Om Shanti, Mother Fucker!

Recently I spent six months in India studying Sanskrit, Hindi, and Ashtanga Yoga.  It was a pleasant time, it was an annoying time as well. I felt as if I had been hurdled back into time to a colonial era I thought long ago had passed. I was to learn in my studies of Veda, Sutra, Upanishad and asana that indeed colonialism is alive and flourishing, especially amongst the international yoga community.

India is the land of my family but it is also a land that is perhaps one of the most commodified by foreigners I have ever seen.  The pretense of foreigners who travel strictly between only a few cities and regions–Goa, Mysore, Rishikesh, Pondicherry, and Dharamsala–was unavoidable as I would cross fellow Ashtangees and students of various allo-therapies who had come to Mysore immediately after visiting one fo these five places or whose next trip from Mysore would surely be all or some of these points of interest to this postmodern tourist of India.  I studied Hindi at the Mandala with the wonderful Shanthala,  Ashtanga yoga with the equally beautiful Ajay Kumar of Shtalam8 and Upanishad and Veda at the Sanskrit College of Mysore with the most patient and skilled teachers from Gangadhar Bhat, Jairam and Sudhakara.  My studies were amazingly professional and profound–to have such training in the West is impossible I dare say without a price tag of a condo in South Beach, Florida.  It is clear that most foreigners who are at all cogent of the quality of instruction in India come here to attain certain studies within the reach of a certain democratic economy given that now that tuition in the UK is now set at 7000 GBP, more and more students of any serious subject will soon flock to places like India and Singapore where quality education still exists within a reasonable budget.

This said, there is an inevitable truth of many–not all–of the yoga students who flock to India under the mantra of “om shanti” and in the vein of finding, what I heard so often from the mouths of these people, “inner peace” or more simply, “myself”.  What is this search of the self in a world where finding the self involves inventing another culture, copying and pasting older orientalist fictions of the “Orient” onto a cultural and geographical terrain whilst the masses of these students do not learn one word of the local language, hang out daily with other yoga students while discussing the quality of this or that restaurant for a good dosa or thali, and who have very little–if any–knowledge of the cultural topography into which these people have injected themselves.  To most every foreign yogi I met, their impressions of India reflected far more about their own projections of India and themselves (and what they expected of their “yogic self”) than I had read in most of the orientalist works of literature I have ever read.  Rimbaud’s ponderings on African women, Delacroix’s prostitutes cum Algerian harem and T.E. Lawrence’s homoerotic references in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom (“quivering together in the yielding sand, with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace”) have nothing over the new generation of yogi in search of herself, the yogi wishing to find his inner peace, and not least the yogi who hopes to detach from all things worldly.

One day while awaiting my Hindi teacher, I was doing homework and heard a Dutch woman declare: “I have learned to detach from this world… I cut my hair off.”  I remember having to resist responding to this comment and I tried so much to memorize my vocabulary words; yet I was distracted by such a frivolous comment.  Oh would it be that detachment were as easy as foregoing reality television shows or cutting off one’s hair.  But Mysore was abound with sentiments similar to this–from those yogis who would announce their desire to attain samadhi, those looking for “inner peace”, others coming to balance their lives and many more similar sentiments which reveal India as this Disney World of Samadhiland, Dhyana Cruise, and the Enchanted Yogi Room.  While spiritual development might be admittedly a private and subjective act of self-understanding, even development, I found Mysore and this yogi community to be overall–and I do not include every single person by any measure–a place of spiritual masturbation, self-indulgence and at times of sheer cruelty.   I started to refer to the yogis there as “yogi fascistas” while a friend of mine, Justin, refers to this phenomena as Spiritual Materialism.  I rather like Justin’s appellation because it is so fitting in the depth of this paradox: people come to India in search of a self that was certainly “findable” in any good therapists’ office or yoga shala “back home” yet these people came in a neo-colonial mission of finding themselves specifically and yet paradoxically in India.  What does this search of self reveal then if not the self in search of the self in India?  Is there not a sort of solipsism that occurs when the seeking subject has already predestined that her finding will occur on a certain continent, within a certain country and more perversely, in the company of others from his very own culture?

While taking an Ashtanga Yoga teacher training course, I found myself among a group of really lovely people.  I found most of these individuals quite serious and pragmatic about their yoga studies and they came to Mysore with a specific goal of learning to teach others and to be certified by an excellent teacher and teacher trainer.  They were inspired and inspiring in their own ways.  While taking this course, however, I found myself bullied by one person within our group–a woman who was quite relentless in her rather tortured form of speaking, bossiness and caustic mannerisms.  Her behaviour revealed to me that yoga was this externalization to others (and even to herself) that she was “ok”, that she was somehow existing with others.  Yet, she focused her energies upon me about half-way through the course forcing me to consider dropping out and finishing the course with another group. I remember feeling as if I ought to be in grade school bullied by kids who found my clothes out of style as was the case when I was in fifth grade.  I did not know how to resolve the issue of one human who claimed to be so “in touch” with herself and yet who refused dialogue–for each time I would try to discuss her behaviour, she would react even more irrationally.  I chose to simply avoid her and avoid I did.  It was a paradox of sorts since I practiced with her, took my exams with her and even tried to mask the effects of what was really a brutal treatment of my person from my other classmates.  And there were others I came across in Mysore–each one seemingly more maladjusted than the previous.

