Yoga & Spiritual Materialism

My first brush with Yoga was not with a yoga mat in asana practice but rather with Yogic philosophy. I became very interested in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and other sacred texts. I was also really into Buddhism. After reading every book His Holiness the Dalai Lama ever wrote, I moved on to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Mahayana Sutras, and the Tripitaka. I had a seemingly endless appetite for anything related to Eastern philosophy.  I also got really jazzed about the Quakers, went to a few meetings, and marveled at their silence.  

What did I do with all of this sacred knowledge? Well, I used it to sound terribly clever and enlightened at cocktail parties, of course! It was also employed in the offering of unsolicited advice. I started a lot of sentences with, “As the Dalai Lama says…”. I also felt very smart a few times while watching Jeopardy. So, basically, it served to make me feel like I was a deep and knowledgeable person, who took life seriously (with an implied accusation that others did not).

Chogyam Trungpa wrote in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism “Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego's display, part of the  grandiose quality of ego.  We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as "spiritual" people.” 

That pretty much described me perfectly. It would be years, and very difficult circumstances, before I faced my ego and began any sort of genuine spiritual journey, converting some of my knowledge into wisdom through experience and practice. This required humility and a willingness to be vulnerable, and it will be many lifetimes, I suspect, of that work for me. 

In that same book, Trungpa writes: “Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality.”  We can very easily get caught up thinking that we are developing spiritually when instead we are just using spiritual techniques to make ourselves feel good, to help project a carefully crafted image of ourselves, the mask we show to the world.   

Yoga is particularly susceptible to being used in this way. Our culture treats it as a commodity to be consumed, preferably while wearing very expensive yoga pants. The yoga industry is estimated to be a $27 billion per year business.  That’s a lot of money spent by a lot of people on yoga mats and clothes and books and retreats and classes. That’s a lot of money spent trying to attain the “yoga lifestyle”, something that is packaged and sold as a clear path to fulfillment. Want a better body? Try yoga! Want to be less anxious? Try yoga! Want to feel better about yourself? Try yoga! 

Of course, those of us who practice Yoga regularly know that those promises are true. You will feel better in body, mind and spirit. But should Yoga be just another thing to make us feel better? Should it be yet another thing we consume?  

Swami Abishiktananda tells us that what really matters is this one question: are our spiritual practices, our prayers, our yoga, transforming us into people of love? 

So, are we wearing our Yoga practice like a mask? Does it confirm to us and to the world that we are a good person? Does it set us apart from “those people” who do not practice? 

Or are we allowing it to transform us? Are we allowing it to drive us towards a place of humility and vulnerability, where we can deeply touch our humanity and in so doing touch the humanity in others?  

Life is messy. People are complex. Anything we consume as a means to make life more manageable or people less mystifying can only do so much. When we stop consuming Yoga and instead start living Yoga, it is then that we free ourselves from the trap of spiritual materialism and start the work of harnessing the ego so we can truly connect as embodied people of Love.