Yoga & Consumption

SRP Mat BagsThis week my reflections on religion and consumption have again led me back to the industry I’m most immersed in – yoga. Yoga in the west has grown from being something a little bit ‘out there’ that few people did in the early to mid decades of the 20th century, to being one of the fastest growing recreational activities today. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2006 the number of persons participating in yoga was 274,000 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013).

Yoga has become such an accepted member of the western wellness landscape that it is is classified by Vincett & Woodhead as a ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ form of modern ‘Spirituality’ (2010). A gradual appropriation and commodification of ancient yogic practice and ideology in the west is evident. One can attend the annual Body, Mind, Spirit exhibition in Australian and encounter a myriad of yoga classes, yoga mats, sandals, towels, socks, books, clothing and other more metaphysical paraphernalia.

From humble beginnings on cotton mats clad in dance leotards, the modern yoga practitioner (yogi) rolls out her absorbent mat, wearing gear no bigger than a bikini, coconut water never far from reach for that post practice hydration kick. The modern yogi doesn’t just practice, they can collect a whole cache of gear to define themselves as a yogi. Whether or not they participate in any spiritual aspect of yoga seems beside the point, prayer (mala) beads make a lovely addition to your latest season stretchy pants.

The issue of consumption within yoga can run deeper than retail products for professionals working in this fast growing industry. The essence of yoga teachings, found in Indian texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, promotes practices which lead to a world view that seems in opposition to the consumer driven culture of the contemporary west. Yoga teachers and studio owners often find themselves asking questions like ‘how can you run a yogic business?’ or ‘does the business and the yoga have to be separated to survive in this competitive climate?’.

Even in medieval times the earliest Indian yogic progenitors engaged in a wide variety of wealth accumulation activities to support their ascetic lifestyles (White 2012). Historically it seems that yoga has always featured an aspect of commodififation, that the goals of the teachings can not practically be separated from the economic reality’s of life. From this perspective then, running a yoga business is a matter of holding in balance the competing demands of what is essential an ascetic practice with the constraints of the western consumer marketplace. Finding the balance is up to each individual and certainly no two teachers or studios will meet this challenge in the same way.

References

Vincett, G. and Woodhead, L. Spirituality. In Religions In The Modern World. 2nd ed. eds. Woodhouse, L., Kawanami, H., and Partridge, C., 319-337. Oxon: Routledge.

White, D.G. 2012. Introduction in Yoga in Practice, ed. David Gordon White, 1- 22. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

4156.0.55.001 – Perspectives on Sport, May 2009, Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2013
http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4156.0.55.001Feature+Article2May%202009

Shit Yogis Say by lululemon athletica. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMC1_RH_b3k

Yoga Mat Bags Image from http://www.scissorsrockpaper.com. permission from Jess White

The KLF – pop culture subversion (& cool tunes)

This weeks lecture on Spirit and Sound provided some great stimulus for reflection on what constitutes religious or spiritual music, how the mechanics of the music industry relate to content in music and how music can be subversive to mainstream culture.

All of these questions led me to recall the antics of 80s/90s band The KLF. Band members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty managed to put out high earning electro-pop hits with accompanying film clips involving pseudo-religious symbolism. While overtly participating in the world of popular culture, behind the scenes, as the K Foundation, their subversive actions challenged mainstream contemporary arts (Jadin 2013). The K Foundation earned notoriety for publishing The Manual, a step by step guide to creating a hit song.

Jardin reports:

‘Among the hijinks that ensued: an alternative art award for the worst artist of the year, and burning a million British pounds in cash (about $1.8 million US at the time), which represented nearly all of their pop star earnings (Jadin 2013).

Aside from appreciating their social commentary, I still find their music really cool!

References

Jadin, X. 2013 KLF: Burn a Million Quid (video) and The Manual (e-book). Boing boing.
http://boingboing.net/2007/08/30/klf-burn-a-million-q.html

KLF – 3 a m eternal (Complete)
http://www.youtube.com

Are popular cults really a revolution in religious practice?

Chapter 9 of Rupert Till’s book Pop Cult discusses the postmodern expression of religious ideas and practices through the medium of popular cults, particularly among western youth. Till argues that traditional religion, especially Christianity, has lost much of its relevance to the modern experience and thus popular culture is better placed to perform many functions that were once the role of main stream religious doctrine and community. Pop cults are seen from this perspective as providing an absent ‘reconnection with the body, communal experiences of transcendence and re-enchantment of life (Till 2010, 175).

Within the chapter Till refers to Fowler’s stages of religious development and this is one idea I will expand upon. Till and Fowler outline an initial childlike stage of religious engagement that is typically naive to the larger ideology and values of a religion or in this case a pop cult. After this stage, and usually when the religious or cult follower is older, a more rational and reflective approach is adopted. Till comments that ‘A reflective approach to religion is given primacy by many religious traditions in the west, an intellectual distance being at the heart of western concepts of modernity and rational understanding (Till 2010, 175).’

I would argue that this is a vital process when considering adopting any new practice or ideology, especially one that seeks to fulfill the role of religion. Sadly, perhaps largely due to the youth of those joining popular cults, intellectual distance often seems lacking.

In the following quote, Till claims another key attribute for popular cults:

‘They do not quieten the populace, they do not act to simply subdue, to dull the pain of everyday life…’ (Till 2010, 176)

According to Wilber, most religion can be classed as ‘translative’ in function: ‘it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Wilber 2013).’ When viewed from this perspective I suggest that popular cults do dull the pain of everyday life for the separate self, just as much as main stream religion has always done.

