Listen to this story

--:--

--:--

The Conspirituality Report

Hello YogAnon! Nazis. Loved. Yoga.

2nd of 4 Field-Guide Posts on Yoga and Conspirituality

Still from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, 1938.

In Part One of this 4-part backgrounder to conspirituality, I argued that people immersed in the yoga and New Age worlds are trained in spiritual values that are Venn-y with conspiracism. I argued that if they gain insight or relief from believing that:

  1. Nothing is as it seems,
  2. everything happens for a reason, and…
  3. everything is connected…

…they have also rolled out a cognitive and psychological welcome-mat for conspiracist fascinations, up to and including QAnon.

I paused that post on a question:

What will nudge the New Ager downstream along these axioms, from the wholesome and connective, to the paranoid and conspiratorial?

In next weeks post I’ll look at political economy, and how conspiracy theories can offer more safety than the US government can. The week after that will be on how viral technologies amplify emotionally inflammatory content, and the wellness influencer must stay ahead of the conspiracy curve in order to monetize their solution to it. For the gig-working conspiritualist, uncertainty about the COVID vaccine can be a sales opportunity for Chinese herbs and sound baths. Any moral panic about child abuse uplevels the value of trauma-aware workshops.

But the influence I’ll focus on in this post comes in the form of an historical echo. Before neoliberalism convinced wellness consumers that they were on their own and inflated the influencer class to serve them, and before Facebook algorithmically boosted conspiracism, the New Age yoga practitioner was already living in the afterglow of a fascist fever dream.

For fascists, yoga was an occult tool for purifying and exalting the individual body as a microcosm of the triumphant nation.

Here’s a weird fact. Nazis. Loved. Yoga. Not for its therapeutic value. Not because they wanted world peace, nor because they wanted to chill out. For them, yoga was an occult tool for purifying and exalting the individual body as a microcosm of the nation that would ultimately triumph over a conspiracy of child-abusing Jews and impure invaders. Nazis cherry-picked the hawkish themes of Indo-Tibetan yoga, fantasizing about becoming invulnerable in body and spirit. Himmler carried around a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and conceived of the SS as a yogic monastic order. A generation of German Indologists brought Sanskrit tomes back to the Fatherland and meditated over the ancient Vedic hymns to the elements. Hitler himself was a vegetarian and nature-cure fanatic. Jules Evans summarized these fetishes in this viral Medium piece.

Nazis elaborated and left behind tense obsessions about healthy bodies and homelands that have loomed in the background of New Age and wellness cultures for going on a century now. Here’s a shortlist:

  • The body can be purified through discipline and focus, as well as dietary and devotional communion with the organic earth.
  • The body can become a vessel for mystical experiences provoked by meditation, ritual, or psychedelics.
  • Personal mystical insight gained from astrology, exercise, breathing, meditation, or herbs can produce and nourish a resurrected golden age of supermen and superwomen.
  • Supermen and superwomen can have super babies — naturally born, of course—for the glorious homeland, if they devote themselves to the organic holism that will nourish their special hetero juices.
  • Personal mystical insight is like an energy vortex that both shapes and is shaped by the communion with the natural world.

In the shadow of these values lies anxieties that connect fascist psychology and New Age spirituality:

  • The uncultivated body fills up with bio-moral corruption.
  • Without holistic discipline, the body will be poisoned by science and modernity, and lose its connection to its ancestral ways of being.
  • The corrupted body will fail to protect the sacred earth. This will open society up to degenerate, but more vital forces.
  • Those degenerate forces — racially impure and sexually deviant—have always been waiting at the gates. The time to strengthen and purify is always now.

Nazis elaborated and left behind tense obsessions about healthy bodies and homelands.

To clarify: I am not saying that yoga or New Age enthusiasts who drift towards QAnon are revealing their latent and shameful Nazism. I am saying rather that the industries of yoga and wellness in which they are consumers and gig-workers carry unexamined echoes of fascist anxieties about purifying and mastering the sacred interplay between the body and the earth. New Agers may love holism — who wouldn’t? — without realizing that the “blood and soil” version treasured by Nazis wasn’t about green smoothies.

But wait! Aren’t modern yoga and wellness cultures typically Left-coast, countercultural, queer-positive, and progressive? It has often appeared that way. But this mirage is more the artifact of white hippies confusing their orientalism with progressivism. They really wanted to believe that the enlightenment of anyone brown and from the “East” would transform the racism, sexism, and wealth inequalities of the “West”. Perhaps this belief conveniently allowed them to avoid some very hard work at exactly the time it was needed most— as globalization accelerated.

