Against Physical (Mono-)Culture

I came to yoga, and thus it should be said, to any sort of physical practice whatsoever, via Georges Bataille. The few times I’ve confessed this to anyone has mostly gone without comment, as unfortunately I’ve found little overlap between those invested in the writing of Georges Bataille and those with a serious yoga practice. Despite the lack of overlap, both “yoga” and “Bataille” share the sad reality that they have been seriously compromised by their most accessible contemporary experience: Bataille is, more often than not, “the guy who wrote The Story of the Eye” (generally understood as little more than “transgressive” fiction/pornography); while “yoga” has become a commercial experience of self-care primarily indulged in by upper-class/privileged white women. Anyone seriously invested in either Bataille or yoga will pale at these descriptions of course, as they remove any actual meaning & fail to even approach the actual experience of either.

My interrogation into Bataille has ranged from “present” to “all-encompassing” for over a decade at this point, while my yoga practice began four years ago, only to start to fade into the background when I began to explore acrobatics (for want of a better term) two years later, but I recognize that it will always have place in my life. Of course, with all of this offered as prolegomena, there’s a different point I’m aiming to arrive at.

Bataille himself, in “Method of Meditation” (which is a cornerstone of my own studies), titles the second section of his essay as, “My Method Is At The Antipodes Of ‘Yoga’.” So, naturally, there’s a dichotomy to address here: how could I have entered the practice of yoga via the writings of an individual who explicitly states that his “Method” is in direct opposition to “Yoga”? Bataille (arguably in the same “mode” as the practice of contemporary yoga itself, but with strikingly different ends in mind) understood many of the embodied elements of a yoga practice as being technology that could be divorced from the religious context (or, as Bataille himself labels it, “the moral and metaphysical beliefs”) of Hinduism. The history of “yoga” and its spread to the West is vastly complicated and storied (and honestly durationally shorter than one would assume), so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day, but risking pointing out the fact that taking the technology of yoga and “discarding” the religious context is what makes it truly work for most practitioners in contemporary society without endless further commentary allows us to venture further into what it is that I aim to discuss here, namely, the problem of monocultural dominance throughout the “world” of physical culture. 

I will offer one caveat here, before moving on: I truly don’t believe that learning a physical/embodied “action” in one context and discovering that it is useful in a different context is colonizing or erasing the cultural context that said “action” comes from; even the most precursory research reveals that much of the asana practice the dominates yoga today was itself taken and adapted from a variety of sources: contortion, Indian wrestling, Swedish physical culture, etc. The issue comes down to a semantic one, and it’s an issuing of ascribing a specific meaning to the word “yoga” (a meaning that culture has ascribed to the word primarily out of a desire for easier marketing). As meaning is differential, to ascribe meaning to a word is to establish its own context. Grotowski’s entire Theatre of Sources project was interested in identifying corporeal/embodied elements of ritual and figuring out what the “root” of these sources were, what physicality (a way of walking? spinning? lifting the hand?) carried the seed of the “energy” that could be harnessed for use in very specific ritual acts—Grotowski sought the “source” of these energetic currents, not the end-result that it found itself in. Naturally, especially during the current moment in which I’m writing, these opinions could be considered wildly controversial and it could be found irresponsible to only address these issues in the most precursory fashion. But because I’ve spent more time thinking about certain ideas than writing about them, there’s going to be a level of catch up I need to play, so without risk of losing the plot even further, I can merely offer up the fact that these are ideas that I will be returning to in the future.

