February 28, 2011

The Poverty of DVD Yoga. ~ Colin Hall

Photo from the wonderful blog Latino Review

A DVD is a product, not a mode of instruction. Yoga is an initiatory tradition that requires a direct connection between guru (teacher) and shisya (student). The heavily mediated teacher-student relationship encouraged by Yoga DVDs is alienating for students, depleting for teachers, and is not useful in the cultivation of free-thinking and independent yoga practitioners.

There is a double-edged sword of DVD production that effectively undercuts the ability of a teacher to deliver effective yoga instruction. If a DVD yoga teacher gives plenty of instruction, modifications, and explanations of why students should do the things they are being asked to do, then the DVD will be become boring and repetitive after the student has watched it couple times. If the DVD yoga teacher forgoes the actual instruction and delivers a stripped down, platitudinous script devoid of any actual insight or explanatory power, then the DVD will become a best-selling contribution to the dumbing-down of yoga in North America.

Effective yoga instruction is characterized by three components:

Photo: Khatawat

1.      Intimacy: Yoga is more than a technique. It is a way of being. And that way of being can only be learned by being in proximity to it. You don’t learn yoga so much as you absorb it.

2.     Interactivity: Yoga requires feedback. As students of yoga, we cannot see ourselves clearly. Mirrors provide only a reflection. Only a teacher can see us as we are help us align with our true nature.

3.     Individuality: Yoga is adaptable in order to meet the needs of different people in different contexts.  Muscle-bound manual laborers in the Yukon perform postures differently, have different needs, and require different instructions than lithe ex-dancers in New York City.

Yoga DVDs fail in all three components. They are heavily mediated with an imitated intimacy that comes in the form of banal compliments to non-existent students (i.e. “That looks great!” or “keep up the good work!”). DVD-making yoga teachers often attempt at interactivity through the clever use of DVD menus, but this produces a fast-food inspired reproduction of interactivity in which the illusion of choice attempts to mask the soul-less nature of the medium.

Yoga DVDs fail miserably at adapting yoga to meet the needs of real students.  More often than not these products offer the same tired sequences and cliché instructions with creative branding. Calling your DVD “Yoga for Energy,” “Yoga for Flexibility”, “Yoga for Claustrophobia”, or “Yoga Meltdown” (in the case of Jillian Michaels) does demonstrably change the fact that the product itself is nearly identical to every other yoga DVD on the market.  Same crap, different beach backdrop.

Yoga is taught and learned in relationships. Teacher-student, student-student, and teacher-teacher relationships are literally the vehicle through which yoga is transmitted from one generation to the next.

Photo: Zach Taylor

Because yoga is not simply a technique but also a way of being, one must be close proximity to that way of being in order to learn yoga. Yoga is absorbed from our environment as much as it is learned.  Like spending time with people who gossip constantly, eventually we will begin to gossip. Spend time with people who live in yoga, eventually we will begin to live in yoga. If we take the relationships out of yoga, we are left with a dead tradition. We are left with hollow technical ability masquerading as the stillness and clarity of yoga.

I am not opposed to products. I am making use of my computer as a write this essay. I am wearing clothes and will drive home from work today in a car. But we do not confuse a word processor with writing. We do not confuse clothing with warmth or vehicles with movement. And we should not confuse yoga products such as DVD with actual yoga instruction. The yoga DVD may play a role as a motivator if you have a hard time practicing at home, or as a source of inspiration if your teaching is getting a little dry and repetitive—but ultimately the yoga one encounters on DVDs is a yoga of poverty utterly bereft of the living experience of yoga necessary for actual yoga instruction.


Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has a MA in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions, and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.

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Gordon Kelley Mar 5, 2011 7:15am

I laughed when I read "Dark, menacing visions of a post-apocalyptic yoga where students connect to their favorite cyber "teacher" in the isolated comfort of their home yoga studio."

Ever heard of YogaGlo? Online, economical, streaming yoga classes from very talented, and in some cases very well known yoga teachers. I'm amused by the thought that my sincere, solitary, heartfelt, beautiful and regular yoga practice to streaming internet videos and podcasts is seen by anyone as dark, menacing, and post-apocalyptic.

I go to class (Anusara) 3 times a week, and highly value having the live teaching experience. But to be able to do yoga at home by "taking a class" from Elsie'sYoga Kula podcast, or a YogaGlo streaming video from teachers like Noah Maze, is wonderful. My private, solitary yoga practice at home has been transformed by the ability to use pre-recorded level 2 classes. Even though there's lots of yoga where I live (Portland, OR), I cannot take a level 2 class every day — only 1 level 2 class is offered per week near me, and I couldn't afford it anyway. But I do a level 2 class 4-5 times a week, with recorded teaching from amazing individuals. Pre-recorded yoga classes (mostly Elsie Escobar's) have been the tool, the key that has unlocked my love of yoga from going to class a couple times a week to a daily practice.

Much of your argument about DVDs would sound just silly if you substituted "books" for "DVDs".

Really, what you did was assume that there is one best, preferred, and only way to Really Practice yoga. In that paradigm, DVD teaching is clearly ineffective. But in so many other contexts as many above commenters have observed, the use of pre-recorded yoga classes is beneficial for many people with different levels of experience with yoga and different levels of interest in yoga.

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