As the hippie era made modern yoga go viral, it became a megaphone for 19th-century utopian, romantic, and occult fantasies. When Swami Satchidananda opened Woodstock with a booming chant of OM, the thousands of hippies sitting on that rolling hill likely felt that they were participating in a universalist, colourblind ritual of peace and love. But few would have known that the guru blessing them had grown up in a militaristic Indian yoga revival movement that was both inspired by European fascism and central to the religious fervour of Hindu nationalism.

It is a strange cross-cultural history, spanning colonialism, anti-colonialism, and multiple phases of the “pizza effect”, by which the “invented tradition” of modern yoga is inspired by European colonizers, but then claimed by proto-nationalist Indians. It gives a glimpse into how the yoga craze, and some of the wellness themes of the New Age, arise from political ferments that might be forgotten, and yet are remembered within the bodies that practice them.

Reams of recent yoga scholarship confirm that the yoga-as-group-exercise practice that exploded into an $80B global industry between the 1970s and the COVID crisis began in the 1930s as an anti-colonial project undertaken by Indian modernizers who wanted to restore the dignity of colonized Indian bodies— especially those of its young men. So they collected postures and breathing exercises which, at the time, were mainly practiced by outcast and wandering ascetics. They reframed these practices as fitness routines that could be taught in the gymnasiums of the new state, instead of ashrams in the ancient forest.

Here’s the paradox: for inspiration they looked to colonial, proto-fascist fitness cultures like weightlifting, gymnastics, and the calisthenics that had become intrinsic to imperial military training in the late 19th century. Their models were people like Prussian strongman Eugen Sandow, who toured India in 1905 to such acclaim that “Sandow” became slang denoting any physically fit man. The world’s first celebrity bodybuilder impressed a generation of future Indian yogis — like K.V. Iyer, in his full glory below — not only with his muscular Christianity, but also his eugenicist ideas of bodily and spiritual purity.

K.V. Iyer, who counted Eugen Sandow as a primary influence, combined Sandow-style bodybuilding with yoga postures. 1930s. Otley Coulter Collection.

Within decades, many newly-minted Hindu nationalists were openly admiring bona fide Nazis: because they opposed the British, because of their shared “Aryan” mythos, and because they too dreamt of ethno-religious purity.

Fascist ideas of the perfected body and earth generated enduring cultural memes for holism, embodied spirituality, and health.

The overlaps between fascism, globalized yoga, and alt-health visions of wellness have only strengthened over the past century. Gen X grungers and millennial hipsters are often shocked to learn that India’s most popular yoga guru today, Baba Ramdev, is a regular Jerry Falwell to Prime Minister Modi’s Reagan. Like any good fashy alt-health influencer, Ramdev teaches that yoga can cure cancer and homosexuality as it builds a glorious nation.

At the root of fascism is raw authoritarian control and abuse, disguised as strength, beauty, and virility.

This tangled history is fascinating, but if we leave it there, it’s sounds a little conspiratorial, as if today’s yoga studios have secret closets in them where Nazi paraphernalia is stored beside the extra mats. Again: New-Agers are not secretly Nazis. It’s more like: fascist ideas of the perfected body and earth generated enduring cultural memes for holism, embodied spirituality, and health. Those memes, sanitized of their explicit politics, carry jagged edges of perfectionism and paranoia about impurity. And that double message—your body is divine, but it is also under attack — has become standard in the commodification of yoga and wellness.

Politics and Jewish conspiracies aside: at the root of fascism is raw authoritarian control and abuse, disguised as strength, beauty, and virility. This, I believe, is what echoes forward into what we see in conspirituality: a hyper-aggressive, body-shaming, magical health libertarianism that horseshoes the worlds of yoga and MAGA together in a swirl of high-definition, high-pressure influencer accounts.

QAnon is fascist in its fundamental deception: it fantasizes about freedom through authoritarian rule. It prophesies a world freed of domination, but through domination. The world will be liberated and its children will be saved only when Trump is installed as a military dictator willing to execute opponents on livestream.

Conspirituality offers the daily activities that subtly support this fashy complex: anxious regimes of fitness and beautification that promise freedom while demanding absolute discipline to spiritual ideals, and commitment to the charismatic leaders that teach them.

Resources:

Singleton on the Mysore Yoga Revival.

Leidig on Hindutva/Nazism connections.

Imy on Fascist Yogis.

Biehl and Staudenmaier on Nazi ecofascism.

Investigative journo: conspirituality & cults. Co-host at http://conspirituality.net. Bylines: GEN, The Walrus. More @ http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/

Get the Medium app