The Competition of Modern Yoga

A very dear friend of mine took a break from yoga this past year. She replaced her asana practice with fitness, opting to work with a personal trainer; flipping over massive tires and working that pull up bar that, admittedly, gives you a beautiful back and arms. She told me she wasn't really into yoga for now. If it were 11 years ago, I would have jumped on my soap box, attempting to "shrink" the yoga block out of her and coax her back to the mat. The reason I say 11 years ago is because this was at the beginning of my teaching career, where yoga was the most important thing in the world and EVERYONE ON THE PLANET needed to be practicing in order for their worlds and THE world to be a better place. Strong opinions, anyone? But my reaction at this point in time was, "I totally get it, girl. You do what works for you. And, btw, you look fabulous." Today I received a text message from aforementioned friend saying that she took a lovely Hatha level 1 class and was ready to go back to practice from the beginning. This is a woman who had practiced for over 15 years before her hiatus and yet, it was a beginner's class that persuaded her back to the mat. "Simple" and "clean" were two words she used to describe it. They jumped off the screen at me and the strong opinions that I've been keeping to myself for quite some time were reawakened and inspired to the page.

I have never been to India. I did not study directly with Pattabhi Jois or BKS Iyengar. I have, however, been under the aegis of high level teachers from the Krishnamacharya lineage, studied several translations of the Sutras, and spent countless hours immersed in all things meditation and yoga. I also was on the periphery of the yoga movement that began in LA in the early 2000s and have been a spectator in the complete bastardization of this ancient belief system. Spectator and participant, as I'm aware that I am a part of this debasement. Nothing ever remains sacred or pure. The transmutation and evolution of all things is inevitable in this reality of time and space. The question for me is whether or not these changes enhance their predecessors or end up destroying something beautiful. As life is a subjective experience through a singular perspective, there is no absolute with any of this. But there are generalities. 

The current lens through which I view the Western world of yoga is one that sees competitive athleticism, growing narcissism, cattiness, and unlike its Sanksrit meaning of "yoking" or "union", a complete segregation and separation from those that don't fit into the mold that has become urban yoga. This is why I understood when one of my best friends told me she was walking away for a bit (though her reasons for leaving may have nothing to do with my perception). This is also why I had a visceral reaction to her text saying that she is going back to the beginning. I love her use of the words "simple" and "clean". This implies to me that there's a lightness to it; no competition, no feelings of unease just to walk into a yoga studio, no massive egos flinging sweat at you (from your inch and a half of allotted space around your mat) while piking, handstanding, dropping back and flipping back up to standing over and over and over again while everyone else is in downdog. I can hear the backlash in my head as the words unfold on my screen. "What's so wrong with having the ability to do these things and doing them in a class?" Hey, if it's what the teacher is teaching, then knock yourself out. What I'm addressing are the classes where there is no hidden need to outdo each other's postures and practices. What makes me go "hmmmmmmm" are social media's thong clad "yoginis" in pasties on a beach somewhere, hyperextended in a posture that most people will never get into in the next 5 lifetimes and calling it yoga or even better yet, addressing themselves as Masters. Something that incenses me the most is to hear stories from so many first time practitioners of feeling completely unwelcome and ignored at studio X. Sure, these people are practicing asana. But it's not YOGA. Yoga is not half-naked gymnastics with an attitude to win. If the intention is just to garner attention then it really has nothing to do with yoga at all; fabulous asana or not.

As I mentioned above, I am not completely innocent in any of this myself. Three years ago I did a yoga photoshoot in a sheer dress with a bikini underneath. The postures I chose were definitely more advanced but nothing compared to what I see in my IG feed on a daily basis. I was being guided by a social media guru to get my numbers up. Even back then, this felt so contrived. I've struggled between keeping up my online presence with content that gets "likes" and being true to myself. This is why I disappear from social media at least once a year. I lose the battle and need to bury my head in the sand before I come back searching for my own authenticity. What I always come back to is that the practice speaks for itself. But the problem with this statement is the question of what the practice really is. It's gotten lost in countless translations over time. Students will tell me that they like my class because it is more spiritual than others that they take. It just makes me shake my head. Not at my students. This is what they're being presented. If my class is more spiritual than others, than we really have dumbed the practice down to merely physical movement. I used to chant, quote Sutras and speak much more about energy and chakras and even share the tales behind Sanskrit names of the postures. As my classes started to grow, I noticed that I'd lose many people when I'd go into deeper elements. So I brought it down quite a few notches. I still open every class with pranayama, perhaps a meditation and though short, end in some form of guided Savasana or Yoga Nidra. That's the "dumbest" I can go before I lose all credibility with myself.

There is no question that the business of yoga is the likely culprit for its latest iteration. Pure intentions simply don't exist where money is involved. I promise you that the practice of yoga is not snake oil. It is life changing in the most positive way. But when you decide to get on your mat, you must challenge yourself with this in order for it to be true to its roots: practice to be present, not to feed your ego. Allow yourself to discover the quiet in the chaos. Check yourself constantly to make sure your practice doesn't become a competition with yourself or anyone else. Then you will discover the magic.