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Yoga's Identity Crisis

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Yoga is currently in the midst of an identity crisis. The division between what we might call “traditional yoga” and “diluted yoga” is becoming more and more distinct. A friend of mine recently put up a question about this growing divide on his Facebook page and I was stunned at the level of discussion it generated amongst teachers and practitioners alike. You could feel the simmering frustration coming to the surface and people had a lot to say. Those of us that have been around for a few years now can see yoga being slowly picked apart little by little to satisfy various vices, tendencies, and capitalistic advancement. Clearly we need to have this discussion as a community and clearly we need to start asking ourselves some clarifying questions. And I believe we can use this as an opportunity to further grow the healing benefits of yoga practice.

 I’ll start by saying none of us can lay claim to one “authentic yoga.” There is no such thing anymore. Even what we call “traditional” forms of yoga are, for the most part, fairly modern innovations. But within what we call traditional forms of yoga, there are very clear and established ideas about what yoga is and how it is practiced. It is a force of healing, wellness, enjoyment of life, understanding the human mind, and if desired complete spiritual freedom. There are some rules in place, and however much the word might trigger our childhood aversions, rules are a good thing. They are boundaries. They keep us on track and cut down on the tendency for us to delude ourselves. With each teacher trained and each class taught the tradition is evolving, which is healthy and necessary. We can allow this tradition to evolve and have boundaries and parameters at the same time. Refer to my earlier blog Not Everything Is Yoga for how I define those parameters in my own yoga teaching.

Now trying to say yoga has one clear school or root to which we should all adhere is not helpful. For thousands of years there have been many schools of yoga. For all those years, there were probably the same disagreements amongst styles and teachers as there are today. Fundamentalism exists in all belief systems and traditions and limits the ability of the tradition to adapt in a healthy way to serve the times and culture in which it exists. It also tends to promote the very exclusionary righteousness that it claims to discourage.

But then saying that anything we do is yoga is also problematic. If we say that everything is yoga, from chugging beers in yoga poses to abusing our bodies physically, then we lose the precepts of the tradition that make it such a force for healing not the least of which is “non-harming”. All systems can be intentionally or unintentionally diluted, bastardized, and twisted for the acquisition of power, prestige, or wealth. That’s by no means something that is new to our times. But we cannot stay silent when we see this kind of diffusion taking place. We need to reestablish some stable boundaries for the container so we have an identifiable system that, in many varied forms, continues to serve a deep healing purpose.

Also when there are no parameters to practice, then there is the dangerous possibility for yoga to be used to encourage and even deepen the pathologies it should be helping to heal. For example yoga can easily be used to encourage rather than heal body image issues and exercise addiction. Yoga can easily be used to provide a fertile ground for preexisting and developing eating disorders to flourish. Yoga can easily be used as a spiritual bypassing technique to evade necessary mental, emotional, and developmental growth. Boundaries are needed so yoga can heal rather than harm.

As a personal example, I went through many years of really serious body image issues. As a group, gay men can be viciously savage with each other and themselves about how they look. In an effort to avoid rejection, we try to be perfect and often mercilessly demand perfection of each other. In my life, this manifested in disordered eating, exercise addiction, harsh self-criticism, abysmal self-esteem, a 10-year smoking habit, and a host of other physical and emotional suffering. Yoga was the first physical activity I did where I began to learn to moderate. It was the first place where I felt safe to be who I was. It was the first place where I didn’t feel I had to compete with myself. It was also the first activity I did that drew me deeper inside of myself. I was learning to be kind to myself. I was learning to see the truth of the suffering underneath my addictions. I began to fear rejection less and I began to heal.

And all of these insights were due to the fact that the system I was practicing had parameters in place that, in many varied forms, all promoted the idea of healing. I was not encouraged to escape myself; I was encouraged, through the mediums of asana and breath, to look at myself. I was taught about self-love, non-violence, and compassion. I was taught to be mindful and I was taught how to in a healthy way go beyond my limits and comfort zone. I had teachers who were teaching, knew what they were teaching, and weren’t afraid to teach. I am eternally grateful for those parameters in my early practice, for they started a 14-year healing journey that continues to this day. I am happier, healthier, and calmer than I ever have been. In large part, this healing is due to healthy parameters of practice. I knew where the guardrails were, and they lovingly bumped me in a healing direction.

So what is the solution? That will take someone far wiser than me to figure out. That takes an open and honest discussion amongst teachers, practitioners, and studio owners alike. The solution will require us to all come together, air our disagreements, debate in a healthy way, and establish what we consider healthy practice to be. One of the oddities of teaching yoga is how isolating it is. Teachers rarely see each other, and unless we make the effort, we usually wind up in the glass towers of our classes, studios, and god help us our own minds! We talk often of community, and I think that real community is going to be needed to forge the path for modern yoga in the 21st century.

Teachers, here are some open questions we might consider:
1. Are we an education industry or a service industry?
2. Are we promoting fitness or health?
3. Are we promoting healing or are we hampering healing? How can we be more effective healers?
4. Are we taking the easy road by offering practitioners self-distraction techniques instead of self-inquiry techniques? Or by promising short cuts where work is actually needed?
5. Are we doing enough of our own healing? Are we practicing, seeing our own teachers, mentors, or therapists on a regular basis? Are we open to continual growth or shut down in a false sense of perfection and achievement?
6. Are we talking to each other? Are we gathering ideas from each other and debating our disagreements in the name of greater healing and growth?
7. Are we allowing for and having the courage to teach with healthy discomfort? Are we so concerned with our self-image and class sizes that we shy away from guiding beyond the limits of comfort in a healthy way?
8. How can we support each other more financially, professionally, and interpersonally? How can we collaborate in bigger ways? How can we get out of our own fiefdoms more?

I think by considering these, and many other, questions we can begin to bring some clarity to what we do. I’m not saying we can or ever should all agree, but I think we must act to establish some kind of boundaries in what we call yoga. I would really love to hear your thoughts on this, teachers and practitioners alike. I hope we can have some good, interesting, thought provoking discussions with each other as we hammer out a path forward. I have nothing but faith in this incredible community that has evolved to love, practice and teach yoga. May we continue on this healing path, which we are privileged to have found, for years to come.

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