No one knows just how old the practices of yoga are. But for sure we can say that our current time is the biggest heyday of yoga. More people worldwide practice yoga today than in any other time in history. But the heart of modern yoga is not in ancient India, it’s in modern America – and this heart placement has with it some very wiggy implications. Now yoga, like any popular product, has many many different expressions, some of them wonderful, some harmful, some lame, and some just plain weird. All of this only really matters if you happen to be someone who really wants the deep inner transformation that yoga was originally designed for.
Of course when I say yoga is more popular than ever, it’s more accurate to say the word yoga is more popular than ever. What most people today are doing is not really yoga, it’s just one practice derived from yoga – asana sequences. And most of the people practicing asana sequences these days are only practicing one style of asana sequences – vinyasa. That’s where you “flow” from one posture to the next in a sort of choreographed series of movements linked to the breath. Yoga in the original sense was a completely different thing than the vinyasa-flow class currently offered for $15 at your local studio. It was a life-long process of self-examination and self-transformation that was aimed at Self-realization. Asana was the smallest part of it, when it was a part of it at all. But maybe because the asanas are the easiest part of it, and they are damn good for us on many levels, yoga asana classes as a consumer product in the wellness industry “has legs” and has blown up over the past few decades.
Full disclosure, I am one of those grumpy old people who is always complaining about things not being as cool as they used to be. Such-and-such restaurant isn’t as good as it used to be before people discovered it, Nirvana sold out after their album Bleach, such-and-such neighborhood isn’t cool anymore since the hipsters moved in, etc. I used to be this way with yoga and really poo-poo many of the modern forms of yoga as “bullshit”, non-classical, etc.. but I’ve had a mini-awakening and softening about all this. It’s not that there’s a good and bad or a right and wrong. But there are some huge distinctions out there. The word “yoga” could mean almost anything today. And if you’re a sincere student or dedicated teacher, you ought to take a second and consider what you’re actually doing. As someone who has been practicing and teaching yoga (in the wider sense) since 1987, there are two things happening simultaneously these days that I find…fascinating:
On One Hand…
On one hand, “yoga” has never been more commercial. The yoga bubble that was very swollen a few years ago – the one that gave us superbrands like Anusara and Jivamukti and Bikram, and put a gazillion new yoga studios on the map – has now probably started to leak, if not burst. Many studios are closing, some of the superbrands have fizzled or flopped, and the yoga marketplace is more competitive than ever. People are still flocking to yoga classes, just not in the patterns they were a few years ago. The average yoga consumer doesn’t care how knowledgeable or experienced their teacher is, or even how charismatic. It’s all pretty much the same to the average person looking for a yoga workout. What makes the big difference to most people is just location and time of classes. Online outlets like Yogaglo have top teachers providing great content on your IPad, and most gyms and YMCAs and even spas are offering regular yoga classes round the clock. So studios that aren’t located in the prime locations are pressed to get people in the door for classes and keep a steady supply of new blood pumping through their “teacher training” programs. This is especially true for studios in big cities like New York and LA where studio rents are astronomical. More than ever, there’s a market pressure for studios and teachers to package and brand their yoga to give it the kind of unique positioning that a new brand of energy drink would need. This kind of market pressure motivated thinking produces some weird expressions of “yoga”. Everything’s got a unique name, or a special twist. Pun-intended.
For centuries yoga was passed down from master teacher to student in a totally “practical” lineage. Practical meaning a teacher, having attained some mastery, would teach the most helpful teachings and practices to his students. Then his students, having attained some mastery, would do the same for their students. Of course there was a whole mystical element to this transmission too. But essentially yoga was taught in similar way to any other sophisticated art or science. Only masters who had attained something were teachers. Of course there were charlatans and fakes and bad teachers, but there was at least an agreed upon standard that yoga teachers should be at least somewhat established in yoga. It wasn’t about finishing your teacher training. It was about walking your talk and living your teachings.
And what was taught was not just one practice or a 3-step trademarked method to this or that. What was taught was whatever worked best to help a student attain inner freedom. This was almost always a combination of practices and teachings applied over many years. And classically, there was a goal – and the goal was Self-realization. I wonder how many yoga consumers (or yoga teachers) have even heard of this idea nowadays. Classically, yoga is about transforming the yogi’s deep core experience of themselves. Instead of identifying with their body/mind/life/accomplishments, the yogi would learn to identify with Supreme Consciousness. Sometimes one of the practices prescribed would be asana, but not always and not in many systems. Most systems of yoga had inner practices like meditation. Nearly all systems had ego-reducing practices like seva (selfless service). Different teachers may have used various teachings or systems of teachings like the Bhagavad Gita or other source texts. Whatever the method or teachings, what was taught was what was needed from the point of view of the master to aid the education and experience of the student. It didn’t matter whether or not the students liked the system of training. It didn’t matter whether or not they liked the teacher. Yoga was a fire that was meant to burn away everything that kept the student from being free and knowing that they were God. The goal was never about accomplishment in the practice, how long you could meditate, etc. It was certainly never about how groovy you looked or how fun the practice was.
