American mentality blocks ancient intentions of yoga. ~ Caroline Young

Via elephant journal
on Jan 27, 2012
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Photo: J. Star

In light of a recent controversial New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” followed by a bandwagon effect of yogis firing back, I feel naturally compelled to offer up my own two cents on what is going on in America.

First of all, I am a baby yoga instructor. In other words, I received my 200-hour training certification a mere six months ago and I realize I have much to learn.

However, I have been practicing for nearly nine years and was lucky enough to grow at a studio that has stayed true to yoga’s roots. In effect, I developed a clear understanding in my mind of what yoga should truly be about: Compassion, liberation, focus, acceptance, relaxation and inner joy.

Day 323 Kwan Yin
Photo: Happydog

And, I see exactly how we [Americans] are distorting it. We twist it and tweak it beyond belief. We now have a successfully spun web of everything contradictory to the true 2,000-year-old practice.

No wonder people are destroying their bodies and having “yoga injuries.” It has been taken to a level where it never initially intended to go –– a place of competition, comparison and purely physical gain. I was reminded by this blurred ego-centered vision of yoga after I walked into a beautiful studio excited to possibly teach there.

But I drove away an hour later feeling let down by my own culture.

The woman was perfectly nice but one of the first questions out of her mouth was, “Have you ever been to L.A.? Have you taken the classes out there? They are so much better than here.”

“Well, um, no,” I said. “I haven’t. What makes them so much better?”

Once she began rattling off her response, I felt disheartened. Her list of answers included “sweat”, “work-out”, “toned” and “tighter”.

After our L.A. conversation, I led her through a demo of one of my yoga classes. She kept saying, “I need to sweat! I need to sweat!”

This was the first studio I set foot in on my search. It really freaked me out.

I thought, “Is this what yoga has to be like now for us –– for Americans? Has our intense, ‘Go-Go-Go’ over-achieving attitude overflowed into an ancient Indian practice intended to release the ego and calm our minds?” We have “Yoga Bikini Bootcamps,” which makes me think we want yoga to make us look sexy as we strut our little yoga butts and bods on the beach.

Photo: lululemon athletica

We are obsessed with Lululemon pants, water bottles, tank tops and everything else as long as it has the little symbol on it and priced at least 50 bucks. We want to go into 109-degree rooms for 90 minutes to stare at ourselves in the mirror and be yelled at by our almighty yoga instructor on a microphone, all while we must keep reminding ourselves we are burning calories.

As a woman, I understand the want to look good in a bikini and the want to burn calories. I understand wanting to be “tighter” and “toned,” but that is why we have push-ups, weights, resistance bands, cardio machines, group fitness classes, bikes, running shoes and everything else- and I personally enjoy all of these things. I love to get my heart pumping and break a good sweat –– it is healthy. But it should not be a necessity in a yoga class.

To my relief, I quickly discovered there are definitely studios here maintaining true yogic ways and I am lucky enough to teach at a few of them. I feel fortunate to work in these studios and grow as a new teacher and to spread my passion with others.

My personal benefits from yoga are three-fold: mental, spiritual and physical. My practice helps me to create mental focus and clarity, to understand the inner-workings of my mind and to overcome obstacles and break any mental chains holding me back from living life to its fullest potential.

Yoga brings me closer to my heart to clear past betrayals and hurts, leaving me free to share love for myself and everyone else around me. It helps me to take responsibility for my words and actions, to acknowledge and accept my flaws, and to live with clearer intent and awareness of the world around me.

And my physical gain from yoga has nothing to do with the tightening of my rear end. It has to do with my ever- increasing acceptance of my body and feeling comfortable in my own skin. It has to do with feeling like a warrior.

I could go on and on about how yoga serves as a tremendous aid in the richness of my life. It does this for many people I know, along with thousands of others. And it can do this for everybody, even A-type Americans (I am one of them, okay?).

It is not just about the Asanas, the physical postures of the practice, but it is also about life off the rubber mat. Yoga is about taking what we develop in our practice, whatever that may be – joy, strength, unconditional love, compassion — and bringing it out into the world to share, to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.

The true journey of yoga – an exploration of the heart, mind and soul — must begin on the inside. And it certainly does not begin in a session of Bikini Bootcamp.

Edited by Lindsay Friedman.


Caroline Young is currently a freelance journalist and Kripalu-certified yoga instructor currently living in Atlanta.

Here is my blog.


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11 Responses to “American mentality blocks ancient intentions of yoga. ~ Caroline Young”

  1. Sarah A says:

    Great article! I agree completely!

