What’s Too Woo? A New Take on New Age Flakiness.

Via Carol Horton
on Jun 14, 2011
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While waiting to see my chiropractor the other day, I happened into a brief conversation that got me thinking about how much my perspective on what I used to flat-out dismiss as flaky, woo-woo New Age-y nonsense has shifted since I really got into yoga. It’s been an interesting ride.

I was sitting in my chiropractor’s waiting room when she walked in, engaged in conversation with a client. I glanced up to see a tightly wound young guy dressed in impeccable business casual. “ . . . and I really think you should try this breathing exercise next time you’re feeling super-stressed,” she was telling him in soothing, encouraging tones. “Just inhale slooooowly for a count of six, hold your breath 6, exhale 6, and then hold your breath out for 6. Just try that sequence, maybe oh – 3 or 4 times.”

He started hurriedly collecting his stuff. As he walked past me, his eye caught mine and shot a look that glinted, Can you believe this chiropractor woo-woo BS? I mean, WTF?!

I got it. But I also knew that she was right. “Um, that sort of thing really does work, ya know!,” I said brightly, hoping to sound like the reassuring voice of normalcy.

He walked out looking preoccupied and vaguely disgusted.

I got my adjustment and practiced the 6-count breathing routine as I drove home through downtown traffic. I liked it. It worked.

Shifting Perceptions of Flakiness

Even though I’ve spent the last few years teaching breathing exercises myself, this little encounter brought me right back to the time when I shared the mindset of Mr. Gimme-a-Break, let’s skip the weird breathing stuff, OK? And it’s funny to reflect on how much I’ve changed.

Rationality II (photo by Gregor Buir)

Back when I was in grad school, intently studying political thinkers from Plato to Foucault along with a heavy dose of desegregation law (preparing for my now ex-life as a poli sci prof), I went to a party thrown by an old friend who had alternatively been spending the last several years meditating in a remote ashram, practicing Tantric sex, and working in a New Age bookstore in California.

“So what’s your spiritual practice these days?,” she asked me out of the blue, super-casually, like it was the most normal query in the world. I had not the slightest clue what she was talking about.

I don’t remember what I replied but whatever it was, she took it with good grace – equanimity and all that.

Then one of her friends who I found suspiciously hippy-dippy looking, with wide eyes, disheveled flowing hair, and a full peasant skirt, wafted up and started earnestly telling me about how whenever she felt too freaked out, she made sure to keep telling herself to Just Breathe.

Just Breathe? At the time, I had no frame of reference to put this in. And it sounded pretty flaky to me. “Un huh,” I murmured noncommittally, making a mental note to be sure to avoid sitting next to her at the dinner table.

But I remembered her all these years later in my chiropractor’s office, seeing that busy wound-up guy responding with precisely the same barely restrained skepticism to her well-intentioned advice to Just Breathe. I connected with him because I understand that if you’ve never been exposed to yoga or anything like it, being told with such sincere earnestness to breathe sounds pretty damn flaky indeed.

But oh my, how things have changed . . .

Seeing Energy and Empathing

“The Equivalence of Self and Universe”

Today, I know that there is in fact tons of scientific evidence explaining why deep breathing does in fact calm our nervous systems, and that this is really not a woo-woo idea at all. Given that I’m by disposition and training a social scientist, rather than a “real” scientist, however, I must admit that I find too much such detailed physiological information boring. While I do care that there’s a concrete physical basis backing up the advice to “Just Breathe,” too much detail on precisely how it all works and BLIP! my attention’s gone and mind’s wandering.

Not to say that I don’t value such information, because I do. But what I’m really more interested in – rather ironically given my former orientation – is that part of my experience that can’t be adequately captured by science. In fact, I have to laugh at myself because I’m now very much drawn to things that my old self would have written off as way too woo.

For example, one of the things I loved most about the yoga teacher training I did with Ana Forrest was the work we did on “seeing energy and empathing.” (You can read more about this and related training exercises in her new book, Fierce Medicine.) We practiced “reading” each other’s bodies, not simply in terms of physical alignment, but also – much more subtly – in terms of energy flows and blockages. We also practiced intuiting what this told us about the person – again, not simply physically, but on a holistic mind-body-heart-spirit level.

Now, in the old days, I would have found this all ridiculously woo. But through training and practice, I accumulated solid evidence that it works.

In my trainings, we’d practice in small groups and then cross-check with each other to see whether what had been “read” was indeed accurate or not. I’ll never forget one time when a guy I’d been working with later came up to me privately, looking super-serious and a little freaked. “How did you know all that about me?,” he wanted to know. “I’ve never told you anything about my personal life – but everything you said was completely right on.”


Or simply learning to use our innate intuitive capacities in new ways, ones that the dominant culture normally doesn’t develop in us at all?

