Idolatry? In yoga? Really?
As someone who was brought up in a religious family, I understand the highly negative connotations of the word “idolatry” and how it is typically utilized, namely as the pejorative term for “idol worship” or veneration that has prevailed within a few religions over the centuries. And yes, unfortunately, it is used to hurt people and create more dissention.
But this is not the kind of idolatry I am referring to. If we look up the definition of the word “idolatry” in the dictionary, we find two clear definitions:
1. The worship of a physical object as a god (not what I am talking about here).
2. Immoderate attachment or devotion to something (this is what I’m referring to).
So, now that we have hopefully quelled your concerns, let me explain myself.
As the years have come and gone and I have fallen more and more in love with yoga, I’ve also become slightly heartbroken as I’ve witnessed a rare occurrence in our community—that of idolatry.
It seems to me that, in spite of ourselves, we have become obsessed and immoderately attached to how much yogic “fame” we can attain as teachers, students and athletes.
Stories of yoga “competitions” and millions of pictures of incredible yogis performing amazing poses atop fantastic locations—meant to showcase that person’s ability to perform a particular asana (yoga pose) in a masterful manner—have quickly gone viral and taken over.
Now, please don’t get me wrong—I am the first one to search, tag, post, pin, share and take these pictures because, frankly, they are awe-inspiring. But I do find it heartbreaking that in some instances (“some” as in “not the norm”) these lovely images are being used strategically to market one’s efficacy and prowess in the field of asana in the hopes of drawing a larger following.
Knowing that some have used these tactics to lure people and then take advantage of them by indoctrination or abuse is just depressing. I have read several articles regarding “mean girls” and “snobby” behavior in the yoga community, and I think part of it has to do with this phenomenon.
I can see some people taking advantage of their athletic prowess to try to dictate what is acceptable or expected from a yoga practitioner and using it as a means to generate an elitist community that allows only the best of the best to become acknowledged, rewarded and idolized.
I perceive these “my yoga practice is much better than yours” and “x, y, or z is not a real teacher because they can’t perform this highly complex asana” attitudes as nothing more than idolatry tools, utilized to manipulate and instill a sense of superiority within a group of people that really should not exist in a yogic community.
The whole concept of competing with one another to see who can strike the best parivrtta trikonasana sickens and disappoints me. I think it is important to remember that there is so much more to the practice than asana.
There is a thread of truth that unites us in this life, and that thread runs through the very core of the yoga tree. Yet we have somehow forgotten all about it. We have gotten so wrapped up in the competition to be the best, the most recognized, the most amazing yogi out there, that we have allowed other people to assign immoderate attachment and devotion to how far they can go in their pursuit of a perfect body or yoga career.
We have promoted love of the physical and demoted breath work, meditation, compassion and oneness to nothing more than an added perk to our yoga practice. (If only I had a penny for every time I heard someone say, “You can always focus solely on the physical and leave the rest behind.”)
We have upped the ante by encouraging people to practice so they can look like a model or superstar.
We have coaxed people to use the practice as a means to tone up and lose weight before anything else (e.g., utilizing weights in yoga practice).
We have determined that only a few people who are great at asana can dictate the value of the practitioner while forgetting that each person’s practice is unique. Some people have even spent every last penny they saved on following a person who in the end was nothing but a fake, a master of manipulation and a virtuoso in becoming an idol.
We have deemed certain brands and looks as yoga “acceptable” and we have allowed teacher trainings to be come solely about attaining certification instead of truly allowing this learning experienc to become a journey towards something more, a way to rediscover who we are as teachers and find our individual voices as such.
We are now surrounded by lost new yoga teachers who know nothing about the practice or the tradition but are filled with business chatter and insecurities that stem from a demand to emulate and, in some cases, to be an exact copy of the person who led their training or “trademarked” a particular style.
We have students being led by teachers who have only practiced yoga once or twice a week for less than a year but are athletic enough to pretend otherwise.
We have students who are adept at physicality thinking that they know better than their teachers, rushing to get certified so they can revolutionize the “slow and boring” yoga that so very clearly and desperately needs more weights, fancy pants, medicine balls and resistance bands.
Everywhere you turn, this idolatry has taken over our yogic culture. So many practitioners and teachers are turning their noses up at certain kinds of yoga that may differ from their own, chanting only when they are trying to impress someone or quoting the Gita incorrectly when they find cameras surrounding them so they may seem more enlightened.
Yet they come across as disingenuous, because what they really want is to sweat and burn those calories away.
In fact, the topics of chanting and sacred books have become taboo in most places, and goodness forbid that you decide to encourage your students to learn how to OM properly or understand the Sutras, because what you are doing is clearly brainwashing and no one needs this in yoga anyway.
After all, isn’t yoga is just a series of stretches done to make you feel and look better? Why use creepy chanting that will most likely damn you to hell and back again, when you can simply sweat and move and ignore the history behind the practice and all the mumbo-jumbo that comes along with it?
As we allow our idolatry for physicality to take over, we are not only neglecting the spirit and mind but the very body we are so fixated on. How many times have you taken or taught a class where the majority of the students lack physical control and awareness?
How many times have you gotten confused as to what type of yoga you were participating in because no one was breathing properly, or following the teacher’s cues or even paying attention to their bodies as they approached something that may have been beyond their current ability?
How many huffing and puffing and “weight-lifter” attitudes and sounds have you encountered in a vinyasa class? And how many times have you seen people’s faces distort in pain when pushing through a pose they are clearly not ready for because they want to achieve perfection in spite of what it may cost them in the long run?
I wrote this article in order to shed some light on this phenomenon, to see if we can strive to stay away from idolatry and focus on a true path, a true search for all that yoga can offer if we are willing to listen and pay attention.
Can we reverse this ridiculous trend before it kills all the lovely, sweet, sacred and unique parts of the practice? Or will this idolatry continue to expand, generating more and more ego-driven comparison and competition amongst us?
Will we help heal with sthira-sukha, or will we continue to pretend that the old adage “no pain, no gain” should apply to yoga as well? Will we remind those around us as well as our selves that we must breathe, connect, release and remain open to grace, or will we continue to fear rejection and focus only on our sweaty, strength-driven idolatry?
I hope the answer is that it is not too late, and that we can slowly heal our fame/body driven addiction and return to what truly matters. Only time will tell.
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Assist Ed: Dejah Beauchamp/Ed: Sara Crolick