  2. Dana W says:

    lovely and on point 🙂

  3. I definitely agree we have succeeded in making something so pure into a new way to compete. I have mixed feelings about this, though, as ultimately it does spread yoga to more people. I find many people are introduced to yoga in a "power" setting, and it can be an incredible gateway to the deeper practice. I am one of them 😉 As B.K.S. Iyengar said, "I do not want its widespread popularity to eclipse the depth of what it has to give to the practitioner.” Even in a studio in LA with tons of sweat, there is always someone in the room who will be touched to the core by the practice.

  4. Laura says:

    I applaud you! Keep up the effort to remain true to what yoga was designed for: union with the divine, whether through physical asana work or bhakti devotion or meditation. I think the biggest mistake Americans have made is to assume yoga is an exercise for the body, alone, when the stretches and poses are but a small part of the quest for divine union.

  5. Erika says:

    Spiritual materialism or spiritual narcissism are terms used to describe mistakes spiritual seekers commit which turn the pursuit of spiritualism into an ego building and confusion creating endeavor.[1] This is based on the idea that ego development is counter to spiritual progress. Chögyam Trungpa coined the term spiritual materialism with his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism from talks explaining Buddhism given while opening the Karma Dzong meditation center in Boulder, Colorado. He expands on the concept in later seminars that became books such as Work, Sex, Money.

    Conventionally, it is also used to describe capitalist or commercial efforts such as "new age" bookstores and wealthy lecturers on spirituality. Also it might mean the attempt to build up a list of credentials or accumulate teachings in order to present oneself as a more realized or holy person.[2] Author Jorge Ferrer equates the terms,[1] though others draw a distinction that spiritual narcissism is believing that one deserves love and respect[3] or is better than another[4] because one has accumulated spiritual training instead of the belief that accumulating training will bring an end to suffering.

    That was taken from Wiki and it cuts to the chase of my above comment. Don't assume that because that woman who wants a "workout" or whatever is a totally misinformed person. Maybe she is enlightened.

  6. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I had some kind of dream that I was in a yoga arm balance last night. ME???? I don't go to a yoga studio anymore or take yoga classes outside the home, anywhere else. I innovated my own home practice sequence that I have been doing for a number of years now. It features primarily standing balancing backbends. And, really no arm balances, except for one or two instances of kakasana, and I can hardly do THAT. Plus I'm an old lady already.

    Will somebody please stop this merry-go-round already?

    For I wanna get off …

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  8. ValCarruthers says:

    The place to start from, Erika, is not whether just the woman who wanted a sweaty workout was enlightened but that the woman, Caroline, you and the rest of the planet are all enlightened right now and to see everybody as such. All that happened as a result of the encounter was that Caroline and the woman were simply not right for each other. Given the extreme body consciousness of American fitness it can be easy for a newly minted Yoga teacher from the Kriplau lineage of *meditation in motion* to be disconcerted by the woman's emphasis on Yoga as workout.

    Being Kripalu certified myself (2005)—and with additional training in an Iyengar-based style—I know the feeling. About a year ago I was contracted by a private group at a leisure community to teach them Yoga two days a week and Pilates (which I'm certified in as well) one day a week for four months. A month or so into the program due to coercion from a few members the schedule was flipped so Pilates got doubled and Yoga got halved. Why so? One of the members in question felt the need for "more of a workout" than she was getting from the Yoga classes, which had emphasized breathing over feeling the burn and learning to hold postures vs the constant activities they already had going. While being cooperative about the shift I explained my position nonetheless. While I would give them their desired "workout that Yoga as I teach it was more of a "work-in."

    The "happy ending" if you will is that Caroline went on to find a supportive environment for her particular passion, one that presumably will foster her growth and understanding on all levels.

    Btw, the anti spiritual-materialism tenets that you got from Wiki hardly "cut to the chase." They were very lengthy, each one deserving of specific commentary. Tenets [3] and [4] seemed to best relate to your point. Might have been nice to have heard more of those points in your own words.

  9. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I am so glad Pilates is in the house!

    I will sooner put chanting into my yoga practice than take accessible corework (pilates-like) out … [by "accessible", I mean that having little or no headstand/arm balancing ability (that stupid dream did mean something, subconsciously … lol), I can still get my core worked … the value of isontonic/isokinetic movements is underrated in "power" presentations of yoga these days]

    Yet, also, the power of sound is such a wonderful thing … I used to be able to tell how it brought a class together … by how, most of the time, in harmony the class sounded at the end …

    Also, on average, the means, definition and value of "kicking butt" in a yoga or other mind/body class changes once you get to be a certain age:

  10. […] Ancient cultures—past, present and future—are number one on the hit list of modern greed and this is happening in native lands all over our world, not just Tibet. […]