I once spent several months practicing hot yoga, specifically Bikram yoga. One of the most difficult challenges of doing strenuous exercise in a hot, stifling room with a bunch of sweaty people is to not freak out. You’re uncomfortable, you’re breathing hard and everyone else is so much better at this than I am.
But I remember something our teacher, Amy, often said during some of the most difficult poses: “Stay in the room.” This was both a physical command and psychological reminder. The only way to receive the benefit of the exercise is to literally stay in the room and perform the poses, obviously.
To me, the psychological reminder was even more important. Amy prompted us to mentally focus on the present, not our discomfort or our desperate dream that someone would open the friggin’ window. The mental effort was far more difficult than the physical one. To remain calm and focused despite a pandemonium of every cell of your being screaming at you to flee is a victory of its own. The first week was very difficult. But after practice you find that, although you still experience the physical discomfort, your mind does not immediately go straight to panic mode.
So “stay in the room” is way of saying, “Hey, this is uncomfortable, but stick with this.”
I’ve been reminded of this phrase a lot because of all the examples of people clearly NOT staying in the room. Conspiracy theories are rampant, some so far-fetched that they inspired insurrection against our federal government in January. And the pandemic has given us all a lot to feel uncomfortable about. Some people flee the room by dismissing the severity of the pandemic, calling it a hoax, or otherwise resisting all attempts to minimize the damage.
Through the lens of a hot yoga studio, it appears there are a frightening number of Americans who can’t take the heat. They’ve fled, preferring alternatives that are more comfortable, despite their extremism or lack of basis in reality.
The current schism within the GOP is a great example. The latest poll I saw shows that upwards of 70% of Republicans have let the room of reality in favor of the “Big Lie,” the belief that the 2020 presidential election was somehow stolen from them. The Big Lie continues to be uttered and supported by prominent members of the GOP, particularly the rather whiny former president. I understand that the QAnon faction believe there is some kind of secret plan to ‘restore’ Trump as the winner. And as of this writing, the Arizona GOP is conducting a desperate audit of that state’s 2020 election results, sprinting headlong away from the discomfort of losing the election, and toward the baseless fantasy that they were cheated.
Meanwhile, non-Trumpist traditional Republicans are being booed at GOP gatherings because many attendees consider them to be Republican in Name Only (RINO). These traditional anti-government, pro-business duly-elected* Republicans are being cast out by their own party. It’s now more fashionable among “true” Republicans to support the insurrection of January 6 (or call it a hoax or some kind of “Antifa” trick) than to stay in the room and accept the reality of their defeat. It turns out that one’s belief in the Big Lie – a decision to flee reality – is now effectively a litmus test for the GOP. The truth is that Republicans lost multiple races despite pre-election efforts to undermine voting or preemptively raise the specter of election fraud. The discomfort of this reality has caused many of them to find solace in fantasy.
And let’s not forget that tens of thousands fervently believe that they who have been “bathed in the blood of the lamb” are immune to the virus driving the pandemic solely because of their faith.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the political Right that have fled the heat and strain of reality. There are plenty of conspiracy theories on the Left, too. People I personally know think the October 1 Las Vegas mass murder of 60 people was faked. A depressingly large number believe in “chem trails,” a secret conspiracy to drop materials from commercial and government aircraft to 1) produce clouds or rain in an attempt to combat climate change, or 2) limit population growth, or 3) something else that’s bad. And there remains a stalwart, apparently fact-immune minority that still believe in the thoroughly debunked idea that vaccines are connected with autism. As for the COVID-19 pandemic, some on the left (including, ironically, many yoga practitioners) view the pandemic as some kind of government/corporate/illuminati scheme to control our minds/track our movements/experiment on us. Others believe that eating organic produce and getting lots of long, oxytocin-producing hugs will provide ample protection against the virus.
The vast market of available fantasies is made possible through social media, itself a global viral growth medium of false information. Apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, etc., are purpose-made to allow one to escape from reality. Have you truly thought about the time you spend with your phone? Even for those of us who try to maintain some level of self-awareness, the numbers speak for themselves.
Escapism (from the room of reality) is the bedrock of today’s culture.
When someone bails from the hot yoga studio to escape their physical and mental discomfort, it usually doesn’t materially affect those who remain the room, other than to distract them from their effort to concentrate (and not freak out). Every now and then, one person bailing from the room appeared to make it easier for another person to leave.
In the hot yoga studio of our society, with so many choosing to leave the room of reality, there are fewer of us left to do the work. The quitters also make it harder to get the work done. They constantly pollute the discourse with misinformation (or perhaps disinformation), and they don’t show up to support the very actions that would make the work easier (see much whining about mask mandates followed by a refusal to vaccinate). Worse, when they’re not in the room, they can’t hear the instruction or observe the heroic efforts of others. Their reluctance to engage with reality literally makes reality worse.
So what are we to do? For those of us who have chosen to remain and do the work, we will keep doing what we’ve done: call out the problems, offer real solutions, implore our friends and family to accept the challenges (the real ones) that we all face. We will seek answers based in reality.
For the rest, I can only suggest that you frequently ask yourself if you’re still in the room. Do you feel compelled to check out, to numb yourself? Would you prefer to worry more about baby-eating Democrats lurking in the basement of pizza parlors than reflect on where your party may have taken a wrong turn? Are you convinced that all answers can be found in the magic of cannabis? If so, I strongly encourage you to, first, return to the room, and then Stay in the Room.
And keep in mind – even if you bailed a long time ago, the work remains. And there is nothing more encouraging to a room full of sweaty people trying not to lose their shit than to see someone return to finish what they started.
*To be fair, I have not done a complete analysis of whether they are duly elected or simply the beneficiaries of modern political scumbaggery like district gerrymandering.