At noon on Wednesday, Gretchen let me know that my sister-in-law Katje was on Line Two and wanted to speak with me. Since the extended family Thanksgiving dinner was slated to occur at my home this year, and Katje is a very committed and emphatic vegan, I assumed that was the reason for her call – to make sure there would be sufficient strictly healthy vegetarian fare, especially beans, spinach, kale, broccoli, pulses and brown rice; to verify that, for example, the pumpkin pie crust was not going to be made with any animal products, such as lard; to discourage the use of butter, milk and cream, organic or otherwise, whether from grass-fed or ordinary cows, in the mashed potatoes or other side dishes; and, of course, to make an extended case for mercy and giving that poor turkey a last-minute reprieve. This happens every year I do the Thanksgiving honors, and each year I dutifully listen and subsequently ignore everything she says, preparing a feast I know that everyone else in the family will actually enjoy. Needless to say, everyone, especially my sister Rose’s children, who, as any regular reader of the Web log knows, are legion, absolutely abhor the Thanksgiving dinners held at my brother Rob Roy’s home, when Katje subjects all and sundry to a philosophically pure vegan meal centered around a mound of dreaded Tofurky. But strangely enough, as I was very surprised to learn, despite the impending ritual feast and its many possible culinary, nutritional and moral implications, Katje had something entirely different on her mind.
Tom: That’s me, all right. What’s up?
Katje: I need to talk to you about yoga.
Tom: Well, I think I’ve told you before, I don’t engage in any kind of dancing that involves me holding hands with other men, and that likewise, I don’t participate in any type of exercise that involves contortions, headstands or thrusting my glutei maximi up in the air – with cell phone cameras everywhere, the last thing I need is a picture of me doing something like that going viral on the Internet.
Katje: Oh, no, Tom, don’t worry, I gave up on getting you to try yoga years ago. What I need to talk about is much more important.
Tom: Which is?
Katje: There’s a war on yoga.
Tom: What? You mean, like the “war on Christmas” that the conservatives and evangelicals are always complaining about, where pin-headed left-wing liberals pitch and moan about Nativity scenes, Christmas trees and Santa Claus on the town hall lawn or down at the local shopping mall and get some Jewish lawyer from the ACLU to sue in federal court to stop it?
Katje: Those people are not “pin-headed left-wing liberals!”
Tom: Or like the “canon wars” of the 1990’s, where raging arm-chair revolutionaries railed against university professors teaching books written by “dead white men?”
Katje: And those people were not “raging arm-chair revolutionaries,” either!
Tom: So, let us agree to disagree on those points, I suppose. What, then, are you referring to, when you tell me there is “a war on yoga?” Roving bands of jocks going around dispensing wedgies to anyone seen wearing Lululemon fashions, perhaps?
Katje: No, it’s not jocks.
Tom: Arch-conservatives prowling the parks with slapsticks, looking to paddle the behinds of anyone caught performing the Downward Facing Dog?
Katje: Not them, either!
Tom: It isn’t, by any chance, anarchists, infiltrating yoga studios and surreptitiously replacing the instructor’s Windham Hill relaxation music with death metal recordings, maybe?
Katje: No! Tom, this is serious! They’re talking about cancelling yoga sessions – permanently!
Tom: Who is?
Tom: That’s strange, because frankly, I have yet to hear anyone talking about it.
Katje: I meant everyone at colleges and universities.
Tom: I hardly believe even that much of your assertion, actually.
Katje: Well, okay, maybe not everybody, but plenty of people at various colleges and universities are talking about getting yoga banned from campus. It all started last week at the University of Ottawa, when they closed down yoga sessions there.
Tom: And what, pray tell, was the rationale for such an action?
Katje: They released a statement that said that due to increasing commercialization and other factors, the practice of yoga at the university has become problematic.
Katje: They cited one hundred and twenty dollar yoga pants and one hundred dollar yoga mats as examples.
Tom: Hundred dollar yoga mats? Obviously, nobody ever told them about five hundred dollar basketball shoes. Yoga pants? Hell, a pair of Lucky Jeans is going to cost you more than a hundred and twenty dollars. Were these yoga sessions particularly expensive?
Katje: The were free.
Katje: And they were special yoga classes, too – for differently-abled persons.
