Yoga: the ancient wisdom of Californians.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Oct 6, 2011
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Relephant bonus addition: video discussion with CEO of Yoga Alliance: How can we help ensure that Yoga Teachers know what they’re doing?

The Future of Yoga…or Lack Thereof.

An Analogy.

“Food has changed more in the last 50 years than in the prior 10,000.” ~ Michael Pollan

Up until the 1940s or so, food was food—and had been food for, say, farrrrr longer than 5,000 years.

We cultivated varieties of apples, etc.—so that they’d be delicious and healthy and hardy (and, hearty). After Dubyadubya Two, however, chemical warfare companies needed to find a way to make money in peacetime…remarkably, companies (cough: Monsanto!) dedicated to killing and poison transitioned into fertilizer and, since, 2000 or so, genetically-modified foods.

Where only 50 years ago there were, say, 100 varieties of easily-accessible tomatoes at your friendly local market stand, now we have, say, just three in your average grocery store.

The Irish Potato Famine happened ’cause the crop was vulnerable, it all got killed all at once by one damn blight. We’re setting ourselves up for this again on an epic scale: this time, all food, everywhere, in its newly homogenized form, is vulnerable to virus or disease.

And food, of course, is the basis of all life, health, happiness, business, mortgages, jobs. You know: everything.

Getting to the point at hand.

I’m sharing that little concern because, in my view, Yoga is—right now—in an analogous situation.

We wouldn’t know it, however, not yet—we have amazing teachers like Richard Freeman, Tias Little, Georg Feuerstein who know their stuff—who know enough that, as Richard said last month—to know that they “don’t know that much, still” (he said this in a pranayama and lecture class I attended and dragged a colleague to, who would have much preferred a “real” yoga class—you know, physical—at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado).

And if Richard Freeman’s vast knowledge of yoga doesn’t, in his estimation, amount to “that much, still”…well, imagine the knowledge of our average-to-wonderful yoga teacher at your average-to-wonderful local yoga studio who graduated from your average-to-wonderful two-week yoga teacher training that accepts all applicants, provided they can cut a check.

Now, I’m not saying yoga teachers of my generation aren’t good people. Some of them are. Many are charming, charismatic, caring, sweet. But many don’t know or care much about alignment. Yoga, without alignment, is dangerous. Many play music in class, which is horrible/fine (depending on our pov). Many are ambassadors for lululemon, or other marketing-happy clothing companies that don’t bother to make eco or fair labor fashion but do bother to spend millions in R&D to make sure your tush looks fit. Many teachers have great twitter/facebook/blog and general new media/social media presence. Some have agents and iPhone apps and books.

All of that is good—we’re doing an incredible amount to get yoga out to the masses who might otherwise not give a care. The other day I went on a hike with a yoga teacher who, in college, was a bit lost in the world of partying and fancy jeans and shallow relationships (her words)…and for whom yoga (with music, I’m sure) was her one outlet, her one connection to the sweet Catholicism of her youth, her one connection in those crazy/hazy years to relaxation, to living more healthfully…and now she’s as happy and sweet and genuine a person as you’ve ever met. So the yoga celebs—Tara Stiles, Elena Browers, Sadie Nardinis, Baron Baptistes, Bikram Choudhurys, Kathryn Budigs, Seane Corns, John Friends…and random local yoga teachers of the world? I namaste and ommmmmmmmmm to you in gratitude. I mean it. No, seriously. I mean it: our speedy, materialistic, silly, wonderful society needs an hour or two of peace and breath a day or week, and yoga-for-the-masses provides that.

Yoga is tonic for the world’s ills.

But who among us is studying yoga in the depth that the last generation did? Not me. Who is stewarding the roots of yoga, which are about “stilling the waves of the mind,” as Patanjali puts it? Is meditation a part of your typical yoga class? No: but Thievery Corporation or Michael Franti or Govinda or Jack Johnson or Gotan Project is.

Sites like Yogaglo give me hope. If we can dig up and/or archive the teachings of Richard and Patricia Walden and Judith Hanson Lasater and Tim Miller and John Friend, let alone BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois and others…future generations will have a wealth of real, “live” teachings to learn from. I talked with Yogaglo at Yoga Journal conference—and asked if they’d begin offering more lectures and study sessions, not just asana classes.

Because yoga isn’t what we picture when we hear the word “yoga.” It’s not yoga pants. It’s not young models exercising with pastel backgrounds before they get back into their SUV and pop by Whole Foods to grab some quinoa for their 1.8 children.

What is yoga?

1. Yoga is a spiritual path. Yoga is about becoming a more fully present, genuine, compassionate person.

2. And, yoga is—for those who don’t want to become happy holy spiritual types—a physical exercise that will—as a pleasant side effect—open up your mind and heart so that you, yes you—are a better businessperson, saner lover, better parent, more focused athlete, relaxed child.

Both are yoga. But we must take care of the less marketable, less salable form of yoga…lest in ignoring the roots we lose the flower.

