October 6, 2011

Yoga: the ancient wisdom of Californians.

Relephant bonus addition: video discussion with CEO of Yoga Alliance: How can we help ensure that Yoga Teachers know what they’re doing?

The Future of Yoga…or Lack Thereof.

An Analogy.

“Food has changed more in the last 50 years than in the prior 10,000.” ~ Michael Pollan

Up until the 1940s or so, food was food—and had been food for, say, farrrrr longer than 5,000 years.

We cultivated varieties of apples, etc.—so that they’d be delicious and healthy and hardy (and, hearty). After Dubyadubya Two, however, chemical warfare companies needed to find a way to make money in peacetime…remarkably, companies (cough: Monsanto!) dedicated to killing and poison transitioned into fertilizer and, since, 2000 or so, genetically-modified foods.

Where only 50 years ago there were, say, 100 varieties of easily-accessible tomatoes at your friendly local market stand, now we have, say, just three in your average grocery store.

The Irish Potato Famine happened ’cause the crop was vulnerable, it all got killed all at once by one damn blight. We’re setting ourselves up for this again on an epic scale: this time, all food, everywhere, in its newly homogenized form, is vulnerable to virus or disease.

And food, of course, is the basis of all life, health, happiness, business, mortgages, jobs. You know: everything.

Getting to the point at hand.

I’m sharing that little concern because, in my view, Yoga is—right now—in an analogous situation.

We wouldn’t know it, however, not yet—we have amazing teachers like Richard Freeman, Tias Little, Georg Feuerstein who know their stuff—who know enough that, as Richard said last month—to know that they “don’t know that much, still” (he said this in a pranayama and lecture class I attended and dragged a colleague to, who would have much preferred a “real” yoga class—you know, physical—at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado).

And if Richard Freeman’s vast knowledge of yoga doesn’t, in his estimation, amount to “that much, still”…well, imagine the knowledge of our average-to-wonderful yoga teacher at your average-to-wonderful local yoga studio who graduated from your average-to-wonderful two-week yoga teacher training that accepts all applicants, provided they can cut a check.

Now, I’m not saying yoga teachers of my generation aren’t good people. Some of them are. Many are charming, charismatic, caring, sweet. But many don’t know or care much about alignment. Yoga, without alignment, is dangerous. Many play music in class, which is horrible/fine (depending on our pov). Many are ambassadors for lululemon, or other marketing-happy clothing companies that don’t bother to make eco or fair labor fashion but do bother to spend millions in R&D to make sure your tush looks fit. Many teachers have great twitter/facebook/blog and general new media/social media presence. Some have agents and iPhone apps and books.

All of that is good—we’re doing an incredible amount to get yoga out to the masses who might otherwise not give a care. The other day I went on a hike with a yoga teacher who, in college, was a bit lost in the world of partying and fancy jeans and shallow relationships (her words)…and for whom yoga (with music, I’m sure) was her one outlet, her one connection to the sweet Catholicism of her youth, her one connection in those crazy/hazy years to relaxation, to living more healthfully…and now she’s as happy and sweet and genuine a person as you’ve ever met.

So the yoga celebs—Tara Stiles, Elena Browers, Sadie Nardinis, Baron Baptistes, Bikram Choudhurys, Kathryn Budigs, Seane Corns, John Friends [add your favorite Insta celebs here]…and random local yoga teachers of the world? I namaste and ommmmmmmmmm to you in gratitude. I mean it. No, seriously. I mean it: our speedy, materialistic, silly, wonderful society needs an hour or two of peace and breath a day or week, and yoga-for-the-masses provides that.

Yoga is tonic for the world’s ills.

But who among us is studying yoga in the depth that the last generation did? Not me. Who is stewarding the roots of yoga, which are about “stilling the waves of the mind,” as Patanjali puts it? Is meditation a part of your typical yoga class? No: but Thievery Corporation or Michael Franti or Govinda or Jack Johnson or Gotan Project is.

Sites like Yogaglo give me hope. If we can dig up and/or archive the teachings of Richard and Patricia Walden and Judith Hanson Lasater and Tim Miller and John Friend, let alone BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois and others…future generations will have a wealth of real, “live” teachings to learn from. I talked with Yogaglo at Yoga Journal conference—and asked if they’d begin offering more lectures and study sessions, not just asana classes.

