(Published in Namaskar Magazine, October 2014)
Early in my almost distant teenage years, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a walking billboard. I began to wear clothes without logos and invested in a good seam-ripper that could swiftly remove pesky brand-name tags. Eventually this movement gathered momentum. Publications and organizations sprang up to further the commercial-free cause.
Practicing yoga and meditation had already been a part of my life and, for me, these practices supported the non-commercial attitude. I sought to explore and experience truths. The practices were leading me towards self-understanding and self-reliance not dependent upon status or image. Most of what I saw in mainstream society seemed to be leading the other way: what defined an individual were the brands, bands, fashions and products that they displayed.
As the 1990’s dawned, yoga studios started to mushroom up around the US. Even though I continued practicing, I steered clear of studios, yoga clothes and magazines. To my cynical but wide-open eyes, they seemed to be selling a branded image more than the teachings of yoga. But once I did venture into studios, I immediately realized just how many people were being helped, uplifted and guided. Because modern yoga had developed locations and points of access, millions were able to find teachings and teachers that were of service.
Our global yoga community continues to struggle with this tension today. Does the successful marketing of yoga degenerate the value of the teachings? We would hope that the integrity of yoga could be preserved for the benefit of all, regardless of whether one is in a famous studio wearing a fashionable outfit or merely under a bridge in some scroungy old shorts.
The illuminating organization Adbusters made famous the proclamation: “The Product is You.” This meme helped many realize that ad campaigns aren’t merely seeking to sell a product, they’re seeking to indoctrinate the audience with a set of beliefs. The slogan reveals that advertising portals (websites, TV shows, etc.) sell the consciousness of consumers to their advertisers. So in fact, the product being sold is the viewer – you!
This phrase also seems applicable to yoga and its related industries. Advertising for yoga products often promises to embed a different identity within your consciousness – to create the feeling of a newer, fresher, healthier you. At the same time, ancient yoga teachings sought to erase identification with the transient body and mind. From either perspective, a product of yoga is the shift within your identity.
But this can be a risky proposition. Without caution, the sparkly, promising yoga cult might warp our sense of who we are. We could even begin to believe that we need to wear, eat or say certain things to be included and defined as a “yogi”.
Thankfully, at its heart, yoga is not a specific image to be purchased or attained. Yoga is a collection of practices designed to reveal the truths of one’s self. For some, these truths may be physical (“If I strengthen my abdomen, I can relieve back pain.”). For some, these truths may be more transcendent (“By watching, I realize I am not the body, I am not the mind.”). But no matter what variety of truths yoga reveals, they are verified by individual, internal, personal experiences.
The blessings of the external world can be priceless motivators: we may find the camaraderie of our yoga tribe supportive, we may be allured by the latest daring yoga fashions, we may enjoy exploring the our shift of habits into a different lifestyle. But these experiences should help guide us towards our internal practices and not away from them. The comforts of modern yoga can be valid, expedient means that eventually lead to genuine practice. My concern is that branding oneself as a yogi could become just another escape from actually looking inside to see what truly exists.
I have come to realize that everyone’s relationship with yoga is individualized and personal. Regardless of whether one looks like a yoga magazine cover model or not, one’s internal practices can still guide towards self-knowledge. I cherish my friends who practice and receive insight, without feeling pressure to conform to any yogi identity, modern, ancient or other. I now honor the fact that yoga’s product is you, but only in one meaning of the phrase.
That is, I no longer cynically shy away from yoga groups, businesses or public displays of yoga (PDY’s, if you will). I trust that genuine practice will guide us towards the truth and keep us from being identified with the false. So for me, the product is not you: it is not the collection of identity assumptions someone might make when glancing at you in the elevator on the way to class. Nor is the product you: your awareness unknowingly served up on a platter for enterprising marketers. Instead, the product is you: the clear and multi-faceted gems of wisdom, pools of self-knowledge that exist absolutely nowhere except deep within.
Dylan Bernstein is a recovering cynic teaching yoga in Hong Kong and globally, www.stillnessinaction.com