Is Yoga Good for Capitalism?

All across America women, mostly affluent suburbanites, are flocking to yoga.  But not everybody thinks the trend is a positive one.

Attacks on the practice have mainly come from conservative religious types:  Hindu traditionalists concerned that Americans are commercializing and bastardizing their sacred religious practice and Christians who think yoga, with its heavy emphasis on tantra and sex, may be the work of the Devil.

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But now, it’s the left that’s in an uproar.  In a just released book entitled, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Mark Purser suggests that yoga, like other American feel-good movements, is essentially a corporate plot.

Companies that have increased their global dominance in recent decades see meditative  practices not as a path to enlightenment but as a way of pacifying the working masses:  Getting them to turn inward and to embrace hyper-individualism so they won’t look outward and organize collectively for change.

Adding a hip veneer to their operations is also a way of distracting the general public from their dubious ethical records on issues like sustainability and diversity and projecting an image of “social responsibility.”

Purser spent long hours attending corporate mindfulness workshops and researching the history of New Age meditative fads dating to the 1960s.  He focuses on figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biochemist and self-styled Buddhist who started the corporate mindfulness trend in 1979 with an eight-week course called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.”

Kabat-Zinn spread his gospel to companies like Monsanto and Goldman-Sachs and soon became a fixture on the global scene with annual appearances at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Contracts from companies eager for a fix for stagnating labor productivity turned Kabat-Zinn into a multi-millionaire.

Another key figure in corporate mindfulness is Chade-Meng Tan, who founded the Search Inside Yourself leadership Institute after leaving Google in 2015.

Google hired him back to head up their corporate mindfulness division and like Kabat-Zinn he became an internationally-known motivational speaker before a scandal from his past forced him to resign in disgrace last year.

Beneath the hype about enlightenment and transcendence, Purser sees McMindfulness as an attempt to redefine social problems – including workplace challenges — as personal ones.  If the problems are personal, so, too, are the solutions.

People need to learn to take responsibility for their own anger and upset and detach from distracting gender, racial and class disparities.  Why show up for a picket line or protest march?  Focus on changing yourself, not the world.

Purser contrasts the “movement” aspects of the new mindfulness trend with what he sees as more authentic change-oriented movements for civil rights and women’s equality from the 1960s and 1970s.  At a time of relative political quiescence — and ruthless global economic competition — yoga and other mindfulness movements have come to the fore preaching a gospel of self-transformation – and social indifference.

These movements are also part of a larger “makeover” culture that has women especially purchasing un-Godly amounts of clothes and cosmetics, attending tanning salons, going under the knife and shooting themselves up with Botox to try to change their appearance.

Mindfulness, in theory, an “inside job,” is really just another personal accessory, Purser suggests.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that Purser probably underestimates the full scope of the McMindfulness trend.  The American Pentagon has taken to yoga with a vengeance as part of a sweeping overhaul of its basic training programs as well as its battlefield operations.

Yoga’s emphasis on improved flexibility and breath control is seen as a powerful new way to improve the efficiency and kill-rate of its fighting forces.  It can also be used to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Another big trend is the “yoga in the public schools” movement which is generating controversy in the Bible Belt, especially.  Private yoga philanthropies like the Jois Foundation – increasingly financed thanks to corporate hedge fund profits — are pushing for yoga to replace traditional PE classes.

While some parents love the idea, others see it as a violation of church and state.  Some Christian parents have launched court challenges. So far, these have been rebuffed.  Cash-strapped public schools are just happy for a new source of funding.

There’s something to be said for a society that recognizes that capitalism may drive some people to the mental and emotional brink.  Surely, a dose or two of enlightened self-help can’t hurt?

But if Purser and others are right, mindfulness largely caters to the rich and upwardly mobile and like everything else under capitalism, is easily incorporated within the grubby world of sales and profits.  In the end, it’s still just another commodity.

Ronald E. Purser,  McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality   London:  Watkins Media Limited, 304 pp.

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