Because yoga isn’t what we picture when we hear the word “yoga.” It’s not yoga pants. It’s not young models exercising with pastel backgrounds before they get back into their SUV and pop by Whole Foods to grab some quinoa for their 1.8 children.

What is yoga?

1. Yoga is a spiritual path. Yoga is about becoming a more fully present, genuine, compassionate person.

2. And, yoga is—for those who don’t want to become happy holy spiritual types—a physical exercise that will—as a pleasant side effect—open up your mind and heart so that you, yes you—are a better businessperson, saner lover, better parent, more focused athlete, relaxed child.

Both are yoga. But we must take care of the less marketable, less salable form of yoga…lest in ignoring the roots we lose the flower.

Richard and the last generation of yoga greats are still teaching, so this little question might not seem urgent.

But in just 10 years…who will present yoga in depth? And who will learn it? Not the legions of new yoga teachers that pass through the doors of Corepower and Yogaworks, each month (again, god bless ’em—larger, more accessible studios are creating genuine, peaceful armies of good people in this crazy world).

So: will you or your favorite local yoga teacher accept this important challenge and responsibility—and study, practice and teach yoga’s roots?

So: if your yoga teacher spends more times on their playlist than

  1. respectful adjustments (ask first),
  2. alignment,
  3. reminders about breath, and
  4. intention (to be of benefit)…

you may be doing a vaguely dressed-up aerobics. And that is okay—really. But it may not be watering the roots of yoga, and it may not be safe for your body long-term, or transformative for our health and relationship with our habitual patterns.


Bonus, from this year’s Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado:

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Zach Chupa Apr 25, 2019 7:42am

I’ve been inclined for the last two decades to strip things down and choose to see the basic integrity (or lack thereof) behind any fad or commercialized product in regards to being “happy” and/or being “fit” …. and really it’s “Taking-Things-In” and “Movement” and not the cliche “happy” and “fit” …. and digging down further we see it’s really about “breathing while using our senses to slowly absorb and experience the world us” -AND- at the same time, moving our bodies consciously with strength, balance, and poise amongst that world around us that we can now better perceive.
But this propagandistic notion that there is only a correct way to go about it or that you have to place limitations on yourself to achieve some level of centeredness before you can be happy is not only nonsense, but hurtful and full of harm. And proof is in the pudding on that doctrine…. I see way too many “yogis” that have no real bodily strength or physical poise to balance off their breathing or sitting. And opposite side of the same coin, there are too many meatheads who believe strength is the only guiding principle.
Humans are meant to move… a lot!!!!!! And humans are meant to slow down and just take in wonders and amazement around them. When I’ve integrated the two, i get life experience that no one can take away. The commercialization of various disciplines is rampant. I look to people like Ido Portal for moving the body in a primal way or the fact I’ve been running for 30 years and that combines both breathing, sensing, movement, being calm and exertion all in one… and that harkens back to our hunter-gatherer DNA.
Working in the garden is huge!!! Again a balance of breathing and movement. If being in a yoga studio helps you adopt a good and healthy discipline to use, then wonderful. But being told by people making money off you that you can only do things a certain way to find true happiness is ludicrous and a waste of time.

Alice DeRosa Apr 25, 2019 7:32am

Fantastic article I recently tried out a knew yoga studio in my area, and the instructor cursed and played loud rock music, not for me. I agree there are many variations today on this ancient practice , I have taken some great yoga classes over the years with some amazing instructors I find myself drawn to the more spiritual aspects of yoga breathing and proper alignment. In my travels when I go to a studio I am knew too I have felt in some classes like I was doing gymnastics, but to each his own. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you ??

yogijulian Aug 21, 2014 9:25pm

1) great article, fun meme/graphic!

i wanna also point out that "alignment" is largely a construct of the modern iteration of yoga, and may indeed be part of the wisdom of the californians….. check out the photos of krishnamacharya in desikachar's heart of yoga and you will see asana that any yoga works TT grad would be "correcting" all day long!

sure, iyengar may have come up with some very precise cues on doing asana correctly, but this may well (according to folks like sovatsky and singleton) been, like the language in "light on yoga," part of a project to get the colonialists to respect yoga as more scientific and precise rather than the associations they would have had with a more rootsy contortionist/fakir/sadhu aesthetic on the one end and even free form tantric rapture on the other…

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