Since the election of Donald Trump, popular interest and investment in “self-care” products and practices such as yoga have surged, as many people seek respite from a hostile political climate. Attacking a yoga studio violently undermines an especially important source of solace in 2018 and gives newly fatal form to an antipathy with deep historical origins.
Yoga is rooted in Eastern spiritual traditions, and in the United States it is practiced overwhelmingly by women as a form of exercise, and it has long been portrayed on the far right as a threat to Christianity and patriarchy. That long-standing antipathy turned lethal when Scott Paul Beierle fatally shot two women and wounded several others at Tallahassee Hot Yoga.
Yoga is everywhere today, but that has not always been the case. Nineteenth-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga and Hinduism as forms of resistance to mainstream market capitalism. A few decades later, free thinker and self-appointed “Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga” Ida B. Craddock regularly offended anti-pornography regulator Anthony Comstock by celebrating the occult and promoting spiritual eroticism.
This anti-establishment practice expanded in the 1960s. The Immigration Act of 1965 unwittingly opened American shores to thousands of South Asians, including yoga luminaries such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Their presence confirmed yoga’s exotic image while also making it more widely accessible.
Yoga became deeply ingrained in the counterculture, along with activities such as encounter groups, communal living, sexual experimentation and spiritual seeking. In one personal ad, an “Eastern lover man” sought “women/couple for fun, games & yoga exper. Marital status/age unimp. All satisfaction.” By 1972, yoga had seeped into progressive white culture, becoming such a popular trope that Mad magazine listed “taking up yoga” as a defining “Liberal” trait, along with feeding pets organic foods, “walking around nude in front of the children” and “making it a habit to call Negroes ‘blacks.’ ”
For women of the era, yoga could help connect the celebration of the female body with feminist liberation. Child-rearing expert Jeannine Medvin, for example, presented prenatal yoga as a powerful way to unlock women’s feminine energy for erotic pleasure. In her 1974 book, she championed yoga as a pathway to experiencing the “orgiastic pleasure” of motherhood, from becoming acquainted with one’s own body (through a form of hatha yoga learned from a rare lineage of female teachers) to achieving extended orgasmic breast-feeding.
But yoga, which had attracted 5 million participants by the mid-1970s, also stirred criticism. The Christian Crusade painted yoga as part of “an evil tide sweeping America,” lumping it in with “witchcraft, sorcery, astrology, tarot cards, hypnotism, and spiritism.” Unconvinced that yoga could be anything but occult, some conservatives asked dubiously: “Can it be picked up and laid down without scarring the soul?”
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, liberals, too, could be skeptical of the hedonistic, New Age culture in which yoga was situated. Such practices embodied what historian Christopher Lasch famously disdained as the “prevailing passion … to live for yourself, not for your predecessors of posterity” as a hallmark of “the age of narcissism” he believed defined the 1970s.
While the practice of yoga was ideological for some, those who responded to what Cosmopolitan in 1972 called the “siren song of yoga” frequently did so for pragmatic reasons that had little to do with spiritual journeys or subversive politics. Rather, for many Americans, yoga lost its countercultural cast and became enfolded into an emergent fitness culture. In the mid-1960s, YMCAs began listing innocuous class offerings such as “Yoga for Health” and “Yoga Stretching.” Studio-based yoga classes could provide a “safe space” for women who didn’t want to exercise on open gym floors or join the growing ranks of outdoor runners for fear of being “cheered along” by men.
Yoga meant health and liberation for many women, but not always in a distinctly feminist sense. Because of its “slow and graceful, almost dancelike” movements, “yoga is a natural exercise for women,” yoga studio owner Ina Marx explained, attracting mostly female clients who thrilled at this admittedly essentialist but rare opportunity to be active and “in their bodies” in the pre-Title IX era. Yet there were conservative undertones to the practice as well. Marx also separated couples during class “because men don’t like to be put to shame by their wives,” who often excelled.
This mainstreaming of yoga-as-exercise can make the idea of bitter, ideological resistance to yoga in 2018 seem strange. After all, yoga’s cultural reach has become so extensive that the Obamas made classes on the White House lawn part of official Easter Egg Roll programming. Some conservative Christians have even created programs such as PraiseMoves and Christoga that replace references to the spirit and self-actualization with celebrations of Jesus.
Yet on the far right, yoga has remained threatening. In 2012, when the Encinitas, Calif., public school district implemented a yoga curriculum, Christian conservative activists sued the school system, alleging that it was violating the separation of church and state by publicly funding what they perceived as a pagan belief system. Ultimately, the court decided that the program could stay — if it replaced the Sanskrit names of poses with cutesy labels such as “crisscross applesauce.”
In dark corners of the Internet, the relative social acceptance and expansion of yoga culture has intensified the rage of men who perceive female strength and self-possession as inherently offensive. They see “Femoids” — an alt-right slur for women — wearing tightfitting yoga pants as taunting them; after all, they believe, they should lay claim to women’s sexuality. The yoga-fitness context is crucial, too: A woman working out transgresses traditional ideas about passive femininity by unapologetically inhabiting and strengthening her body, and by daring to do so in public. What’s more, these women are also engaging in a foreign spiritual practice long associated with challenging repressive sexual norms, stoking misogynist anger with xenophobic resentment.
Of course, yoga studios have never been unproblematic utopias, feminist or otherwise, and the community has been especially shaken by sexual harassment revelations in recent years. Indeed, many hot-yoga studios such as the Tallahassee franchise where the tragedy transpired on Nov. 2 were renamed as a way to distance themselves from Bikram Chowdhury, the heated-yoga impresario who has been accused of being a serial rapist. But there is no question that when Beierle turned that Friday-night yoga class into a bloodbath, we crossed a threshold into newly tragic terrain where it makes perfect, perverse sense that one of the spaces that have provided particular solace in our political moment would also become the target of the intense, ambient hostility so many seek to escape — even for just an hour on the mat.