by Matthew Remski
August 11th, 2016
A few weeks ago my partner and I watched “I Am Not Your Guru”, the Netflick about Tony Robbins’ “Date with Destiny” seminar in 2014. We have a new baby, so it took a few nights to get through it.
I slept fitfully after the first instalment and woke up nauseated enough to rant impulsively on Facebook about the film’s fundamental deception. I pointed out that it was made by a highly skilled documentary filmmaker – Joe Berlinger – who’s also a recent Robbins convert. That it was seed-funded by Robbins himself. That Robbins reserved the option to pull the plug on filming at any time, and that it was structured like a concert-film / infomercial hybrid. This “documentary” doesn’t document the event, which would involve seeking out a range of perspectives and looking for the gaps between what happens on and off Robbins’ stage. The film and the event it pretends to examine are one and the same.
Within a few hours of posting I realized that yet again I’d struck the “judgment” nerve in Yogaland. This usually happens when critical thinking is applied where it really matters – deeply personal experiences. Folks – many of them yoga teachers and alternative health practitioners – commented in the defence of both Robbins and the film with variations on two themes:
1) If you haven’t been to a Robbins event, you have no idea how much love and inspiration he generates.
2) Robbins might not be for everyone, but don’t shame those for whom he works. And, you know – whatever it takes to wake up.
The first response is pretty weak. There are lots of events that people would claim generate love and inspiration that I haven’t been to: LDS revival meetings, Ted Nugent concerts, the RNC convention. That doesn’t mean that the public evidence of those events isn’t open to analysis, whether from me or anyone else. What this comment is really saying is: You’re not speaking as a devotee, so your observations are invalid. No: not speaking as a devotee provides contrast to the stories of devotees, which, like Berlinger’s film, are seamlessly woven into Robbins’ brand, and have become forms of unconscious marketing.
It’s really the second objection that I want to address in this post, after a brief digression about the social costs of doing this at all:
Because defences of Robbins come from friends and colleagues, I take them seriously and try to approach them with care. Having been through two cult experiences myself, I know what’s at stake in examining emotional attachments to cultic figures and charismatic groups. I remember what it was like to be told that I was in a cult. I felt a sting of defensiveness that tries to cover over the feeling of having been duped, and the more hidden intuition that I’d watched people close to me be abused. Deeper still: that I myself had been abused.
On the professional side, however, I believe that the wild west of Yogaland demands that teachers be really careful with the line between our emotional attachments and what we consider to be coherent with yoga education, and therefore implicitly promote. So with guru critiques (“I Am Not Your Guru” is a brilliant, bold-faced lie), I try to measure out social costs against professional responsibility – however watery it is in this unregulated industry.
In this instance, I was in for a penny, in for a pound. I posted twice more – first on Robbins’ manipulation techniques in general as depicted in the film, and secondly on his sexist ignorance of transference and countertransference dynamics with regard to one of the seminar participants. (All Facebook posts are below.)
Why Bother with the Yogaland/Robbins Connection?
I’d been aware of Robbins’ cachet amongst some of my yoga colleagues for a while. But watching the responses to my posts clued me in to three things:
1) Yogaland and the aspirational neoliberal self-help market are indistinguishable. (I knew this before, but now there’s really no doubt.) Arguably, there is zero overlap between Robbins’ worldview and method and any school of yoga practice (except for the sexism), and yet there he is, jamming my feeds through posts mainly from yoga people. “Traditionalists” and I have no great love for each other, because I don’t pretend to have any definition of yoga I hold on to, but when I see yoga people loving Robbins I think Nope, that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here. At the very least, yoga is countercultural, and Robbins is the culture on roids.
