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Marketing the Soul

Has the commercialization of spiritual life gone too far?

By Anne Cushman

I like to sit on the floor when I shuffle paperwork around; it gives me the illusion that I'm doing something earthy and primitive, like shucking peas. So a couple of months ago I sat down in Half Lotus on the floor of my office at Yoga Journal and went through my mail.

The YJ editorial department gets several wheelbarrows full of unsolicited letters every day. That day, in my inbox, there was the usual assortment of new-book announcements: Beauty Tips of the Ancient Aztecs; 1,001 Low-Fat Cheesecake Recipes.

There were query letters: "Dear Ms. Cushman: Have you ever used cow dung and honey to treat a urinary tract infection?"

There were new product announcements: "New biotech sperm-based shampoo!"

There were a couple of unsolicited manuscripts with befuddling leads: "A single pearl of perspiration rolls off the creator's brow, negotiating the narrow furrows of linear time's impact..." (I swear, I'm not making any of this up.) And then there was the following press release, which stopped me cold for a few moments:

"Attention Advertising Director or Public Relations Department! The New Age Network International is the proud publisher of New Age News, an international trade journal for the New Age industry that has exploded over the last year.

Everyone wants New Age talent, products, and services. "Nightline," "20/20," daytime talk shows, as well as cable and radio are scrambling for good New Age talent to appear as guests and consultants. Coffee houses and bookstores are booking New Age entertainment, as well as placing New Age images on their walls, tables, and even coffee mugs. Large chain bookstores like Borders are now having monthly psychic fairs, and even travel agencies are packaging "intuitive tours" and "vision quests."

The New Age industry has become too large to continue being a "family affair" relying on word of mouth. Now we have faxes, Web pages, Internet, videoconferencing, 900-number service bureaus, computerized astrology chart services, and the list goes on."

I had two conflicting responses to this announcement. My first impulse was to pack away my yoga mat and collection of psychospiritual books and seek a career in some less venal field: like, say, stockbroking with a Wall Street junk-bond firm.

My second was to call New Age Marketing immediately and see if I could get my picture on one of those coffee mugs.

Is it my imagination, or has spiritual commercialism been getting more rampant lately? Marketing the spiritual life isn't anything new, of course. Entrepreneurs have been hawking papal indulgences, bones of the saints, and Ganges water in brass flasks as long as there have been seekers and sinners willing to pay for salvation.

But in a country—and an era—when consumerism is itself a kind of religion, spiritual marketing seems to have reached new heights of glossy sophistication.

The superficiality is no less rampant in the world of hatha yoga, where spiritual advancement is often measured by how good you look in a leotard. In a new catalogue from a popular yoga props supplier, models gaze from the pages with sultry pouts that would look right at home in the pages of Victoria's Secret. Would-be Yoga Journal calendar stars send us airbrushed prints of themselves doing Camel Pose in thong bikinis (which I donate to a male friend's Yoga Babes collection).

If you want to be someone in the No-Self business, you've got to have a brochure, a Web site, and a promo picture (belly well held in). A good publicist can't hurt, either. Take the press release I recently received from a PR firm in Los Angeles, which began, "As we digress toward the looming millennium, it seems that everyone, from politicians to Hollywood stars, is jumping on the New Age bandwagon ...."

Normally I immediately discard any bulletin that refers to the looming millennium, but this time I kept reading, out of a kind of morbid fascination. After invoking the usual litany of stars-turned-mystics (Woody Harrelson, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers), the publicist began to enumerate the talents of her client, whom I shall refer to as Serenity (that's not her real name, but I promise it's close).

As well as being a yoga teacher, Serenity was an actor, a dancer, and a musician who had invented her own trademarked brand of yoga (called Serenitiyoga, with a little (r)). She had a CD, a video, and a pilot TV show (to which she had written the musical score); and she had created her own designer brand of yoga fashionwear.

If she could just get an action figure of herself in Downward Dog to be packaged with the purchase of a salad at Burger King, I think Serenity would have it made.

But who am I to criticize Serenity? As an editor at Yoga Journal, I'm a scavenger on the same food chain. How would we fill our magazine, if entrepreneurs didn't seasonally repackage the perennial wisdom? Flip through our ad-packed pages—which supply a good part of my income—and it becomes clear that in a capitalist society (which we seem to be stuck with for now) the personal-growth industry is governed by the same basic economic laws as the automobile industry.

I've gotten a rat's-eye view of the publicity race with the publication of my new book (it's called From Here to Nirvana, by the way, and you can buy it through the Book and Tape Source—not that I'm selling anything!).

I wheedled blurbs for the book jacket from my more well-known writer friends. I scrounged for readings in bookstores and yoga studios. I almost sent a letter bomb to my publicist (yes, I've got one, or at least my publisher does) when she neglected to send out my bound galleys on schedule.

After all, writing stories on yoga, meditation, and personal growth is the way I buy my groceries—and there's where things get sticky. Except for those rare few who have trust funds, we all have to work to pay the rent. We've chosen careers in the spiritual field—an oxymoronic phrase that sounds absurd when you say it out loud—not out of calculated materialism, but because we genuinely believe in this way of life.

Our own lives are deeper, happier, and more peaceful because of yoga—or meditation, or massage, or transpersonal psychotherapy, or channeling entities from the Pleiades—and we want to share the good news with other people. And for sure, we'd rather be doing that than waitressing or programming for Microsoft (which, let's face it, we're not that qualified for anyway. A friend of mine tells me that the thought of me as a waitress is like a "Saturday Night Live" skit.).

We believe in the principles of Right Livelihood; we've been weaned on the mantra, "Do What You Love and Money Will Follow." In another country and era, we might have been monks or wandering sadhus, our begging bowls filled through the generosity of strangers who understood that our practices benefited the society at large and should be supported. But in this culture, begging bowls are frowned upon; the marketplace is the accepted forum for offering services and receiving societal support. Once we've accepted that our practice is also our livelihood, fliers, brochures, and advertising follow as a matter of course.

But where do we draw the line between offering a service and promoting an ego? How do we keep ourselves from losing sight of the ideals of humility and selflessness that drew us to these teachings to begin with? How do we keep ourselves from believing our own PR—which proclaims insistently, in full-page four-color ads, that we not only have a separate self, but that it's the hottest thing since Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls?

Maybe the answer can be found in Arjuna's advice to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Do your duty, but don't get invested in the outcome, the god advised the warrior on the brink of the battlefield, when he was on the verge of laying down his weapons as an act of spiritual renunciation. "Perform all actions sacramentally, without attachment to result."

Maybe there's a way of letting inspiration flow through us, without believing that it's our inspiration. Maybe there's a way of living the teachings so fully that the people who want them are drawn to us naturally, even if we don't have a Web site. Maybe there's a way of reminding ourselves, every day, that as Mother Teresa used to say, we are just pencils in the hand of God.

I haven't figured it out yet, personally. But I'm working on it. And hey, when I do, you can take my workshop. Or better yet, buy my book. Believe me, you're on my mailing list.

Anne Cushman is a YJ contributing editor.

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Kat Bickert

In the last paragraph I believe is it meant to say "Krishna's advice to Arjuna," and not the other way around? Point still stands! Non attachment to the fruit of our work is a must.

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