Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think A Helluva Lot Of People Are Being Duped). ~ Irasna Rising

Via on Jul 18, 2012

Photo: Flickr/Eugenijus Barzdzius

Like millions of Westerners out there, I too joined the yoga bandwagon about eight years ago.

After trying out my first Bikram class, I moved onto Moksha and then settled at a hot yoga studio, which practices all types of yoga, in a hot space.

I too fell in love with how yoga made my body feel after a particularly tough workout.

I too fell into the pseudo-spiritual aspects of the practice.

And, finally, I too got burned out by the practice.

Disillusioned—and at times—even disgusted at the people who I thought should be setting an example to the rest of us. But, as it turns out, they are even more messed up than you realize and yoga was just an effective cloak to hide their true nature.

For me, it was and always will be, the health benefits of yoga which attracted me and which still keeps me around but I also, perhaps in my naïveté, thought the people who were a part of the scene would be as sincere as they appeared to be.

I had read every book out there, was thoroughly sick of the New Age charlatans claiming to have psychic abilities all in the name of Mr. Dollar—and selling their wares, whether it was books, weekend retreats or $1000 seminars—and I became very disenchanted with what the so-called “good life” that a westernized professional was offering (it’s a formula, no more.)

With yoga, I finally felt that I found something authentic, based on authentic teachings…plus I felt great afterwards.

The people seemed nice; they had read and kept quoting all the great seers and sages of the centuries: Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Rumi, Hafiz and more recently, writers like Eckhart Tolle. They were into the green movement, recycling and genuinely concerned about Mother Earth. They wore Toms and donated to legitimate foundations like Unicef, Right to Play and so on.

But a few nagging observations wouldn’t leave me.

1. First of all, I’m of Indian heritage. I’m brown. You look at me and you know I’m ethnic. I speak the language and still have many extended family members in India and I go back to visit often. By and large (and I’m generalizing since it’s not always the case) but yoga in the West is increasingly becoming a trendy diversion for the affluent and bored—or those who are obsessed with the body beautiful and the cult of hedonism which follows that.

Now, I see yoga branching out into such things like chocolate yoga or trance dance yoga, where in short, the culture of the nightclub or rave is being super-imposed onto yoga.

India is still deeply conservative, socially; arranged marriages are still the norm in the villages and were also the norm in the big cities, until maybe twenty years ago. Binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and drug taking, which are elements of the club culture, are strongly frowned upon and considered socially unacceptable in many social circles in India. But yet, it is being passed off as something that is a part of yoga by North American suburban kids and marketers looking for the next big trend…when it just isn’t true.

I can barely make out one non-Caucasian at this Bikram yoga training session.

2. It is extremely classist. It lacks plurality and inclusiveness. I do not see many people of blue-collar backgrounds who can afford these classes on a regular basis—and many of them are precisely the ones who could probably benefit the most from yoga. Most of the studios in my city charge around twelve hundred dollars for an unlimited yearly membership. That’s serious coin.

I can hardly  envision a stressed out, single mother, trying to raise her kids on social assistance being able to afford that when she probably needs the benefits of yoga more than the pampered trophy wife who just returned form her five-star shamanistic initiation retreat in Bolivia.

If anyone can find a non-Caucasian here, let me know.

I walk into most of my yoga classes and I see nothing but a sea of white faces, with maybe the token black and asian. Some people may read that as a racist statement but I’m not trying to be racist—and this isn’t a reverse racism argument either—it is just my observation.

Yoga in North America caters to the affluent and is falling in line with the capitalist system of profit. It is increasingly distancing itself from the true roots of yoga.

 

3. It is really annoying to watch some white people try to act ethnically brown, when they are not…and will never be.

Pussy Cat Dolls

Intention is everything here. I can understand there is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation but when the Pussy Cat Dolls show up in saris at some premiere, you have to ask yourself: what is the intention?

Pale women with Shiva tramp-stamps do not look good in saris, doing Bollywood dance moves or wearing bhindis—especially if they have freckles (like, really.)

For Indian women, this is part of their cultural heritage and identity, not some gimmicky hip trend to try out and pose around in until the next trend shows up.

