There were two newcomers to the Gentle Yoga class I regularly attend, and neither had ever done any yoga. So Tim, our sixty-something, laid-back former-modern-dancer-turned-yoga-instructor (whose favorite saying is “Do less more often”), started with the basics. As we lay prone in Shavasana, he explained to the newbies just what this yoga thing was all about.
“Five thousand years ago,” Tim began, in a gentle voice suitable for lullabies, “in the Indus Valley in Northwest India in what is now modern-day Pakistan, a group of men—although I never believe the women let them spend all that time up in the mountains without them—sought to build levels of meditation, and yoga poses developed out of that effort. The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word root ‘yuj,’ meaning to unite, or to join, as in yoking together oxen, forming a union. Today most of us here won’t be herding oxen, but through our breath we do seek to join our spirit, body, and mind through these poses . . . .” Tim continued to explain the intricacies of the practice, but I was gone, teleported back into time.
He had me at “Five thousand years ago.”
Five thousand years ago! Wow! That’s when the world was free of cell phones, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Hulu, Roku, Vudu, Vimeo, Ello, HuffPo, Apple, Google, Amazon, apps, Airbnb, Ali Baba . . . the whole bloody babaganoush of technological chatter! Yeah, I want to go there!
Suddenly I was whisked out of Los Angeles, 2015, and was floating on a pink cloud, up, up, and away and over the Pacific, crossing the International Date Line and descending down through a paper-thin tear in the space-time continuum until I floated over a clearing in an ancient forest where a group of slender, brown-skinned yogis were “yoking” themselves to the divine.
I hovered over the scene like a curious UFO, my ethereal spaceship pulsating with each exhaled Om.
Everything was calm, serene, and gloriously blissful: no traffic roaring past on Sunset Boulevard; no torturous bass line wafting in from the bondage supply store next door; and, most blessedly, no artisanal hipsters or super-caffeinated show biz aspirants walking past the window yammering on their cell phones at the top of their lungs, oblivious to the fact that no one wants to hear about their band or who they just met on Grindr or what kind of overpriced, mid-century modern furniture they are going to buy when their pilot goes to series.
No, here in this ancient Indian Garden of Eden, where my astral body had taken up residence, the most complex technological advancement was the wheel—and even that was nowhere in sight. All that surrounded me in my reverie were lotus blossoms, gentle songbirds, and docile tigers, bewitched by the sublime vibrations emitting from the ancient yogis chanting in the forest.
All right, maybe tribal warfare did exist five thousand years ago, but there were no diabolical IEDs, killer drones, or nuclear weapons that a modern-day terrorist could get their hands on. The very idea that there was a time and place where this kind of evil technology did not exist filled me with euphoria. Why, it was as if I were on another planet entirely. It was as if I had arrived in . . . dare I say it? Shangri-La!
Shangri-La! Like in the film Lost Horizon! Both versions!
At first I imagine myself in the 1973 remake, singing the Burt Bacharach/Hal David score and dancing with Olivia Hussey and Sally Kellerman. I am in a sun-drenched, bougainvillea-filled paradise that looks suspiciously like Southern California (probably because much of the film was shot in Burbank on the Warner Brothers back lot). Olivia, Sally, and I are wearing loose, comfortable caftans, and each scene is bathed in the warm Kodachrome hues everyone now associates with The Seventies. Since I am old enough to remember those halcyon days, I give myself up to my own memory-fueled fantasy. My hair is long, straight, and highlighted blonde with the help of Sun-In. I am a carefree teenager, and the most complex technological advancement (at least in our house) is the Cuisinart. All that surrounds me in my soft-focus reverie are wildflowers, wind chimes, and a dozen docile hippies, bewitched by the Maui Wowie emitting from a nearby bong.
But this Seventies Shangri-La came with other memories too. Fighting for equal time with Paradise are images of Vietnamese children burned alive by napalm, beautiful tropical forests decimated by Agent Orange, a countryside incinerated by covert carpet bombing, and the sound of President Richard M. Nixon secretly taping his nefarious plans using a Sony TC-800B recording machine with tiny lavalier mikes hidden throughout the Oval Office.
Better change reels and inhabit the original 1937 film of Lost Horizon instead.
Now I am in a Classic Hollywood idyll shot in gorgeous black and white, luxuriating in a sun-drenched, bougainvillea-filled paradise that looks suspiciously like Southern California (perhaps because much of this film was also shot in Burbank—the sprawling set for Shangri-La built on Hollywood Way). I am dressed in the finest Chinese silk, and my makeup is as flawless as Anna May Wong’s. I swoon while being romanced by the handsome and suave Ronald Colman, whose silent-movie-star mustache is as finely clipped as his mellifluous British accent. Our close-ups are impeccably lit, and all that surrounds me in my soft-focus reverie are sparkling fountains, white doves, and Edward Everett Horton, who is as bewildered as I am by the mysterious amalgam of Art Deco and Chinoiserie chic that has transformed this patch of “beautiful downtown Burbank” into an idealized Tibet (whose interiors share a vibe similar to the Emperor Ming’s palace from the 1936 sci-fi serial Flash Gordon.)
The 1930s were a good time for Utopian fantasy.
But then I remember what else was taking place then. America was suffering from a crippling Depression, and Europe was on the brink of war. Kristallnacht occurs in 1938, Hitler invades Poland in 1939, World War II erupts and, with it, the horrors of the Holocaust and worldwide slaughter. My Shangri-La immediately evaporates in a radioactive mushroom cloud, and I am yanked back to 2015.
