It Took a Trip to India to Make Me Realize What is Wrong With Yoga in America.

Via on Mar 12, 2012
Source: Claude Renault

In India, sadhana can often be found in the most unexpected of places.

The blaring rickshaw horns, the pounding monsoon storms, the insistent cries of chai-wallahs as they peddle hot, sweet tea from metal samovars and even the cows which meander lazily through rush hour traffic, seemingly oblivious to the kamikaze bus drivers and the many strong-stomached commuters who cling to the sides.

Like those coiled, springy snakes in fake tins, India has a habit of jumping out all at once. To the neophyte such as myself (I lived in India for a semester during college in ’99) the sights, sounds and smells—the opulence side-by-side with grueling poverty—can prove profoundly disorienting, especially when contrasted with what has increasingly come to constitute the American experience—a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled studio.

I recall my first early morning yoga class in Madurai, India. It was still dark. I wore pajamas purchased the previous day from a tailor who operated his business from the Meenakshi temple. He used a manual sewing machine. His workspace was not far from the area where elephants conferred blessings upon the faithful. Peanut shells clung to the floor. I loved the temple with its intricate carvings of Hindu deities, the smell of incense and sandalwood.

My belly was heavy with idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes) and sambar (a spicy, tomato-ey sauce) prepared by my Indian host mother. I was concerned instructor would force my tight American body into some sort of yogasana resembling a pretzel. Surely, my internal organs would rupture and fly out of my seventh chakra (or any other available space)? Maybe this would be a good thing. Maybe I would experience samadhi and be permitted to sleep in for the rest of the semester.

The class was mostly Indian with a few American students. We practiced on folded blankets. The men, in wife beater tank tops and baggy shorts, occupied the front rows. The women, in salwar-kameezes (blousy, pajama-style tops and baggy pants) sat in the back. A few of the more daring gentlemen wore white t-shirts and dhotis, a piece of white material wound tightly around the waist and folded up into the waistband, like a skirt. This seating arrangement was intended to promote modesty…for the men, at least.

Class was held out-of doors, on the concrete floor of a covered pavilion. It was adjacent to a swampy wetland which, as I would learn, was also home to a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes. For the next hour and a half, we twisted and turned and pranayamed our way through a series of asana intended to calm the mind and invigorate the spirit. The sun broke over the horizon line. There were many upward dogs and downward dogs. There was a long shoulder-stand. We were encouraged to focus on ourselves, our own breathing, our own space, to tap into the communal energy around us.

And, then, savasana, a new glimmer of awareness. Movement in rest as a bazaar of olfactory delights washed over us: the heady exhaust of diesel fumes, a burning compost pile, incense. How long were we on the ground? I’m not sure (although I do think a cow tried to interrupt at one point). By the conclusion of class, I was covered with mosquito bites! While this did suck (no pun intended), it increased my confidence that I would be able to withstand any sort of savasana divine provenance might throw at me in the future.

True, this was long, long time ago in an empire far, far away. Yoga, Inc. had yet to become a powerful, multimillion dollar worldwide enterprise. It was a kinder, simpler time. The kombucha-sipping, Manduka-mat-toting, cellphone shouting power yogi elbowing people out of the way on the way to the studio had yet to emerge as a cultural stereotype.

As Americans, we are so materially blessed as a people. And, yet, as a culture, we are so spiritually impoverished.

My time in India has compelled me to question today’s American yoga experience which, I feel, has become, too compulsive, too entitled, too commercial, too exclusionary.

Quite frankly, I’ve seen better behavior in a biker bar than among yogis at some studios.

I wish I could say I was joking!

Practice non-judgment, practice forgiveness and practice acceptance, you say?

Yes, yes. I am trying. As a practice, anger must also find a place for expression. For me, anger arises not as a gale force wind, but as a quiet, tired feeling. And anger can be a spiritual practice as well.

How do you mix the good old ‘rags to riches’ ethos of the United States with yoga’s more traditional, spiritual underpinnings? Is there a happy medium? Would Horatio Alger, author of the famous dime store novels where hard work equates to success and success is defined almost exclusively in terms of material success, count Bikram among the worthy?

