We know how yoga can wreck your body. But I wonder: isn’t it more that we’ve wrecked yoga? In other words: ask not what your yoga is doing to you; ask what we are doing to our yoga. Responding adequately to that question would require knowing about how yoga ought to be, ideally. I have no idea about this, and I would feel uncomfortable adopting a ‘normative yoga posture’. But I do know a little about governance, and its norms. And after spending some more time re-reading Broad’s article, considering the responses to it, and spending the week discussing it with several of my yoga-practicing friends, I’m convinced that there is more than a little of governance in our yoga practice.
a) governance: coping with coping
Governance is a buzzword, even a planetary vulgate. But it’s a word with a history. To many people, it’s just a cryptic way of saying things like neoliberal, corporate, or capitalist. On this account, governance would be the ideological way that neoliberal capitalists working for corporations talk about their ideology.
There’s substantial truth to that interpretation, but to me, governance is better thought of as a modus vivendi – it’s a way of coping. A means of negotiating a tolerable way through the intolerable (but ineradicable). It’s not optimal, it’s not perfect, but it’s all we (as stakeholders) have to work with (going forward). The best that we can hope for is to meet, consult, and negotiate. More than any other leader in Australia’s history, Julia Gillard speaks the language of governance from the depths of her soul; this is why she has a passion for negotiation (even if she can’t pronounce it). We have to cope because we have no choice, because we are interdependent. And our working environments, like our world, they are increasingly complex. To that extent, governance is merely the least worst way of dealing, of managing, of coping. But there’s more to it than that.
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b) coping and competition
Governance is, at heart, a response. Consultation and negotiation are optimal, given a certain situation. And fundamentally, the situation – our situation – is a competitive situation. It’s all in the game. And the game is utterly competitive. Even primary schools, and primary school students, are now tabled and ranked, while their prinicipals are induced to go forth and market the competitive advantages of their school in the local area. And to the extent that our pedagogy becomes ‘best practice’ (no danger of that, I’ve heard), we become the model and standard which pupils and principals throughout the OECD will then be punishing themselves to emulate. Marx called it the coercive laws of competition. It’s the dynamic at the heart of capitalism. If you’re on the side of capital, it’s profitable. If you’re on the side of labour…. it hurts. As David Harvey explains:
“If my lobbying group spends less than yours then I will get less in the way of favors. If this jurisdiction spends on people’s needs it shall be deemed uncompetitive.”
Back to work…. To push it a bit further with another sports metaphor (as so many Australians would), governance is that which makes competition bearable, or which bears us competitors along by managing, soothing, settling the conflicts, wounds and anxieties that arise in the course of competition (or stretchering injured competitors off the field). It isn’t there to call off the infliction. Governance motivates us by saying something like the following: ‘[s]uccess may be impossible, but failure is not an option. Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem (going forward)?’ Indeed, this is why ‘going forward’ is governance’s ‘Amen’; aside from its manifest meaninglessness, it is also suggesting that what we need to do is just keep on pushing ‘forward’. But which way is that? Modernist conceptions of time clarified ‘forward’ by firing time’s arrow in a direction called ‘progress’. You can’t stop progress. But then, somehow, progress stopped. Or got the staggers. In the absence of progress (and/or in the wake of modernity), this is bound to be pretty confusing, and stressful. It’s enough to make you anxious…
c) the worrier pose: governing your anxiety
Governance attends to our fluttering hearts; it is the government of anxiety by and for the anxious. Why are we so anxious? It’s not simply angst driven by doubt about progress and concerns for a bleak future (though these are often lurking). As I see it, many of us, most of us, are also anxious because we feel a deep, guilty sense of personal responsibility. We’ve been taught to. And it works. The lesson we’ve internalised is: if we are injured, or if we are an uncompetitive competitor, well then, we have no one to blame but ourselves. And so we blame ourselves. And feel guilty. Or go forward (going forward). By looking on the brightside. In America, this is guilty sense of individual responsibility gets re-minted in to a morbidly manic optimism which, if Barbara Ehrenreich’s work is to be believed, is approaching pathological proportions. Hell, even her American publishers know their American market: the UK title? Smile or Die. US title? Bright Sided.
The point here is that governance breeds certain kinds of people; it makes certain sorts of behaviour socially advantageous; it inculcates ways of thinking about self-and-other. And it turns life into a planning project. It increases the anxiety of choice. Everything becomes about goal setting, achievement, visual impression – go back to lululemon’s website. This quote, from said site, is hilarious… and more than a bit creepy:
During yoga class, are you secretly hoping that it’ll be the day when you magically float into handstand or sidecrow for the first time? It’s not that this is unrealistic, but if you haven’t done the work leading up to achieving a big goal, it’s much less likely that you will achieve it.
