Yoga Cult: Struggling to Be Individual. ~ Paige Ryan

Via elephant journal
on Mar 28, 2013
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I’ve never been much of a joiner.

I’m not one to identify myself by the college I attended, the city I live in, the religion to which I most closely align. Groupthink, or the suggestion that we do this offends my notion of individuality and sends me running the other way.

Yoga seemed a good fit for the determined individualist.

I was drawn to the idea that, first and foremost, yoga is a personal practice. It connects us to ourselves and helps strip away all that is inauthentic.

We are often reminded of this at the beginning of class. Instructors council us to consult our intuition regarding what is best for our practice.

“You are your own best teacher. The guru is within,” they tell us.

One of my favorite teachers is fond of saying, “Keep your eyes on your own mat.”

This is his way of reminding us to focus within. (I also a consider it a reminder to stop staring at the 5’10” blonde hottie in front of me making eka pada koundiyanasana seem like a stroll in the park. Her practice has about as much to do with mine as what John Travolta’s cat ate for breakfast. Which is to say, nothing at all. Eyes on your own mat, Paige.)

Yoga is about you and only you, and that is a philosophy I can get behind.

I found so much meaning in yoga, I eventually signed up for teacher training, eager to know more. For weeks on end I delved deeper into asana and philosophy and as a result, deeper into the yoga community.

That is where the trouble began.

I developed relationships with my fellow teacher trainees. I got to know other teachers and students at the studio. We talked over tea and coffee and friended each other on Facebook. In time,some disconcerting similarities began to emerge.

I noticed we all had the same logo stamped on our pants. We had mala beads on our wrists and drapey scarves around our necks. Our status updates became a constant stream of quotes: Rumi, Mary Oliver, Pema Chodron and Sanskrit mantras. I got loka samastad until I couldn’t see straight.

Even our vocabularies began to merge. We were always grateful, manifesting or putting our intentions out into the universe. I was as guilty as the next guy. Guiltier even.

This practice of self-expression started to seem like a practice of imitation; this community, like a cult. I had to get a handle on this nonsense.

My relationship with yoga reached a critical juncture when I attended a kirtan festival in the desert. (Because that’s what yogis do, right? Attend kirtan festivals in the desert?)

There were hundreds of us at this event, each one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. “Namaste,” we said. Coconut water, we drank. Booth after booth peddled the same products so we could meld even more.

My mind swirled. These are not my people. I don’t have “a people.” I don’t want a people. I want to be me!

Literally panicked at what I was seeing, I retreated from the relentless vending of yoga culture, into a yoga class. At least there I knew I could breathe. But my expectations were low and my faith crumbling. The teacher entered the room. He had a ponytail. Of course he had a ponytail. I braced myself for a barrage of yoga clichés and counted the hours until the festival would be over and I would be alone in my car, once again restored to my individual self.

And then something unexpected happened.

This ponytailed yogi spoke and he had a message for us: individuality.

As he spoke, he gently reminded us that yoga was not a club. There was no such thing as a yoga look. That if we lose our identity, our true yoga, we become simply a gross replication of culture, and we miss the beauty and the point.

It was as if he were speaking directly to me. My eyes welled up with tears at having my anxieties (my dukkah, if you will) so clearly voiced. With every word, he reassured me that yoga actually was a place for me. I didn’t have to run for the hills. He understood.

I took my first deep breath of the day.

With my chitta vritti silenced, I realized there was a message here for me too: acceptance.

My eyes had been everywhere except on my own mat. I was so consumed by how other people practiced that I clearly forgot my own and I was paying the price. I was suffering.

We are individuals. We are yogis.

Some of us like to join, finding joy and beauty in our commonality. Others, like me, stand a little more to the outside. And this gorgeous thing called yoga is large enough to hold us all.



paige ryanPaige Ryan is a writer, yoga teacher and lucid dreamer living in Los Angeles. Her works have been featured in New Binary Press Anthology of Poetry, Mandala Journal, Weary Blues Arts Journal, Birmingham Magazine, Grace and Grace Notes, Inspire Me Magazine and Quad Literary Journal.

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Ed: Brianna Bemel


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39 Responses to “Yoga Cult: Struggling to Be Individual. ~ Paige Ryan”

  1. Terami says:

    I'm a yoga beginner, largely outside its community, with an intermittent home-based practice. From my view, yoga culture and "true" practice seem synonymous; which means I think yoga has to look like something in order for it to be legitimate. This intimidates me.

    Paige, thank you for shedding light, even for those of us who have yet to stand in a dedicated practice, on what yoga is really about.

  2. Alex says:

    Great essay! Although I disagree with the premise that the point if yoga isn’t to stare at the 5’10” hottie in front of you.

  3. Zachary says:

    What a breath of fresh air. Well written and insightful.

  4. Kathy says:

    Great post. With your mentality I think you'll enjoy this one too, especially the comments below the article:

  5. Auki says:

    Yes, that yoga festival in the desert — (you wouldn't be referring to Bhaktifest, now would you?) — has a way of amplifying the narcissistic shadows lurking within the yoga community.

  6. nancy nielsen says:

    yay! couldn't have said it better !

  7. Barbara says:

    I ran away from a Kirtan festival at the dessert. I could not stand hearing sanskrit with an American accent anymore. I started doubting how genuine is the yoga community. Are we imitating? do we just need that sense of belonging like most humans do? or is this really a doorway to freedom as we dive within while chanting our guts away. The one thing that I hope is that we can practice all the principles of yoga from within even if we never hit a yoga studio or a yoga fest. Namas frieaking te!

  8. MatBoy says:

    Very entertaining! What fun this yoga stuff can be – as long as you can laugh at yourself. There is no escaping our human nature.