After several months of observing I began to wonder if Mysore might be this focal point where the emotionally and spiritually crippled came to find themselves.  Problematically, while finding the self these people were inflicted with the need to project themselves as “already found” as if there were a meta-discourse of samadhi from which we would gather and compare notes on who was closer to what ideal, what level of self-consciousness.   It all makes for great real It was a tropme-l’oeil wherein the subject could never really “confess” her lack of self-realization but instead she would have to profess her excellence at asana practice and her ability to find inner peace, to reach her inner voice.  All the while these individuals would float from one Western dominated café or restaurant to an other, and their contact with the “natives” would generally involve a shopping trip to the tailor or an appointment with an aesthetician for a leg waxing.  Life was good in Mysore for those in search of the self while haphazardly polishing the finite tastebuds of their nouveau riche lifestyles.  Even most visiting university students are wealthy by Indian standards and they formed this collective of yogis for the people of Mysore to gawk at (and gawk they did) as these yogis came in droves between november and March to fulfill their spiritual [sic] needs.  Yet it was painfully clear that the Mysoreans learned far more about these neo-orientalist visitors than did the travelers from afar learn about the culture they were ostensibly visiting.  Mysore was a house of mirrors and it became increasingly difficult to differentiate simulation from the real, or even if there was anything real about the micro-culture of yogis who form this continual community which merely changes cogs as each yogi exits and new ones enter this massive warehouse of self-indulgence.

On another occasion while awaiting my Hindi teacher, I overheard an Argentine man who listed the cities he was to explore with his partner–the same five cities (see above) that most every foreign visitor to India frequents.  I turned to him and asked, “Why don’t you venture to other parts of India where there are more Indians than foreigners or where there is not this artificial “pretend world” for yogis?”   After a brief discussion, it was clear this person was only interested in utilizing India as the backdrop for his jet-set social life while all of India–its people, customs, technology, and political life–were inconsequential.  For him like many of his fellow yogis, India was merely the green screen for his fantasy trip to spiritual materialism and one can only wonder why people bother with the ticket bookings and jet lag.  Surely there must be a reality video game through which one can achieve a similar catharsis.

Overhearing many a conversation as I would await my Hindi teacher each day throughout the six months I lived in Mysore, I had moments when I was privy to various trite conversations (from “Dude, that was a way cool chakrasana” to “I am like so exhausted from my morning practice…I feel a new chakra opening up”) when I just wanted to run far away or even to eat a Big Mac in resistance to this homogeneous community wherein the political and individual will did not exist and where “Om Shanti” was the secret handshake to a continuum of foreigners who wanted to understand themselves through such posturing.  On the one hand these individuals espoused “simplicity” and “mindfulness” and on the other their approach to such concepts came mostly from Western published books  from reading, not from learning even a shloka on related matters but rather from a “guru” who would charge fees to often times, state the obvious.  While there are certainly skilled and capable scholars of the vast subject of yoga and all its eight limbs, the majority of yogis coming to India study within a very tight perimeter of learning, usually with the same few people and as a result the learning produced is quite akin to pop-psychology, very far removed from the original text of the Bhagavad Gita, watered down and completely devoid of any cultural or spiritual context of contemporary Indian society.

I struggled to understand why so many people who had rejected their own culture’s religious practice/s would come from afar to embrace categorically another religious or spiritual practice of which most knew very little.  Sure, foreign words sound great–voulez-vous coucher avec moi to bakshish to incha’allah–but understanding them is a necessary part of anyone’s claim to take seriously a specific practice or spiritual proclivity.  While samadhi and bhakti have their intellectual, philosophical and spiritual attractiveness for certain, there seems to be something quite vulgar about this annual immigration to India of foreigners who exchange these words as if currency, who show up to posh breakfast spots in Gokulam where yogi fascistas become fashionistas  or whose analysis of the gods results in statements such as “I cannot deal with Devi–there is just so much negativity around her.”  

