Is Western Yoga at a Turning Point?
Joseph Goldstein sometimes recounts his meditation adventures in his dharma talks. In one particular talk, he spoke of a time when he was sitting in meditation and rather enjoying a long thinking jag. In the midst of being thoroughly absorbed in thoughts and reveries, he remembered where he was and what he’d intended to be doing. This prompted him to give himself, as he says, “a little talking to.” He asked himself the question, “Do you want to think, or do you want to be free?”
This story has been a true ally in my meditation practice over the years. When my own mind slips off into thoughts and reveries—which happens quite frequently—remembering this essential question brings me back to the present. It reminds me of what my practice is about, and clearly delineates my choices: to let things fall where they may, remaining unaware of my motivations and deeply held patterns or to do the hard work of changing my mind’s well-ingrained pattern of living in delusions of its own making.
I wonder sometimes if this is the place we’ve come to in 21st-century, American yoga. As everyone knows—regardless of whether he/she practices yoga—yoga has exploded in popularity in the past 12 or so years. Suddenly an ancient, traditional practice from a culture foreign in almost every way has become ubiquitous here. While yoga has enjoyed small waves of popularity at different times since the late 19th century, none of these has come close to the tsunami of the past decade. Aside from the proliferation of studios in every major city, yoga classes are now standard at health clubs and in corporate settings. Images of yoga are used to sell all kinds of unrelated products, and new “brands” of yoga have sprung up everywhere, including many manifestations of what Judith Hanson Lasater calls “Yoga and …”—Yogalates, Anti-Gravity Yoga, Laughter Yoga, Yoga Booty Ballet, etc.
On one hand, this seems like a positive trend. It’s truly a positive thing that people are becoming more aware of and responsible for their own health and well being. On the other hand, the yoga most people are practicing is but a fraction of what yoga was intended to be—a comprehensive system of practice that encompasses one’s whole life, not just what happens on the mat. And that larger, more comprehensive practice is radical. It’s not about fitting yoga into our existing comfortable beliefs and viewpoints. It’s about uprooting deeply held, erroneous views of reality. This requires a commitment to change the very foundations of what we know. Yoga is not just performing some exercises on a mat, but a commitment to seeing and uprooting those beliefs and viewpoints that we believe define us and the world around us—beliefs that obscure a clear and accurate vision of our lives.
The Choice: High School or Yoga?
I enjoy reading a variety of yoga blogs. There are some truly thoughtful bloggers in the yoga world, from academic and philosophical to friendly, down-to-earth writers. While I love reading other people’s insights, some of what I read makes me wonder about what’s being called “yoga” these days. Rather than questions that challenge our cultural illusions and neuroses—questions that foster clear seeing and growth—I see questions that feed them, questions like: “Who’s hot and who’s not among teachers?”, “Which yoga pants make my butt look good?”, “Which type of yoga has the most hot guys/women?” and a low point, an entire blog lamenting the fact that the writer was not chosen to be an ambassador for a trendy yoga clothing company. And then there are statements: “My yoga is more (intelligent, popular, kickass, true, etc.) than all the others,” “such-and-such teacher is a rock star,” and “such-and-such celebrity was seen carrying a yoga mat.” Really? This all seems more like high school than yoga.
When a huge shake-up happens in any system, such as the sex scandals that seem to arise regularly in the yogalebrity world, it gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. The Western pattern of addiction to image, greed and fame has become a part of yoga culture. And we have allowed it. In the interest of making yoga more palatable to more people, we have sublimated the parts of practice that are truly challenging to our Western world view and made it look an awful lot like those images and beliefs that cause so much suffering in our lives. I wonder if the yoga world is at a turning point.
With apologies to Joseph Goldstein, do we want to stay in high school, or do we want to graduate? Do we want to continue to be caught up in popularity contests and bling, and the idea that popularity and wealth will make us ultimately happy? Or do we want to find contentment that’s not dependent on what we have or what we look like? This is yoga’s potential, to help us see clearly that the very things we spend our precious lives on earth pursuing are not what will ultimately make us happy. The eight limbs of yoga provide a framework for helping us move along the path and dismantle the unhealthy and untrue beliefs that obscure our vision of reality. Why not use them—starting with the yamas and niyamas? If we put these principles first—in the way that yoga was traditionally taught and learned—perhaps the scandals that continue to damage Western yoga would be less likely to happen.
There’s a place for exercise yoga. I don’t doubt that much good has come from more people moving their bodies and learning about healthy breathing. But maybe some of us, especially those of us who teach, could begin to incorporate the other eight limbs into our hearts and minds. Perhaps yoga is at a turning point. Who wants to come along?
I have been teaching yoga for 10 years and a student for close to 25. When I did teacher training I was exposed to the other limbs of yoga and was surprised that my yoga teachers, some of them leaders in the yoga field, had only taught me asana and some pranayama.
I had a background in transpersonal psychology which gave me grounding in how to integrate spirituality into ordinary life, so I have been perhaps more comfortable introducing the yoga philosophy from the yoga sutras into my classes from beginning class day one. I have found the students love it. I take 10 minutes of each 90 minute class as a teaching of a limb and try to have part of the asana practice as illustrating that limb.
Example: On niyama day after the didatic explanation, I will use the words of niyamas in asana classes. In a pose that might be challenging I have students look inside and notice where they are tight and where they are comfortable and say “This is svadhyaya or self study. Can we accept where we are with this pose, interested in where we are, or samtosa contentment.”
I think the trick is like everything we teach as teachers, we ourselves need to practice the rest of the limbs before we teach them or it will not be authentic and the students will know it and be bored.
I have found that teaching the eight limbs has been an effective practice in intergrating the limbs into my own life.
Hi Sheri, Thanks for writing. It’s unfortunate that most people turn away from yoga philosophy without really understanding how incredibly practical the eight limbs are. It’s not hard to incorporate them into your practice, and I think giving people a different reference point–as you are doing–helps take people out of the usual competitive mode. It’s not enough just to know what the yamas and niyamas are intellectually. They are a lifelong practice that evolves with each individual. It’s really great that you are incorporating them into the asana practice. This gives your students a jumping-off point.
Thanks for the article. I’ve been teaching yoga for about 12 years and have developed my own training and teaching it for the past six. They philosophy of yoga is my favorite part and is so integral into bringing yoga into your life to create harmony. Connecting yoga to life is what it is all about in my opinion.
I’m working on ways I can really get this message out there to the people in our country. It is time that we all take charge of who we are and how we work in this world rather than putting it off onto others. Being connected to the truth of yoga and our ultimate unity is what can get us through even the toughest times (and the best of them) with grace and serenity.
Thanks for the article. I’d love to connect more with you.
So true. Without the foundation, yoga becomes simply an exercise. Even as an exercise it is beneficial, but when we practice with a commitment to yoga’s foundations, it becomes so much more. Thanks for your thoughts. I’d love to connect too!
Working it into the practice is a great idea. Does anyone have something like that written, for us to use?
Most people don’t appreciate being preached to. (Me, especially.) But my teacher, Andy, worked it into the practice, and it was so interesting, that it helped me maintain my pose for longer, kept my mind focused. Andy is a very powerful teacher, though. It would help to have a lesson plan.