Ganeshananda—’m wondering how many Indian followers does he have?

4. Sanskrit, like Latin, is a dead language. Let it go already.

The Catholic Church let go of the Latin Mass after Vatican II back in the early 1960′s. Chanting in sanskrit does not make you look cool nor does it make you an automatic Hindu. Or, an authority on yoga, Vedic studies or Indology (yes, that is a real academic subject.)

Nor does having a made up Sanskit-derived moniker name make you any more real either with names like Blissananda, Ganeshananda, Serenityananda etc.

5. Just because it’s exotic does not mean it’s real or more authentic. Real Indians, in India, make fun of many Westerners behind their backs and are making money off of their ignorance.

Do you see real, native Indians, in the fancy expensive ashrams in India? No.

Do you see many native Indians “following” your Guruji? Probably not.

Do you see many Indian women at these open air clothing-optional Tantric weekend couples workshops in Hawaii?

Did you ever ask why not? I’ll let you in on a little secret: many of these so-called gurus and God-men (and women) of India are scam artists—but because their ashrams and centres bring in so much much-needed cash and tourist dollars, the Indian government looks the other way. And in fact, they are in on it too.

There is nothing spiritual about it. It’s a cash cow and they are milking many Western followers of yoga for all they can get. Not always—I am generalizing. There are some authentic teachers left in India—but they’re usually just minding their own business and not interested in selling anything or proselytizing people. Unfortunately, the former is happening more frequently than the latter.

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Another yogi who pretty much indirectly admits Caucasians are inferior to Indians is Bikram Choudhury. In his 60 minutes interview, he said that the intense physical aspects of Bikram yoga is more “suitable” to North Americans because they need to discipline themselves physically before they can start on the spiritual and psychic—and that it’s not necessary for Indians. That somehow, the physical and mental make-up of Caucasians is different from Indians and therefore, they need to do an additional step of rigorous physical training before attempting anything spiritual. Does anyone see the double-speak and double-standard here? (at 1:15 and 10:10)

Thai Forest Tradition Buddhist monk.

They are promising you enlightenment just as long as you pay up or keep giving enforced “donations”—but it doesn’t work that way.

Why do you think celibate Buddhist monks devote their entire lives to living in monasteries under vows of poverty, living off of alms, trying to achieve enlightenment?

Because it’s excruciatingly hard work—and it takes a lot more than a weekend retreat or two, plus reading a best-seller, to get there.

 

6. Yoga can become cultic—very quickly—and the levels of self-absorption and narcissism can sky-rocket easily if you don’t watch it…so keep your radar tuned in. I have heard stories of certain Jivamukti yoga instructors threatening to cut off friendships with other yoga instructors from other traditions because they were not completely vegan.

Really folks?

That’s all you can think about?

A woman runs from anti-riot police during a demonstration in Athens, Greece.

There’s a nuclear reactor in Japan which is about to fail and spells disaster for the West coast of North America. Workers in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal are on the front lines fighting technocrats and bankers who are trying to rob them of their right to live in some semblance of dignity and respect. There’s a Maoist insurgency in central India and peasants are trying to keep their land from mining companies and this is what you choose to bicker about?

7. The level of cultural awareness among some of the yoga set is pitiful at times. And yet, this is the same crowd that tries to come off as cultural and spiritual mouthpieces for Indian sub-continent.

It is truly a subcontinent, with vast differences in culture, religion, diet, language, customs and history. The only commonality you will find among Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Rajasthanis, Bengalis, Tamils, Goan, Keralese, Nepalis, Uttar Pradeshi, Kashmiri, Assamese, Ladakhs, Orissians etc is possibly the brown skin…if that.

Once upon a time, all these provinces and territories were their own kingdoms and countries. They were amalgamated and consolidated into one state and created into India by the British. Think of them as entirely different countries with their own unique identities—you wouldn’t mix up a Pole with a Russian (and if you did, they’d probably punch you), so why should you mix up a Tamil with a Punjabi?

