January 10, 2013

An Inquiry into 21st Century Yoga. {Book Review} ~ Loretta Pyles

photo: saritphotography.com / design: drewfansler.com

I am inspired, invited and given permission to share more deeply with people who place spiritual exploration, compassion and social transformation at the center of their lives.

It was supposed to have been one of those romantic winter vacations where I didn’t have to produce anything and my only goals were to do sadhana, play my new harmonium and catch up on the stacks of books that had piled up half-read since the summer.

One of those books was 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. After reading it, I found myself so moved by this collection of essays that I was compelled to write a review (of sorts).

Damn. I wanted to take the week off.

I’d had this book around for a couple of months and had avoided picking it up. I think this was primarily because I knew the book involved serious criticism of contemporary spiritual practice. As an academic and an activist (and a hopeless pitta), I’m certainly not a stranger to critical inquiry. But yoga practice is just such sacred ground for me; I wasn’t sure I really wanted to expose myself to a critique of it.

Thankfully, I’m not really that fragile.

This book encompasses a lot of themes that are of great consequence to me as an activist, feminist, educator and yogini—the cultural commodification of yoga, the social construction of the female body and the relationship between spirituality and social change. The authors acknowledge that yoga is in its “adolescence” in the West (maybe just in its infancy?) and are interested in questioning its assumptions and adherence to traditional doctrine, as well as its innovations. In addition, the book contains heartfelt and straightforward personal stories (such as the ones by Tommy Rosen and Chelsea Roff) of the ways that yoga, alongside other modalities, has helped people transform and recover from addiction and disease.

The essay that ultimately obliged me to write this review, though, was one that made me shudder with its precision, vitality and quirkiness: Matthew Remski’s “Modern yoga will not form a real culture until every studio can also double as a soup kitchen, and other observations from the threshold between yoga and activism.”

While initially flipping through the book, I noticed the title and thought it was completely obnoxious. Little did I know. The narrative not only reveals the shortcomings of what Remski calls “Modern Western Yoga Culture” (MWYC) and the concomitant yoga studio model, but it also shows how yoga is largely being practiced in a context that preserves the status quo—whether it be by perpetuating a narrative of personal salvation or promoting yoga vacations in exotic places. He invites us to consider starting collectively run yoga studios, which would be places that embody the discourse of “interconnectedness” and facilitate action in the world.

These essays are inquiries. They are self-inquiries, in that the authors insert themselves into the narratives, rather than present disembodied analyses. The fact that these essays have been brought together makes the book a collective inquiry as well, and that’s important.

What I am mostly left with at the end of the day, though, is inspiration, invitation and permission to be part of this inquiry.

Hopefully, not in a way that is narcissistic or that perpetuates existing oppressive social relations, but, rather, in the spirit of the democratic and spiritual investigation that is each person’s birthright.

So, here’s a bit of my own inquiry. These essays make me realize that I am starved for community. I want to share more deeply with people who place spiritual exploration, compassion and social transformation at the center of their lives. I want to be a part of Remski’s yoga studio/soup kitchen. I want to engage in experiments in love, as Swami Kripalu taught. And, with others, I want to, as Michael Stone writes, “re-imagine a Western life style that’s more sustainable.”

That being said, I don’t think I want more normative ethical frameworks articulated by white men with privilege. That scares me. I’m reminded of the theologian Howard Thurman’s famous lines:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


Yoga has the potential to help people adapt to difficult circumstances, uncover their personal/divine power and help them tap into creativity they didn’t know they had. I think a person’s dharma (what makes him or her come alive), whether it’s activism, art or sitting in a Himalayan cave meditating for 12 years, is completely mysterious.

It’s also worth noting that there are many of us who don’t necessarily need to get “off the mat and into the world.” I’ve been in the trenches as an activist for 20 years, and yoga continues to help me heal from that. I am also recovering from familial and cultural models of co-dependency that affirm that the needs of others should come first. While yoga can certainly perpetuate solipsism, it can also provide a way for women and other marginalized people, who are socialized to take care of others (whether in their own homes or through their work as nannies or secretaries), to re-connect to and value their own bodies and experiences, and actually take care of themselves.

I also believe that I am actively working to de-construct the Bodhisattva paradigm articulated in my former Zen sangha, which professed the highest virtue to be “saving all beings from suffering.” I think this is a problematic and easily misinterpreted story to tell people; it’s a story that never served me well. But, I can see how it may be a useful message for some people.

I don’t know if Patanjali is irrelevant or not, nor whether yoga is perpetuating our disconnection from the planet or bridging it.

I do know that yoga has helped me to be a person who knows peace, happiness and health; and to be more generous and present with family, colleagues and community.

When the Occupy movement made its way upstate to Albany, I helped to create a working group called “Mind/Body/Spirit.”  Our goal was to provide healing resources and spiritual support for the activists camped in the park across from the New York State Capitol building. However, the group fizzled out after a few months.

Did we fail? Sometimes I think so. I think we weren’t committed enough and that we were held back by the inertia of our own privilege and comfort with the current system. Or, maybe there was something else wrong with the Occupy model in the first place. At any rate, it was a really beautiful and interesting group to be a part of for a short period. We did some innovative and helpful things and created some new networks.

It’s clear to me that re-imagining the world is a moment-to-moment experiment in which many of us find ourselves on a pendulum, swinging back and forth between being asleep and comfortable with the current system at one end, and awake and actively moving toward liberation at the other. I hope this book continues to awaken readers and inspire them to both inquiry and action.

Ultimately, I am really thankful that I am on this path with the spiritual comrades featured in this book.

If you’re interested in learning more about 21st Century Yoga, please visit the book website at 21centuryyoga.com.


Loretta Pyles, Ph.D., is a yoga teacher and scholar-activist-educator living in upstate New York. Loretta began practicing Zen Buddhist meditation in the Korean tradition in 1999 and has continued to study and practice other forms of Buddhist and yogic meditation. She completed her yoga teacher training with Lauren Toolin at Heartspace Yoga and Healing Arts in Albany, NY, in 2011. Her dharma is to explore how spiritual practice affects both personal and social change, as well as to help others and herself to wake up to the peace and joy that is always available to us. She lives in a rural area with her husband (plus two cats and a dog), where they like to hang out, cook inspiring vegan food and wander around in the woods.


Assistant Ed.: Jayleigh Lewis

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