October 14, 2010

Ask a Wild Horse – Branding Hurts.

from Rebel Yoga Calendar by Hilary Lindsay, Photo by Rob Lindsay

I have a Black friend who is married to a Mexican.She told me that the other day someone looked at their baby and asked, “What is it?”  We need to define ourselves to be understood.  “What do you do?” is one of the first things someone asks when meeting someone else. How do we know where to put you otherwise? Where definitions are necessary to provide context, the more closely you define some things, the farther you get from the truth.

When someone asks me what kind of Yoga I teach, I like to say that I just teach Yoga. I came through the back door of Yoga at a time when it was a bit of a secret society. In the early ‘70’s there were few if any Yoga studios. I learned Yoga from an older boyfriend one summer between college sessions. We did Yoga, meditated and ate natural foods following the guidance learned in Yoga to live a clean and thoughtful life. I met Swami Satchidananda who made a lasting impression of love and acceptance. I read everything I could get my hands on about Yoga. Despite the fact that I was reading about different Yogis experience of Yoga it did not occur to me that there were different Yogas. It was still just Yoga. It wasn’t until Yoga’s popularity exploded that I saw division between schools which gets more distinctive as permutations continue to create new brands.

It would be fundamentalist to suggest that there is an original form of Yoga that is the only true Yoga. It’s not possible to mark the date that people began thinking and writing and talking about something that became Yoga as the true Yoga. The Yoga Sutras was certainly influenced by previous works and the interpretations of that book amongst others lead a few individuals including T.S.Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda to develop methods to teach Yoga. Krishnamacharya’s name is familiar to modern Yogis because his famous students spread his teachings to the West. Sivananda is recognized because he has a formal school of teaching that bears his name.

Their disciples went on to become Yoga’s first stylists whether they meant to or not. B.K.S Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabi Jois, who studied under Krishnamacharya, had unique spins to their teachings as did Sivananda’s student Swami Satchidananda. Branding began as soon as the first disciples taught Yoga as a system and created schools based on their unique impressions of it. These first rock stars of Yoga with a few others spawned offshoots and permutations. Some of them are less commercial and less familiar. There are second and third generation brands that most Yogis have heard of because they’ve amassed large followings.

There is nothing wrong with putting a name to a school and there is nothing wrong with a unique approach to a philosophy or religion for that matter. We perceive things according to individual grids and people see things differently. Variety is good for that. A huge segment of the population has started moving and becoming conscious of their bodies because of the extensive and well packaged Yoga programs all over the country. However, when you get too far from the essence of something it may not even be that thing anymore. If you learn under a devolved school, you may be missing something or offering a limited practice to your students. The trend is to patent a method to preserve and profit from it. There are methods with the word Yoga in the title that aren’t even Yoga.

The customer dictates what will be sold. It pays to have educated customers but Yoga has become widely identified as a workout or relaxation or a sing-along. We have divided, grafted, mutated, added and subtracted and the offerings of Yoga are as mesmerizing and confusing as the lights of Vegas. We have added the distraction of Yoga swag with Yoga bags and Yoga clothes, Yoga sox and Yoga toes, Yoga jewelry, Yoga music, Yoga posters, Yoga bumper stickers, Yoga alters, Yoga sculptures and Yoga icons. Many people do Yoga without knowing much about it. How will that change the face of Yoga in the next incarnation?

Studios are a safe haven for some and following a method can be a good way to focus but many of us aren’t cut out for that. We’re born to be wild horses. We don’t thrive in captivity. I’ve spent half a lifetime studying Yoga with different points of view at different times. Through a long distance lens that might not look like much if it’s not packaged as “something” but that’s the price of not living in a stable of my own or anyone’s making. I don’t have a method or a school. I just teach Yoga and it changes all the time. I suspect that someone might come upon my class one of these days and ask “What is it?” That’s O.K. with me. I’ll just tell them it’s a wild horse.

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