There is a danger in trying to control that which we should not. As Americans, we place too much trust in leaders, gurus, teachers and the “industry.” Perhaps we discover that our favorite teacher has committed some sort of unconscionable behavior—this may range from eating a steak to smoking a cigarette to sleeping with a student.

We are shocked. We feel disillusioned and disappointed. In reality, we have ceded to them our own personal power to feel the safety of some sort of ‘authority’ and the feeling of belonging. We feel anxious, icky, confused. Maybe we even stop practicing. Many of us were raised in an authoritarian culture by families, teachers and clergy who led us to believe there was a clear formula for being a ‘nice’ person, for getting into college, for reaching one’s eternal reward. Is it any wonder we experience turmoil?

And there is the stuff. Overwhelming amounts of stuff which will improve your practice by leaps and bounds, the rare seaweed that will wick your sweat away.

What would Patanjali ever do if he set foot in a Lululemon store?

What's Your Intention?
What's Your Intention?

I’ll admit, some of their stuff is cute (I am especially enamored of the things that don’t make me resemble a porn star) but, for most people (especially in our current economy) those are some hefty price tags—$90 a pop for a pair of pants, $60 for a tank and $140 for a jacket. Don’t do it! Don’t buy it! So they say.

Wear your $3 Hanes t-shirt and your old gym shorts from high school. Better yet, wear your pajamas. Wear something that allows you to remain the subject of your own experience rather than the object of somebody else’s. True, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb amidst the spandexed bodies going through their power yoga practice like a rogue army at morning training. Then, as many an elder relative used to tell me, you’ll truly know who your friends are. Unless you just really like the clothes for their own sake. More power to you.

Then, there is the tyranny of choice. Advertisers want you to believe you will be more spiritual for choosing their food or yoga mat or special aromatic nose spray with antibacterial properties. Eventually, all of these choices lead to a lot of control issues which tends to make you a difficult person with whom to, for example, go to lunch.

You are not more enlightened or better environmentally because you choose one brand of spirulina (or soy milk or veggie sausage) over another despite what one fancy supermarket (which shall remain nameless) might tell you! I have taught a few outdoor classes. One time, after class, a group of students asked me to do something about birds and the slope of the earth and the ants on the ground. I said I’d take out my Earth remote control next time. We are only visitors in this space for a brief time, so get over it!!!

American studios are clean, shiny, almost antiseptic. Blocks, blankets and mats line up in a pretty row. Maybe it has to be that way so somebody doesn’t get sued. (We are the most litigious society in the world, after all). Something about it seems cold and distancing. Are we shutting out the important stuff, too? Yoga is meant to be taken into the world. Do popular yogis like Sean Corne really need to have “Off The Mat, Into the World” campaigns? Do people really need to be told to get off the damn iPhone before they run into a street sign?

The moral of the story?

Amidst the noise and the disorientation of the world, the bombast and the bluff, meditation, union and connection are possible. Give them a chance! (And, if stray animals happen to roam onto the practice floor, all the better. Maybe the higher vibrational field has attracted them).

~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

About Marthe Weyandt

Marthe Weyandt is a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling and spending time in the great outdoors. She is currently learning to play guitar, albeit badly and at frequencies only dogs can hear. She believes in the power of the word, creatively and lovingly rendered, to create positive change in the world. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Religion from Dickinson College and a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. She spent two years as an English instructor with the United States Peace Corps in Madagascar. Check out some of her other work here.

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27 Responses to “It Took a Trip to India to Make Me Realize What is Wrong With Yoga in America.”

  1. yogasamurai says:

    Would we lose anything – anything at all – if we just banned yoga studios?

    • Marthe says:

      Definitely an interesting thought…

      • yogasamurai says:

        The studios are where the highly privatized, unregulated, and in my view highly idiosyncratic "teacher training" conducted largely in the image of the studio owner and her minions is occurring.

        It's also the big money maker for the studios, and there's an incentive to pack them in, just as there is in the classes. There's no real "oversight."

