Yoga Culture: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
In the past few days, I had the good fortune to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I presented both a yoga class and a musical performance there, and attended quite a few panels and workshops.
Leading panels and workshops were Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists. The purpose of the Parliament was to bring people of all faiths—or no faith—together to talk about how to solve very real issues in our world: climate change, environmental degradation, human rights and the promotion of peace. Every single interaction I witnessed was respectful, curious and collaborative. In this divisive time, it was heartening to see people from all religions, and no religion, finding common ground, inspired to work together for a more sustainable, more compassionate future.
The scholars and religious leaders who spoke were, without a doubt, completely committed to their respective philosophies. Most had dedicated most of their lives to their practices and philosophies. And yet all were open to hearing how others’ ideas could augment their understanding.
As I return to my computer and to the yoga blogosphere after a few days off, I am struck by the continuing divisiveness in our community. One of the first Facebook posts I encountered described an online yoga instructor training. Traditionalists decried the training as yet another commercial cheapening of the teaching tradition. Apologists for modern yoga decried traditionalists for being “judgy” and “unyogic.” Same old, same old.
This rift has been widening for more than a decade now. Perhaps some people have switched camps, but the argument remains the same. In a way, it’s quite similar to what we hear on both sides of the mainstream religious argument: Mine is the true yoga with all the answers.
This is a far cry from what I encountered at the World Parliament, whose members included people from traditional, millennia-old religions that many modern yoga practitioners might decry as too restrictive. Yet, practitioners of these traditions displayed much more respect and openness to radically different ideas than what I often read in yoga culture.
As a practitioner of more than 30 years, I’m not immune to having opinions about the direction of yoga in the past decade. I’ve often found myself lamenting the commercialization of a system I once thought could never be seduced by Madison Avenue. Of course, yoga is still yoga, but its mainstream definition has, in my opinion, become rather confused. Think chakra panties, celebrity teacher misconduct, and the trademarking of phrases such as “yoga butt.” And then there’s the wild world of unregulated yoga teacher trainings and increased yoga injuries.
On the other hand, I understand that if we truly wanted to be yoga purists, we would not be living in the world, writing blogs on computers, interacting on Facebook and holding down jobs. Of course, the way we practice yoga has had to change in order to be of practical value in our Western lives. I heartily agree with modernists who realize that yoga practice, even if it’s not completely true to its ancient roots, can be an invaluable tool for helping us negotiate our complicated lives.
While many of us prefer to explore and practice all eight limbs of yoga, many yoga practitioners only want to gain the benefits of physical practice. My practice was purely physical for the first three years, and at the time it suited me. Some practitioners will never embark on the other eight limbs, and it’s really okay. Some people’s paths will not include any yoga at all, and that’s also okay. How another person’s path looks is entirely up to him/her.
We don’t have to agree on everything. That is not the point. The hard work of getting along in the world requires that we find a way to interact with respect and kindness even though our views may be very different. That is why the Parliament was so inspiring.
So how can we all get along? Here are some of my thoughts—and I’m sharing these things as a reminder to myself too!
- Stop taking possession of yoga. Yoga doesn’t belong to anyone. The philosophy and practices of yoga are available to anyone who commits herself to practice. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were written in a neutral way so that they could be interpreted in the context of an individual’s life.
- Know that every person’s yoga will be different. We all came into the world with different genetic inheritances and grew up in vastly different families, cultures and communities. We all have different needs, and our yoga practice will reflect these differences. This is why yoga was, until the 20th century, handed down one on one from teacher to student.
- Don’t get attached to your ideas about what yoga is and is not. My experience is that over 30 years of practice, my practice and ideas about practice have changed radically. My practice now looks nothing like it did when I was in my 20s and 30s. If you’re paying attention, yours probably will look different too as you age and evolve.
- Keep your beginner’s mind. As Suzuki Roshi famously wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” No matter how long you’ve practiced, there will always be a vast amount more to learn. Be humble and curious.
I will continue to reflect on the grace and kindness I witnessed between representatives of traditional religions last weekend, religions that in some cases have been at war with each other for centuries. And I will continue to hope that the yoga community can grow into a similar maturity and respectfulness as it ages and evolves.