Contradiction and Physical (Mono-)Culture

My introduction to yoga via the writings of Georges Bataille is important here merely to introduce the idea of dichotomy or contradiction in relation to my own approach to an idea of physical culture. As someone who stayed far away from physical culture for years because of everything it stood for, as I slowly inject myself into it (and vice versa), I find it extremely positive that the dominant culture is shifting away from a closed-off, monocultural position. Now, more than ever before, there are more accessible modalities of movement offered as ripe for exploration. There are still, of course, the monocultural mainstays of the last few decades: the growing cardio machine sections of big-box gyms, group fitness classes that replace the importance of recovery or progressive overload with loud music and pumping endorphins, yoga classes that market the potentiality to “unwind,” and the grunting, performative masculinity of the weight-room. None of these things, arguably, are inherently “bad” in any sort of objective sense, but the fitness industry’s weakening insistence that anything outside these modalities is superfluous (what this meant before was actually just “unmarketable”) makes space for a push toward more open modalities: functional fitness (presenting the idea of fitness as relevant for all bodies, not just “pretty” bodies or bodies that desire to be “pretty”), accessible opportunities to learn about mobility (instead of just being told “stretching after you work out is important), and well-funded and publicized research pointing to the importance of allowing physical activity to return to the realm of “play” (even for adults!) has finally opened the door to individuals formerly put-off to slowly dip their toes into the world of physical culture and reap the benefits. 

Of course, when any cultural shift occurs, especially a shift situated within or at least alongside of an industry that (at least pre-COVID-19) was a major mainstay \of late-capitalism, there comes a point where the self-appointed leaders of any counterculture begin to move away from a more equitable ideology (here being the idea that physical culture does not have to fit the pre-existing monoculture) and toward the development of digestible structures that are easily duplicated and sold using the same discourse and “closed-door” structures that the former monoculture (in this case: big-box gyms, endorphin raising group fitness classes, etc) have upheld for years. To an extent, it makes sense: we are all operating within the confines of systematic wealth inequity. But for a physical culture theoretically rooted more in creativity than the former monoculture, the idea of buying into a system instead of revolting against it will yet again do little more than reveal impotence toward change: you’re merely replacing one system of control with another.

As culture is always to some extent cyclic, we find those who have been specifically invested in the culture as a career for most of their lives shifting and renouncing their former follies in favor of their new savior (the personal trainer shifting focus to “movement teacher”). I imagine this is everywhere in physical culture, but because my attention is fixed on “movement culture” more than any other, this is where I’ll be considering it. As hesitant as I am to indulge in the term “movement culture” as having any sort of meaning outside of marketing (for in itself it functions as an empty signifier), I’ve come to accept that the modalities that I am currently most interested in exploring are often situated within the useless umbrella term.

The Folly of “Form Follows Function”

While I will forever insist on being antagonistic towards homogeneity in terms of physical expectations (which is to say, the idea that one must look a certain way to be considered fit or whatever), I feel like it’s remarkably important to consider that replacing one standard with another is not progressed, it’s simply re-configuring a model of gate-keeping. It’s keeping the doors closed, not opening them. One of the tenants of movement culture (and because I know folks tend to be extra literal when responding to things on the internet, I’d like to point out that 1) I’m reducing a larger conceptual framework to make it easier to examine structurally, 2) I’m not actually referring to any “strain” of movement culture specifically here, rather I’m considering larger repercussions that move across the platform of choice for movement culture: Instagram) seems to be that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to spend hours practicing your handstand to find that perfectly straight line, as long as you’re using your hours of training as an experience in mindfulness, traditional “pump-style” hypertrophy training is a mistake and a waste of time! Because I guess you can’t approach hypertrophy training with mindfulness? Because inherently putting your body in a certain shape with “perfect” alignment (hey there yoga teachers that don’t understand bodies are all different) can be a practice of mindfulness but exploring the mind-muscle connection that enables a the way you’re moving a weight around with the sensation of blood flow into a muscle as a sort of embodied sensation…isn’t? For a culture obsessed with “generalist” skills, there seems to be a specific list of pre-approved disciplines that can be on that generalist skill acquisition list. There also seems to be a bizarre blind spot to the reality that both hypertrophy training and skill training carry a pure appeal to aesthetics: cleaning up your handstand line is as inherently “empty” as trying to make your biceps bigger; neither make life easier on a functional level. 