        It's highly unpopular to suggest this, even more so to say that teachers – all teachers – should go to common "teacher training" schools divorced from the individual studio environment, and any one "brand."

        It would be a wonderful opportunity for students to co-mingle and to break down these "sectarian" – read "corporate" – divisions, and also to have the schools serve as the real nerve center for yoga learning.

        I would make them JOINTLY funded by a private yoga alliance AND state governments, to give the public a stronger institutional say in oversight.

        That gives us a common threshold; and if people want to refine and adapt to specific brands they could, but the idea really would be for teachers to have a common "licensure" – that is, a real certificate or degree.

        There are a lot of things that could go into that curriculum beyond what's in the bare-minumum 200 RYT, and you could specialize in different functional areas in the school – ideally.

        If you were in India, then you must know that India is actually further along in terms of "regulating" yoga than America is – one of the ironies of everyone citing the spiritual motherland for inspiration.

        • Hector V. Barrientos-Bullock Harleigh Quinn says:

          However, such places as yogaville are also not much better.
          Overpriced and the graduates no nothing about even simple anatomy.
          It is nearly impossible to fail out of yogaville, as they are attempting to increase and continue a false image that is more in accouterment than anything else.

          It is also where my spouse earned the name "Mukti Yogini", which, per indians I have spoken to, is absolutely agains any type of indian or hindu renaming traditions.

          Basically, yoga in the united states, by it's virtue, is flawed.

          But it doesn't end there. I have spoken to many indians IN INDIA.

          Away from mysore, or gujarat, or even gokarna, and all of them state that what is taught, especially to westerners, is not real yoga in any way.

          So it is not just the United States, as we have allowed westernization to permeate everything, everywhere, even the land of yoga's birth, and what has occurred is our egotism as carried over, which taints all it touches.

          • Lakshmi says:

            Integral Yoga, as taught at Yogaville and other Integral Yoga Institutes and Centers worldwide, emphasizes Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri Patanjali. The program is designed for student success for those who have expressed a sincere desire to learn and share the Teachings of Sri Swami Satchidananda. Raja Yoga is as important as Hatha Yoga; it is a lifestyle immersion. Students do take anatomy courses – above and beyond the 20 hours required by Yoga Alliance. The emphasis, however, is on ALL the systems of the body and not just the musculo-skeletal structure (though they probably spend 10 hours on this alone). They also must test out, and there are plenty of examples of students having had to return to retest (it is done quietly),

            If your wife did not understand these aspects of Yoga upon graduation, then perhaps the full expression of Integral Yoga was not received. If one doesn't understand the lineage where they invest time and money and request to learn from, then I have to question why they made the choice to be trained there rather than go somewhere else where anatomy is emphasized (there are PLENTY of schools with such an emphasis!).

            IY Teacher Training costs are some of the lowest to be found and is led by humans (mere mortals!) dedicated to the Teachings of Sri Swami Satchidananda, who do their best to serve the participants. None are perfect, so forgive whatever improper names they may have offered.

            Ashrams are rare places in the USA. Many people receive a wealth of nourishment from places like Yogaville. Ego doesn't have to be something that "taints", as you write. Let us use our egos to recognize what is good and what serves individuals as they need it. We're all on different paths. Let us direct our energies to building love and light rather than breaking down what is different than you know.

            [my views are mine alone, and not those of the ashram I hold dear]
            OM

  2. Marthe– I loved this essay– such excellent points. Lululemon gives me the straight-up creeps, as do plastic-y yoga mats. But then again, I'm pretty lazy– my favorite "yoga" is just singing! — I love your description of India's intensity– I went there for the first time this December to visit my boyfriend's family– and holy heck, it's overwhelming. — I'm off to share this. ;)

  3. Marthe says:

    Carolyn — thank you for reading. (And, I do love chanting, too!) India is such an amazing place to visit — the sights, the smells, the colors…I'd love to go back some time…and I have to talk to you about your trip!

