Academic Loons of the Week: The Yoga and the Commissar

Tough to decide on who gets the honor of our Academic Absurdity of the Week award. I was inclined to give it to the ingenious author of “Humor and Parody in Finnish Rap Music Videos,” since I’m still trying to recover from the mistake of listening to a Finnish rock band in a park in Helsinki last summer. (Their “music” sounded to me like a whale being waterboarded.) I can’t even imagine what “Finnish Rap Music” must be like.

But in fact we have a tie this week. Who knew that yoga is not just a cultural appropriation, but some kind of tool for “neoliberal” oppression? With apologies to Arthur Koestler’s The Yogi and the Commissar, herewith two new entries from our would-be academic commissars about yoga. The first is an actual dissertation from Duke, naturally:

Tightrope Walkers: An Ethnography of Yoga, Precariousness, and Privilege in California’s Silicon Valley

Bar, Neta


This dissertation offers an account of precarious neoliberal subjectivity by examining the suffering of the privileged as it relates to the practice of Western yoga in California’s Silicon Valley. Yoga culture underlines creating connections and community. But my research, based on twenty-seven month fieldwork in an epicenter of the global high-tech economy, reveals that yoga practitioners actually seek to experience and create “space.” I suggest that yoga practitioners often cultivate an interiority aimed at giving themselves room from the judgment and expectations of others.

This dissertation portrays the complicated lives of people who are more privileged than most. In so doing, this study questions the separation between “real” and “privileged” suffering; and it explores the ethical and political implications of the problems of the well-off. I suggest that the destructive aspects of neoliberal capitalism and late modernity do not hurt only the marginalized traditionally studied by anthropologists, but also–albeit in very different ways–those who supposedly benefit from them. The social scenes of modern yoga are sites of ambivalently embodied neoliberal logic, where clusters of promises and recipes for an “art of living” are critical about aspects of capitalism while enjoying its comfort. Even though the yogic ethic and politics do not adhere to the anthropological ideals of political action, Western yoga is often an ethical practice that does not simply reproduce neoliberal logic, but also shifts it slightly from within. By creating disruption of subjectivity and gaining space from old and habitual ways of being, yoga sometimes opens up a new territory of change and reflection.

Not to be outdone, here’s a contrary take that yoga might be a tool of resistance against neoliberal oppression. I think.

The Neoliberal Yogi and the Politics of Yoga

Farah Godrej


Can the theory and practice of the yogic tradition serve as a challenge to dominant cultural and political norms in the Western world? In this essay I demonstrate that modern yoga is a creature of fabrication, while arguing that yogic norms can simultaneously reinforce and challenge the norms of contemporary Western neoliberal societies. In its current and most common iteration in the West, yoga practice does stand in danger of reinforcing neoliberal constructions of selfhood. However, yoga does contain ample resources for challenging neoliberal subjectivity, but this requires reading the yogic tradition in a particular way, to emphasize certain philosophical elements over others, while directing its practice toward an inward-oriented detachment from material outcomes and desires. Contemporary claims about yoga’s counterhegemonic status often rely on exaggerated notions of its former “purity” and “authenticity,” which belie its invented and retrospectively reconstructed nature. Rather than engaging in these debates about authenticity, scholars and practitioners may productively turn their energies toward enacting a resistant, anti-neoliberal practice of yoga, while remaining self-conscious about the particularity and partiality of the interpretive position on which such a practice is founded.

As always, yours for the bargain price of just $36! When you think about it, though, you really wonder what took lefty academic so long to get on to yoga as a topic, since it involves lots of heavy breathing and twisting into unrecognizable shapes.