Richard and the last generation of yoga greats are still teaching, so this little question might not seem urgent.

But in just 10 years…who will present yoga in depth? And who will learn it? Not the legions of new yoga teachers that pass through the doors of Corepower and Yogaworks, each month (again, god bless ’em—larger, more accessible studios are creating genuine, peaceful armies of good people in this crazy world).

So: will you or your favorite local yoga teacher accept this important challenge and responsibility—and study, practice and teach yoga’s roots?

Bonus, from this year’s Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado:


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | | | | | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom


88 Responses to “Yoga: the ancient wisdom of Californians.”

  1. Jane says:

    Yoga U online has recordings with Judith Lasater, Tias LIttle and many more.

  2. Jeff says:

    "We have to understand the difference between the basic truth and the vehicle. We should always remember that the truth of the Self is the same; but when presented to you through words and forms and modes, it may appear in different ways to suit the individual or the trend of the age." ~ Satchidananda

    You don't have to practice yoga like the previous generation, Waylon, to understand ahimsa.

  3. Alicia Dane says:

    Word: Yogi Amrit Desai

  4. Jessica says:

    sometimes the truth seems disguised, acting as a bridge to the seemingly unreachable

    i am a young student and teacher, ten years from now i will invite you to a class, and rest your heart there is a teacher rooted in the essence.

    see you 😉

  5. Waylon, thank you so much for this. I just wrote my own short piece voicing my concern on the same topic. I recently returned back to the US from a year and a half of living in Asia. I started delving deeper into my yoga practice while living in South Korea and did a month-long teacher training in Thailand. Coming to the US and the lululemon-soaked world of yoga is a slightly mind-boggling, concerning difference. It was comforting to read a similar outlook as yours.

  6. anouscka says:

    Unless so called yogi's look and study further than asana they merely touch the surface of what they think yoga is. There used to be a time that the knowledge was transferred from one teacher to one student. "classes" with 30/70 students were unheard of. I guess I belong to the old school thinkers that still believe that Yoga is a way of living and continues when you leave your mat (not that we need a mat to practice by the way…) and includes aspects of selfless service to our community and more. Coming out of asana practice and hanging out for a smoke or a beer strikes me as odd when you claim to practice Yoga of which asana practice is to cleanse the body to prepare for other aspects of yoga….
    Anouscka from Aruba

  7. Naomi says:

    Hi Waylon, When I lived and worked in Hong Kong I had the opportunity to practise at the Pure Yoga studio. Though very much a boutique yoga studio with something like 26000 students across Hong Kong it also offers the opportunity to attend workshops with many of the worlds leading instructors. I also trained with some amazing young yoga instructors including Sara Avant Stover (pregnancy yoga and women's yoga) Kristina Pao Cheng (Tibetan Heart Yoga) and other more established teachers like Ellen Heed (Yoga anatomy). I believe a lot of these teachers also trained with many of the yoga 'leaders' you mentioned and they work from the traditional understanding of yoga then 'specialised' (as such). I found their passion and commitment to all aspects of yoga inspiring especially watching Sara Avant Stover establish herself over the past 5 years as a leader in women's yoga. I recently listened to a webcast by Laura Cornell on Women, Yoga and Finances and the many teachers interviewed nutted out the process of balancing yoga as a sacred business and how to match the yogic principles to the day to day practise of running a business in the modern world. I know that I experienced a very flawed yoga community when I taught in Brisbane Australia lacking in support, structure and definitely not reflecting the yogic principles in their business practise: the practise of 'yoga' in all its forms remained in the yoga studio itself and played no part in the day to day aspects of communication, the handling of money or decision making. Alignment was often a poor second (unless you went to the class of a relatively unknown teacher who was a little more austere in their delivery) as teachers focused on creating a psychological experience of wonder and awe in their students. There are some good studios on the Gold Coast now like The Gold Coast Yoga Centre and Essence of Living Yoga which focus on alignment and traditional yogic principles. Both very different in their approach: Essence of living, lots of sexy beach babes who have worked with rockstars like Sting, GCYC wear old clothes, trainee teachers are required to attend vipassana retreats and clean the studio as service while completing a 'two year' training! I am considering teaching yoga again and this time working for myself (although I think my ego may not be big enough)…I am nutting out things like intentions, getting clear on how yoga looks to me when I live it in my life and my impact on other people. I suppose these are the roots that I am putting down. So maybe this is all teachers need to do before they begin to teach so that when they come across all the practical day to day issues of 'working' as a yoga instructor it will be a simple thing to reflect back to those initial spiritual concepts. The challenge still seems to be how to match them to daily life. A work in progress I guess:)

  8. brookewestyoga says:

    I like it. I teach it. You're right.
    Ananda Yoga keeps it's roots in the soil. The teachings are deep and old.
    We meditate.
    It's not flashy. It's Yogananda's vibe.
    Keep keepin' it old school and real.