It tends to make the self a résumé self, one anxious about its status as human capital. I called this the Me Project (then I googled it and found out that the Me Project is real!), and all around me, I see people feeding it (and/or feeding themselves into it). Invest in the Me Project, and you’re likely to have an excellent CV and ‘totally crush it’, either at work or at the gym. You might even, eventually, ‘magically float’ into some contortion, or through the glass ceiling. You’re also likely to end up with an ego as massive as it is fragile, one that makes of its self a pond as shallow and flat as possible, all the better to view its own still-never-quite-perfect-enough reflection. Then describes that pond as ‘very Zen’, when friends come over. You might even do so with irony (back to the ideology link above). But you still built the pond. What happens, then, when large and increasing number of people who’ve subjected themselves to the Me Project take up yoga? What happens when groups of people subject to governance take up yoga as a way of dealing with the anxieties raised by governance?
d) narcissisasana: the pose adopted when those subject to governnce subject their selves to yoga
If governance is the dominant way of responding to competition, then yoga is one way of responding to governance. After which, having wrecked ourselves, myotherapy then responds to yoga. And then private health insurance responds to both, by offering rebates. And so everything is made manageable. Yoga is really about the management of the pain caused by the management. Go back to the quote I highlighted last week:
“I’m more balanced and yet more assertive and efficient at work – my friends who do yoga say the same.”
It’s not just that we have poor posture, weak backs and no core control from sitting in desks staring at screens (though most of us do have that). It’s just that we don’t think of ourselves – literally, figuratively, and subjectively – as sufficiently flexible, efficient, responsive. I should add at this point: this is hardly everyone’s experience of yoga; it’s not why everyone does it, it’s not a total explanation. But it’s in the mix. It’s there. But there’s more, surely. Of course…
e) nonward, ever nonward
We want to lead better and more meaningful lives. We have a sense – a sense that most of us should trust – that the way we are governed – not only by governance – is making us mentally and physically ill (obesity, depression, anxiety, the full spectrum of eating disorders). If so many of us want to quit their jobs, it is, no doubt, because they are unfulfilling and meaningless. This is hard to rationalise, now that suffering and toil is no longer punishment for original sin. And that we are being marketed lifestyle 24/7. And given the probable state of play, we are right to be concerned about becoming an uncompetitive competitor, being thrown on the scrap heap. Worthless. Incapable of accumulating capital (financial, social, human). And there is no unconditional welfare, no categorical guarantee that we’ll be cared for. Just the stigma of workfare. And besides, you are already in debt, perhaps most recently for the yoga 10 pass you bought. We don’t even have to be told this. We tell ourselves. 100s of times a day. Which makes these thoughts, often running on obsessive loop, excellent motivators. It’s also, not accidentally, a key aspect of how governance works, how it manages to squeeze so much work out of its anxious competitors. Seriously, that’s the deal. It’s better than rum and the lash, it’s better than using race, class and gender the explicit way the British Empire did (though all those things are doubtless in play). But it’s not quite the networked utopia naively promised in the 80s and 90s when everything being protected in the name of ‘Ford and Keynes’ was thrown to the uncannily Thatcher-faced pitbulls. Hawke and Keating led the charge on this one, just like they did with mandatory detention. Lest we forget.
I’m not sledging yoga, or work. Yoga can be something amazing, just as work can be meaningful and fulfilling. For that to happen, however, we might consider the following, which I offer only as thoughts, not further instructions handed down from higher management (going forward).
Refuse the guilt and anxiety we are enjoined to feel as competitive individuals.
Stop doing yoga competitively.
Stop doing yoga to improve your self.
Stop doing yoga to lose weight.
Stop doing yoga to make yourself more attractive.
Spend time thinking of ways to do yoga which have nothing to do with the Me Project and its massive, fragile, hungry ego.
It’s easy to imagine an unlawful noncitizen. If you can’t, Channel 7 will do so for you, luridly. It’s much harder to think what a nonlawful uncitizen might look like. I’m advocating we try something analogous with all our body practices: yoga, pilates, running, walking, whatever… Through yoga it might be possible to develop an ethos that has no relation to your competitive self, its work agendas, the impact of its résumé, and all the anxieties about being fat, lazy, weak, inefficient, uncompetitive, indebted and consumptive that go along with it. The noncompetitive nonself? Our situations are actually very spacious. If we think beyond last month’s binge and this month’s purge, we’ll see the feast in front of us. Inculcating this might, weirdly, make you more attractive to others. But, circling back to the article that started this whole line of thought, it’s not as if this won’t wreck us either.
I think the huge mistake in Broad’s article is the very notion that there is a self – especially a pure self – that can be saved from wreckage. This quote, taken from a speech by David Foster Wallace, which I highly recommend reading, repeatedly, is all too true:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”
Find what you like at let it kill you. If you find good things, you’ll have a wonderful time on the way to that ultimate non sequitur.