Some of the most popular yoga schools are actually fairly new. Your article mentions the Boston-based teacher Baron Baptiste, but even Bikram’s Yoga, which comes from India, seems to have been invented by an Indian weightlifter a few decades ago. At what point does yoga stop being ancient and start being a contemporary movement?
It’s funny—these teachers can’t give up this idea that what they’re doing is linked to Indian tradition, whereas really they’ve invented this wholesale thing that no one in India would recognize. They’ve patented certain words and certain clothes—it’s completely a Western invention. But they can’t quite bring themselves to cut off their ties with India. It would be a great mark of shame upon them if they were to say, “Screw it! I’m not going to visit my ashram this year.” They can’t quite make the break.
But then again, B.K.S. Iyengar, who is the last of the original Indian yogis, is like a God on a whole other order. He’s treated as though he were seventeen levels above the rest.
You wrote an article for The New Republic in the 1990s about companies like the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s. Their popularity stems from the idea of “crunchy capitalism”— respecting the environment and promoting fair trade. Do you think yoga speaks to that same longing for global utopia?
In a way, I feel like we’re in a whole different age even than when I wrote that Ben & Jerry’s piece. Then there were these “green visionaries” who had to be very righteous about what they were selling. That’s not necessary now. Whole Foods isn’t something you’d even remark on anymore. These companies have become mainstream.
Do you think that’s ultimately a good thing for society?
That is a really good question. Ultimately, I think it’s pretty neutral. You’d have to spend a long time picking out which parts of it are good and which parts of it are bad. It used to be that if you were the organic type, you’d be living in a yurt somewhere. But here I am in my nice house in Washington, shopping at organic grocery stores and living my upscale yuppie lifestyle. I bought half an organic cow last month. So I get to have it in both ways.
What is it, though, that drives you to go to yoga classes and buy organic food?
I don’t know. It’s like I believe all this nonsense now! I used to make fun of it. At some level, do I think we’re all full of it? Sure I do. I don’t want to make more of it than there is. I would not pretend, for instance, that I’m making great sacrifices for the environment. I still use hot water and drive my car and do everything I want to do.
But then again, I’m not sure that yoga gets to be on the same list as eating whole grains. If organic food is really about creating a sustainable environment and not having huge slaughterhouses and preventing global warming—well, that seems okay. But really, to be perfectly honest, eighty percent of yoga for me is just about having well-toned arms. Do you get to have beautifully toned arms and be self-righteous about it? That doesn’t seem quite right.
You mentioned your yoga-teacher friend as an example of someone who doesn’t just see yoga as a substitute for an exercise bike. What is it that sets these people apart from the trendy masses who just want to have toned arms?
First of all, they know everything about yoga, all eight limbs. And they don’t eat meat; they live their lives for something that is more than just materialistic. Also, when you do yoga yourself, you realize how much effort it takes to get a body to be able to do what they do. The only way to get there is to be really committed, to treat yoga as an exacting discipline, which is something I’m not able to do. I’d have to practice yoga every single day until I got that hazy expression that yoga teachers have. And that’s not going to happen.
Some urban mothers are enthusiastic about raising their children with yoga. I know you have a young daughter. Have you ever brought her along to a yoga class?
I tried sending her to a yoga class, and it seemed pointless to her. Kids do the whole thing naturally, anyhow. They run around and play and imitate dogs—you don’t have to get them into the Down Dog position. In my heart of hearts, I know it would be better for her to do yoga than to do ballet. But I’m never going to be able to sell it to her. Yoga might be fashionable for moms, but you don’t get to wear pretty tutus.