With one door opening and another closing, what I often find very disappointing in certain digital encounters with the IG “celebrities” of “movement culture” is how some individuals seem incapable of moving outside of narrow personal experience when framing the idea of a practice. As someone who teachers skill-based physical movement, I of course believe in the idea of doing the work yourself, as a teacher, and investigating methodologies and how they work. A teacher has the responsibility to understand what they’re teaching, and they also have a responsibility to understand that what worked for them will not necessarily work for someone else. Because I believe in this on a basic level, I get very depressed when someone very visible in the movement world dismisses an entire realm of movement because it didn’t work for them: i.e., “When I was practicing bodybuilding my mobility was shit and I felt awful all the time and couldn’t move with anything even approaching fluidity, so bodybuilding itself is inherently bad,” or  “When I was doing 35 hours of yoga a week and blindly listening to my guru instead of paying any attention to the reality of my body, I was actually horribly unhealthy so yoga itself is inherently bad,” etc etc etc. Subjective history becomes dogma, and in the same way that the former monoculture of fitness refused to allow space for play, functionality, dance, fluidity, etc, the new culture is starting to refuse the space where an individual is allowed to come to terms with what they need (or want! not everything has to be “natural” or “healthy,” as those are mythical & empty ideas in themselves!) in their own body, without judgment. 

Hopefully without undermining my own point, I’ll now jump into my own subjective example: I have seen many instances (from “both sides,” so to speak) of individuals making claims that intentionally building arm/shoulder/chest muscles (versus just building lean strength) is inherently counter-productive, or even prohibitive to opening your shoulders (for backbends, handstanding, etc, anything that requires overhead flexion). This is akin to telling someone they shouldn’t bother trying to achieve a personal goal because they don’t have the right body for it. I.e., it aligns with the thought process of “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible!” While it might be harder, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or you shouldn’t do it. In the past two years, because I’ve been intentional about training for both hypertrophy & overhead shoulder flexion simultaneously, I’ve managed to both add immense size to my arms/chest while also increasing my active overhead flexion. I found a contortion coach who approaches contortion in a way that fits with my goals and my body; her coaching is very different from Mongolian contortion and other various traditions more reliant on developing passive flexibility. My coach’s active-flex approach works better for my body & my goals, and because it’s an “open” way of learning rather than a closed way, it’s allowed me to have and make progress on what is often viewed as disparate, exclusive goals. 

The Semantic Issue

Like most things in a world that thinks it’s too smart of its own good, the primary problem with culture can almost always boil down to semantic discrepancy. Because language itself is magic, I ultimately have no desire to define terms for anyone else, my interest is only to be able to articulate & communicate my own interests and desires so I can best find the route to follow to achieve them, or, when teaching, figuring out how to use language to get someone else further on the road to their goals. If someone’s primary interest in “movement culture” is adding another modality to their toolbelt in order to make themselves seem sexier to paying clients within the industry of physical culture, then I’m not sure I have anything to offer—but worry not, I imagine there’s an e-course you can purchase to help with that! I jest, but honestly, if you can be honest with yourself and identify your primary goal as participation in a capitalist industry, then just own that and go with it. You’ll be better off. You have bills to pay, no one should begrudge you for that. What I’m asking is that anyone self-identifying within the idea of the culture start being a bit more clear about their intentions, if not to others, at least to themselves. The collapse of the yoga industry in the time of COVID-19 and a widened awareness of cultural cluelessness/bypassing is due to the fact that the western yoga industry was not actually selling any real access to mental health or embodied peace, it was most often only ever selling the “idea” of signalling “goodness” and “peace,” most often using methods that excuse the practitioner from having to do any actual work. I’m often concerned that much of the movement industry is trying to package this same sort of empty mindfulness using more traditionally masculinist overtones (thus merely recalibrating rather than eradicating a (bullshit) gendered fitness divide: “yoga is for chicks, while the gym, I mean, movement culture is for bros”).

As I mentioned, I don’t have the desire to define what someone else is or should be doing, my concern is to be able to communicate and be held accountable to my own intentions. To do this, I must invoke, once again, my entrance point into embodied practice itself: Georges Bataille. My interests mirror (but are not dependent upon) Bataille’s articulation: an interest in the ecstasy of the impossible that follows “the dissolution of [both the] self and of the objects of consciousness.” Grotowski’s research into the holy actor has also informed (which is to say, it has helped me to further articulate) my intent: “training to immediately access one’s own psychic impulses.” Sometimes this is a sensual ecstasy derived from a good arm or chest pump, sometimes this ecstasy comes from finding a sustained freedom during the airtime of a round-off back-tuck (bringing myself closer to an impossible idea of levitation, the float), and sometimes this ecstasy arrives through using my body at a level of continual excess: pushing myself to a level of intensity unmatched in the way I normally navigate the world. These are not the only things I am after, rather I offer them as mere specific examples, to suggest that there neither needs to be nor necessarily even can be a singular motivation or goal in physical training. The system should not close the door, it should open it so anything or anyone who wants to walk through can.

