This piece, part memoir and part opinion, starts with the fact that the globalized yoga industry, now estimated to be worth $88bn annually, has grown in tandem with the excesses of late capitalism.
My argument is that its main value proposition is its power to absolve and even spiritualize these excesses. It is a form of virtuous consumption that allows its consumers to feel better about a burning world. Worse: that they are transcending it. Worse still: that by transcending it, they are healing it.
In this framework, the universalist and pacifist platitudes expressed by Swami Satchidananda before he consecrated Woodstock with Sanskrit chants have not aged well. “America is becoming whole,” he intoned from the stage on August 15th, 1969. “America is helping everybody in the material field, but the time has come for America to help the whole world with spirituality also.” (In 1991, he was accused of sexual abuse by several followers.)
But the Americanization of yoga and wellness has not been a gift to the world. The growth of global yoga offered no substantial opposition to imperial warmongering, economic inequality and environmental degradation. On the contrary: it has provided spiritual pardon for mostly white and privileged people who know, on some level, that they are complicit in these moral outrages.
Downstream of Woodstock, one effect of yoga-like obsessions and its vague aspirational marketing has been to depoliticize its consumer base, to the point that no politician pursues the “yoga vote”.
But depoliticization is alienating. So it’s not surprising that a demographic numbed out on good vibes, secretly bored of obsessing over green juices, and increasingly politically illiterate, becomes restless, and eventually vulnerable to the senseless political porn of QAnon and conspirituality. Today, QAnon is one of America’s most successful cultural exports. This is not what Swami Satchidananda had in mind when he prophesied that America would help the world with spirituality.