Since it’s hip right now to write about yoga’s degeneration, and since all the recent articles I’ve read have targeted Lululemon as the symbol of yoga world commercialization, I made up this purposefully silly dialectical prescription:
When the yoga world hands you Lululemons, you should make Lululemonade.
In other words, it would help if we could just roll with things a bit. Then we might see yoga’s future in a better light. Yoga is not degenerating; it’s just continuing to move in the direction that it has always moved, becoming more accessible and inclusive. That hasn’t changed, and there’s always been the same possible downside to yoga’s evolutionary process: increased commercialization and decreased depth.
The upside is that more people end up practicing and teaching yoga. Again, that’s been the case since yoga’s inception and like it or not, after 5,000 years, yoga has become something that can be taught effectively by people with no training as teachers.
I’m sorry. That’s the truth. Since I run hatha yoga teacher-training programs, it’s not in my best financial interest to spread the word, but facts are facts, and they refute what people like Waylon Lewis, editor of elephant journal, have written. Like so many other well-intentioned yoga world writers, Mr. Lewis decries the present state of teaching. Among other concerns, he thinks teachers don’t focus on alignment because they have not been trained well.
So, it’s funny that in his piece “The Future of Yoga…or Lack Thereof,” Mr. Lewis singles out Richard Freeman as an exception to the degeneration. It’s funny because Richard was never taught how to teach Ashtanga. I know because we had the same teacher, and from first hand experience, I know that the famous Pattabhi Jois only taught people how to practice, not how to teach. Even so, Mr. Jois gave teacher certifications to a lot of his advanced students.
So, was the famous Mr. Jois irresponsible? No. He didn’t train people how to teach because he didn’t have to. He knew that his best students would become good or even great teachers on their own because instructing yoga is something we can all do on one level or another, in one way or another.
Again, that’s just the way it is. And we should love the way it is. Why not? We love yoga.
It took yoga 5,000 years to become something easy to teach, so let’s appreciate what we’ve got. All the styles of hatha yoga (even Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga) are easy to teach. It’s clearly the point of their existence, since it’s the point of hatha yoga’s existence.
Hatha yoga replaced karma yoga as the yoga of its time because it was easier to teach; just as karma yoga replaced jnana yoga as the yoga of its time because it was easier to teach; just as jnana yoga replaced bhakti yoga as the yoga of its time because it was easier to teach; just as bhakti yoga replaced the original yogic form because it was easier to teach.
So, it’s all about evolution.
Yoga evolved to the point that it could be taught as easily as possible, and that means Pattabhi Jois was right not to worry about training his certified teachers. They learned just fine on their own. They learned just fine on their own even though the Ashtanga sequences include the hardest, riskiest poses there are. And the truth is that teaching the advanced poses is easier than doing them, which means Pattabhi Jois was only wrong about one thing. He shouldn’t have been afraid to certify any of his students.
Of course, students who receive actual teacher training do experience a faster learning curve. They go through less trial and error, and even long time Ashtanga instructor Tim Miller has taken to running teacher training programs. He’s taken to doing it even though he himself was never formally taught how to teach. Tim learned on his own, picking up things from fellow self-taught teachers as he went. Again, I know from personal experience that Tim is a great teacher, even when it comes to helping students with alignment.
Plus, Mr. Lewis couldn’t be more wrong about the connection between a supposed lack of focus on alignment and an increase in yoga world shallowness.
If anything, it’s the reverse. If anything, excessive concern about alignment is the problem. It distracts people from breathing well in class and it distracts people from studying yoga deeply. And that’s been the case now for decades. The truth is that older yoga teachers have been sounding the warning bell about alignment and injuries ever since they realized how many people were starting to teach yoga. They felt threatened on a business level, took to fear mongering, and started the whole “injury” scare.
And since people do get hurt doing yoga, the scare tactics seem justified. They seem warranted, but again, the reality is different. From what I’ve seen, experienced yoga teachers end up with the same percentage of injured students as inexperienced ones. For explainable reasons having to do with lack of muscle development, people get hurt in supposedly “gentle” yoga classes as often as they do in aggressive ones—and it’s really a matter of luck. As far as I know, no one has ever been seriously injured in one of my classes. I think it’s because I don’t think about injuries and so (knock on wood) the lack of fear creates a protective energy. That could be pre-rational hog-wash, but in any case, I don’t think fear is the way to go.
I think confidence is the way to go.
There’s good reason for us to have confidence in yoga. Its evolution tells us it’s important to appreciate the accessibility and inclusiveness of yoga’s newest form. Everyone can practice hatha yoga, and everyone who loves hatha yoga should be teaching it on one level or another, in one way or another. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “No fear.” Again, he was right.
We should cultivate courage and when we consider the future of yoga, we should trust that yoga itself knows what it’s doing.
Scott Smith Miller is director of Western Yoga College. He has written two books on yoga: What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga? and A Prelude to Radical Yogic Discourse. Mr. Miller has been running large general hatha yoga teacher training programs in Southern California for over a decade.
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Editor: Cassandra Smith