Who’s Trolling Who? A Post about Post-Post-lineage yoga

In Post-lineage yoga, PhD candidate Theo Wildcroft tries to explain a commitment to producing a 100,000 word thesis for the Humanities and Social Sciences, amounting to ‘nearly 300 pages’.

On reading ‘there’s more reading of original research by other academics than you can imagine’, gives the immediate impression of an author beset by deep pessimism towards the intellectual condition of her coterie. This alleged intellectual poverty of her target audience is quite an admission although it makes perfect sense when we encounter the final appeal is not to the cognitive, but to the readers emotions.

Theo's demand is what she calls Trolls to leave her alone to complete her thesis before making any snap and unjustified judgments. Fair enough, but what is euphemistically described by Theo as a 'research population' is so wildly parochial, it's hard to take the shushing quite as seriously as Theo would prefer:

‘a small but coherent group of yoga teachers and bhakti musicians, who are unlike any others. They come together every year in a series of small summer events across the South West of the UK’

Almost all tutor training franchises trip over themselves in claiming to be diverse, even when metrics used for measuring diversity are unavailable, or indeed explicitly contradict the claims of diversity, as one yoga tutor intimated in an email to me in response to this post:

An idyllic week camping in a field in Somerset with festival in midsummer doesn't reflect Yoga in the South West of England at all. I went once, and it may have changed from when I was there, but it used to be that many people were from London and other cities. Theres a big bhakti, hippy vibe. It isn't everyone's cup of (herbal) tea.

At a distance, all the hand-wringing about diversity tends to attract people that resemble each other quite closely. Generally, what is observed in these settings is a format appealing to above-average educated, physically able, pink, pragmatic humanists enjoying the market-led eclecticism of come-lately, somaesthetic enfranchisement of one kind or another which they call 'yoga'. What is of particular interest (and predictable contention) is we are told, the research group members have ‘moved beyond a place where lineage was the sole source of authority’.

What will? (or indeed can?) be said (if anything?) about the locations of such utopian ('post-lineage') communities that hasn't already been rehearsed by the very many festivals providing the carnivalesque aesthetic of music, poetry, and drug use, where the heroes take pleasure in just about anything they can get their fingers into, just like the characters in Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road'? The idea that authority relations can reach such a progressive state of affairs, where lineage (apparently) no longer has anything important to say is bewilderingly naive, and bound to antagonize practitioners who identify with a lineage. Truly, for anyone that's read anything after the beatniks about the imperatives of early childhood development, or human sociability, or perhaps lived around some of the most anarchically constituted communes, such a claim would require I think nothing less than a racist ideology of some sort.

It is possibly better not to wait for data to come in about these mythical exemplars of radical freedom when the implication is more traditional settings of religious practice, places of pilgrimage, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries and Sikh Gurdwaras are not as important in the marketplace of ideas and practices as this particular research group Theo prefers to study. Practitioners not included in this study are perhaps too caught up with ‘cultural baggage’ for post-thinkers to obsess about for their PhD's? If we are seeking out only confirmation for our beliefs in our own particular, utopian community, and not the contradictions, how can we admit data that might support an alternate thesis, a thesis based on closer correspondence to the social facts?

If we want to write a story that isn't based just on a highly subjective set of value judgments, or prejudice in less generous parlance, we need to be open to questioning our theories and our methods, ideally before we commit to publication.

In this world, where one womans ‘cultural trappings’ are another womans cultural heritage, it's surprising how bias and insensitivity can still present itself as a learning opportunity in academia. Yes, and that is a kind of cultural authority too, the cultural authority of people that believe they can move 'beyond' the past, beyond the future? beyond time itself?!

It's possible that books about the level of bloodletting that has historically advanced Western culture may be entirely absent from Theo's bookshelf1), or perhaps she does have them but they are just gathering dust on what I can only imagine is a monstrously over-sized set of bookshelves?

The idea that ‘post-lineage’ communities of practice / knowledge have attained an elusive and somewhat moot status of symmetrical authority relations denies the power asymmetries imported into all social groups from 'outside', sometimes naturally as a result of perceived expertise or competence2), but very often through unchecked privilege and embedded prejudice. These power asymmetries are of course also foundational in relations between a PhD candidate, and their supervisors who have the power to dismiss the work as insubstantial and perhaps derivative of similar projects.

A candidates's grasp of public speaking, cultural capital and ability to write fluently are perhaps the key factors in the configuration of knowledge production in European academies, but this is not so much in yoga practice found south of the Global North's power and influence.

It is no coincidence that people with a fondness for academic authority are themselves culturally anchored in ideas that explain why the academies themselves are embroiled in contentious, postcolonial critques. So far from being the neutral arbiters of reliable knowledge as Theo perhaps imagines they might be: Are PhD supervisors really in a position to indeed ask 'difficult questions' of themselves and their institutions in today's market-led research academy?

The alternate hypothesis, which is: “there is no ‘crisis of authority in yoga’” is supported by the easily available observations of millions of people seeking out, and relying on validated source texts that provide a record of a reasonably well established, although not very precise provenance going back over thousands of years. There is of course, considerable evidence already stacked up in favour of the alternate hypothesis, which strongly suggests an absence of a crisis of authority, except perhaps in the target research group.