Classically, a yoga student was someone with an intense longing to experience the truth of their being, a longing to get free from the bonds of their habits and the “world of the mind”. A yoga student was tested before they were accepted into a program of training and often sent home by the guru when they weren’t ready. Students were never chased by teachers and were sometimes chased away. Classically, a student of yoga was ready to give up anything and dedicate themselves wholly to the pursuit of inner freedom. It was assumed that they would need to be very disciplined, and it was assumed that they were to live the teachings they were learning, and it was assumed that their training would be lifelong.
Nowadays we have a whole other thing going on. What is taught in the yoga studios today is not what works best or what people need the most. What is taught is whatever sells, and whatever is the easiest to train others to teach. This goes for the big meditation brands as well. It’s like a fast-food hamburger; easy to reproduce and easy to sell to lots of people. The guiding questions for studio owners are: What do people want? What will entice them to buy a monthly class card? What kind of teacher training will get the most people to sign up? What visiting teachers are “hot” enough to get people to come?
As I said before, I used to rage against all this and complain that “real yoga” has been replaced with all this sub-par commercial stuff. I raged against it partially out of my own stubborn ego and sense of myself as an OG. While I have renounced the raging, and try to check my ego about all this, I still have concerns. You see, the commercialized yoga industry has been around long enough now and has enough market share to really have a loud voice in the world. The creme of the crop of the commercial yoga celebs has risen to the top and their presentation of yoga has become the dominant one. Sometimes this is great. Just because a teacher is a celebrity teacher or commercially successful doesn’t mean they are phony. It becomes a problem when these senior “yoga teachers”, well publicized “thought leaders”, and successful “dharma business owners” have charisma, or book deals, or business acumen, and are out there publicly representing yoga, while privately being quite crazy, addicted, and unhappy. On the surface they’re great and slick and snazzy or inspiring, and underneath they are as lost as anyone. Yoga teachers are meant to be way-showers. Yoga is not a surface thing. When the teachers don’t walk the talk of what they’re selling, they’re doing a bait-and-switch. Students come for a deep cleaning and all they get is a spritz of aromatherapy. Deep in our hearts, we know. Even if we’re bamboozled on the mental level or roped into a mass marketed thing that thousands of people are into and “sort of feels good”, we can tell on the inner level when we’re not being fed.
Of course, the alcoholic yoga teacher getting stoned in the parking lot before going in to teach his vinyasa power-yoga workout class is not claiming to represent the tradition of yoga or inner freedom or Self-realization. He’s just teaching crow-pose to some rockin’ tunes and giving people a good sweat. But because his product is called “yoga” and not something else, it bizarrely puts him in the ranks of teachers like Ram Dass, Ramakrishna, and Shankaracharya. It’s not that teachers like our stoned arm-balance guy and the lost-crazy yoga celebs give yoga a bad name, they just give it a very vague and confused and therefore impotent name.
When yoga becomes known as something superficial and lame, I get grumpy because I know yoga is not an impotent path. Yoga can save lives and liberate bound souls. I know this because of what it’s done for me and countless people I have had the privilege to work with over the years. I’m still a true believer I guess.
The Other Hand
My true believer grumpiness aside, I’ve noticed something else lately too that is really encouraging. I’ve noticed that we have teachers in the West now who have been at it for some time and are doing really deep work with people. By “some time” I mean decades, not hundreds of hours. We have people who have been practicing their craft and who have worked with many thousands of bodies and minds with the intention of really doing yoga. We have people who have innovated the practices, not for the sake of a unique selling proposition, but because they really care about their students’ well-being, and they really care about being of service. When you work with students for a class or a weekend or a week, it’s one thing. When you work with students for years, something else happens. We have asana teachers who have aged and learned to move beyond athleticism and dancer’s flexibility to a deeply integrated understanding of asana and the other limbs of hatha yoga. We have “inner yoga” teachers who have actually “crossed over” and teach from a place of a bonafide inner attainment. There are also good junior teachers who may not have decades of experience under their belt, but who have that old-school kind of humility and dedication to their teacher and are able to carry the mantle quite nicely.
Some of the “good ones” today are blessed with charisma, or business acumen, or both. These are ones you may know about. But there are plenty of other legit teachers who are just doing their thing wherever they are for whoever shows up. Sometimes their students know they’ve got a real teacher, sometimes not. Sometimes great teachers just happen to teach during a convenient time slot, or they are the first teacher the lucky student came across. One strange kink in all this is the internet. The same thing that gives you access to videos of sexy people doing naked yoga, also allows great teachers to expand their reach beyond the teacher’s village. Sincere students now can study with a teacher via Skype from half way around the world. Pretty cool.
In 2014 we have everything under the sun called “yoga”. From the worst to the best. Maybe we need a new name to refer to what was previously known as yoga. For certain, more than ever, students who are looking for the “real thing” have to be vigilant with their choice of training and teachers. And people who aspire to be teachers really need to look deeply at their motivations and invest in their training way way beyond what the Yoga Alliance says is required to teach.
Yoga Students: Remember “Painted Cakes Do Not Satisfy Hunger“. Know what your soul is longing for and don’t settle for anything less than the meat-and-potatoes you need.
Yoga Teachers: Know your history – where yoga came from. Master your craft, assimilate the teachings deeply, walk your talk, and serve your people.
In the meantime, make sure your butt looks good in your yoga class. (They call that a perfect butt??)