawn to the unconditional love of the beautiful earth mother and the slightly rejecting depth of the guru? I find myself very drawn to these types over and over. Then I discover that they're not really archetypes at all–her organic poop stinks like mine and he pines for a lost lover. Where does his/her embodiment of the universal archetype end and my own inner projection begin?

    Hmmm. Thanks for the article.

  5. Carol Horton says:

    Yes, I agree. Both in terms of everyday media and even perhaps in the realm of the iconic – a la Whitman (the archetype of the democratic everyman) – that would be very culturally appropriate in my opinion.

    But of course, we also need more "regular, everyday girls" when it comes to that as well. The ones who look like Beautiful Babes are really nothing like that underneath the surface (because in fact, they're much more interesting and three dimensional and NOT serenely plastic). And most women of course are not Size 00, bendy, pretty, and photogenic.

  6. Carol Horton says:

    Yes, I totally agree. I have two sons and have become sensitized to the same issues. Where are all of the positive male images? The mainstream culture seems to mainly represent extremes of either weak men who are ridiculed or cartoonish action figures with machine guns (walking away with huge mega-explosions in the background). Ack.

  7. Carol Horton says:

    Padma: I don't know if this particular intellectual exercise is capable of yielding fruit – but in general I would say that sometimes intellectual work is spiritually useful and sometimes it very much isn't. It all depends on the specifics of who, what, when, where (etc.) is involved.

    I do think that culture matters a lot for the vast majority of people. Many times consciousness is constrained by culture and it's liberating to feel the freedom to question it. Someone who is very spiritually developed will have already moved past these constraints. But most of us will find ourselves repeatedly pulled back into culturally conditioned thinking whether we like it or not. That's why I think that it's good to call certain taken-for-granteds into question – ideally it creates some new openings for experimentation and growth on various levels – which may or may not include the spiritual.

  8. Matthew says:

    Yes! Excellent points, and so well said! I appreciate your insights into this. I have written a bit about this, and every day I go to yoga, it’s with me. More discussion about this is needed!

  9. Carol Horton says:

    Sheryl, you are too modest. Both on your legs and your knowledge of Jung. You caught me out; I was playing pretty fast and loose with my terminology here. No, I don't think that we have control over archetypes per se. But do we have the power to call into question dominant cultural imagery? Most definitely. Really, that's what I'm doing here, with some hand waving toward deeper mythologies at play – but no serious analysis.

    In terms of what we're personally drawn to and why (earth mother, etc.) – big question. I guess that I would turn to psychology for explanations in some cases (particularly those involving reactions to other people, which probably involve transference, projection, etc.) and read up more on my Jung in others (on my agenda).

    I think also (referencing our workshop) that these archetypes can definitely help out a la the "Phantom City" – e.g., we can rest in the arms of the imaginary Earth Mother in order to recoup our strength when we need it – then she vanishes and we keep walking. Yes, no, maybe??

  10. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Hilary. I do think that men can and do in some cases fit the role of the Babe – of course tweaked a bit – but yes, your "happy shiny yoga guy" is definitely out there (and not necessarily a newbie either). I think however that both men and women are an equal role to play in changing all this (assuming that some in fact want to). Personally I feel that despite the seeming comfort of American superficiality, really we're all starved for something more substantial. But perhaps that's just my own delusion (or wishful thinking).

  11. Old Walt is definitely my guru–or my anti-guru…then, I wouldn't follow any guru who'd want the title…

  12. SherylFromMadison says:

    Ah, yes, the phantom city. That makes sense. I really like the idea of thinking of my teachers in that way.

    We'll study Jung together.

    Keep writing. You're quite good at it.

  13. I'll repeat my introduction on the Elephant Facebook page:

    Carol Horton knocks it out of the park again–way out! I'm using up the one "MUST READ" I allow myself each week for this one. –Bob W.

    I nominate Matthew Remski as the basis for a modern highly rational yet deep feeling and still filled with plenty of mystery counter-archetype.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  14. Chelsea says:

    Fantastic, Carol. I second Bob's sentiments. One of my favorite of your posts here at EJ so far!

  15. AMO says:

    Such a thoughtful, well written piece. Great fodder for conversation and thought. Even in a piece as well written as this one I find myself wondering why, with writers of this caliber, Ele can't find someone to edit this stuff with the intelligence and care it so clearly deserves. Keep it coming. I truly enjoyed reading this piece…

  16. Ramesh says:

    Carol, while your piece is spot on in many ways, it also misses many impotent and real roles the Guru has played in the West.
    Gurus have been empowering as teachers, as friend, as instructor. The difference between a guru and a religious figure like Jesus, is that the guru empowers you to undertake the hero's or heroine's journey of self-transformation through practice. That in fact, is traditionally the sole role of the guru, to be a vehicle of transmission of knowledge so that you can undertake the same journey as he or she has undertaken.

    Iconic examples in our culture of people who have become such heroes and heroines are: Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, Pema Chodron, Krishna Das, Jai Uttall, all of whom have gurus and who have undertaken the journey and become beloved and excellent teachers, writers, musicians in their own respective traditions.
    The actual list of such people would be quite long. Moreover, I would personally not have been writing on Elephant Journal had it not been for my relationship with my guru. So gurus have empowered and inspired individuals in the US since the arrival of Vivekananda in the 1880s, and that empowerment continues. It is for real. Just as real as your asana practice.

