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Exiting the Stage, But Leaving Their Mark

Yoga’s Court Jesters

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

It’s official:  The Babarrazzi – the self-styled court jesters of the American yoga scene – have called it quits.  The quirky – and shadowy — intellectual collective that made it oh-so-hip and fashionable to stigmatize American yoga teachers as unprincipled fame- and-fortune seekers – coining the term “yogilebrities” in the process – last week bid a fond farewell to the several hundred contributors – and thousands of readers — that regularly gravitated to their site.  The group – through its erstwhile spokesman and guru, Aghori Babarazzi —  gave no official reason for ceasing publication, other than to say that they were eager to move on to a new web project, It’s Aghorable, and urging their fellow-travelers to follow them there.

As an experiment in post-modern, deconstructionist blogging, The Babarrazzi may have had few antecedents – and even fewer successors.  Over the nearly two years of its celebrated existence, the site didn’t so much report on the latest developments in the bizarre and wacky world of American yoga as it did draw readers into a deeper philosophical reflection on the pernicious and insidious  dimensions of what Marx called “commodity fetishism” — and its impact on contemporary yoga culture.  Through thrice weekly blog postings that drew a bead on the wide-ranging techniques and linguistic gimmicks being used to advertise, market and sell yoga to middle class consumers, The Babarazzi raised important questions about what constitutes cultural and spiritual “authenticity” in the context of modern capitalism and whether the inner soul and substance of what was once a sacred mind-body practice could meaningfully survive under such an unchecked commercial onslaught.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the Babarazzi tended to reject the idea – still fashionable in conservative Hindu circles — of a “pure” and “pristine” yoga that should be protected or “rescued.”  And like good anarchist libertarians, they sometimes fulminated against those – myself included – who argued that contemporary yoga might be “reformed” and “regulated”.  Rather, the solution was simply to “do your own thing,” practicing yoga with more integrity with like-minded souls and leaving others to drop ecstasy at yoga rave parties, attend overpriced mindfulness retreats in exotic Third World getaways, or take yoga on the road like a traveling circus and medicine show.

Still, the Babarazzi showed no mercy when it came to lampooning these same practices.  While sparing many prominent male yoga innovators like Indian-born Bikram Choudhury (non-Whites were off-limits, it seems) and Anusara yoga founder John Friend, they seemed to take delight in subjecting up-and-coming female yoga superstars like Elena Brower and Kelly Morris (the latter a self-described “yoga shaman”) to relentless ridicule, parsing their mind-numbing New Age lectures for hidden spiritual “meanings” – only to conclude that they didn’t actually have any.  Much of what the Babarazzi drew upon for their darkly inspired commentary was already floating around the yoga blogosphere but in the hands of these mad alchemists it became a freshly concocted and deliciously mocking brew that could be sifted and savored, inspiring uncontrollable fits of laughter, then simply cast aside like stale and bitter wine.  Rarely – at least in yoga circles – have so many feasted so well.

No one really knows how many viewers actually visited the Babarazzi web site – not many, it appears.  Publicly available metrics suggest that few of their postings ever received more than a few thousands viewers.  And it was rare for readers themselves to post more than 35 comments on any one post.  However, the site’s influence among the yoga cogniscienti far surpassed its relatively narrow readership.   Many veteran yoga teachers read and contributed to the blog’s discussions, as did a number of the site’s “yogilebrity” targets, some of whom couldn’t seem to resist the additional publicity, even if it did little to burnish their image.

In fact, one of the more celebrated Babarazzi postings from the past year featured the group’s response to Ava Taylor, the head of YAMA, the yoga “talent agency” that helps yoga teachers brand and promote themselves.  It’s a measure of the Babarazzi’s influence – and the fear they inspired – that their blog postings often drew formal replies from figures like Taylor, who didn’t seem to realize that they were about to become more grist for the mill.  Taylor argued that The Babarazzi were “elitist yogis,” who were judging yoga teachers for trying to provide mainstream American culture with a constructive alternative role model to the likes of Lindsay Lohan.  As usual, the Babarazzi reply was brutal and succinct:  YAMA was actually promoting and entrenching the very media marketing culture that produced Lindsay Lohans to begin with.  They even plastered a giant photo of Taylor on the web site, giving her what the Babarazzi liked to call the “star treatment.”  Needless to say, Taylor was never heard from again.

Kudos aside, the Babarazzi may well have failed in their larger objective – to stigmatize and isolate commercial yoga in the hopes of reducing its influence.   In this, they probably underestimated just how powerful the imperative is to exploit yoga and other “mindful” practices to sell the masses a wide range of goods and services far beyond the narrow confines of yoga itself.   And in aligning themselves so closely with the rest of the yoga blogosphere, the Babarazzi may have blunted their own critical edge.  Many once independent blog sites like Yoga Dork are eagerly generating their own version of commercial yoga “buzz” and for them, the Babarazzi came as something of an unwelcome reminder of their long-forgotten past as industry watchdogs and keepers of the yoga flame.

In the end, despite fostering a culture of intellectual resistance among some important yoga influencers, the Babarazzi never proved to be much more than a source of titillating amusement and comic relief – and a most welcome one.  In this, they fulfilled the classic role of court jesters.  Pointing fingers at the nobles, embarrassing them with verbal tricks and word play, yet leaving the larger system of power untouched.  Without some kind of collective praxis, it’s hard to imagine even insightful, cutting-edge blogging slowing down the relentless flow of commerce.  Compelling?  Certainly.  But like so much in contemporary yoga, still just another elegantly proffered pose.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com