Tom: You’re telling me the University of Ottawa administration put the kibosh on free yoga classes for handicapped people?
Katje: Don’t call them “handicapped!”
Tom: Oops. Sorry.
Katje: And it wasn’t the administration, it was the Centre for Students with Disabilities.
Tom: You mean, the campus organization that represents… um… persons of differently-abled characteristics… pulled the plug on their own free yoga sessions?
Tom: Well, is the outrageous cost of yoga duds and yoga mats their only pain point, then?
Katje: Oh, no, not by a long shot. They said that there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice.
Tom: “Cultural issues of implication involved in the practice?” How come you’re talking like a sophomore deconstructionist studies major at some third-rate cow college out in the boondocks?
Katje: That was a direct quote from the press release, Tom.
Tom: In that case, it sounds like the students at the University of Ottawa need to quit worrying about yoga and attend some remedial English classes. Any idea what that gobbledygook means?
Katje: It says here in press release that “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced.”
Tom: It has?
Katje: According to them. It also says that there are concerns about “which cultures those practices are being taken from.”
Tom: They are referring to Hinduism, I suppose?
Katje: I guess so, yeah.
Tom: Did they check with the Hindus about that or did they just automatically assume that Hindus would be offended by a bunch of white Canadians sitting around meditating in Lotus position?
Katje: No, I don’t think so, Tom. At least there’s no indication of it in the press release. What it does say is, “These cultures have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”
Tom: Obviously a case of political correctness run amok. But what’s it to you?
Katje: I can’t believe you asked me that! You know I teach yoga!
Tom: Oh right, so you do – among the myriad of other flaky, New Age stuff you engage in. Making any money off of your shameless exploitation of oppressed cultures, by the way?
Katje: Whatever I make, I work for, it!
Tom: And you’re not, by any chance, collecting any sales commissions for yoga pants, mats, and relaxation music recordings along with your fees for conducting yoga classes, are you?
Katje: Enough to cover my expenses. Look, Tom, teaching yoga is no way to get rich, okay?
Tom: No, I’m sure it’s not. But you are, in fact, worried that this politically correct anti-yoga phenomenon will spread and make things difficult and… less profitable for you?
Katje: All right, yeah, and I am, in fact, evolved enough to admit that, and furthermore, that’s why I called you. And so now that you have gotten me to confess to being a capitalist, just like everybody else in the American economy, what do you recommend my colleagues and I do to perpetuate our avaricious stranglehold on the yoga market?
Tom: How about calling it something different, like “meditative posture training” or a similar euphemism along those lines?
Katje: That was the first thing the yoga instructor tried at the University of Ottawa. She suggested they call it “mindful stretching.”
Tom: And what happened?
Katje: Well, since Canada is bilingual, there’s no way they could go forward with the sessions until they could be properly advertised in both English and French.
Katje: And so the first thing that happened was a huge argument about the correct translation of “mindful stretching” into French. And they’re still at it.
Tom: I’d say we don’t need to be terribly concerned about that here in the United States, fortunately. Although I suppose you’d better be careful about how you translate “deep concentration exercise” or whatever you decide on into Spanish.
Katje: Look, Tom – “yoga” is a brand, okay? None of those substitute names are a brand. Why should the yoga instructor community give up its brand, a brand that it has spent decades building, just because of some recent negative news stories?
Tom: I guess you could ask the manufacturers of Ayds diet candies about that. Some negative news stories about something that merely sounded like the name of their brand was enough to kill it.
Katje: Maybe so, but take my word for it, the yoga instructor community is made of sterner stuff than a bunch of diet candy makers, Tom! Make no mistake about it, we’re going to fight this!
Tom: Hmmm… I see. So, tell me, Little Ms. Left Wing Liberal Vegan Eco-Activist, how does it feel to be on the receiving end of a load of self-righteous political correctness for a change?
Katje: Humph! I guess you don’t know that the Bible-thumpers have been after the yoga instructors, too!
Tom: What’s their beef?
Katje: They say that yoga promotes a Satanic-influenced theology full of pagan idols and false gods!
Tom: So yoga’s getting it from both ends of the philosophical spectrum?