  4. Nadine McNeil Nadine says:

    Marthe, beautifully written piece — and I love your bio photo too! This piece so resonated for me as when I decided that I was ready to DIVE into this world of yoga deeper, one thing I felt in every fibre of my being was that I wanted to do it in India. Indeed, it is an intense assaulat on one’s senses. In India, each time I’ve gone, somehow I experience a feeling of being in a spatial time, one that is not linear. The yoga craze of the US kinda scared me and put me off. But alas, it is a reflection of the society at large — another discourse. I am sooo happy I made this choice of India. I spent my first two months at an ashram and never left the premises once, and then the next few months I stayed just outside of Goa and practiced primarily with an amazing teacher named Gabriella; an Italian woman who has been living there for DECADES. As you describe where you practised, I had recollections of her space — a thatched roof shack with straw mats on the floor and a compost toilet out back. No hoopla, no fanfare, no sexy outfits, just plain straight up yoga. I appreciate too what you’ve said about anger. To FEEL any emotion, anger especially, to me is a sign of conscious awareness. So many of us are running around angry and don’t even know it! As I say to my friends, ‘I’m aspiring to be a yogi, not a saint!’ Don’t judge me because I’ve blown my top! :-) Thankfully I’m being true to myself and honoring my feelings. Thank you!

  5. Carol Horton carolhortonbooks says:

    Interesting, beautifully written post. Really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  6. Tiffany says:

    Very compelling piece… I look forward to practicing in India someday! My response will be less than popular here, but these are my thoughts. The problem is… America is not India. To expect that yoga should be the same as it is there is a bit unrealistic because we have a completely different culture. The gurus who brought it here changed so much of the traditional practice to make it more accessible to our world, and it continues to change and evolve, just as it has in India. I can appreciate a change of heart and perspective after practicing in such a unique environment, but I believe a person can find peace and spirituality in any location, through any style of yoga or other practice that insists upon mindfulness (dancing, art, music, sports, etc.). Just because I wear LuluLemon's clothing does not mean I am less spiritual than someone who does not. I own pricier clothes and a pricier mat not to be stylish or sexy, but because in the long run it is more cost effective based on the amount of time I spend practicing. Maybe I have been lucky to find a studio to practice and teach at that does not represent what apparently is wrong with yoga today, maybe I do and I'm blind to it, but I see people walk in with extreme stress and walk out in pure bliss, better able to enjoy time with their families, almost every day practicing "Americanized" yoga. Not much shame in that! Yoga is about unity and transformation, not to bring us all into the same bliss, but to bring each individual to his or her highest potential. It looks different for everyone, everywhere.

    • JoeC2K says:

      Thanks Tiffany. Someone who judges another because of they wear Lululemon is just as bad as one who judges another cause they don't… I think that everyone is on their own journey through yoga so some of the lessons resonate better with some.

  7. Michelle Margaret Fajkus yoga freedom says:

    This is fabulous. Down with yoga elitism! Amen, sister.
    ~Michelle

  8. Guest says:

    Why use the ghastly phrase "wife beater" tee shirt (instead of tank tops or whatever)?
    Please eliminate from common (USA) usage and thus from our mind-stream!

  9. meagain says:

    Lululemone is definitely creepy. When you see pictures of the free community class in the middle of the store surrounded wall to wall by hanging lulu offerings on hangers it's just so gross. The "I'm so proud to be an Ambassador" exuberance ….don't teachers get that they are just marketing tools used to sell clothing? Cookie cutter teachers and cookie cutter clothing. So all these smiling teachers who pose for free (yes, they get 1,00 US or so of free clothing but…that is marketing no?) and are so proud to be "selected" it's so ugh, gross. If anything is a reflection of a totally bizarre aspect of modern yoga… that would be it.

  10. Keren says:

    Well written Marthe! I totally agree with everything you said. Yoga Inc. is what's going on. McYoga, Yoga King, etc. Now if we could just turn the outward eye back inwards in this mass yoga frenzy then perhaps something really great can happen both for the spirit of yoga and for the spirit of humanity.

  11. panditaindranirampersad says:

    The absence of American arrogance in this article is wonderful.
    Thanks.