There were many occasions when the yogis would make declarations light years away from the reality of present day India to include the most commonly stated erroneous platitude: “This country is so peaceful”.  When I heard such statements I would cite a headline from the newspaper that day which would read, “Eunich Menace Continues” or “Karnataka Man Beheads Neighbor in Land Dispute”.    One could only wonder how practicing yoga each morning while spending the majority of one’s day pondering the “peace and beauty” of India with other foreigners granted the yogi fascista the innate ability to render daily judgements and opinions about a culture that were wholly based on National Geographic and Western documentary traditions.  Mention the BJP to most any yogi was to garner a response of “Who is he?  Didn’t he write that book on pranayama?”   Yet every one of my relatives in India knows more about Western governments and history than do these yogis about the very country they have decide to temporarily settle; dare I say that most Indians do not assume the Tea Party to be venue for chai drinking.  What is driving force of the Westerners’ continuance of the tradition of colonialism, albeit it a newly spun colonialism wherein the Indian is no longer the object of governmental orderings, medicalization, historicization and segregation from afar?  Now this ordering is happening discursively from home-spun gurus such as Amma and the many other spiritual leaders within India whose main financing comes from Western subjects.

The vehicle for this new-age colonialism is no longer occurring across an East India Company or through trade embargoes or unbalanced economic agreements, but instead is rendered at the site of spiritual lack or debilitation.  For at every stage of life from one’s arrival in Mysore are the accoutrements of colonialism decked out in modern attire:  the housing pimps who rent homes and then sublet them at fees at least ten times the regular rental accord, the various men who insert themselves into the affairs of women clearly taking a cut from these women and then the more honest business people who are up front about their practices for a car ride from point a to b.  From the moment the yogi arrives in Mysore there is nothing to consider more than should I have my chai before or after my morning nap?  The subject is secure in his choice of yoga shala, another class might or might not be added to the daily rites of yoga vacation and the day is a series of conversations from people which usually begin with, “I haven’t seen you here before–when did you arrive?”  Like GI’s shipped out for duty, the yogi is on a mission and her entire reality is based on her interconnectivity to the other yogis with whom she identifies and to a certain degree emulates.

However much like Jean Baudrillard’s conjuring of the Disney World parking lot as the only place of the real in this fantasy land of freakery, it became quickly evident to me that the only real part of Mysore are the logistical arrangements to have the car pick you up at 6h30 one morning to bring you to the Bengaluru airport.  This is way in which the yogi comes to know Mysore by arriving and seeing a group of people she saw exactly one year prior and says, “Hey, you’re back!”  The self-evident nature of looking into the faces of people you actually did see one year ago and then stating the obvious seems to be the only true space of interaction.  It is as if to say, “We exist in contemporeity.” And while I could make a much deeper argument here regarding the meditational value of this sort of repetition and the following expression of existential recognition and spiritual growth, I am definitely horrified by the individual’s desire to repeat year after year the same exact experience of meeting the very same people, having the same discussions and invigorating their lives around a cliché that is as empty as the religious right’s claim to fundamental truth.

This begs the question as to why one would take a rather expensive ticket to travel across the globe to hang out with people who claim to be seekers of enlightenment and with whom the bonding mechanism is never the process of enlightenment, nor a fledgling attempt to go “there”.  With these spiritual materialists there is a defined simulation of a very colonial space of knowledge, much like the 19th century arm-chair anthropologists who simply made assertions about cultures based on their impressions from picture books and materials collected by missionaries, traders, explorers, or colonial officials.  Specific historical and literary knowledge is dumbed down and spoon fed to those who couldn’t be bothered with serious studies and platitudes of oneness, love and universal truths are espoused.  No references are given, of course, and the limits of knowledge paradoxically eschew philosophical specificities while obliging the subject to latch onto a guru.  Certainly knowledge can be gained outside of the purely literary, but to access even oral knowledge when the reference is in fact a literary text  obliges the subject to gain familiarity with this work in question.  The possibilities for the fetishism of such culturally specific knowledge to where Devi becomes a “downer”, a tree holds the truth for spiritual growth and the BJP a new-age guru are problematic to say the least.  Not recognizing that one’s knowledge is superficial is even more problematic since the community of [mostly] Westerners who discourse for weeks–and even months on end–about their spiritual growth creates a cultish aspect to what ought to begin as an overtly educational experience when in fact this exercise has eroded into talk about the best yogi for pranayama or for Gita rather than about the texts upon which certain practices and beliefs are based.

Certainly the foreign yogi fascista in India is a bi-product of both cultures:  that orientalizing culture which posits yoga, Buddhism and other -isms of the “Orient” as the cure-all for the Western subject full of ennui and the Indian yoga tourist culture which has deftly crafted a market for this commodification of a perversion of certain facets of their own culture, yoga for the foreigner.  India’s yoga tourist retailers are more than happy to act as the spiritual surrogate for the flocks whom they serve while the willing yogis and yogis-in-training are more than thrilled to spend their money in a market which constantly makes demands for monetary maintenance, albeit most yogis in India are charging more than my shala in Montreal with a cost of living and operation far beyond any shala in North America.  This is a perfectly symbiotic relationship in many respects where the commodity of yoga is bought and sold and those individuals can spend hours a day discoursing upon their ability to hold the bind in kurmasana or relating the moment when they attained samadhi.

It’s nice work if you can get it.