Katje: You bet your lingam chakra, buddy boy! As of last week, we yoga instructors are caught in the middle of two diametrically opposed factions of extremists. Which is why I decided to ask for your advice, because everybody says you’re the smartest person inside the Beltway.
Tom: Which is a lot like being the tallest building in Baltimore.
Katje: Baltimore? Big yoga town, you know.
Tom: Really? Why is that?
Katje: If you lived in a city with a violent crime rate like Baltimore’s, you’d be in pretty dire need of some deep breathing exercises and relaxation postures yourself.
Tom: Yeah, maybe I would.
Katje: So, what do you think the yoga instructor community should do?
Tom: Obfuscate the issue.
Tom: Sure. Like when a Turkish F-16 fires an air-to-air missile at a Russian fighter jet, the first thing the Russian plane does is toss out some chaff to confuse the missile’s radar, right?
Katje: Um… if you say so. But I’m not certain that I grasp the analogy.
Tom: Okay, the analogy is this – there are lots of different kinds of yoga, aren’t there?
Katje: Ah… yes, there’s Hatha yoga, and Vinyasa yoga, and Ashtanga yoga and Kripalu yoga, and Iyengar yoga, and Bikram yoga, and Sivananda yoga, and Kundalini yoga and Anusara yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and Viniyoga yoga and Yin yoga, and Hot yoga and Prenatal yoga and Restorative yoga.
Tom: And there’s Jivamukti yoga.
Katje: We don’t do that much – it’s got chanting, traditional Indian music and Hindu prayers in it. No point provoking religious controversy.
Tom: And there’s Tantric yoga.
Katje: We don’t do that much either – no point in getting busted by the vice squad.
Tom: So – what about these Yin, Hot, Restorative and Prenatal yogas? They don’t exactly sound like they come from an oppressed, exploited colonial culture.
Katje: They don’t. Yin yoga was invented by an American, Paulie Zink. Hot yoga is Bikram yoga performed in an overheated room; there are several styles and they were all invented in the United States. Prenatal yoga was invented in New York City, and Restorative yoga is a derivative of Iyengar yoga invented in Britain.
Tom: Okay, in that case, here’s what you can do to keep the Yoga brand and escape the vituperative attacks from lunatics both left and right – invent a type of new type of yoga that can definitely be established to have no connection whatsoever with Hinduism.
Katje: Um… well… we could probably do that. But what could we call it? “Western” yoga? “Secular” yoga? I have feeling, if we lose the exotic name, people might find this new yoga you’re suggesting somewhat… less attractive.
Tom: No problem. Call it “Arthalola” yoga.
Katje: Hmmm… I like the sound of it, anyway. Does it mean something or just sound nice?
Tom: Oh, yes, it means something, all right.
Katje: Arthalola yoga. Ar – tha – lo – la. Rolls off the tongue nicely. Okay, what language is that?
Tom: It’s Sanskrit.
Katje: Genuine Sanskrit? Not Hindi?
Tom: Authentic Sanskrit – a bona fide dead language that was out of use before the Moguls colonized India, much less the English.
Katje: And what does it mean?
Tom: It translates basically as “Money Loving” Yoga.
Tom: Might as well go for truth in advertising, I say.
Katje: Well… I get the idea. But what should we do about the position names? Should we drop all the English terms like “the chair” and “the warrior” and “the tree” and stuff like that?
Tom: I’d recommend it, since use of English names for the poses could be construed to indicate an imperialistic world view. But on the other hand, while employing a truthful and non-deceptive Sanskrit word to name the practice is unassailable by either side, if you use Sanskrit names for all of the poses, you could be accused of cultural theft by the politically correct nut jobs and likewise be criticized for promoting paganism by the wackos on the religious right.
Katje: I… I’m afraid I don’t understand. What should we do, then?
Tom: Use numbers.
Katje: “Very good Number Sixteen, class. Now everybody take three deep breaths and assume Position Twenty-two.” Like that?
Katje: But won’t that tend to be kind of… confusing?
Tom: Well, assuming your typical yoga class attendee is as intelligent as the average NFL football player, I think using numbers should work out just fine. Gotta go now. Gretchen just sent me an IM that says my next paying customer has arrived.
Katje: Oh… okay, sure. Goodbye, Tom, and thanks for the advice.
Tom: You’re welcome. ‘Bye.