You have no idea how annoying it is to hear some girl at the yoga studio look at you and say, “Oh, I have an Indian friend and her parents made her get married to some computer engineer in San Jose and she had to get this thing signed with witnesses. What’s that about?”

Me: “Was she Sikh?”

Girl: “No, I think she’s Muslim.”

Me: “Well, I’m Sikh, so I’m not really sure.”

Girl: “But she’s Indian, just like you.”

Me: “Yeah, but we have many different religions in India and practice things differently.”

And it just goes downhill from there.

In the end, I began to see how vacuous the scene was becoming and has become.

I still love the feeling I get after doing a session but I just can’t stand to be around the high-school popularity contest atmosphere which has permeated many of the studios these days—and some of the more vapid personalities who are claiming to be instructors and taking advantage of their privileges.

I know they are not all like that. There are some genuine, well-meaning people in the yoga community and some of them are doing some truly outstanding work.

But for me personally, I question the profit-driven, hedonistic aspects which seems to have taken over the subculture.

Yogadork recently had an article asking if yoga needs to grow up.

In short, yes. Big time.

*This pieced has been adapted from the original post on earthenergyreader.wordpress.com.

 

Earth Energy Reader is an over-educated but bored thirty-something who loves pugs, organic gardening, traveling to off-the-beaten-path places and pleasant surprises.

Likes: The Truther Movement, well-done astrology, 80′s alternative music, rainbows, flowers that smell like flowers, mashed potatoes, roasted garlic, wine and port, Indian, Thai and Greek food, Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Sunday brunch, reading, Ryzsyard Kapucinski books, old Jean Paul Gaultier, red lipstick, leopard print pumps, vintage hats and David Bowie.

Dislikes: Hip hop, country western music, Nickelback, New Agers, Canadian winters, Stephen King, sheeple, suburban mediocrities, Mexican food, Mondays, jocks, himbos and bimbos, people who ride their bicycle on the foot path and pedestrians on the bike path especially when the two paths are next to each other, people who stand at the front of the bus and block the entrance when there are tons of open seats in the back. You get the idea.

~

Editor: Bryonie Wise

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174 Responses to “Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think A Helluva Lot Of People Are Being Duped). ~ Irasna Rising”

  1. [...] reads that had me raising my eyebrow (but for different reasons) were these two online articles: Why I Left Yoga (and Why I Think A Helluva Lot of People Are Being Duped) and A Class for Every Yoga Mood. The latter may also qualify as a yuk it up feature, as it sure [...]

  2. Swami Param says:

    It is past time to give up the phony yoga movement. Real Yoga are the many teachings and practices of Hindu Dharma; taught by Hindus and not for a fee. If people want Hinduism, fine, if not, get out of the phony yoga business.

  3. sam says:

    As a relatively new practitioner, super excited about starting teacher training this fall, I was sad and troubled by this article. Part of my personal search for mindfulness includes not rejecting automatically things I don't agree with or understand. So I kept thinking about it. Also adding to my discomfort were my feelings about seeing what I felt were disrespectful white appropriations of Native American culture I saw on a recent trip through NM and AZ (the Kachina painted on the snack shop's sign really got to me!). Of course, I had to ask myself, am _I_ appropriating or exploiting another culture by loving and practicing yoga? The answer is: I certainly hope not. If intention counts for what I think it does, then I'm not.

    I'm so sorry that's been your experience with yoga. It hasn't been mine, and I sincerely hope it never is. I don't know what or who Lululemon or the Pussy Cat Dolls are, but I doubt I'd see them as a genuine representation of _anything_. Sad to say, we encounter insincerity and dishonesty in many places. Then we have to decide how to respond to it.

  4. thirtydaysofyoga says:

    :O( So sad. I personally believe you get out of it what you put in and when you stop looking around at what others are saying, doing or wearing, yoga becomes intensely personal, very powerful and wonderful. Your view is entirely external and of course, you're entitled to your external impression but it doesn't make it true. I hope you find what you're looking for.

  5. quantum probability says:

    For me, it was and always will be, the health benefits of yoga which attracted me and which still keeps me around

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the Mark Singleton piece that was so popular maybe a year ago. He argues that much of yoga practice is not rooted in (faux) spirituality but began ~100 years ago as a series of merely physical exercises.