  12. Tobye Hillier yogi tobye says:

    "The broad spectrum of choices available to man may be categorised into bhoga, roga and yoga. While the former two present a cause and effect syndrome, the latter opens up higher possibilities at the moral and spiritual levels. Propensity to and practice of yoga helps us to tide over the evil effects of indulgence and save us from roga. Those who opt for bhoga, live life at the animalistic level. Satisfaction of organic needs is their sole concern. Remaining stagnant at this level is the greatest folly one can think of. Living at this level results in pathetic and perilous conditions all around. No one advocates to forgo consumption of material objects. Rather, do it in a spirit of detachment. The art of renunciation becomes natural and spontaneous once a perfect sage blesses the seeker with knowledge of metaphysical form of Supreme Brahman. Excessive obsession with `bhoga' leads to roga – physical and mental maladies. Medically too, over-indulgence affects both the digestive and nervous system resulting in a wide range of diseases. Moral degradation, ethical decline, aesthetic impoverishment and spiritual blindness are natural concomitants." http://www.adishakti.org/_/trilogy_of_bhoga_roga_

    It seems a lot of the time, that what we in the west consider as yoga, is actually bhoga…. sense gratification. Whether through Lululemon or whole foods, or whatever thing you think you need to be considered part of the gang.

    We need nothing, but want everything.

  13. Wonderful article! I practice yoga at home, alone (sometimes with one of my kids or a cat nearby), so that I can focus on letting go. I don't care what I'm wearing and I can do it whenever I want to or have time to – no rushing to get to a crowded class on time. I think it is so cool you've spent so much time in India at the source of it all and are bringing your unique perspective back here to share with us. Thanks for sharing!! :)

  14. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    "Wear something that allows you to remain the subject of your own experience rather than the object of somebody else’s."
    Loved this article, Marthe. As a fellow Yoga teacher and EJ writer, the above quote sums the whole thing up: ultimately being the subject of your own experience is what the full throttle practice is about.

    Despite the mega-marketing, the branded trainings and the scandals Yoga in America is itself a seeker. It is learning, as seekers have learned before, to distinguish true gurus from false ones. To embrace as many limbs of practice as possible in this linear-oriented society. And to discover that the path may begin with how we appear to the world in flashy Lululemons but that its ultimate destination is deep within.

    Also, Sean Corn's Off the Mat and Into the World(r) is an ongoing humanitarian effort that reaches out to improve the lives of Third World women, through building birthing clinics and other efforts that brings Yoga into the arena of activism at grassroots level. http://www.offthematintotheworld.org/. It sure ain't about keeping yogis from hurting themselves. But it is about getting them to see how their Yoga can impact the world out there.

    H

  15. "Wear something that allows you to remain the subject of your own experience rather than the object of somebody else’s."
    I also loved that sentence!

    And just to chime in, here's a memory of my own: Once I took a class at a mega-corporate Yoga studio with a mega-popular Yoga teacher-star of sorts. As soon as they finished mopping up the sweat from the previous class, and opened the doors to the studio, I either pushed or got pushed through the threshold, among the throngs of fashionable regulars that had been waiting outside.

    I found a spot and layed down my mat. Soon though, I heard whispering around me. Loud whispering meant for me to hear: "He's gonna tell her to move…" "Maybe she doesn't know…" I began to feel increasingly isolated in this crowded room.

    Finally the Yoga rockstar entered. He gestured in an unequivocally condescending way, for me to scoot my mat back, but in the same breath asked the girl next to me—a regular, who he addressed by name—if she was comfortable enough and if she had enough space. This, was also meant for me to hear.

    I noticed that all the mats were lined up in perfectly straight lines. A fact and apparent course-requirement I would have known had I been a regular. Needless to say, I found the experience uncomfortable, even humiliating, and never went back. I did try other teachers, but always felt not only the sting of competition among practitioners, but overtly demanding behavior from many of the teachers.

    To be clear, it is most certainly not that way everywhere. My dear teacher in the Hatha tradition (Larry Payne) always created a warm and nurturing environment where we were encouraged to honor our own bodies and "whatever we had going on that day." And in my primary world of Kundalini Yoga, we are like one big family, happily accommodating anyone into whatever little space is left—stranger or not.

