Eating Disorders Masquerading as Yogic Food Theory
A courageous group of Yoga instructors in the Midwest selected me to give the keynote talk and several workshops at their annual retreat. The whole thing was a delight, to me at least. My first impression at landing in the airport was that the girls don't realize how good-looking they are. I checked luggage for the first time in years – I was bringing a lot of books – so I wound up having to stand around the baggage carousel for twenty minutes. A young woman stood next to me, talking to her boyfriend. She was great-looking and clearly had NO idea of it, which just added to her beauty. You would never see this in Los Angeles or at the beach in Southern California. Here, with a few exceptions, the women know exactly how good-looking they are, and like houses that have been appraised, know to the dollar how much that beauty is worth. Beauty is power.
My second impression is that people in the Midwest are very open-hearted. Everywhere I went, people were warm and helpful. warmer and more helpful than anyone is in Los Angeles, unless you are rich and powerful or they have seen you on the cover of a magazine. In Indianapolis, average people at the hotel and the restaurants treated me with a courtesy you don't experience in Los Angeles unless you are an elite in an elite and expensive locale.
At the workshop, I read from The Radiance Sutras
, which was great fun.
After the Friday evening talk, a woman, let's call her Julia, walked up to me and said, "But won't we just be polluting Yoga with our Western egotism and disease if we customize it to fit our needs? Yoga is a PERFECT 5000-year-old tradition. We in the West are just diseased, ignorant people." Just looking at Julia, one could see that she practices yoga as a form of botox, a war on the body, and that she hates, hates, just hates every curve on her body, and eats and exercises and pushes herself to stay skinny as a twig.
Julia is a wonderful of a yoganista, a person who fanatically believes in the fantasy of an ideal that has never existed on earth. I gently explained that this image of perfection is the way we never were, it is an ideal that exists in the realm of the imagination, like the images of women in fashion magazines who are perfectly thin, with long legs, and have rosy complexions and the breeze is blowing their hair. It took an army of body slaves, makeup artists, lighting people, photographers, wind machines, botox, and thousands of shots to get that image, which was then worked over extensively in Photoshop.
I am getting worse and worse in terms of telling the truth, whether people want to hear it or not. For example, I talk about the kinds of injuries meditators get. And when someone talks about technique or style of approaching meditation that is likely to lead to injury or failure, I point it out.
This is a terrible trend, and it's been going on since at least 1975, when I started talking about the dangers of meditation and all my former TM friends shunned me. This is so odd because all I really have been saying is that meditating is like running, or any sport or form of training – injuries happen. And injuries are to be avoided if possible! They ruin the fun. But the denial system in meditators is so intense they can't stand ANY hint that their practice may be less than perfect. And this denial, of course, is one of the hidden dangers of meditation. Go figure.
The only good thing I can say in my defense is that my takes or opinions about things are grounded in a considerable amount of clinical experience – clinical in the sense that I've been running a meditation clinic for awhile, like 30 years, since I stopped teaching for the Transcendental Meditation organization. Meditators of all varieties come to talk about their meditation practice and how to fine-tune it, and I listen. I say that anyone can replicate my statements by spending a few years just listening to meditators talk. Anyway, it is weird to feel obligated to speak responsibly on what is actually happening.
Food Theory and Eating Disorders
When I was in there, a female yoga teacher asked me about how to tell yoga students that they should become vegetarians, and eat only spiritually-correct foods. She was very sincere, and clearly was thinking that I was going to give her communication tips about how to format the information, how to be a better missionary for vegetarianism.
I would have gotten SO many points if I had just said, "Yeah, how can we connive together to get these midwesterners to stop eating meat?" And in the class, I could have gained SO much power of domination over the students if I had started shaming them about their eating habits. Shame is just unbelievably powerful. I could have had all those yoga teachers in training, hanging their heads in shame and swearing to become more pure.