I definitely believe that it’s the latter, not the former. In fact, I feel certain that if we had the proper scientific instruments, we could track our brains shifting into a different gear when we’re actively engaging our intuitive, empathic capacities. And certainly, I’d love to see that sort of research done soon (because as far as I know, it hasn’t been yet, at least in the context of Western science).

That said, I think that it’s also true that having these sorts of experiences – which are quite concrete, yet also quite exotic from the perspective of the mainstream culture – opens us up to feeling states that go beyond what the rational mind can explain or even comprehend.

And I like – no, love – that. In fact, I think that it’s an invaluable dimension of human experience that much of our social experience works – tragically – to trample right out of us.

Staying Grounded

That said, as I’ve become more involved in the yoga community and related worlds, I’ve also become newly aware of just how dangerous venturing into realms that I once laughingly dismissed as too woo can be.

Recent posts on Elephant and Recovering Yogi speak to this quite powerfully. There’ re accounts of spiritual seekers getting sucked into abusive relationships with predatory pseudo-gurus, becoming deeply involved in insular communities full of lies and manipulation, and clinging desperately to crazy beliefs that reinforce pathological psychological patterns. It’s all pretty disturbing, really, and nothing to take lightly.

The Serpent & the Tree (Carl Jung, The Red Book)

While each individual story will always be different, I can’t help but speculate that a good part of the reason that so much of this shit happens is that practices like yoga and meditation open up parts of our brains that are normally inactive and shut down. As this happens, we may have new access to spiritual experiences that are in fact highly valuable. But at the same time, it’s also true that whatever unresolved psychological issues and subconscious garbage we have (and most of us have plenty) are going to start bubbling up – and in some cases, erupting or even exploding.

If that’s happening, and you’re not solidly grounded, and perhaps even entangled with people primed to take you in unhealthy directions, then there’s a good chance of falling into some bad, at times even dangerous situations.

For this reason, I strongly believe that it would be helpful if the yoga community developed a much more active connection to relevant dimensions of Western psychology. This has already happened in the convert Buddhist community, where excellent work connecting meditation and psychotherapy has been going on for decades. In the yoga community, however, there’s much more of a default toward New Age thinking. Generally speaking, I think this is a problem.

So while I’ve found it enormously valuable to go beyond my old boundaries of what I used to write off as way too woo, I’ve also developed a new appreciation of just how treacherous these post-woo waters may be for many.

I do think that it’s important to cultivate what (for lack of a better term) can be called a more “spiritual” dimension in American yoga – and by extension, the culture more broadly. I also think, however, that we’d do well to be sure that such explorations into the woo stay psychologically grounded – preferably by developing stronger theoretical and practical alliances among interested practitioners, teachers, theoreticians, and clinicians.

There’s much valuable psychological and spiritual territory to explore through contemporary yoga and meditation practices. We need more than ungrounded New Age nostrums, however, to keep such work as safe and healthy as possible.

And of course, it never hurts to keep it profoundly simple, and Just Breathe.


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.


20 Responses to “What’s Too Woo? A New Take on New Age Flakiness.”

  1. matthew says:

    Great post, Carol. it is unfortunate that woo-bashing often overlooks the fact that it is often a sincere attempt to recover an alienated layer of consciousness. About the instruments? I believe fMRIs are tracking exactly the intuitive and empathic functions, general to the right brain. I say generally because my understanding is that the process is largely holographic, but there do seem to be cranial "seats" for the qualities we are wooing.

  2. tanya lee markul says:

    Hi Carol. I loved this article and can relate a lot! For as long as I can remember I've had an affinity toward the 'force' although for many, many years I couldn't describe it or connect my actions, thoughts, intuition to it (still working on it). And, still to this day (not unusual, I know) I find myself thinking 'wow, I used to think like that?!'

    Thank you.

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  3. Mat Witts says:

    Good – although do be careful of the "yoga is a tool" shorthand that I come across far too often. For that is a slippery slope towards that quack psychotherapy prescience called "Yoga Therapy" and dull utilitarianism. We can engage with yoga as a ritual without any utility, and that is neither woo-woo or noo-noo. Blessings

  4. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Tanya. Yes, I think that this sense that we have such affinities but that there's no easy way to understand it in our culture is an important issue that needs to be explored further. I have to think that our society wouldn't be so unbalanced and crazy if more of us were using the full range of our capacities more fully and consciously, and without so much confusion about it.

    And thanks also for your work as Associate Editor – much appreciated!

  5. Carol Horton says:

    I agree and in fact think that it's incredibly important to remember the value of engaging with "yoga as a ritual without any utility." Well put.

    While yoga does have much practical utility and thus can be used as a tool for many things (e.g., mental and physical health), to reduce it to its utilitarian value is to kill its power and turn it into therapy pure and simple – not a good thing.

