by Cody Drasser
What is the price of mixing yoga with retail product endorsements? It easily can be a loss of freedom through diminishing your conscious choices.
However, unlike simply ignoring an annoying TV commercial, you may be caught in a biologically primed state through your yoga practice to not only be receptive to the message but to neurally file it as all-important info to guide behavior just like your basic survival instincts do. I’ll explain the process below.
I’m inspired to write about this after hearing attendees describe a session at a recent Yoga Journal conference. A celebrity yoga teacher who was part of a panel session peppered blatant script-like product endorsements whenever she spoke.
Before hearing about the Yoga Journal live-in-person ads, I had been thinking about how modern yoga culture is becoming its own entangled web of conditioning. But now the topic seems more potent to write about because, as I see it, we’re talking about ethics of taking advantage of how your nervous system continually reorganizes itself.
Layers of Conditioning
You’re probably familiar with the story of Pavlov’s dog. It’s even a line in a Rolling Stones song! “When you call my name, I salivate just like Pavlov’s dog.”
Q: What does a slobbery Russian dog have to do with the ethics of modern yoga marketing?
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who was studying digestion in the 1890’s. He would present dogs with meat and induce them to salivate; he collected saliva samples and analyzed digestive enzymes. He certainly wasn’t originally interested in how behaviors get conditioned, but his attention turned that way when he was perplexed how his dogs were releasing what he called “psychic secretions”. They were salivating before the meat was given to them. How were their salivary glands active too early? The dogs had learned what environmental events predicted the delivery of food and they were doing what was adaptive: getting the digestive machinery ready! They were simply acting on instinct.
Instincts are hard-wired, unlearned behavioral tendencies. All mammals have them – they give increases the chance of survival and reproduction. The nervous system is primed to use them as building blocks for learned behaviors through a process called classical conditioning, which can sometimes be a very powerful form of learning (creating an intense behavioral response that may prove very difficult to unlearn).
Classical conditioning involves pairing together a once neutral stimulus in the environment with an instinctual behavior. Pavlov’s work many years ago is the foundation of what we know about conditioning. By pairing an arbitrary (unconditioned) stimulus, such as a bell, with the delivery of the dog’s food, he showed that the unconditioned stimulus could then trigger a similar conditioned response. The bell acted as a predictor of the food and triggered salivation.
The link between an unconditioned stimulus and an unconditioned response is reflexive. It happens automatically; it is unlearned, native to how the nervous system organically works. It is represented in the green rectangle in the diagram. There are many different instances of classically conditioned behavior that you do or see in other every day.
Pavlov began experimenting with just how arbitrary the links could become between multiple conditioned stimuli and still be able to trigger a conditioned response. So he paired a light coming on with the sound of the bell and the dog salivated. Then he would pair something else with the light, etc.
And that chain brings us back to the Yoga Journal conference…
Unlayering through Yoga
When a newbie practices yoga for the first time, she taps into what’s shown in the diagram’s green rectangle. The effects of the breath and postures while moving mindfully and directing attention inward to one’s sensations is a potent event. They are an unconditioned response. By the end of that first practice, she has changed her physiology. Her stress is lower and her parasympathetic nervous system is signaling to her brain and other organs that she is safe.
Survival instincts engaged, her sensory systems scan the environment for what must be associated with this newfound sense of safety and restoration. The yoga teacher, the studio, the music that was playing, the Ganesh statue, the smell of the mat (even if it’s not pleasant) is predictive. Her nervous system stamps a new association in place through classical conditioning. She has experienced instinctual safety in her body. On an unconscious level, her body is then driven to find more of those things that produce safety and restoration. So just like Pavlov with the bell + light example, the stage is set to pair yoga + that favorite teacher + her product endorsements.
Getting Realistic about the Web of Associations
Kim Kardashian is a businesswoman. She sometimes gets paid ridiculous amounts to just tweet a product name. That tweet is tapping into the ‘Marketing Strategy’ that is illustrated in the diagram – associating a product with a celebrity. That layering of unconditioned and conditioned stimuli is the very reason that sex sells, a veritable chapter of the marketing playbook. The imagery used in marketing is to make you feel good.
And yoga tends to make people feel good.
Anyone who exploits his or her status as a yoga teacher to sell you anything walks a dubious line. Pairing a product with yoga – like a vodka print ad with a beautiful person seated in lotus position – is piggy-backing onto the inherent wisdom by which yoga physiologically reprograms your nervous system in order to program your purchases. This is abuse when it comes from a so-called spiritual teacher.
It’s impossible to live in the absence of an associative web. Our nervous systems build these connections for us all the time. But at the very least we can be a little more conscious of our web’s design, especially where it means being protective in allowing one’s hard-wired instincts to be piggy-backed into commercial exploitation. For a yoga teacher to exploit the physiology of your body to make you a sale is – without grey area, without rationalization – simply unethical.
Your yoga practice is meant to be about surrender – to still the patterning of consciousness, and to reveal, question, and unprogram the conditioning that culture has heaped upon us. Surrender is power, not retail priming.