More meditations on mindfulness and yoga, this time with Josh Berson

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I’ve reached a point in my yoga and meditation practice where I’m more and more interested in what they might mean in relation to where I fit in the world.

Here’s an example. I believed that I took up yoga and began meditating regularly around 10 years ago for purely personal reasons. Now I’m not so sure.

When I’m trying to shed light on things I do that I don’t usually think too much about, I need someone to help me explore a fresh perspective. I asked the author Josh Berson if he’d like to have an open-ended conversation about wellness, mindfulness and yoga and he agreed.

Josh writes “about how human beings form relationships with other living things and how our bodies are shaped by where we live and what we do. [He gives] special attention to scale – how the intimate (eating, sleeping, moving, sensing) relates to the global (social acceleration, climate change), the deep past to the imminent future.”

He’s also probably the only person I know who can use abstract and academic terms in conversation so naturally that I can understand what he means. We started by talking about wellness.

Why do you think many of us are so concerned about wellness today, Josh?

I think it’s partly to do with the nature of work these days, especially for knowledge workers. People have to actively go out and seek ways to self-consciously re-establish an awareness of themselves as bodies. They’re aware that they’re lacking a physical outlet.

So, is it just about us economically privileged knowledge-workers who can afford yoga classes and gym memberships?

Strictly speaking, knowledge working is actually no longer a privileged kind of work. Increasingly, the capacity to work carefully with one’s body is becoming a form of privilege in itself. We’re seeing that the leisure to cultivate artisanal practices and forms of labour is becoming a way of distancing oneself from things like the ubiquity of technology and other forms of mediation in which people feel themselves enmeshed.

Would you say wellness is a form of empowerment or of control?

I really don’t believe there are puppet masters promoting wellness as forms of control. It’s also too crude to call wellness an instrument of social control or purely a money-making exercise. But, at the same time, I do think it’s dangerous to suggest that things like wellness or mindfulness can, on their own, enable people to do things like break cycles of poverty in low-income societies.

What about mindfulness?

I’d start by saying I think it’s rooted in the desire to extract the functional essence from Buddhism meditation, which dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Mindfulness apps are just the latest manifestation of this.

Having said that, I do think it’s great that the techniques of meditation are being more widely disseminated. If people can learn techniques that enable them to manage stress or distress and become more other-directed and less likely to be violent or unjust, that’s good. But I also think they’re often treated as a panacea. For instance, in the case of mindfulness-based education as a form of impulse control. This ignores all the other factors that might be shaping a child’s development. The other thing is that we’re yet to see conclusive evidence that practicing mindfulness has the effects on households and communities that proponents sometimes assume it does. Ultimately, though, if it’s helpful to the individual who am I to criticize?

Let’s turn to yoga now. I believe you practice.

Increasingly, it would be difficult to call what I do exactly yoga. I do things every day that have grown out of a long-term yoga practice I began back in 2001 in New York, at the time when yoga was catching on.

Why did you get involved in yoga?

I found the physical benefits to be just great. I also enjoyed being part of a community that seemed to value a slower pace of life and being other-directed. Feeling supported by a community whose values were oppositional to my professional community made the posture practice of yoga really important for me. I associated the practice with a complex of attitudes and feelings.

Now I feel I’ve moved on. I do things that have come out of my yoga practice – balancing and meditation, for instance – but I’ve come to value forms of exercise that are painful but which don’t last that long.

You’re interested in the “deep past and imminent future”. What do you think yoga might become?

I don’t see yoga as single, unitary thing but as collection of practices that are constantly shifting. I can tell you that I think forms of physical culture that can be exoticized in some ways, associated with an other – and I’d definitely put yoga in that category – will continue to be important. But I think the exotic dividend of the yoga experience, its association with an ancient, distant, mystical other, is going to fade as the balance of world power shifts to centres that were formerly exotic.

So, there will be a denaturing of the spiritual dimensions that previous generations of north-Atlantic practitioners have associated with yoga. At the same time, its association with values associated with the wellness complex, such as stillness, quiet and time with oneself, will become increasingly valuable.

Why do you think this will be the case?

Wealth will come to be defined as the ability to cut ourselves off from connectedness, from the internet and especially social media. Remoteness will become the new luxury. Read Pico Iyer’s New York Times article “The Joy of Quiet”.

Thanks, Josh. I will.

“The Joy of Quiet” was published in 2011, three years after I began practicing yoga and meditating. Since then, the situation it describes has intensified. Faced with constantly chattering electronic tentacles reaching ever further into our lives, the prospect of being offline and unconnected has become more and more appealing, if not necessary for many of us.

This is perhaps because we feel we’re not sure who we are anymore. Iyer quotes pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan who wrote “When things come at you very fast, naturally, you lose touch with yourself.”

Wellness, mindfulness and yoga all offer the promise of connecting us to a deeper sense of who we really are, even if that’s not actually the case. So it’s only logical that they’ve become so popular.

But the rise and rise of practices that claim to open the door to stillness is, I think, about more than just a fundamental need. If I’m honest with myself, there’s also an element of fashion involved, of aspiration.

It’s this that contributes to my feeling that my life is a little out of balance. And balance is what it’s really all about. I, and possibly you, need to remember that “right mind” is only one of the precepts of the Buddhist noble eight-fold path.

It’s as much about doing as being.

David Holzer