Everyone is now up and off their yoga mats. Tim is now gently explaining the standing poses. The Tree is first. The Tree! Yes! I can do The Tree! The Tree of Life!
It’s a huge banyan tree in the heart of ancient Asia, and my meditating yogis are back! They are all around me, as I am the tree. That’s because I imagine I am a rishi-in-training who is practicing Tapas, the act of sacrificing something precious in order to get closer to God. I reenact a story my meditation teacher told us, the one about the yogi who stood on one leg until he impressed the gods enough to bequeath him divine knowledge. He had to do the most uncomfortable thing he could think of to get the gods’ attention. But standing on one leg soon became too comfortable, so he raised his arm as well. Then that became too comfortable, so he raised both arms. That also became too comfortable, so he stood on his toes. Then he raised his entire body onto just one toe. He balanced on his big toe for years, standing completely still for so long that the roots of the trees began to grow up and over him. Finally the gods took notice and bestowed him with Enlightenment.
What would I give up for divine knowledge? Should I sacrifice my fantasies of Shangri-La? But it was exactly this teleportation that was helping me escape the stresses of the technologically obsessed Present; a Present that promised an even more technologically oppressive Future.
Part of the reason I was so predisposed toward having this out-of-body experience was 1) it had been a very stressful week; 2) constant reliance on my cell phone, with all the texting and reading of Lilliputian print, literally gives me a pain in the neck; and 3) Apple had just announced its new Apple Watch.
“It’s not with you, it’s ON you.”
Hearing Apple’s newest catchphrase/sales pitch on the car radio while en route to yoga, my mind immediately jumped to the next step.
“It’s not on you, it’s IN you.”
George Orwell’s 1984 may have come and gone, but the Apple iMplantChip can’t be far away.
When it comes to the Future, there have always been harbingers of doom. But since Hal 9000 turned on the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey, every machine created by man in order to benefit his existence turns into a Benedict Arnold. At least they have in the movies. Westworld, RoboCop, The Terminator, The Matrix, and all their many imitators reinforce the idea that the Future is nothing but one big technological bummer.
What happened to the bright happy Tomorrowland where The Atom Is Your Friend?
Tomorrowland was my favorite part of Disneyland when we visited the theme park in 1966. The future of the Sixties was super mod and super groovy. Disney promised the same Atomic Age American Dream as The Jetsons—the suburbs in space! Push-button cooking, robot maids, and flying-saucer cars! Plus those daily Pan Am shuttles to the moon! What more could anyone want? But that future seemed to have gotten stalled sometime during the Carter administration. And while Disney continuously upgrades Tomorrowland in order to keep up with the changing times, it fails to make the future as appealing as it was in 1966. When I went back to “The Happiest Place on Earth” in the mid-Eighties, the future had turned Miami Vice neon; Courrèges miniskirts had been replaced by parachute pants, and Captain EO seemed better suited for the Haunted Mansion. This vision of the future was one big ’80s MTV video, and that was a place I did not want to go.
In a trailer for the new Disney film Tomorrowland, the latest reimagining of the future appears to be a hybrid of the Emerald City and Dubai; Shangri-La gone “starchitect” chic. “What you saw was a place where the best and the brightest people in the world came together to actually change it,” star George Clooney narrates. But my eye was drawn to a gorgeous, willowy model/actress dressed in a diaphanous asymmetrical gown. She looked like a hostess you’d see at a high-end Vegas bottle-service club. The shot was brief, but from it I surmised that this new future was a slightly revamped version of Fashion Week; a place where no one was fat, ugly, or badly dressed. The CGI glossiness of it all made Logan’s Run look rustic. I have no idea where the movie goes with all this, but I couldn’t help wondering about the use of the words “The Best and The Brightest.” The phrase was coined by journalist David Halberstam to describe the “whiz kid” members of President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet; the very same best and brightest who brought us the Cuban Missile Crisis and plunged the country deeper into Vietnam.
Technology has obviously improved our lives in innumerable ways, but how much more from The Best and The Brightest can we take? The Internet and its algorithms have effectively destroyed the middle class, plunging the world back into one giant feudal system where no one gets paid for content and everyone is hustling each other online. Thanks to the noxious emissions from automobiles and unregulated industry, the polar ice caps are melting and the weather has gone berserk; cell phone frequencies are killing off the bees and doing God-knows-what to our brains; factory farming and medical testing horrifically abuse animals; GMO foods and extra-added-sugar are turning everyone into lard asses; Big Pharma is addicting us to drugs; mass shooters armed with the latest in automatic weaponry constitute the new normal; and we’re all drowning in hashtags.
Will a generation raised on all this technology rise up and rebel? Steampunk gave a tip of the old top hat to a simpler time, extolling retro sci-fi technology à la Jules Verne, while ignoring the ugly realities of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe some Millennials will be motivated to start a town where no technology is allowed; a Tomorrowland that revolts against all this technological tyranny. Perhaps it would be called Yesterdayland? A place like Mayberry or Walden, populated by members of a new back-to-the-land movement, a place the Internet is not allowed. If for no other reason, the sheer novelty of it could make it #trending.
Perhaps the growing popularity of Ayahuasca rituals is fueled by a desire to unplug, to shift consciousness to something beyond the narcissism of Generation Like. I’m too afraid to try the intensely hallucinogenic brew. My over-the-top, crazy lucid dreams ensure that I have an Ayahuasca trip every night; to actually drink the shamanic potion would be overkill.
But maybe others need the most intense catapult they can find to discover their own Shangri-La. Me? I just immerse myself in a practice that’s five thousand years old.
And do less more often.