Yoga Culture: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

This entry was posted on Oct 20, 2015 by Charlotte Bell.

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.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

8 responses to “Yoga Culture: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

  1. Avatar Jacqueline says:

    Thanks Charlotte. I too spent time at the Parliament of Religions dancing with SHEROES and participating in ritual and conversation.
    I love this post. I recently was discussing which way of meditation was best. There is no BEST; it’s what works for the practitioner. Even Patanjali tells us to, “dig one hole deeply.” He does not tell us how to dig or which hole is better.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. I’m glad you were able to spend some time at the Parliament. I was very inspired by the respect I witnessed among so many leaders who could just as easily have been closed to any philosophies other than their own. With its millennia-old history, of course yoga is going to have many, many different factions. That doesn’t mean we can’t respect each others’ paths.

  2. Avatar Joanna Colwell says:

    Another thoughtful piece- thank you! I hate to admit it but I am guilty of thinking the style of yoga I practice is superior. On the rare occasions that I try another kind of yoga practice, the teachers always seem so untrained!

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      I have been guilty of the same. But the truth is that there are a whole lot of undertrained teachers out there right now. It’s not that there aren’t problems with the way yoga is being disseminated at the moment. It would be in everyone’s best interest if there was an organization that provided real oversight over teacher training standards. But even this issue is divisive. The problem is that we can’t seem to pull together to try and solve the issues in our community.

  3. Avatar Nancy Hodge Long says:

    Bravo! Well said! Namaste

  4. Avatar Rogelio Nunez says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    thank you for sharing your experience at the parliament…living in chiang mai thailand and being the only Iyengar teacher in this area, i mostly see students that come from all sorts of styles, so naturally i have been “forced to accept” all that come. But still i have a deep concern for the use of the label Yoga for all kinds of activities that have very little to do with Yoga….and the main reason the label Yoga is for marketing. I am sure that those religious leaders you met were not trying to market their labeled religion in oder to market themselves or their establishment…i have to keep working on detachment…be well

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Hi Rogelio,
      Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you. The word “yoga” has been co-opted to sell all kinds of things that bear no resemblance to yoga. That bothers me too. And yes, the people at the Parliament were dedicated to their systems, some of which were more liberal versions of their traditions, but they definitely didn’t use their philosophical systems to market themselves. I try to remember that while I never used the word “yoga” as a marketing tool, I lacked a real understanding of what Yoga is early in my practice. Yoga is still in its infancy in this country, and it helps me to reflect on my fairly deluded beginnings.

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