By contrast, Wilber names a number of religious or spiritual practices which offer ‘not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself (Wilber 2013).’ These kinds of practices do not offer comfort for the separate self, they work on revealing the inherent falseness of the perceived separateness. The result of this kind of transformation is a fully integrated transcendence which is not temporary (Wilber 2013).

Creation of meaning, reconnecting with the body and moments of transcendence are vital components to a rich, purposeful, perhaps even generally happy life. Popular cults, as Till has described them, certainly do offer these components for those who do not relate to the methods and ideologies of traditional religion. However unless popular cults include reliable techniques for genuine transformation in their practices, they might achieve relevance for postmodern youth, but they will not deliver true transcendence beyond the separate self.

IslandVibe10

Island Vibe Festival 2010 – fusing ritual, music & ecstatic dance.

References

Till, R. 2010. Do You Believe in Rock and Roll? Musical Cults of the Sacred Popular, 2010. In Pop cult,   167-192. I.B. Continuum International Publishing

A Spirituality that Transforms. 2013. EnlightenNext magazine

http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j12/wilber.asp

If Pain Persists

Twelve Apostles

This weeks excursion to the Linde Ivimey exhibition If Pain Persists was a fascinating alternative to our normal class format. We began with an introductory presentation by Gillian Risdale, Curator of Public Programs. Gillian introduced us to the space and then more specifically to Linde Ivimey as an artist, as a woman and provided some initial insight into key works within the exhibition. We were then given the opportunity to allow a more personal response to the works to arise, through further viewing, sketching and discussion.

I had viewed this exhibition previously, and had found it fascinating, particularly the Saints and Sinners section. The first time I viewed the exhibition however I did not stay very long and read only a few of the accompanying plaques placed near the works. Gillian’s stories of Linde the woman allowed a much richer experience of the art and I found I wished to stay much longer to sit with the concepts presented.

This exhibition illustrates one approach to art, that of personal and reflective exploration through the artist’s chosen medium. It became clear that Linde has explored spiritual themes, existential ideas and personal challenges through her sculpture. The extremely personal nature of some of these themes reveals a sense of courage and honesty in the artist, who creates not only as a personal process, but for public critique as well. This kind of process could even be perceived as a form of self therapy, in exploring life’s great questions and coming to terms with change and challenge through art.

Although I was intrigued by the more spiritually themed Saints and Sinners section, the piece that spoke more deeply to me on a personal level was entitled Waiting Room. These small pieces explore complex themes of illness and the journey toward healing. Linde combines humour  in the work’s names with simple human gesture to reveal a personal knowledge of the hopes, fears and frustrations which accompany series illness. My family’s recent experience with this type of journey inspired me to sit with this piece for a while and sketch a little (pictured below).

The figures which comprise Waiting Room sit in contrast to many of the other works, in that they display more humanised faces. The often dehumanising aspect of medical treatment can be seen to juxtapose these very human expressions. Linde’s use of bone in this particular context becomes almost medical, evoking a sense of the physical form as so many parts waiting to be broken down. Waiting Room does not initially seem to evoke spiritual ideas, however one common experience for sufferers of serious illness is a time of reflection and reassessment of their life. When taking stock of life, the nature of existence and the self, spiritual exploration is certainly implied.

Magdalene

My sketch of Magdalene, part of Waiting Room by Linde Ivimey

References:

Current Exhibitions. 2013. UQ Art Museum.
http://www.artmuseum.uq.edu.au/current-exhibitions

What We Make of the World (and The Ramayana)

Video

This week’s reading, Elaine Graham’s chapter entitled ‘What We Make of the World’, discusses a turn to culture in Theology and the Study of Religion. She begins her discourse describing key motivations for religious movements to embrace popular culture, alongside a discussion of the value to those engaged in the study of religion and theology in examining this area. When viewed superficially, engagement of religious groups with popular culture seems to indicate a desire to re-establish relevance, particularly among the younger generations, and indeed ensure the continuing life of the religion.

Graham goes on to describe the major vehicles of popular religious and spiritual expression, including film, television, recorded and live music. Although she gives a comprehensive list of films, Graham does not discuss any popular print media, despite naming a number of film adaptations. Following this Graham describes a number of systems which scholars may use in analysing the quality and efficacy of religious engagement with popular culture. Her warning against over simplification by the use of these kinds of systems reminds us of the complexity of religious participation in pop culture forms.

The remainder of Graham’s chapter examines modern interpretations of theology and culture, and how these definitions can help frame meaning when undertaking study in their interaction. She suggests a modern understanding of theology might be expanded to include popular cultural forms as part of theological belief and practice. At a deeper level popular culture might be viewed as an expression of religious immanence and therefore a topic for theological reflection in and of itself.

As I read this chapter I recalled previous study on the televised series of the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana. This televised series presenting a telling of one of India’s classic tales. The series first aired on January 1987 to an audience of over 80 million viewers. This staggering number illustrates widespread popular acceptance of religious ideology expressed through media. More pertinent to this discussion however is that the study of this form of the Ramayana is now a distinct avenue for scholarly research. Richman describes the viewing of the televised Ramayana as a unique religious experience or practice:

‘Many people responded to the image of Rama on the televsion screen as if it were an icon in a temple.’ (Richman, 1991)

Despite the obvious difference in cultural context, the approach taken by viewers of the Ramayana, and it’s subsequent study by scholars, lends weight to Graham’s final point. She suggests that religious engagement with culture can be studied in terms of a broader concept of the lived experience of the sacred in all human creative undertakings.

References

Graham, E. 2007. What We Make of the World, 2007. In Between Sacred and Profane, ed. Lynch, G, 63-81. I.B. Tauris

Richman, P. 1991. Introduction: The diversity of the Ramayana tradition, 1991. In Many Ramayanas: The diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia, ed. Richman, P, 3-21. California: University of California Press