It was only a few years ago that I first started exploring the possibility of writing about contemporary yoga.
At the time, I was stunned to discover how little material on the subject I could find. Of course, I subscribed to Yoga Journal. But it generally wasn’t exploring the questions of yoga and American culture I had grown increasingly curious about. I was also familiar with many excellent works on how to do asana or understand traditional yogic philosophy. But that wasn’t what I wanted to read about most.
I wanted to read about yoga as I was experiencing it in the U.S. right here and now, with all of its crazy contradictions and weird cultural hybridity. I wanted to read about the strangeness of a popular practice that was providing me with stunningly mind-blowing experiences in such ultra-mundane settings as suburban studios and convention hotels—while at the same time, conversely (and perhaps perversely?) disturbing me with its fondness for repackaging once-sacred symbols as profit-seeking commodities.
As I experienced it, American yoga regularly mixed up the sacred and the profane in powerful, fascinating, and frequently maddening ways. Yet aside from a few articles I’d discovered here or there, it didn’t seem like anyone was writing about this.
Then I discovered the yoga blogosphere.
Quickly, I realized that here was the discussion I’d been hoping to find in books and magazines, but couldn’t. As I read through blogs that captivated me at the time—It’s All Yoga Baby, Linda’s Yoga Journey, Yoga Dork, My Third Eye Itches, Yogic Muse, Yoga for Cynics, and many others—I was excited to find others interested in the same issues I was, e.g.,: yoga and consumerism, the nature of postmodern practice, the strange mix of absurdity and profundity it inspires . . . and so forth and so on.
One thing led to another. And so, a little over a year ago, I found myself emailing Roseanne Harvey (who I’d met once in person thanks to Yoga Festival Toronto) to ask if she’d like to collaborate on what seemed like a cool, but possibly improbable project: that is, co-editing a book of essays that was rooted the culture of the yoga blogosphere, but grew the writing into a more complex and lasting forms.
Roseanne was characteristically enthusiastic—“yes yes yes!” she shot back—and 21st Century Yoga was born. (Note: To learn more about the backstory to the book, listen to Jessica Durivage’s interview with me and Roseanne on Where is My Guru.)
Back to the Source
Given this history, I’m really happy to be able to do the 21st Century Yoga book club here on elephant journal. About half of the 21CY crew has written for elephant independently, and everyone involved is aware of the central (if controversial) role it plays in the yoga blogosphere. Personally, I’ve learned much of value from participating in the forum elephant provides—which, in keeping with the yoga world at large, I find alternately maddening and inspiring, never solidifying into a simple paradigm or static picture.
By bringing some of the content of the 21st Century Yoga to elephant, I hope to continue the cycle of writing, reading, reflection, and discussion that created it in the first place. Because 21st Century Yoga is a 100 percent social media-driven collaboration: not only did I “meet” Roseanne and the contributors online—we also used (and continue to use) the revolutionary new tools of social media (print-on-demand publishing, Amazon, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, etc.) to produce, promote, distribute and discuss it.
Ideally, bringing 21st Century Yoga back to the blogosphere that launched it will encourage new ideas, voices, and creative projects to emerge and develop. Whether that will happen, of course, remains to be seen. Regardless, I’m excited to share the work of the 21CY crew through our book posts and podcasts, and hope you will find it as innovative and inspiring as I do.
Launching the Conversation
In the coming weeks, you’ll have the opportunity to engage directly with Melanie Klein, Frank Jude Boccio, Chelsea Roff, Julian Walker, Angela Jamison, and Matthew Remski about their 21CY essays, which cover topics including body image, yoga commercialism, eating disorders, studio restructuring, community building, esoteric experience, and “Enlightenment 2.0.”
In the meantime, I invite you to consider some of the macro-questions we face as participants in the discussion of contemporary yoga (including but not limited to this book) that’s rapidly expanding both in print and online.
To boil it down, perhaps the most central question is: “What—if anything—are the factors that make a collective conversation about contemporary yoga worthwhile?”
This question has been on my mind since I recently received an email from a well-known yoga teacher protesting that all this discussion of yoga I’m so excited about is essentially destructive. Particularly given the successive shocks generated by the recent Anusara, Diamond Mountain, and Kaustaub Desikachar scandals, some, like her, feel that it’s time to keep quiet. Leave the commentary and critique behind, they urge. Practice quietly on your mat or sit silently on your cushion. This is the only way in which true yoga is practiced and insight gained—or so some claim.
I have a very different perspective. Although I know it may be problematically ambitious, I can’t help but be hopeful that books like 21st Century Yoga, Roots of Yoga, Threads of Yoga, Yoga Ph.D., Yoga for a World Out of Balance, and others—combined with the robust world of the yoga blogosphere and the work of some exceptional print journalists—will launch a new era in which critical reflection on contemporary yoga becomes the norm, rather than the exception in our community.
Personally, I believe that we need a modern-day Jnana yoga (intellectually engaged and discerning) movement to complement the equally valuable Karma (service) and Bhakti (devotion) streams currently developing. All, I think, are capable of enriching our “on the mat” practices in immensely valuable ways.
But I agree that before we speak—and particularly when that speech is public—it’s important to consider:
- What makes yoga discourse constructive or destructive?
- When is it better to speak out or keep quiet?
- Is critical reflection on contemporary practice intrinsically valuable – or not?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
And, please get ready for what promises to be a blockbuster discussion with Melanie Klein of FeministFatale on “How Yoga Makes You Pretty: Yoga, the Beauty Myth, and Me”—coming on the #12CY book club next week!
Photography: Sarit Z. Rogers / saritphotography.com
Editor: Kate Bartolotta