  9. onesadhaka says:

    Really nice, Waylon. Brings up some important points. I can answer for myself who will practice this…I will. At CorePower, at the big and small studios, every time life becomes challenging. As to teaching it…does anyone really want to know? Does anyone truly want to miss Fox Tuesday Night or their time at Shine to sit around learning about citta-vrtti? Unlikely. That's okay…we can teach ourselves, improve ourselves, change the one person we can hope to. Namaste and AUM to you …. : )

  10. craigdrummond says:

    It's as simple as the following question…

    "If asana was not part of yogic practice, would you still continue to practice yoga".

    It's all about intention. Most 'yogis' I meet have no intention for liberation and no real desire to understand the nature of reality. They're happy in their own world, assume thats how it is, and yoga is just another way to build their ego world.

    I'm not a teacher, simply because the more I learn the less I know, as stated in the article. But I love yoga, love Buddhism, love studying the sutras, meditation – and all this take time & dedication – and a genuine effort to soften the ego. When I see the next lines of teachers assembled and pumped out of the yoga factories, I realise that I may never have a chance to share this with people – how can I ever hope to keep up when everyones too concerned about Adho Mukha Vrksasana Padmasana and the Facebook likes that come with it!

  11. gdr23 says:

    I am a 200 hr yoga teacher. I have taught hatha yoga for 7 years. I trained in a "more spiritual" tradition(Ananda yoga) that opened me to the totality that is yoga. I teach yoga philosophy in bites along with asana, pranayama, meditation. Students who are interested in the full practice of yoga, make themselves known to me and they then begin their own self-education on the tradition of yoga. I think that exposing folks to yoga wherever they are in their lives, is what matters. I am interested in the history, literature, art and culture. Not everyone is. Yoga is my spiritual path. I hope I practice what I teach, which will lead others to find their own unique path.

  12. Dana says:

    Interesting. What is your views on change? Nothing stays the same. You can still honour "the roots" of he practice and transition to what will work for the people of today. We are not the same individuals we were when the great yogis taught. We have abolished slavery, developed equal rights for women and have seen such heart openings in allowing marriage in all genders. Whose to say sticking to "traditional" is the only way to enlightenment. We have to be open to change, it is part of the process of yoga. When you do that you are lost in DOGMA, on your own dharma.
    One of my students is 87……..imagine if alignment and sitting in meditation was the only thing I shared with her, it would not be enlightening for her at all. Teach to the student that shows up, teach to what they are ready for and learn as a teacher. NAMASTE

  13. yogijulian says:

    1) great article, fun meme/graphic!

    i wanna also point out that "alignment" is largely a construct of the modern iteration of yoga, and may indeed be part of the wisdom of the californians….. check out the photos of krishnamacharya in desikachar's heart of yoga and you will see asana that any yoga works TT grad would be "correcting" all day long!

    sure, iyengar may have come up with some very precise cues on doing asana correctly, but this may well (according to folks like sovatsky and singleton) been, like the language in "light on yoga," part of a project to get the colonialists to respect yoga as more scientific and precise rather than the associations they would have had with a more rootsy contortionist/fakir/sadhu aesthetic on the one end and even free form tantric rapture on the other…

    • yogijulian says:

      2) the dichotomy between packed "modern western" group yoga classes and their pumping music, lack of technical precision etc and the supposed true traditional practice that emphasizes "alignment," patanjali and inner peace is largely a romantic construction too that evaporates when we try to substantiate it….

      the solution to the problem at hand seems to me not to lie in an attempt to find a historically legitimate and pure form of yoga that somehow is rooted in ancient authority, but rather to keep participating in this massive cross cultural evolving experiment, own our place in it and ask how we would like to participate in shaping how yoga meets our needs.

      • yogijulian says:

        3) this may include an emphasis on "alignment" based in a well-educated understanding of our bodies, the problems with certain poses for certain joints, a kind of modern physical therapy perspective on stability vs flexibility and how to rehab injuries using a variety of techniques.

        it may include an emphasis on psychological integration and exploring how body awareness, mindful attention and the cultivation of compassion can be used to more fully embrace our humanity rather than trying to transcend or deny it in true ascetic style….. as well as how neuroscience and somatic psychology can inform the uses of yoga/meditation for trauma healing and a model of transformation not rooted in outdated metaphysics.

        it may include an inquiry in philosophy that examines the distinct differences between patanjali, tantra, advaita etc and between those metaphysical stances and the split between idealism and materialism viz "western" philosophy, as well as what advances in physics, neuroscience and psychology might tell us about how a modern philosophical remix might not only serve our needs as yogis, but might be congruent with current knowledge of the human being and indeed the cosmos itself.

        just sharin' 🙂

        • yogijulian says:

          PS: it may also include a social justice emphasis that examines (amongst other things) the caste system, civil rights, gender and sexual orientation equality, cultural appropriation, orientalism, and offering yoga to less privileged communities in the west.

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