  6. [...] read Irasna Rising’s rage against the yoga machine, “Why I Left Yoga & Why I Think a Helluva Lot of People Are Being Duped,” and I felt validated. It felt good to read it the way it feels good when your girlfriends [...]

  7. [...] But here’s the thing, even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the western yoga world is an un-safe and un-welcoming place for many [...]

  8. [...] But here’s the thing: even though I’m a yoga teacher I can see how the Western yoga world is an unsafe and unwelcoming place for many people. [...]

  9. [...] the hardest part about embracing yoga for me: the pretentious, holier-than-thou side; or as one friend put it, the part of yoga that is “a bunch of rich white people saying namaste [...]

  10. [...] The current situation inside Tibet is becoming increasingly more tense and daily news of self-immolations certainly doesn’t make for a bright and cheery pre-Christmas mood. I do not want to enter the political debate over Tibet, but in the past 12 months I have learned more about life and spirituality than any yoga class, ashram stay, retreat or teaching I have ever attended (and there have been a few in my time). [...]

  11. [...] to elephantjournal.com for posting my yoga article which sent the yoga community into a tailspin back in July. I had no idea my experience of the yoga [...]

  12. [...] the Vatican warns against its perceived conflict with Christianity. Others point out that the trend fetishizes another culture while catering mainly to the white and affluent. (Think the scene in Annie Hall where a Los Angeles [...]

  13. [...] her post, Roro references another highly-relevant exploration of the topic, “Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think A Helluva Lot Of People Are Being Duped)” by Irasna Rising. Rising touches on a lot of the other problematic aspects of the current yoga [...]

  14. fanwar says:

    Impressive thoughtful article, agree with your points and inspired with your views!

  15. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was a tireless critic of the professional meditators who fool the innocent public with their yoga and meditation techniques that have noting to do with spirituality and everything to do with increasing physical health only for the sake of sex-life. The present day so-called yogis have no real spiritual power like the rishis of old. They sell yoga siddhis and teach meditation only for the prestige and money and glamour of being "teachers" and have no understanding of true spirituality, which as taught in Bhagavad-gita is bhakti-yoga, loving union with the Godhead, Sri Krishna, through surrender to the guru who is coming down in disciplic succession from Krishna Himself. The modern day bhakti movement was inaugerated by Sri Caitanya 500 years ago. Any interested persons can learn about bhakti and loving devotion at http://www.krishna.com. Hare Krishna.

  16. Nicole says:

    Just because I'm a white teenage girl with freckles who has lululemon things does not mean that I should be looked down upon from people like you. My yoga practice is mine and only mine. If i choose to wear certain clothes because it enhances my practice then thats my choice. I agree with some of the things you said but you should be less concerned with what is going on around you and more concerned with what your body is feeling.

  17. melissa says:

    Hear, hear to the author and to Laksmi's comments above and a few others that are willing to see past their own agendas to the truth of this article.
    but Wow, just wow. The level of unexamined privilege, racism and justification for cultural appropriation dripping from most of these comments is truly cringe-worthy and brutal, especially the first few pages. It completely proves the original premise that Westerners are comfortable co-opting other cultures and then bashing those that would call them on it. The response to someone telling you that wearing their cultural dress and spiritual symbols is offensive is to tell them: "no, it's not offensive if I say it isn't. I can wear it if I want to cuz other people wear other stuff or cuz I've fully embraced my cultural appropriation. and besides, it looks so good on me, so I will?" Seriously?
    A person sharing their lived experience of racism and cultural appropriation deserves to be treated as real and frankly trumps your theory or wishful thinking. It just does. You can't experience living on that side of things unless you actually do. And slapping them in the face a few more times by telling them their experience (and their willingness to share it) is wrong or some how misguided or it offends your ears to have to listen to it, is just re-affirming that racism and oppression. Surely some of you can see that, right?
    If there are no People of Color or folks from different socio-economic statuses in classes, then that is NOT an accident, it is a SYSTEMIC problem, despite any one person's belief in unity and all one. Systemic racism and oppression require effort on the part of those enjoying the privilege (ie White people, upper classes, etc) to dismantle them. I highly recommend looking up/getting to a live training on some racism 101 stuff, stat. Please, please. It will help us all understand so much more about what it really means to be "all in this together." Being enlightened doesn't mean living in a sunny bubble of privilege. It includes being able to look at reality and to sit with uncomfortable truths. And hopefully take some actions to change them.