This perhaps tells us more about the condition of the research group, and the bias, weaknesses and limitations of the concept of 'post-lineage yoga' than it does about yoga more generally.

A more interesting research question would therefore be: 'What can we learn from a small group of yoga teachers and bhakti musicians in the South West of the UK?'

My answer would be: 'Not much we don't already know'.

What Theo does have right in the post however, is how they see words like ‘religioning’ becoming a verb from of the noun’, (religion).

If language is important, and I think it is, the conversion from a mass noun yoga to the verb form is already underway with brands like ‘yoga’d up’. But this is hardly enough to justify a PhD thesis. There is already a great blog post about how that conversion takes place in modern English.

The post is perhaps at it's most overbearing when Theo boasts: ‘I have great academic allies all over Europe in particular’, when it would be more interesting, and far more impressive to hear how many non-academic allies Theo has in Bihar, or Cambodia for example.

If we like the idea of ‘post-lineage yoga' responding to an invisible 'crisis' in authority structures in yoga, then we would at least need a few good examples of what an authority structure in yoga actually looks like, before we tilt our research in response. As an addendum, there isn't much that PhD’s in political or social science can’t tell us about authority structures that hasn't already been established.

Theo’s own expertise in ‘the study of informal and community learning’ does seem relevant at face value, but some expertise in information science, cultural studies, logic, post-colonial studies and a lot more besides would also be a prerequisite in supporting such an audacious claim of a 'going beyond' lineage. A study about a few people feeling they are 'going beyond' lineage, beyond the past, time and space in South-West England, without ingesting mind-altering chemicals simply doesn't do it for me.

So, let me respond again, as simply as I can:

  1. The post is about a thesis that describes a specific community which makes drawing broad conclusions about large populations and ‘authority structures’ inconclusive and weak.
  2. The post is about a thesis, ‘post-lineage yoga’ which can be commonly construed as a format that has gone ‘beyond’ lineage when the evidence suggests that lineage is an important ‘touchstone’ of authenticity for individuals with obvious connections to Indian culture and those with none. The latter is perhaps exemplified in the extreme case of tech startup company Headspace attracting capital investment of $30M on the fabulously self-serving idea that the app is based on ‘technology that is over 3,000 years old’.

The term ‘post-lineage yoga’ may or may not ‘shift the authority for deciding good yoga practice away from the absolute power of previous masters, to small community groups of teachers’ but if it does, it will be contingent on:

  • delegitimizing claims of millions of people connected to Indian culture, on the grounds of self-identity
  • disenfranchising those that aren’t, from connecting to it in better faith, on the grounds of self-determination

I just don’t see the demand for either. PhD supervisors have no need to care, but what is unfortunate is that work like this is inevitably a target for haranguing by people that probably aren't keen to hear from any more european scholars that their cherished heritage will be irelevant in the future, or tutoring franchises that like to connect to those traditions in their marketing materials.

It's unsurprising that the thesis will be met with some hostility from people with no obvious connection to Indian heritage too. Our natural curiosity in understanding the universe may well involve people wanting to read material like the vedas, which under the exemplary understanding of the research population are being likened to people ‘living in the past’, perhaps under a fascistic regime of caste-induced, Indian nationalism? This account hardly explains the high esteem such literature attracts across many disciplines from philosophy to computational linguistics all around the world.

I agree with Theo, the thesis doesn’t look like the start of any revolution, but it does sound like bigotry, a prejudice against the past, against the future and against Indian culture too and if it is, that would explain why many people are so indignant.

This project must be about something Theo thinks no-one is paying enough attention to. But a quick test to see whether this idea has any importance beyond the hair-splitting precision of academia, might be to ask a local yoga tutor if they think yoga is over 3000 years old, and if she thinks it is, how they feel they honor that tradition?

The answer will be something like - ‘Oh Hi, and thanks for your question… yes… it’s from India but I don’t really know much about the religious side… I tend to just teach the postures, people like it you know?’

If that sounds something like an important ‘cultural phenomenon’ worthy of a PhD thesis then I'll need to recallibrate my understanding of what a PhD stands for, because it sounds more like brute laziness to me.

To end where we began, which is a study into authority relations and yoga, the final word has to be about who gets to say who is trolling who?

The idea that ‘post-lineage yoga’ is being used ‘quietly’ seems immediately suspect, just in terms of the heat it has generated online, let’s turn to the definition of what makes an internet troll?

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll's amusement.” The Internet

For a project that encourages millions of people to go ’beyond’ thousands of years of culture based on a single study of a tiny group of people meeting in the South West of England, it’s hard to take Theo’s accusations against Hindu’s and others as trolls seriously.

The question we all need to ask ourselves about european research on yoga is:

Who’s trolling who?

E.g. HAWKSLEY, H. (2010). Democracy kills: what's so good about the vote? https://nls.ldls.org.uk/welcome.html?ark:/81055/vdc_100040076122.0x000001

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