  17. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Sheryl. Let's do it.

  18. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Bob. Appreciate it.

    Plus, just to be clear, I know that there's a lot of amazing men out there (including MR, of course) and that yoga models are not shallowly plastic. This is about how our cultural images seem to fall short of our much more interesting reality and potential.

  19. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks Chelsea!

  20. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, AMO. Re editing, the problem is that EJ can't afford to pay editors. I know that Bob was looking for an assistant (who must be willing to volunteer their time), but don't know what ever happened with that.

  21. Carol Horton says:

    Ramesh: I respect the fact that many people have had important and empowering experiences with gurus. I am also aware that many have not. Reality is complex.

    This post is about glib stereotypes and cultural images that I speculate have an important influence on many people in the American yoga community. I don't presume to speak to the real experience that people have had with gurus (unless I am reporting directly on what others have said, which I'm not doing here). I have had no direct experience myself and so that's a big gap in my understanding.

    I have however known quite a few women who look like Yoga Journal cover models and have consistently found myself surprised at how surprised I am that they are so intelligent, complicated, neurotic, and just in general not at all like the cultural images associated with them seems to prescribe.

  22. Ramesh says:

    I understand, Carol. I was addressing the missing in action part by pointing out that hero figures do exist…

  23. I have an Associate Editor, whom I will be announcing in June (plus nine other dedicated volunteers around the world, and many more to come.) Proofreading regular contributors blogs before publication will not on her list of things to do.

    I know others disagree, but in my opinion the standard for an online publication does not need to be as tight as for a print publication. Our standard will continue to improve, because our writers will continue to improve their own proof-reading. But I personally wouldn't spend a dime on a central proof-reader even if I could.

    Elephant Yoga will continue to grow as an all volunteer organization, not because we don't have the money (which we don't, I can assure you), but because we're more like a journalistic Wikipedia than an online New Yorker.

    For those of you who disagree about the proof-reading, take heart. Waylon's on your side, I think!


  24. Ramesh says:

    And also suggesting that other archetypes do exist….

  25. Padma Kadag says:

    Culture does matter, you are right. From an outsider's view but with some experience in other cultures, in and outside of the USA, our culture is not cohesive. We are still trying to create a spiritual language and we do not seem to be agreeing on what is spiritual and certainly not how to talk about it. Other cultures seem to be further along with their spiritual identity. This is not a better or worse judgement, just an observation. Spiritually speaking, my own personal view is rarely represented by others here on EJ. That is ok. The spiritual jargon and the manner of speaking is foreign to me, though I am a white male who was born here. This country of ours has so many paths available so maybe a cohesive standard of spiritual language will never be achieved and probably it is not necessary

  26. Carol Horton says:

    I agree – and it is an important point to make.

  27. Carol Horton says:

    Well, the mind-meld idea is interesting and a little freaky because this is the second time that I've decided to write about something completely out of the blue and then you tell me that you're working on a post on the same general topic. Now what's up with that.

    Anyways, thanks for your insight as always, plus the clarification of terminology, which I was exceedingly sloppy with. Looking forward to the bikini-gate post – you don't shy away from the hot topics! Just don't link to any Hindu fundamentalist websites, OK? Ergh.

  28. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  29. NotSoSure says:

    Hillary asks: But what of the men who are not mysterious and embody the happy shiny newbie yoga guy?

    Well, here I am. My demographic is balding, uptight white guy. Pleased to me you. And frankly, the men I see in yoga classes are much closer to my demographic than the "happy shiny" guy. I also do not see many men aspiring to the role of "happy shiny" guy. Most of us are just trying to improve our back bends without an accompanying trip to the emergency room.

    I also see many women aspiring to the "beautiful yoga babe" icon. And as Mathew said, "the most heartbreaking function of the icon might be that it conceals something that is absent". Personally, I would rather spend time with a woman who cusses when cut off in traffic than a women whose response it to sigh and say "its all good".

  30. cjb225 says:

    This is why I like the Kripalu ads. They use real, happy women!!

  31. […] The Beautiful Babe & the Fierce Guru. […]

  32. Diane says:

    So very much enjoyed this! I read it only once and feel the need to retrace my steps.

  33. Maria060 says:

    Hallo zusammen, bin auf diesemungewöhnlichen Weg auf der Suche nacheinem Partner. Ganz nach der Devise Probieren geht über studieren! Vielleicht wird was Längeres draus, vielleicht auch nicht – lass es uns einfach mal ausprobieren. Diesen Sommer möchte ich wirklich in vollen Zügen genießen. Ich bin übrigens 26 und habe blonde Haare Mit den Richtlinien in diesem Forum kenne ich mich nicht so aus und mir nichtmal sicher, ob ich hier überhaupt so etwas schreiben darf… deswegen hab ich hier einfach einen Text gepostet, dort kann man mir auch direkt diskret via Mail antworten:
    Es ist natürlich völlig gratis. Jeder kann alles lesen! Abends ab 19 Uhr erreichst Du mich dort fast immer. Bin ehrlich gesagt, auch schon ziemlich Alleine und will etwas Neues erleben. Bin halt neu in der Stadt.
    Bis vielleicht bald?


  34. […] also very fond of my posts on “Yoga and the Commodification of the True Self” and “The Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru” because they zero in on some of the cultural myths that we’ve built up around yoga that seem […]