Yoga in the Age of Manipulation

The Times of India, Dec. 20, 2002 (Opinion)

MUMBAI: Soft and springy to touch, the faded cotton yoga mat looks like the hide of a camel that has eaten plenty of carrots in its last life. The fraying edges show years of intensive use. But Tribhu wouldn’t dream of trading it for a deigner dhurrie.

For all these years, it has been his magic carpet to fitness and freedom from stress, the sacred rectangle on which his Master initiated him.

And Tribhu has been using it religiously ever since for his daily session of one-and-half hours of asanas and pranayama, clad in nothing more than cheap cotton underwear in his high-rise apartment in Mumbai, notorious as one of the planet’s most overcrowded cities.

Half-a-world away, Christy Turlington is on a cover of ‘Vogue’ magazine demonstrating the bow position in Calvin Klein evening dress. And if ‘The New York Times’ is to be believed, yoga is not just fashionable—wi th some 18 million practitioners in the United States—it has come to permeate every nook of the fashion world.

Every stylist, makeup artist and fashion publicist worth her weight in Nuala sweats is bowing to some newfound guru in corner gymnasiums and SoHo lofts.

Baffled watchers say yoga in America today is a lot like the fashionista universe—”committed to a pecking order among gurus, an ‘in’ crowd of devotees, and a list of dos and don’ts so finely calibrated that if you aren’t careful, you could end up committing the fashion equivalent of wearing a dead swan to the Academy Awards”.

Purists fume at the ‘yuppification’ of yoga that has changed an ancient ascetic discipline into its kitsch avatar or fashionable caricature. But sociologists citing Philip Rieff ‘s

say the process may be inevitable, given the rise of the twentieth-century cult of personal liberation based on boundless self-gratification.

In his path-breaking book, Mr Rieff argued that the constraints of community membership that once steered individual instinct and impulse into limited channels had now yielded to a lack of constraint—the very opposite of yoga—and a persistent search for ‘a manipulatable sense of well-being’.

Furthermore, the New Age slogan of ‘personal well-being’ “not only pits us against one another, but fails to deliver the personal fulfilment that it promises”, writes Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn in her essay, ‘The Age of Manipulation’. “Rieff ‘s phrase is telling—’manipulatable sense of well-being’. Advertisers and marketers sit astride mountainous fortunes made by appealing to our willingness to be manipulated in our search for well-being,” she adds.

Perhaps all this would be understandable if people ended up as happy, liberated and integrated individuals.

But often times the pursuit for well-being, conducted under naive or deliberately distorted supervision, so clearly backfires that its aspirants end up with unprecedented levels ofdepression, compounded by a sense of being betrayed andor ripped off.

The phenomenon of the con and his or her chela, however, is scarcely new. Ancient texts are full of warnings against false masters and fake messiahs and the late writer G.V.Desani provided a classic portrait for modern times in his delightful book, ‘All About H. Hatterr’.

Described as a revolution in the art of the novel, Desani’s book chronicled the adventures of a charming clever-naif Anglo-Indian seeking wisdom from the seven sages of India. “I have learnt from the school of Life, all the lessons, the sweet, the bitter, and the middling messy”, says the protagonist.

“I have been the personal disciple of the illustrious graybeards, the Sages of Calcutta, Rangoon (now resident in India), Madras, Bombay, and the right Honourable the Sage of Delhi, the wholly Worshipful of Mogalsarai-Varanasi, and his naked Holiness Number One, the Sage of All India himself.”

What shines through this Siddhartha-like odyssey is the tyranny of the so-called masters. Even in our supposedly liberated age led by a market mentality, this is similar to the authority wielded by advertisers and marketers who reinforce the ‘I, me, mine’ spirit of the times.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday December 20, 2002.
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