2) The intensely emotional undertaking of yoga easily combines with the anti-intellectualism of its Americanized globalization, to the extent that it sometimes feels like the whole thing is just a vehicle for hurtling more pleasurably into unconscious dynamics. Yogaland apologists for Robbins don’t seem to care that the documentarian is a shill, that Robbins lies on national television about his clients’ injuries, that he filters his clients’ applications to find those who are suicidal so he can perform totally unqualified interventions with them in public and on camera (see the movie), that he gives crap financial advice based on the investment tics of billionaires, that part of his training is in a form of linguistic hypnosis with specific cognition-jamming mechanisms, that devotees in similar faith-healing contexts are actually shutting down their prefrontal cortices, and that the prosperity gospel in general distracts its adherents from their actual material conditions, allowing them to misattribute both successes and failures to their juju rather than the intersection of their privileges or oppressions. Supporters and apologists rarely acknowledge any of these things, but when they do, the ends justify the means. Their gut says it’s all good. “Whatever it takes to wake up.” Notice that this is what yoga people do with charismatic yoga teachers as well.
3) Robbins has perfected what many entrepreneurial yoga teachers would love to be able to pull off: conduct powerful and lucrative group-hypnosis sessions through exquisite stagecraft, while using open-ended (content-free) spiritual messaging to project an embodied invincibility that inspires students to reflect it, validate it, advertise it, and affiliate for it. But he goes a giant step further in being able to smash the behavioural taboos that repress most of the yoga profession. He’s unapologetically lewd, sexist, intimidating, strutting, arrogant. He doesn’t have to toe any PC line. He doesn’t care about feminism. He can dress like Mr. Clean and spew like Howard Stern. He’s right on the edge of being disqualified from scoring a glossy yoga magazine cover or a slot on a mega-conference schedule. For this, many supporters on comment threads laud him for being “real”. But in a spectacle like this, what could “being real” possibly mean? It means that through a twist of the language of “authenticity” that permeates yoga marketing, Robbins’ regression to 1950s sexual politics is metabolized as “no-nonsense”, his overreaching grandiosity is transformed into “spontaneity”, and his physical aggression is reframed as empathy. He’s a divine badass, shattering the gentrified constraints of Yogaland, revealing unprocessed patriarchal rage.
Robbins’ Space, Robbins’ Body
Everything that Robbins communicates in the film is introduced and then reinforced through his bodily presence. Regardless of what brand of yoga language or philosophy you adhere to, if your primary medium is somatic – if you teach postures and breathing – it’s good to consider whether the way Robbins uses space and his body is the way in which embodied, sustainable, intersubjective therapy is shared.
If you want to invite people to feel more free as bodies, you have to create spaces of consent. You have to be aware of how you can silence or intimidate people with your gender, body size, movement, voice or gaze. And if you want to empower people, you probably shouldn’t demand they imitate the gestures through which you’ve come to convince yourself of your invulnerability.
But maybe Robbins is popular in big parts of Yogaland because there are a lot of famous yoga teachers who do exactly this. They can create immersive, totalizing spaces in which you’re encouraged to feel what they want you to feel, perhaps because that’s what they need. They can use their bodies to mingle and confuse the sensations of fear and inspiration as they tower above you, gaze into your eyes, or move your limbs where they think they should be in order for them to feel gratified.
What is the Robbins space, as depicted by Berlinger? Staging, lights, pounding music, timing, HD visuals. It’s expensive to gain entrance. “Applause” signs flash. Gruelling hours. No scheduled bathroom breaks. Call-and-response exchanges demanding affirmative answers. Manic dancing before committing to “the next level” of sunken costs. Hyperventilation and visualization exercises taught without cautions or contraindications. Personal declarations that reinforce the content through audience performance. Breakout groups that reinforce the content on a more intimate scale. It all takes place within the corporate cleanliness of a convention centre, enhancing the event’s respectability and productivity aspirations.
How is the content of a Robbins presentation – the assertion that you are infinitely, independently powerful – distinct from the immersive, oceanic technology that delivers it? Can you really absorb a message of empowerment from a spectacle that highjacks your nervous system? To borrow a term from Chomsky, Tony Robbins manufactures consent.
Everybody in “I Am Not Your Guru” is saying yes. Or at least everyone Berlinger shows us. But are they really? Don’t we know from the advances of Trauma Sensitive discourse that some people will consent to power because that’s how they’ve always survived? That when Robbins demands an emotional response, some may give it not because they feel it, but because it is the quickest way to get him to stop demanding?