  18. Kelly says:

    This article really fired me up as after 13 years of practice I couldn't imagin yoga not being part of my life. I as a teacher use sanskrit words because a) I dont know a lot of the english translations b) part of the reason I was told we use sanskrit is so that people of all different languages could come to our class and would know what pose they are doing c) To honour the traditiona and d) I love the way they sound – much the same reason I learnt Spanish. I apologise if I can't pronounce the words perfectly but I feel when people of a different background to me prounounce words in English wrong that I am patient and compassionat whilst listening to them. The thing is that the same way we green wash environmental advertising – anything can be exploited and turned into solely a money making venture. India has thousands of years of vedic and yoga culture – we in the West (I am in Australia) have a very short history comparitively and for that reason the culture has to go through a maturation process just like everuthing else in nature. Perhaps yoga is in it's third chakra ego driven stage… but what I see is more and more choice arrising in how people choose to practice their yoga. I immerse myself in the texts because I don't want to stop at one limb of yoga… many may – and thats fine – but many will move on in their own time. I know a small amount of people in my small town who are f INdian descent (I am sorry I don't know if they are punjabi or maharathi etc.) and they don't practice asana but practice bakti yoga and hence why we don't see them in the studios… I feel that they are perhaps at a different stage in learning to what is on offer in many studios as much of it is infused in their heritage (my impression) but that doesn't mean that their should not be spaces to provide for the people that are in a different stage. I don't agree with exorbitant prices being charged but I do beileve in value and just as I value the business owner next door to me charging for their services in order to feed their family and fill their own cup in order to have the energy to share their gift with the world – so to do I believe it is ok to charge for my services as a yoga teacher. I also know that spending time at the Hindu temple near me for the festival of Lord Ganesha I was the only white person there and I didn't feel threatened by that (although my 4 year old niece did) and loved the way that everyperson their was so happy to see us there and share in their rich and vibrant culture. Much of it is just of interest – I have no desire to be Indian nor dress in Saris etc. but I want to experience all cultures and be interested in the different human experiences.

    All I know is this yoga journey has offered me much more than my own anglo-saxon spiritual history has ever done in the way of something that truly has the power to transform my life and I believe the lives of others. I love the feeling I get when I read the bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras and no matter how many times I read I get more from them – more than the bible has ever given me. So I am sorry if you find it offensive to share this spriritual culture with a white girl with freckles…. if you could suggest another way that I could maintain my light in order to do good in this world then that would be lovely because as far as I am concerned I give more to the world as a practitioner of yoga than I would if it had not come into my life.

  19. Desi and proud says:

    westerners did not bring yoga to the west. indian yogis brought yoga to the west. racist comments like this are why this woman wrote this article in the first place.

    and have you ever been to india? why are you insulting the place? your comment is hateful and even more of a crock of cow shit than the article, which i didn't even like.

    i'm an indian woman who has grown up all over the world though mostly in the US. i have had moments (years) where i disliked white people in indian garb or getting involved in traditionally indian things because many white people have this annoying habit (hello, does colonial legacy mean anything to you?) of unapologetically appropriating other peoples cultures.

    in saying that, i do think that this author is complaining and overly generalizing and that there are many many things that she could do to remedy the issues she has with the practice in the west. be the change you want to see in the world, right? i also agree with some of the comments above about this article focusing on material issues when all people in the world are one.

    but your comment is unwarranted and hateful. take a look at yourself before criticizing others.

  20. Rita Kirkpatrick says:

    Since you took offense to the article, you must know that its about people like you.

  21. Lakshmi says:

    Thank you for this!!

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