June 14, 2011

What’s Too Woo? A New Take on New Age Flakiness.


While waiting to see my chiropractor the other day, I happened into a brief conversation that got me thinking about how much my perspective on what I used to flat-out dismiss as flaky, woo-woo New Age-y nonsense has shifted since I really got into yoga. It’s been an interesting ride.

I was sitting in my chiropractor’s waiting room when she walked in, engaged in conversation with a client. I glanced up to see a tightly wound young guy dressed in impeccable business casual. “ . . . and I really think you should try this breathing exercise next time you’re feeling super-stressed,” she was telling him in soothing, encouraging tones. “Just inhale slooooowly for a count of six, hold your breath 6, exhale 6, and then hold your breath out for 6. Just try that sequence, maybe oh – 3 or 4 times.”

He started hurriedly collecting his stuff. As he walked past me, his eye caught mine and shot a look that glinted, Can you believe this chiropractor woo-woo BS? I mean, WTF?!

I got it. But I also knew that she was right. “Um, that sort of thing really does work, ya know!,” I said brightly, hoping to sound like the reassuring voice of normalcy.

He walked out looking preoccupied and vaguely disgusted.

I got my adjustment and practiced the 6-count breathing routine as I drove home through downtown traffic. I liked it. It worked.

Shifting Perceptions of Flakiness

Even though I’ve spent the last few years teaching breathing exercises myself, this little encounter brought me right back to the time when I shared the mindset of Mr. Gimme-a-Break, let’s skip the weird breathing stuff, OK? And it’s funny to reflect on how much I’ve changed.

Rationality II (photo by Gregor Buir)

Back when I was in grad school, intently studying political thinkers from Plato to Foucault along with a heavy dose of desegregation law (preparing for my now ex-life as a poli sci prof), I went to a party thrown by an old friend who had alternatively been spending the last several years meditating in a remote ashram, practicing Tantric sex, and working in a New Age bookstore in California.

“So what’s your spiritual practice these days?,” she asked me out of the blue, super-casually, like it was the most normal query in the world. I had not the slightest clue what she was talking about.

I don’t remember what I replied but whatever it was, she took it with good grace – equanimity and all that.

Then one of her friends who I found suspiciously hippy-dippy looking, with wide eyes, disheveled flowing hair, and a full peasant skirt, wafted up and started earnestly telling me about how whenever she felt too freaked out, she made sure to keep telling herself to Just Breathe.

Just Breathe? At the time, I had no frame of reference to put this in. And it sounded pretty flaky to me. “Un huh,” I murmured noncommittally, making a mental note to be sure to avoid sitting next to her at the dinner table.

But I remembered her all these years later in my chiropractor’s office, seeing that busy wound-up guy responding with precisely the same barely restrained skepticism to her well-intentioned advice to Just Breathe. I connected with him because I understand that if you’ve never been exposed to yoga or anything like it, being told with such sincere earnestness to breathe sounds pretty damn flaky indeed.

But oh my, how things have changed . . .

Seeing Energy and Empathing

“The Equivalence of Self and Universe”

Today, I know that there is in fact tons of scientific evidence explaining why deep breathing does in fact calm our nervous systems, and that this is really not a woo-woo idea at all. Given that I’m by disposition and training a social scientist, rather than a “real” scientist, however, I must admit that I find too much such detailed physiological information boring. While I do care that there’s a concrete physical basis backing up the advice to “Just Breathe,” too much detail on precisely how it all works and BLIP! my attention’s gone and mind’s wandering.

Not to say that I don’t value such information, because I do. But what I’m really more interested in – rather ironically given my former orientation – is that part of my experience that can’t be adequately captured by science. In fact, I have to laugh at myself because I’m now very much drawn to things that my old self would have written off as way too woo.

For example, one of the things I loved most about the yoga teacher training I did with Ana Forrest was the work we did on “seeing energy and empathing.” (You can read more about this and related training exercises in her new book, Fierce Medicine.) We practiced “reading” each other’s bodies, not simply in terms of physical alignment, but also – much more subtly – in terms of energy flows and blockages. We also practiced intuiting what this told us about the person – again, not simply physically, but on a holistic mind-body-heart-spirit level.

Now, in the old days, I would have found this all ridiculously woo. But through training and practice, I accumulated solid evidence that it works.

In my trainings, we’d practice in small groups and then cross-check with each other to see whether what had been “read” was indeed accurate or not. I’ll never forget one time when a guy I’d been working with later came up to me privately, looking super-serious and a little freaked. “How did you know all that about me?,” he wanted to know. “I’ve never told you anything about my personal life – but everything you said was completely right on.”


Or simply learning to use our innate intuitive capacities in new ways, ones that the dominant culture normally doesn’t develop in us at all?

I definitely believe that it’s the latter, not the former. In fact, I feel certain that if we had the proper scientific instruments, we could track our brains shifting into a different gear when we’re actively engaging our intuitive, empathic capacities. And certainly, I’d love to see that sort of research done soon (because as far as I know, it hasn’t been yet, at least in the context of Western science).

That said, I think that it’s also true that having these sorts of experiences – which are quite concrete, yet also quite exotic from the perspective of the mainstream culture – opens us up to feeling states that go beyond what the rational mind can explain or even comprehend.

And I like – no, love – that. In fact, I think that it’s an invaluable dimension of human experience that much of our social experience works – tragically – to trample right out of us.

Staying Grounded

That said, as I’ve become more involved in the yoga community and related worlds, I’ve also become newly aware of just how dangerous venturing into realms that I once laughingly dismissed as too woo can be.

Recent posts on Elephant and Recovering Yogi speak to this quite powerfully. There’ re accounts of spiritual seekers getting sucked into abusive relationships with predatory pseudo-gurus, becoming deeply involved in insular communities full of lies and manipulation, and clinging desperately to crazy beliefs that reinforce pathological psychological patterns. It’s all pretty disturbing, really, and nothing to take lightly.

The Serpent & the Tree (Carl Jung, The Red Book)

While each individual story will always be different, I can’t help but speculate that a good part of the reason that so much of this shit happens is that practices like yoga and meditation open up parts of our brains that are normally inactive and shut down. As this happens, we may have new access to spiritual experiences that are in fact highly valuable. But at the same time, it’s also true that whatever unresolved psychological issues and subconscious garbage we have (and most of us have plenty) are going to start bubbling up – and in some cases, erupting or even exploding.

If that’s happening, and you’re not solidly grounded, and perhaps even entangled with people primed to take you in unhealthy directions, then there’s a good chance of falling into some bad, at times even dangerous situations.

For this reason, I strongly believe that it would be helpful if the yoga community developed a much more active connection to relevant dimensions of Western psychology. This has already happened in the convert Buddhist community, where excellent work connecting meditation and psychotherapy has been going on for decades. In the yoga community, however, there’s much more of a default toward New Age thinking. Generally speaking, I think this is a problem.

So while I’ve found it enormously valuable to go beyond my old boundaries of what I used to write off as way too woo, I’ve also developed a new appreciation of just how treacherous these post-woo waters may be for many.

I do think that it’s important to cultivate what (for lack of a better term) can be called a more “spiritual” dimension in American yoga – and by extension, the culture more broadly. I also think, however, that we’d do well to be sure that such explorations into the woo stay psychologically grounded – preferably by developing stronger theoretical and practical alliances among interested practitioners, teachers, theoreticians, and clinicians.

There’s much valuable psychological and spiritual territory to explore through contemporary yoga and meditation practices. We need more than ungrounded New Age nostrums, however, to keep such work as safe and healthy as possible.

And of course, it never hurts to keep it profoundly simple, and Just Breathe.

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