Trauma aside, what choice do participants have but to consent? How is a person supposed to say No, I’m having a different experience than the one you’re telling me to have? What will it cost them? Humiliation on national TV? Their lovers? (He ordered one participant to break up with her partner over the phone, without explanation, in front of 2500 people, and now an audience of millions.) This woman was told by a Robbins staffer that she should reconsider her perceptions of Robbins when she went for a refund after finding his sexism intolerable.
We can understand the staffer’s point of view if we recognize the lengths she has gone to earnestly imitate Robbins in the manufacture of the affect. If the participant doesn’t adopt the affect, the staffer has no choice but question her own (probably volunteer) efforts, perhaps her whole way of being. If we scale that dynamic back up to the level of Robbins himself and multiply it by the quarter million people who attend his seminars yearly we might wonder how intolerable it could be for him to feel that he’s failed at generating the desired affect.
The yoga space question here is simple: To what extent is the Robbins space an outsized amplification of yoga classes and education that seek to produce affect through stagecraft, charisma, music, and contact high? What outcomes are acceptable for the Robbins event, and for the spectacular yoga class? What outcomes are hidden or suppressed? Can any manufacture of consent be therapeutic?
The more important issue for the Robbins yogi to consider is whether he uses his bodily presence in this film to communicate dominance under the guise of care.
In Facebook post #2 below, I describe a scene in which Robbins coerces a male attendee into an emotional “breakthrough” through sexual humiliation and a stress position. The fact that Berlinger can show this without ambivalence or reservation (along with the universal acclamation of the moment as positively transformative) shows us that the constancy of male-on-male violence makes it invisible when it’s not entertaining. Robbins can perform the inverse of this gesture as well. In Facebook post #3 I describe how he intimately embraces a woman who has just disclosed her sexual trauma to him and the world. That Berlinger frames the hug in a halo of resolution shows us how easily women’s experiences can be silenced by fantasies of male saviorship.
What Robbins cannot perform, it seems, is bodily neutrality within reasonable boundaries. This would nullify his power. And, as his whole message confesses, he has nothing but power.
The trauma survivor and the stress-position guy are but highlights in two hours of somatic menace. Robbins towers, leers, sneers, eye-rolls, finger-points, insults, holds court, smacks people on the back, transfixes with a loving gaze. Everything is energetically inflated, everything moves forward, everything penetrates. Berlinger manages to capture (or include) exactly zero bodily circumspection, let alone receptivity. Even during quieter moments of private interview, there isn’t an instant during which Robbins seems to consider that a question might lead into a space of unknowing. Berlinger’s softballs don’t help.
By the end of the documercial, attendees are in full-on Robbins imitation mode, performing their new selves. They yell their personal affirmations, they chest pound and f-bomb each other. It’s like their bodies have been straining to hold the audio-visual overload, and now have to disgorge it. Many look like they haven’t slept for days. There seems to be gender parity in the cohort, but the vibe is pure men’s locker room. (Former Robbins follower Duff McDuffee has some interesting thoughts on the impotence of this “aggressive positivity”.)
In the film, the event’s attendees aren’t just performing new selves. They’re also mimicking the way Robbins treats his participants. They’re teaching at each other, demanding that their peers step up, yell more loudly, find new ways of performing the proof that the shock doctrine of self-improvement has worked. This is perhaps the heaviest concern. Consent aside, you can argue that attendees got what they paid for. But what about everyone they’re about to go out and interact with?
The yoga body questions here run deep into our culture’s brief history, and can be asked in relation to all charismatic teachers in all disciplines that make inroads into Yogaland. How do we confuse posture with posturing? How did a predominantly female practice population inherit a masculine somatics, and what is it doing with it? Where does pranayama overlap with self-inflation? Who’s yelling and strutting did yoga culture reframe as empathy? Why do we do that? How do we perform confidence and meritocracy in our bodies? What do we cover over with that performance? In what ways might alignment work and its embodied strength and grace emerge out of a defensive need? In what ways can yoga form a somatic armour?
Near the beginning of the film, Robbins pounds his superhero pecs and bellows, “I built this motherfucker!”
With the aid of gender and whiteness and money and body size and the transference of countless followers – yes he did. But why?