By Angela Jamison
Santa Monica in 2001 felt like the crux of Kali Yuga. The dark age of the spirit. That’s where I got in to yoga.
I went to UCLA for a Sociology PhD. I would train in what C. Wright Mills called seeing the familiar in the strange, and the strange in the familiar. Statistics, archival research, and ethnography. Science.
The second month of graduate school, a car got in the way of that plan. It hit and nearly killed me in a crosswalk just off Santa Monica Boulevard. When I came to, an EMT was inserting a needle into my forearm, and—shell shocked—I began to fight. She told me that my neck was broken, and that if I didn’t stop struggling, I’d be paralyzed. Voila. This well-timed suggestion took my body offline from the neck down until early the following morning.
For 24 years I had identified as the weakest, most physically awkward, least flexible kid in the class: my body had been a problem whose cravings and failings delayed my intellectual adventures. But a paralyzed night in the MRI machines sifted my center of gravity down firmly from my analytical mind to my physical and energetic bodies. I scanned my own legs and arms from inside the machine, falling in love with every paralyzed inch. After the soap opera moment in which sensation returned to my right hand as my husband held it and looked into my eyes, the other limbs came back with a certain vengeance. Sometimes, a soap opera moment is useful.
My would-be jaw surgeon said, “Take responsibility for your own tension.”
And he said go to yoga. Within a year, physical asana practice cured the subsequent headaches and back spasms. Next, linking breath and movement increased my lung capacity, overall energy, and the clarity of my movement and perception. After a few years, I was doing a silent asana practice for 2 hours each day, practicing pranayama on my office floor each noon, and sitting in meditation a lot. The effects of all that practice spread all over my being. My analytical mind developed a sort of on/off switch. And there were the same sort explosive (and, later, eerily still) psycho-energetic experiences that many enthusiastic practitioners undergo. The subtler things get, the less I believe I know what yoga is and where it is going with me…
But back at the turn of the 21st century in Santa Monica, the way people talked when they talked about yoga gave me the creeps. I made like a sociologist and took field notes. I have to build these paragraphs from the notes, since the hyper-critical person who wrote them is gone now.
For most people, immersion in the turn-of-the-century Los Angeles yoga world would offer far more strangeness than familiarity. I like to imagine what Bodhi Dharma would have seen there. Or Krishnamacharya. Or my grandmother. My conditioning included: 18 years off the cultural grid on a rural Montana ranch; a family of devout Christians shut away by conservatism yet blown open by service; four years of liberal arts college amid earnest, smart Portland hipsters; two years in Central America, researching revolution and liberation theology; and one year as an independent media activist in Seattle. So while I had seen a bit of the modern world before I arrived, I was still stunned by what was going on in yoga studios all over LA’s West Side from 2001 to 2008.
On the first night of the flagship YogaWorks teacher training, 40 students went around the room citing their answer to the question “What is Yoga?” The modal reply was, in essence, “Yoga is my happy place.” Each student described yoga as their own personal wish-fulfillment machine. In my notebook, I drew marginal pictures of a fleet of aimless, one-person chariots illumined with spinning chakras and propelled by a mysterious force called “the Law of Attraction.” I wondered: Where is any of this yoga practice going? Then the teacher trainers told the group that everyone was right. Apparently, yoga was all (nice) things to all people. An almost empty signifier.
More from the notes: Someone told me that we could change the world by “doing this,” when “this” was stretching in a group while listening to Sheryl Crow. The spiritual books people applied to their lives were The Secret and The Power of Now. I saw a man deeply impress a woman by claiming that the parking space opening in front of us on Venice Boulevard was the result of his “manifestation” powers. Twice, upon learning that I studied luxury consumerism, yoga people told me that their SUV’s “didn’t count” because they were hybrids. At the Whole Foods checkouts in Brentwood or Mar Vista, four times I was surprised to see a friend on the cover of the Yoga Journal; dozens of times at the studio, there was grousing over who got selected to model for that magazine’s cover or its asana analysis section.
Even with sociological training in objectivity, many strips of dialogue penetrated my ethnography filter and shot to the gut. The lexicon I respected was minimalist, precise and unemotional. I longed for the skepticism and ironic self-awareness plentiful in the neighboring lifeworlds of east side artists and UC intellectuals.
I remember the way my throat and belly would contract when an otherwise sincere practitioner or teacher detached from (what I considered) her real embodied experience, reverting to language of “energy,” “chakras,” and “auras.”
Metaphysical language seemed dishonest, self-serious, and unforgivably unfunny.
So-called “nondualism” came out in two sorts of discourse. First: the claim that body and mind were one isomorphic entity, so that “working on the body” = “working on the mind.” The refrain: I traded therapy for yoga.
Second: a solipsistic, etherial claim that all negative experience was a projection of one’s own mind. It wasn’t just that “thoughts [were] things,” as pop-nondualist teachers claimed; it’s that thoughts were the only things. An example: if I think another person is fearful, this is actually my own fear coloring perception. I know nothing of other minds, because in fact they do not exist. My consciousness generates my reality by itself.
These propositions hit me hard– a metaphysical Molotov cocktail of narcissism and materialism. The only impact you can make in the world is from working on yourself. Especially on your body, since that’s the same as your mind. Boom. The perfect practice for projection-owning, mind-body-melding spiritual people? Yoga asana. Congratulations, asana junkies.
The self-congratulatory nature of this spirituality would be obvious to any young person of my background: grass-roots Christianity, Nicaraguan liberation theology, and global justice activism. Before science became my religion, I’d been hard-wired for self-transcendence through service.
But despite the cognitive dissonance (ironically, I’d “own my projections” later), the LA yoga world held my attention like nothing else. For my allergic reaction to asana as a spiritual practice, I became (and remain) the biggest “asana junkie” I’ve ever met. Last year, I finally left academia to devote all my energy to yoga (ironically, before the year was out, the University of Michigan Dance Department hired me back as adjunct professor of yoga). All day, every day, yoga practice and culture fascinate my once roving, all-consuming mind.
This is because modern yoga generates some sort of healing and insight I’ve never encountered elsewhere. There was something revolutionary in Santa Monica at the turn of the century…
Read the rest right now by purchasing a digital copy of 21st Century Yoga here.
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. The rest of this essay discusses my attempts to put words on what that revolutionary thing might be.
I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the 11 other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.
Angela Jamison is the owner and founder of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor, a traditional yoga school. A former sociologist, she now teaches yoga at the University of Michigan. She has practiced ashtanga yoga since 2001, daily since April 2003. She travels annually to Mysore, India, to study with her ashtanga teacher, R. Sharath Jois. She served two apprentices with senior ashtanga teachers Dominic Corigliano and Jorgen Christiansson, and is Level 2 Authorized by the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. She meditates daily, and takes annual silent retreats with secular meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Her husband Rob Jansen, their cats Zelda and Lynxx, and Angela live together in Ann Arbor.