But NOOO, I said, "Whoa - let's back up a minute. Where would a yoga teacher be coming from in giving dietary advice? What asana of authority would you be in? What is your position of authority and expertise? Do you have a blood workup of that particular person? Do you have an analysis of their digestion? Do you have a degree in nutrition? Did they come to you for dietary advice or did they come to a yoga class? Let's take a breath here and think about this. If they haven't come to you and specifically requested dietary advice, and if you aren't qualified, then it is a boundary invasion to even suggest an approach to eating. It's none of your damn business. And in general, yoga teachers who talk about food have eating disorders."
There was a kind of stunned silence while this little group of midwesterners took this in. No one even asked a question to follow up. Then over the next couple of days, I found out that many of the savvy women in the group, who don't have eating disorders, had long suspected that some of the female yoga teachers do have eating disorders. They were relieved to find out that yoga and eating disorders are two different things. It was just too taboo to inquire about.
Detachment and Homelessness
In the next session, a devout yoga student attacked me over my dismissal of "detachment" as a valid concept. What I was saying just went against the grain of what he was learning from his studies of Buddhism and Yoga. He went on and on for awhile about how important it is to keep the ego in check, and even destroy it; and how necessary it is to control passion.
I was really enjoying the confrontation because he was stating so clearly why some yoga teachers hate what I have to say, and I encouraged him to go on and on.
I just looked at him and said, "Well, it's a choice we all need to make - whether to become Yoga Fundamentalists or not. You can become a sutra thumper. But if you want to be a fundamentalist, why drag Yoga into it? Why not become a Christian Fundamentalist to satisfy your need for a bible to thump, and let Yoga be Yoga?
Furthermore, I continued, "Buddha strongly suggested that meditators question everything, and only take a concept as true if is proven by direct experience to be useful. He was very clear about this. So it is ironic that people are so unquestioning in their acceptance of Buddha's terminology. It's really a betrayal of Buddha to believe anything he said. Detachment is essentially an attack on the structures that connect things. The reason this is good in Buddhist terminology is that back in the day, Buddhists wanted to become homeless beggars. The Buddhist path was called Going Forth into Homelessness."
There were shocked, incredulous faces all around. You could feel that I was violating a taboo by even questioning - by DARING to question – one of the Sacred Concepts.
I said, "Look it up. Google going forth into homelessness
. Back in the day, it was very fashionable in spiritual circles to become a dirty hippie, drifting aimlessly from town to town, begging for food. It's not really so attractive to do that now, so you should question the allure of homeless thinking, which includes a set of related ideas - detachment, egolessness, desirelessness, the war on passion, and devotion to a guru."
Then I said, "You know, you are being intellectually lazy. Yoga concepts are like yoga asanas. They are not to be believed. They are to be stretched, felt, worked with, explored, breathed with. You don't just put them on the wall and worship them. Don't believe a thing I am saying. The discomfort you are feeling is like that you feel when you've been inert, not exercising and not doing yoga, and it feels weird to start moving again."
There was a moment of tension, and then about half the group or more started to breathe with excitement, suddenly freed of this odious burden of having to unquestioningly believe in a whole universe of imported yogic thoughts. But really, the most radical thing I said was that you need to be active intellectually if you want to absorb yoga theory. Something terrible has happened to Americans – they have become passive receptacles of information. They seem to think you just slurp info like fast food, without tasting it, chewing it, noticing it.
After the group, a handsome, well-dressed man came up to me and said that he had become homeless after practicing Buddhism for several years. The idea of detachment just took over his mind and he didn't see any purpose in having a job, or a wife, or an apartment. He gave up everything.
Realism vs. Idealism
It is as if there is a deep craving to hear only about the ideal – how meditation would be in an ideal world. "If only meditation were a kind of pill you take, blessed by the Dalai Lama, and you were instantly blessed and enlightened and didn't have to do any work." Also, people seem to want their mental to-do list to instantly disappear as soon as they close their eyes.