Yoga in Times Square: Why Freud Might Have Reached for the Yoga Mat


On June 20, New Yorkers gathered under the bright lights that line the junction of 7th avenue and Broadway for the tenth annual "Solstice in Times Square: Mind Over Madness Yoga". Even from my computer screen, this was a sight to behold.

I practice yoga and live a life of constant interconnectivity, much like any citizen of the world with a decent Internet connection does. It's from this perspective that I see the allure of an event like that in midtown Manhattan as a testament to the psychic needs of our time; speaking to the Associated Press, Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, remarked on the yoga solstice event, "The first year, there were literally three of us and this year […] there were fourteen thousand people pre-registered online." What accounts for such a tendency?

In the opening pages of his 1930 seminal work Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud examines an "oceanic feeling", as described to him in letters by a friend, as that which underlies the need for religion. More often than not, yogis seek a connection to a sort of spiritual 'oneness', which one could interpret as similar to that which was brought to Freud's attention. After admitting that he "cannot discover this 'oceanic' feeling in [himself]", Freud examines its plausibility as a remnant from an early stage of ego development, when boundlessness and universality characterize an infant's perception, coexisting with the mature ego, defined by its demarcation from the rest of world.

If we are to understand the technology we create as an expression of our psychological drives, the vast digital networks we inhabit could well be attempts to realize this 'oceanic' feeling. After all, the gadgets that keep our fingers busy have done more to materialize any sort of 'boundlessness' and 'universality' in our society than religion ever did. Yet, it's not far fetched to think that the people doing downward dogs in Times Square were seeking respite from the incessant connection they enable. 

I don't do yoga in search of a connection to 'oneness'; I don't think I'd ever find it. Despite an overwhelming sense of ineffability in describing it, my experience of yoga has been that of psychic dissolution combined with a heightened awareness of my bodily self. This is as far as my still novice practice has taken me, yet it has become the place where I go to escape malaise. It is a radical acceptance of my solitude and, as such, a rejection of any sort of oceanic illusion.

So what might have moved thousands of New Yorkers to take up yoga in celebration of the solstice? Perhaps it was a contradictory feeling, not an oceanic one. At the end of the first chapter of Civilization and its Discontents, another friend of Freud's is said to have described "the practices of Yoga" to him. Freud is moved to quote Schiller in response to say, basically, 'well, good for you!'

I like to think that, had he lived in the vastness of our day's interconnectivity, Freud would have taken up a yoga mat too.