  9. Nutburger says:

    A funny and honest reminder to put stock in nothing but your own experience.

  10. RAS says:

    Very, very well said. It was all too easy to identify with almost every word.

  11. Sue says:

    OMG…you have just confirmed my feelings…I said to a friend the other day…I have never been a girls scout or joined groups…it feels lonely sometimes but I have never ever felt the need to be a sheeple. I also am going through teachers training and still wondering why…but I will deepen my practice.
    Thank you for this article!!! YAY!

  12. Guest says:

    pretty dull article… nothing interesting or insightful in your lame attempt to convey some realization you had… you must be 20 years old and needed something to write about.

  13. Paige says:

    Thanks so much, Zachary!

  14. Paige says:

    I will definitely check it out. Thanks!

  15. Paige says:

    It was Bhaktifest and have have many friends that attend and perform there and find a great deal of meaning. It clearly triggered some things for me but it clarified somethings too. I love kirtan but could have done with out some of the consumer aspects but, maybe that's the very definition of "festival." Thanks for reading!

  16. Paige says:

    Thanks, Nancy!

  17. Paige says:

    So sorry you did not enjoy the essay.

  18. Paige says:

    Thanks so much!

  19. Paige says:


  20. Paige says:

    Teacher training changed my life. Yoga changed my life. GOOD LUCK!!!!

  21. Paige says:

    Namaste, Barbara.

  22. Rita says:

    Great article Paige…your integrity really shines through. I share the same sentiments…so I appreciate your journey. Thank you.

  23. Amy says:

    Love the article, Paige. I think there are many yogis, me included, who prefer to be on the fringe rather than in the group culture. And don't worry about those who disagree without valid purpose. It's a reflection of themselves, not you. Keep up the great writing!

  24. akane says:

    To me yoga is a means to an end, and that end is being able to move with grace and agility as I get older, and being able to enhance my passion for "gravity" sports- snowboarding and mountain biking. These sports require agility and a peace of mind- a flow state… and ability to face a fear and move through it. I am also passionate about anatomy and use this knowledge in my healing practice. I would just as soon skip the sanskrit and listen to a song that has meaning for me than get on the overused quote bandwagon. Maybe I'll even do my own writing. Yeah, that's it, yoga is a great springboard for further creation, hopefully not just a culture to imitate.

  25. Debby says:

    You put into very elegant words what I have recognized in my very recent yoga experiences as well.
    I am so happy to have read this and hope it touches more like it did me. Thank you for sharing your personal experience.

  26. Paige says:

    Very true. Thanks for reading!

  27. Paige says:

    Thanks for reading, RAS!

  28. Paige says:

    Thanks for the kind comment Rita!

  29. Paige says:

    Thank you, Amy, for reading and supporting! Namaste.

  30. Paige says:

    Thanks for sharing!

  31. Paige says:

    Amen to that!

  32. Paige says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Debby. So happy you enjoyed it!

  33. Alan says:

    Paige – right on. I can definitely relate to discomfort at the feeling of folding my individuality into a spiritual group or community.

    It really does begin with the adoption of language patterns that aren’t necessarily ours. It is so important to take teachings and carefully screen the words we decide to use or not use, and make the linguistic construction of our experience and our growth our own. Otherwise everyone is “allowing” and “manifesting” and “surrendering” and “becoming present to X or Y” – all beautiful expressions and turns of phrase – but sometimes in the past I’ve felt that glazed-over look in my eye, and the vague sensation of trying to be sincere but putting on a performance of being spiritual for others’ benefit at the same time.

    At the end of the day, I find it useful to carefully select the words and phrases adopted to relate to the spiritual dimension of life, and to keep them as much as possible between me and my maker.

    This helps to avoid getting drawn into spiritual grandstanding to impress the 5’10 blonde girl on the mat beside me 🙂

  34. Paige says:

    Alan, so very eloquent. Thank you. Clearly, people are drawn to yoga because it works, because it is beautiful. And we fall in love with the writings of these talented and insightful people because they ring true. The words are no less true because they flood into popular culture. But it is critical that we vet wisely and hold true to what is authentic for us. Your comments are much appreciated.

  35. vlam says:

    Yogi or not yogi, this is something everyone can all relate to. Well said Paige. Thanks for sharing.

  36. Paige Ryan says:

    Thanks so much for reading!

  37. Disillusioned says:

    As someone who recently left a yoga cult, I feel that there needs to be more awareness about the manipulative and controlling nature of high-pressure yoga groups. I spent 3.5 yrs and nearly $20,000 on a 3 yr teacher training program and was told many times that I wasn't quite ready yet, without being given any clear reasons as to why or how I could become "ready" to receive my certificate.
    The leader of the group owns the studio and has no accountability to anyone. The leader also conducts private counselling sessions where their ideology is imposed onto you to mold you into a submissive follower and any emotional vulnerability or physical obstacles are treated as weaknesses.
    Spiritual abuse tactics are used to control you (your astrology, ego, karma are used to manipulate), all as part of the elitist tradition that you are pressured to give blind allegiance to.
    You are supposed to get advice (for a cost) from the leader regarding every life choice you want to make, including what to name your newborn. Over time your self-esteem and individuality wears down. This is unfortunately quite common among groups that adhere to strict tradition. They give mixed messages and when you question the model you are shunned and shamed. I've had a hell of a time regaining my strength and autonomy, and when I left the group my name was slandered. There are no legal rights in Canada should this happen to you.
    I'm currently searching for a non-elitist, inclusive, non-dogmatic yoga community to do another YTT program to receive certification. I'm trying hard not to let my experience ruin yoga for me.