    I merely wanted to share my unfortunate experiences at the corporate studios (where good teachers will also be found).

    • Your story makes me remember a similar experience I had a Zen Center where the woman sitting next to me was more concerned with the placement of my zafu on the zabuton than on practice. *sigh*

  16. Absolutely loved it, Marthe :)

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  17. [...] In India and many other Asian countries, you will see people sitting for hours just hanging out with one another. These people are comfortable with what they have; they have enough and therefore spend their free time with others. [...]

  18. Deepa says:

    I did not appreciate the "the Yogaville" negative comments made in the comment section. I have been studying and visiting there since 1984. It is a great spiritual community that also teaches and trains. It is based on the teachings of Swami Satchidananda, who comes from the lineage of Master Sivananda. The teacher training there is very reasonably priced and based on great Yogic principles. Integral Yoga emphasizes not hurting/forcing the body. It is one of the safest forms of Hatha Yoga taught. The "Yoga" discussed in the article is mostly "Hatha Yoga". Integral Yoga teaches much more than just Hatha Yoga. Your article was interesting and you make a good point, but you don't have to go to India to learn true "Yoga". Om Shanthi

  19. yogaboca says:

    I loved the article – - brilliantly written with great points and much to ponder.

    But like the previous poster — there is much great yoga here in the US.

    I had the good fortune to own a very low budget yoga studio for 4 years on a street corner in a working class neighborhood in Cambridge, MA. We had a tanning salon on our right side (with super gaudy big red signs offering bargain after bargain) and corner store to the left with a big gaudy sign saying (ATM inside) and I know for a fact that ATM never worked.

    We had a rug on the floor (heavens no!) – no expensive decor anywhere and no big name teachers. I mainly taught all the classes myself and knew every student by name. I purposely kept my prices very low and even did a $5 class on Saturdays which drew the most and the most loyal students. People loved this studio. It was so unique and unpretentious and yes Baptiste was 1/2 mile down the road.

    My point is that there are REAL yoga studios out there – - oh BTW – all I sold were yoga mats, straps and sturdy yoga bags – the essentials. There was no computer or cash register in the studio.

    Due to the bad economy, I was forced out of business – - I sold the studio to a hot, power yoga guy. I bet he is still there.

    Anyway — there are still some great studios out there where what matters is teaching yoga — period!

    Currently I teach at a Town Library in a retirement community in South Florida. There is a community room that the library lets me use. My students are mainly women in their 50's / 60's and older (with the occasional guy) These women could care less about lululemon and spandex. They are eternally greatful to have a bonafide yogi come to their library to teach them yoga for an hour and a quarter on Wednesday mornings. I charge them a whopping $10 for yoga.

    They are attentive, respectful and enthusiastic – we go out of our way to make newcomers feel welcomed.
    All is not lost — Be the change!

  20. entrpreneur says:

    Hi there I very much enjoyed reading your post. I’m thinking about writing my own blog very soon Thanks.

  21. Lakshmi says:

    I commented to the In defense of yoga pants article, which I presume to be a reaction to this piece, which I found to be thoughtful in its argument. I'm reading your article after that one and I don't find this to be romanticization or fetishization of India/Indian spirituality at all. This was just a lovely and accurate description of practicing in India and the contrast with the typical studio yoga experience in the West. Yes, the experience in India comes with elements that are not so nice…pollution, mosquitos, and gender separation….none of those things are romantic. But they are part of the real problems of India and when you practice in India, you will be immersed in all of it, good and bad. Just as when we practice here, we unfortunately have to be immersed in the problems of this society…commercialization, commodification, sexualization of just about everything. But personally, the simplicity of the practice there is worth a few mosquito bites! There will be some discomfort everywhere. While the mosquitos and pollution and even the weird gender dynamics are still not as uncomfortable for me as the body-beautiful orientation and elitism of Western yoga, I'm here, and so I guess we have to sit with the filth of wherever we are and try to rise above it.

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