  6. Yogini5 says:

    The praxis of breathing with an open chest—with your "heart center open"—while associated with, what to the everyday ear is "spiritual mumbo jumbo", actually has the pragmatic result of getting more oxygen into your lungs, lungs which were meant to fan out into your chest.

    Whether this is meant as therapy or just coping in the moment would seem to me to be a matter of degree.

    And I used to think of some of this as really "woo-woo" … as a yoga student, I had not done a total buy-in (with a teacher), but I'd understood to some degree the concepts … long before I understood their applications.

  7. boulderwind says:

    I think deep breathing, etc. is very grounded, actually, where I get disgusted is when it gets way out there into delusional, magical thinking, and narcissism which you will find heaps and heaps of in the town where I live.

  8. tanya lee markul says:

    I agree with you Carol – in so many ways our 'culture' teaches us that we are powerless when in fact (I believe) we are all geniuses with a range of capacities to tap into and share. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  9. Carol Horton says:

    But then does "opening the heart center" also have strong emotional/psychological – even spiritual effects? The question of where the "scientific" morphs into the woo is an interesting one – clearly our science cannot go as far as our experience. Yet it seems like when people therefore disengage with that way of understanding the world completely there is a strong tendency to get lost in a level of woo that's dysfunctional. How do we map/understand that continuum?

  10. Yogini5 says:

    Then you temper some of that with scientific empiricism. Research. Objective evaluations and self-evaluations.

    If done independently and without prejudice, that could bridge the gap between the perception of woo, and the applicable parts; and even start to map out the continuum …

    "How you breathe" could be studied experimentally.

  11. Yogini5 says:

    New York City has some of that woo-woo stuff, if you add a patina of competitiveness and materialism.

    Because there is all that music, art, fashion, literature and creative commerce here–that think-outside-the-box stuff. Richard Florida knew what he was writing about when he wrote about bourgeois bohemians. They are here in New York City.

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  13. ilona says:

    Excellent article and, for me, timely, as I am now starting to actively practice similar breathing techniques after having dismissed them for a long time.

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  15. Carol Horton says:

    Interesting – personally I find the deep breathing extremely effective. In terms of science, it may not be what you're looking for, but Bo Forbes (Psy.D.) new book, "Yoga for Emotional Balance," very much emphasizes long deep breathwork as key. Also Timothy McCall's (M.D.) "Yoga as Medicine" says that "Breath is perhaps the most important tool in yogic practice" (54) — "controlling the breath turns out to be the entry point to calming down an overactive stress response system." Contrary to the studies you cite, he writes that "Rapid, anxious breathing . . . serves to further activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of stress hormones, increasing agitation" (136). McCall tries in general to link science to yoga in user-friendly ways – his website has a lot of info that you might want to check out.

    I question the idea that we are really relaxed when we are sleeping. I for example have cracked teeth due to jaw clenching while asleep – and this is not at all uncommon. True relaxation through yoga gets us to a level of relaxation significantly different from sleep – and as we get more adept at it, certainly in a sense deeper (although I prefer to think of it less judgmentally simply as different).

    That said, the deep breathing without mental focus on the breath will only get you so far. Forbes says that in her clinical practice she sees over and over again how breathing slowly and deeply shifts mental states so that people become less anxious (or if depressed, more enlivened – she has different breathing technique for each, but both are long and deep, just different inhale/exhale ratios) – and this is without any significant meditation training (although she does emphasis mind as well). In other words it seems that while deep breathing does have a significant effect, the much greater effect is through the combination of key is deep AND meditative breathing,

  16. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks Ilona! While it just came up in the comments above, I do want to reiterate again that it's the deep, slow, conscious breathing PLUS mental focus on the breath and internal feeling states more broadly – thus producing a more meditative state – that is for me the key.

    For those who are interested, Swami Rama's "Science of Breath" is also an interesting reference although perhaps not for those looking for a more Western scientific approach.

  17. SriDTMc says:

    this is such a brilliantly sane post. i find the greatest struggle comes from the tension between the authenticity of various "spiritual experience" and the impossibility of describing or sharing that experience in language. it feels so necessary to talk about conscious co-creation, the process of manifestation, about cultivating synchronicity and all the tools and techniques that can assist us in awakening… but then why does it so often feel flimsy and contrived? how can the New Age be cliched already?
    practicing speaking only from direct experience is a huge help in the pursuit of authentic communication about these enthralling topics. i try to remember to trust my experience over someone else's entrained skepticism, and not be ashamed to discuss the models we use to describe the context of my experiences, while at the same time constantly combing their words for kernels of truth.
    thank you for this thought-provoking article. like usual, i am unable to say precisely how i feel, but i greatly appreciate you facilitating the arising of these sensations anyway!
    blessed be.

  18. […] What’s Too Woo? A New Take on New Age Flakiness. […]

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