Fight Club has long been one of my favorite yoga teachers — more so than those glossy magazines ever were. Here are a few of the lessons it’s taught me over the years.
Take a look at any mainstream yoga rag, and you might think “yoga” means skinny white ladies lounging around in stretchy pants talking about probiotics. But it’s so much more than that.
Yoga’s smart. Yoga’s radical. Yoga’s countercultural. Yoga’s sexy.
The American yoga scene is at a tipping point. Commodification and Instagramification have turned this ancient meditative practice into a trendy upper-middle-class (mostly female) fitness craze.
It’s time to reclaim yoga from its co-optation as a sanitized, fashion-driven workout. Believe it or not, the yogic tradition’s got big things to say about the messy, sweaty, sacred/profane reality of being alive.
Which brings us to…Fight Club. Yep, you heard me right.
Chuck Palahniuk’s smart, countercultural 1996 debut novel made a splash onscreen in David Fincher’s 1999 film of the same name, and though it garnered controversy, the movie starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter has gone on to enjoy a certain cult popularity in the years since.
I love Fight Club for its complexity, its embodiment, its grit, its willingness to dive into tough questions, and its fundamental theological richness. You can come at Palahniuk’s work from any angle: yogic, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, capitalist, culture-jamming, gendered, queer, anti-consumerist, postmodern — and find in it a screed, an inspiration, a challenge.
Fight Club has long been one of my favorite yoga teachers—more so than those glossy magazines ever were. Here, a few of the lessons it’s taught me over the years:
1. Wake Up, Dummy.
Be mindful. Question reality. Choose your own adventure. Refuse to accept the scripted monoculture as your own.
The Narrator (Edward Norton) spends his days in airports and airline terminals, meeting single-serving friends, working a crap job that leaves him a miserable, depressed insomniac. He sits on the john and jerks off to IKEA catalogs.
Slap yourself across the face (literally!), wake up to this moment, break out of the samskaras (the life-denying grooves, the psychic ruts) you live in, and create new ones. You are not your patterns; you are not your history; you are never stuck. You can recreate your life in every breath, born anew with every inhalation, dying with every exhalation.
2. Sweat. Breathe. Live well in your body.
People are depressed, over-medicated and under-inspired. Having largely managed to engineer movement and manual labor out of our lives, we’ve forgotten how to feel much of anything. This numbness is rooted in a disconnect from the living, breathing, sweating body.
The solution? Get back into your bones. Fight Club‘s asana-like benefits echo the post-yoga afterglow; the physical shattering feels salvific. Even better: you don’t need some pristine studio space. All you need is a dingy basement, your own bare feet, and a little breath.
3. Life is short. Death is real. Everything passes.
Ask the Buddha, ask contemporary Process Theologians, ask postmodernists, ask queer theorists: they’ll all tell you that there’s just one constant in our lives, and that’s impermanence. Every aspect of our being is always in constant flux: our identities, our bodies, and our relationships, for a start.
Tyler Durden puts it this way: “Everything you ever love will reject you or die. Everything you ever create will be thrown away. Everything you’re proud of will end up as trash. This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.”
We practice this little death every time we take savasana (corpse pose), acknowledging its inevitability, learning to accept that our time in these bodies is limited. Slip into sunyata (the void), and let yourself hit bottom.
4. Consumer culture sucks. And you are not your stuff. So stop grasping.
In yoga-speak, we say this another way: neti-neti. Not this, not that. You are not your relationships. You are not your expensive shoes. You are not your job. You’re not any of that material stuff, because it will all pass. You’re just this breath.
Fight Club, with its unabashedly anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist polemics, and yoga philosophy, with its emphasis on santosha (contentment) and aparigraha (non-grasping), both teach the same radical anti-materialism. Same values, different words.
Tyler Durden warns: “The things you own end up owning you. Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
5. Your ego can suck it.
It turns out, of course, that Tyler Durden represents the Id to Narrator’s ego. As in, desire. As in, all the wild, unchecked, angry, hungry, anti-establishment parts of the Narrator that could never emerge in that boring, buffered cubicle life of his. The lesson? Stop being controlled by your ego. Cease listening to the rational mind that thinks it can succeed playing by the rules.
In other words, resist constant thinking. Yoga teaches us as much. An asana practice is essentially a mental vacation. Patanjali’s second sutra, which defines yoga, declares, “Citta vritti nirodha”: yoga is the cessation of the misidentification with the fluctuations of the mind. This teaching—meaning basically, don’t get attached to your thoughts—reminds us to come back to this moment, to slip into that still quiet space of the now, and to cease planning the future or obsessing about the past (hello, ego!) and to just be right where we are.
Sometimes the best yoga teachers appear in the most unexpected of places. Keep your eyes open. There are gurus all around, if we’re willing to see them. They just might change your life.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Common Ground Magazine.