I was fortunate to be invited by the cool team of the (french) podcast 20 minutes avant la fin du monde to discuss happiness, ecology, yoga & capitalism. On the occasion of the release of the first episode about the obsession with happiness, I wanted to share a small text that echoes the episode, which I had written during the first lockdown, somewhat bewildered by the articles and posts circulating then inviting us to "succeed in our lockdown". WTF? Leave us alone.
Facing the flood of online yoga classes at this particularly unique time, I see critical articles passing by about what sometimes seems to be perceived as yet another mandate for wellness in a globally terrifying context, yet another push for performance, for self-improvement, which violently contrasts with the harsh daily life of those who continue to expose themselves for work, those who are sinking into insecurity, those who are closely or distantly affected by the disease. For example, this article by journalist Barbara Krief : Eating balanced, doing yoga... Even confined, will we never have peace? These criticisms are fuelled by very real discourses conveyed in the "well-being" circles (and not only, and here the social divide cruelly reveals itself, while some would have us believe that the virus puts us all on an equal footing) which encourage us to take advantage of the lockdown to retreat and indulge in self-care.
It is not about self-flagellation if we are fortunate enough to live a more or less comfortable confinement, simply about recognizing that this is a huge privilege, and from there perhaps refraining from erecting this rediscovered self-care as a model to better live through confinement. No, this confinement is not an opportunity for everyone to retreat and return to the essentials. These criticisms, which do not come from the world of yoga, point out the tensions that are currently going through it. The practice of yoga as it is widely presented today can give the feeling of being, at best, completely disconnected from reality, or, at worst, a narcissistic, normative, and performative practice.
Yoga, like many other cultural objects, has changed over the centuries and according to its circulation and installation in different cultural landscapes. In many ways, this is a good thing; a practice that becomes stagnant is a practice that dies. Unfortunately, like many other cultural objects, its purpose is now being hijacked and subverted by neoliberal ideology. With this ideology, economic language and thought have colonized all aspects of our lives and imaginations, including our relationship with ourselves. This expansion of economic logic, performance, and profitability to all areas of our existence (leisure, intimate life, romantic relationships, etc.) can be linked in particular to the popularization of the notion of human capital, developed in 1965 by economist Gary Becker. Human capital refers to the skills, knowledge, and experiences of an individual and will determine their employability. Inseparable from the person who possesses it, this person, to improve their employability, will now engage the entirety of their being in a constant investment process to improve themselves, manage their health, optimize their sleep, etc. Self-discipline and continuous self-improvement become the condition of our differentiation and thus of our employability in an ultra-flexible and competitive job market, which no longer seeks skills, but infinitely adaptable individuals capable of keeping up with its transformations.
We thus become entrepreneurs of ourselves, we consider ourselves as capital, and like the company we now identify with, our relationship with ourselves is based on economic thought, on managerial methods: we thus seek to manage our emotions, smooth our flaws, optimize our time, maximize our energy, increase our concentration, grow our qualities, make our sleep profitable, monitor our diet, capitalize on each of our experiences, even our hobbies, in short, to be constantly productive, efficient, utilitarian, thus profoundly changing our relationship with ourselves and the way we inhabit our existences (leaving us, I believe, profoundly empty and exhausted).
To take the specific example of yoga, it is often presented today as the holy grail for achieving self-fulfillment. It would allow us to better "manage" our emotions; "reduce" stress, improve our work performance, optimize our sleep, boost our vitality, support us in our personal accomplishments, make us better lovers (yes, really.) and so on.
It would allow us to move towards a "better version of ourselves", like software that we could update. To be calmer, more energetic, more this, more that. While all these effects, these new "superpowers" are more or less real, yoga masters had long ago warned to beware of them; because identifying with them is one of the biggest obstacles to achieving yoga, that state where we precisely stop identifying with the fluctuations of our psyche (to take just one definition of yoga, there are thousands.).
Far from being an initial quest for well-being or self-fulfillment, far from being a tool for capitalizing on oneself and improving our performances, the spirit of yoga (for it would be futile to cling to an "original" yoga) invites us to dis-identify from this "I", from our personality, completely constructed and illusory. Illusory, not because it does not exist, but because it exists in reaction to, as a consequence of, in relation to. The spirit of yoga invites us to take this "I", ahamkara, for what it is: a changing personality, constructed in response to our environment, shaped by multiple conscious and unconscious conditionings. Meditation then almost becomes a sociological approach to deconditioning, even though their objectives and methods are different.
The path of yoga invites us to become aware of our determinisms, of what conditions us, in order to better get rid of it, detach from it. And this includes, among other things, a work to become aware of and to rid ourselves of these internalized injunctions of performance, maximization, resilience, by identifying their source, their root, their influence, to better free ourselves from them.
For yoga, far from being a path of performance, is above all a path of liberation, of emancipation.