There comes a time in every middle-aged, middle-class Briton’s life when the question has to be asked: yoga, Pilates, or both? And it’s not just this cramped corner of the globe that’s obsessed with stretching – almost any affluent society comes with its own burgeoning class of personal trainers, mixed martial arts specialists, masseurs, and assorted other professional palpers, prodders, and whip-crackers – together with any number of other variations on that hoary old favourite: the PE instructor.
Under neoliberal conditions, of course, our bodies are at best instruments, at worst commodities, and for the most part: both. Whereas in totalitarian regimes they belong to the state. North Koreans and Chinese turn out for synchronised calisthenics as a matter of course – we attend expensive classes, or one-on-one sessions: they do it for free, in the road and en masse.
The key issue here is discipline: they’re so regimented already, a little more marching is simply par for the course. Whereas we’re so lax and wayward, the only way we can stomach the necessary measures to fend off morbid obesity is by paying through the nose. And then, as we adopt the downward-facing dog position, putting it in someone else’s arse, while an angry millennial with threaded eyebrows and a bleached blond feather-cut hisses at us to breathe.
Why angry? Because there’s no one angrier and more uptight than a westerner who practices a philosophy based on bodily attunement and the renunciation of desire. Yes, yes, I know – yoga, together with a lot of eastern systems of physical training, can be completely divorced from any religious context, but this is the vector by which it reached us, and the reason why it appeals to people who really want to disembowel others, rather than teach them to flex their pelvic floor.
As part of the general reassessment of cultural influence in the postcolonial era, yoga instructors from South Asia have complained about these angry occidental instructors – which is fair enough: the one time I was instructed in yoga by an actual Sinhalese Buddhist monk it was completely different. Bhande carried with him at all times his catechism: an ancient, wood-covered copy of the Diamond Sutra in Pali.
There were no wind chimes or electro-incense burners – no beige drawstring pantaloons, or ankhs-on-a-thong, either. He told us very ordinary-looking middle-class, middle-aged folk what to do – we did it. Pronto.
Why? Because he radiated calm, humour, and self-possession. There’s that, and I suppose another factor was all the people present had made the decision to go on a spiritual retreat, and were following appropriate rules: no impure thoughts, no intoxicants, no meat, no talking, and obviously no crimes, either violent or pecuniary.
I found almost all of these easy enough to follow, given we were plotted up on a remote Hebridean island – with the exception of the impure thoughts: Bhande was just so beautifully copper-brown and bouncy: whenever he leapt up in the air as part of his yoga instruction, his robe fell open and I could see his smooth, round breasts.
After a few days of this I felt I had to fess up to him – so went to find him after the three-hour afternoon meditation session. I found him in the communal dining room, where wraith-like figures of a certain age (the permanent members of this Buddhist monastic community), wafted about carrying huge bowls of rice and vegetables, propelled by their own suppressed anger and unrestrained afflatus. I laid my lust on Bhande, who was shovelling up a hayrick-sized portion of bean sprouts, and he just laughed… and laughed…
And laughed some more. Which was surely the right response, and proof-positive that it’s precisely the elimination of the religious element from yoga that turns the happy baby pose into a disturbing paedophile one. What to do? Obviously, shift over to Pilates, which was developed by its eponymous creator in an internment camp on the Isle of Man during the first world war.
Yes, Pilates is really S&M yoga for the angry westerner – and all western yoga teachers should be retrained accordingly. Pilates’s alternative name for his system of pulling and pushing our wanting flesh, was “contrology”, while the principal apparatus he devised – one which is still in use today – he dubbed “the reformer”.
So, plenty of aggressivity actually built in from the get-go, and no need for that worrying degree of repression that – combined with an economic system that pits downward-facing dog against downward-facing dog – effectively weaponises overly-limber westerners, rendering them far more dangerous than those duff missiles Kim Jong Un’s regime keeps launching.