On Direction (or, Movement)

Of the many things that I have encountered while under varying degrees of lock-down during a global pandemic, one of the very first things things I found myself having to reckon with was the idea of what exactly it was I was doing with my life.

At the time lock-down started, early March of 2020, what I was literally doing was managing a Yoga/Dance studio that occupied 75% of my brain space (just by virtue of more or less having to be available in varying capacities 24/7), and dedicating the other 25% of my brain to making time to do my own training. At one point I had an art practice (more on that later), but I had accepted the fact that at the moment I didn’t have the luxury of time necessary to indulge in what had at certain points been the most important part of my existence. I had, instead, to be concerned with making money (for I live in the most expensive part of the United States due to an insistent dedication with the weather), and keeping myself in good physical health (good physical health was important because: a, I still couldn’t afford “real” health insurance, and b, when I was physically healthier it allowed me to maintain mental & emotional health easier, which was necessary to deal with the stress of a job that overtook my existence).

There was a point when I had literally written in my pen and paper journal, “You can do this for at least two years. Put in the work. Don’t think about what you don’t have time to do, instead play the role of the ascetic. Do the work so you have time to think about it after.” I’m not sure if I truly believed this was sustainable, but I was busy enough that I didn’t really have time to consider it.

So, then, a pandemic happened. Suddenly I was not as busy. I had, like most of the world,, to enter a period of confusion; a time when I wasn’t sure what was happening, a time when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and for how long. I continued in my role as studio manager, though my role drastically shifted, as we weren’t physically open, nor were we offering online classes. My new job became, more or less, helping my boss to figure out what exactly to do next.

And within this consideration, I also spent time thinking about what I wanted to do next. The boundless machinations of late-capitalism continued, but I knew I was burnt out. My boss was burnt out. Almost everyone we knew who ran a fitness studio of some sort was burnt out. It’s not a forgiving industry in the Bay Area, where rents are egregiously higher than they have any right to be, so any ideological or creative idea of what fitness/yoga/dance should be often get steamrolled by pure market-drive.

With new distance, I realized that I was not doing what I wanted to be doing. And I realized, in the face of a global pandemic, that it is ridiculous to not be doing what you want to be doing. That it is unhealthy to actually exert energy telling yourself that something that is stressing you out, burning you out, is something that you have to keep doing because if you stop the world as you understand it will also stop. What the pandemic revealed, what we all saw as soon as the normal operations of late-capitalist society ceased to uphold, was that the world as we understood it did indeed stop, but we all survived. We all started finding new ways to survive. We were able to adapt, we were able to ask questions, some of us were finally able to start considering what role in the world we actually wanted to pursue.

I began to understand that my role working in administrative capacities at yoga/fitness or circus studios, teaching on the side, was not the best use of my time.

If I were to wildly reduce what I find important in my life to the barest reduction, I can point to two individual practices that as my ‘driving forces.’ The first is an artistic practice, which is expansive in terms of medium and tends to regularly shift. The second is a physical practice: training, using my body. The two have always been connected, but I’ve never had the time or space to figure out what it looks like to allow the two to truly coexist. Historically there has had to be hierarchical positioning where one takes precedence over the other depending on what my schedule looked like or what I was trying to accomplish.

So in our brave new world, irreversibly different than it was pre-pandemic, I know that my responsibility to myself is to allow myself to approach these two practices simultaneously. To level the playing field. To allow each to sit simultaneous. I’m tired of fragmenting and compartmentalizing the things that fire me up when I’m talking to different people. There is a coherence that I want to communicate; there is something larger than mere spectacle, something larger than a limited idea of commercial “fitness.” There is something beyond.