Breathless (All’s Well That Ends Well)
By Ed Staskus
America’s greatness is premised on open competition and the profit motive, in other words, capitalism. In the past the fundamentals of capitalism were production and trade. In the modern world the keystones are CEO’s, movie stars, and sports.
Competitive sports hew to the original and still abiding spirit of capitalism, which is that everybody loves a winner.
Sports are an essential avatar of capitalism. That is why they are more popular than, say, ballet or book clubs. “Sport is a capitalist competition,” said the philosopher Ljubodrag Simonovix, a former star player for the national basketball team of Yugoslavia in the 1970s.
“It corresponds to the market economy and the absolutized principle of profit.”
But, sports matter in America not because of their impact on regional and local economies. In a society that is individualized and even to some extent atomized they generate expressions of enthusiasm and unity in their communities.
The professional sports sector represents annual revenue in the range of $50 to $80 billion in the United States, according to the International Association of Sports Economists. This is in an economy that’s almost $15 trillion in size.
“It’s a very small part of the economic output of the United States,” said Andrew Zimbalist, Professor of Economics at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. “One can easily explain the interest in having professional sports teams as primarily social and cultural in nature. People in America certainly enjoy and love sports.”
A widespread adoption of yogic principles would throw sports for a loss, since an essential component of the practice is non-competition. For example, tapas, one of the niyamas, refers to “keeping the body fit, or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show,” writes William Doran in The Eight Limbs. It doesn’t mean being fit so you can slam-dunk or stiff-arm someone in your way. Instead of grasping after Lombardi trophies and big paydays, yoga’s physicality is wedded to its philosophy, intended for the expansion of awareness and consciousness.
Hatha yoga is non-competitive. The practice is personal, played out within the individual, not played on a team on a field facing an enemy opponent. The Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem from the second century BC often cited within yoga culture, is about this cognitive orientation, and whether the struggle to make sense of the world is primarily an internal or external one.
Yoga is a collaboration of the body, mind, and spirit. Sports are a zero-sum game. There are no winners or losers in yoga. There are only winners and losers in sports. Yoga is first and foremost about a specific person pursuing the practice. Sports are always about the “other” through whom one is defined.
“The only things that matter in yoga practice are you, exactly as you are right then, yourself, your breath, your thoughts, and if you are practicing on one, your mat,” says Heidi Kristoffer of Strala Yoga in New York City. “To be sure, no one else matters.”
Sports are always about the short-term goal of winning right now. No one loves a loser. Yoga is about folding all its aspects into the broader tradition of self-inquiry.
Not only would the nationwide practice of yoga probably obviate sports, emptying our arenas and stadiums, and KOing up to $80 billion in economic impact, it would knock the legs out from an enterprise that underscores many of the premises that gird our society. Without the lure of winning and the goad of failure, sports would cease to be relevant. If sports became irrelevant in America, capitalism itself could become the next victim.
Capitalism is the great engine that drives the United States. It was in America in the latter half of the 19th century that “the tendencies of Western capitalism could find fullest and most uncontrolled expression” writes the economic historian William Parker.
Capitalism’s basic characteristics are the private ownership of the means of production, social classes organized to facilitate the accumulation of profit by private owners, and the production of commodities for sale. All capitalist economies are commercial, although not all commercial economies are capitalist.
I own, therefore I am, is the sound bite of capitalism.
The United States is a commercialized society. The creation and expansion of the modern business corporation is one of our most notable achievements. In America economic power dominates. We conceive of ourselves as producers and sellers. As such, this makes for several problems. “In a productive society the superiority of things produced is the measure of success. In a commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success,” wrote the English historian and social theorist Hilaire Belloc.
Capitalism is as much, if not more, about amassing wealth as it is about serving men’s needs.
“Capitalism has turned our society into a commercial society, a society inclined to measure everything by a money standard,” writes Thomas Storck of the Center for Morality in Public Life. “Our modern world, and especially the United States, has elevated the acquisition of wealth to such a point that it tends to distort almost all social relations. Capitalism, the separation of ownership from work, of economic activity from serving man’s needs, is at the root of this.”
Capitalism’s problems are many, including that it tends to degrade the conditions of its own production, constantly seeking to increase profits. It works to expand without end in order to fulfill its reason for being, justifying all the means at its disposal to monopolize its market. Lastly, it polarizes the rich and poor, a process in the United States that has accelerated since the late 1960s. According to the Census Bureau the common index of inequality in America rose to an all-time high in 2011.
The yoga project does not reject goal-oriented activities or success, nor concern with outcomes. It does reject focusing on outcomes.
“Money cannot buy me everything, “ said Swami Tyagananda, the head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. “It can buy me ‘stuff’ but not happiness, peace of mind, or a loving relationship with my family and friends, and stress-free life. If success is measured not simply in terms of wealth, then one’s life becomes more meaningful. If my answer is only in terms of dollars, then I am in trouble.”
Commercial activities, sales goals and success, profits and wealth building are not in and of themselves anathema to yoga. Rejecting success and the fruits of success are not its mantra. However, the competitive pressure of making more and more money, always maximizing the gap between cost and price, focusing on extracted profits as a matter of life and death, which are central to capitalism, are contrary to the maxims of yoga.
“Selfishness is the root of all bondage,” wrote Swami Vivekananda.
Santosha, one of the niyamas, means to take from the marketplace and life only what is necessary, not exploiting others. “It means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don’t have,” writes William Doran in The Eight Limbs. Aparigraha, one of the yamas, counsels possessing only what we have fairly earned, not hoarding our possessions, and letting go of attachment.
“If we take more, we are exploiting someone else,” writes William Doran.
Capitalism is inherently exploitive, as seen through the lens of the labor theory of value, a view supported by both classical economists like Adam Smith and radicals like Karl Marx. The practice of yoga neutralizes the desire to acquire and hoard wealth. The ultimate aim of capitalism is to make 100% profits, or, in other words, get everything in exchange for nothing. The goal of yoga practice is to get nothingness, or the here and now right now, in exchange for everything.
According to the Bhagavad Gita yoga practice is not about gaining material ease. The ultimate purpose of yoga is consciousness.
“When the consciousness moves towards an object, that is called bondage,” wrote Swami Krishnananda in The Study and Practice of Yoga. “Consciousness should rest in itself. That is called freedom.”
If yoga were to attain widespread currency in the United States capitalism would come under severe scrutiny and risk collapse as a way of life, throwing the economy completely off kilter, cutting off at its roots American exceptionalism.
The United States has survived many threats since the founding of the republic 200-some years ago, from anarchists to terrorists and civil wars to world wars. The nation has survived Prohibition, the Red Scare, and Wall Street bankers. But, if yoga were to become the law of the land the American way-of-life as we know it might be irrevocably changed. From health care to the NFL the economic, cultural, and social landscape could undergo a profound transformation.
Whether such a paradigm shift would be for good or ill is an issue open for argument. With yoga expanding at its current rate it is an argument ripe for social scientists, futurists, and policy makers. What is a moot point is that if yoga did expand from sea to shining sea, in the space of the next twenty years America might see a return to its original founding vision as an entirely new ‘City Upon a Hill’, except this time it might be the ‘Ashram on a Hill’.
A version of this story appeared in Yoga Chicago Magazine.