Have We Polluted Yoga? ~ Tova Payne

Via Tova Payne
on Nov 30, 2013
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By: barracuadz

Warning—some adult language.

Is yoga becoming too competitive?

I started heading to yoga classes regularly in 2005. They were the one thing that kept me grounded, connected, and helped me release a lot of physical and emotional tension.

I went to several studios, tried several different styles, and although I had some favorites, I still felt pretty darn good after every class I took. Well, except for the occasional class where the instructor sounded more like a drill sergeant. But even then, the actual movements felt good in my body, so the class was still pretty good.

Once I became a teacher my practice became more personal—I was practicing in my living room more than I ever went to studio classes. I’d take frequent trips to study with some of my favorite teachers in Los Angeles, and aside from a few classes here and there, usually taught by fellow teachers I knew, I kept most of my practice at home. Then, last month, I received a gift: a one-month yoga pass at one of the larger studios near where I live. I was excited to see how these teachers taught, as most of the names on the schedule were new to me.

Unfortunately, class after class I walked away thinking: What the hell has happened to yoga? These classes felt jagged, performance-based, and they just didn’t feel good in my physical body.


I wondered—is this the new trend?

Several years ago, no matter which class I went to there was something graceful, seamless, and integrative about the practice.

Now it feels like nearly every class and teacher is trying to outdo the last one, or make more intricate sequences, to the point where the sequences just don’t feel good. It feels like A.D.H.D yoga, or some kind of yoga on steroids. There were a handful of teachers whose classes maintained a really nice feeling and flow. Their classes felt less performance-based and more about taking care of the whole body.

The class wasn’t about how different it could be, or how funky the new moves could be. The classes were simple, basic with traditional yoga poses with a little pizzazz.

A little pizzazz is good.

I have nothing against adding little variations to the poses. I think it’s wonderful to add a little creativity to the traditional forms of yoga. But at what point do we cross the line? And is there even a line that’s crossed? Are studios just using the name yoga but teaching something completely different?

I feel that had I gone to break dance or step class and learned to breathe, it would not have been the same experience as yoga offers: poses integrated with breath.

The poses do matter. The physical sequence does matter. Yes, the crux of yoga is about mindfulness, but at the same time, the poses do matter.

The poses do have an innate intelligence in and of themselves. Therefore, when classes are being taught in a jagged fashion where it’s kinda impossible not to hurt yourself unless you know your body well enough to modify or opt out of the pose—this thing we’re calling yoga certainly doesn’t feel healing.

Actually, a lot of the sequences I’ve been in certainly don’t feel safe, cohesive, or even good.

There are still some great classes out there, and this is not a rant against all of yoga, but I can’t help but question: Have we royally polluted yoga? Are we turning our classes into acrobatics to the point where instead of taking the time to use the poses to take care of ourselves, the poses have been turned into dance moves where the look and performance of the flow takes priority over actually feeling good after the practice? Are we competing with whose class can be the most different? Or are we simply sharing something amazing?

All I can say is—I am confused with the state that yoga is heading towards. And I really just wanna say—can’t we just get back to basics? Isn’t it the simple and basic things in life that feed us best?

It seems like we’ve bleached, sugar coated, and fortified our yoga practice with all these fancy, glitzy new moves. I mean, really—can’t we just keep it simple and enjoy the simplicity yoga has to offer?

Isn’t our world complicated enough? Why bring that shit into yoga?


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Assistant Editor: Jaim Coddington / Editor: Cat Beekmans

Image: Barracuadz





About Tova Payne

Tova Payne is a teacher, author, and personal coach. Her newest book is Eat Think & Live Rich: A Guide to Health and Happiness nowavailable on Amazon. She runs a virtual coaching practice (available worldwide) helping people turn their dreams to reality. For a FREE guide to radiant health and weekly inspiration, sign up at Tova’s website.


7 Responses to “Have We Polluted Yoga? ~ Tova Payne”

  1. Jalpan says:

    Thank you very much for this much needed and awaited article. I agree with your opinion – a lot of yoga classes have become an acrobatics class and what's equally bad or worse is that students tend to prefer these classes.

    I began my practice earlier this year in a studio earlier this year that was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Some teachers fit this description: "There were a handful of teachers whose classes maintained a really nice feeling and flow. Their classes felt less performance-based and more about taking care of the whole body." When I strike a conversation with others after class saying "this was a great class and the detailed alignment cues of the teacher really helped," others remarked the class was too easy and boring.

    On the other hand, some teachers mindlessly led the class into more advanced postures without any steps on how to do them safely and align the body properly. For instance, a teacher once simply gave a verbal instruction "let's end with shoulderstand or lotus pose" even though she knew there 5-6 people in class doing yoga for the first time. These teachers and their classes were always most popular.

    As it stands now, all the teachers I liked have left the studio (I'm guessing they were let go as nobody liked their "boring" classes) and the remaining have been roped in for teaching a class meant to teach a certain number of advanced poses like flying pigeon etc… The marketing for this class went something like this: "Do you want this pose (a photo was flashed)? How about this one? And this one? Of course you do! And now finally you can practice them with students who are just as good as you. No more dilly dallying with beginners."

    Yoga used to be taught one on one in the very old days and each student was taught according to where he/she was. Now yoga knowledge is transmitted by market forces: demand and supply. Both demand and supply are overwhelmingly in favor of striking fancy poses and boasting them on instagram in the name of inspiring others to develop a yoga practice. Such mindlessness will only lead to larger egos and frequent injuries.

    We may be entering an era where the only place to learn yoga in an authentic way would be to go to very selective ashrams in India which have been free from the vices of capitalism and social media. As for learning asana, I've found that going to brand new studios really helps. I tried a studio that was only 8 months old and hence, teachers break down the anatomy of each pose very patiently. I was very happy and signed up for a 1 year membership.

  2. Denise says:

    It’s interesting that we focus so much on Adana altogether, leaving the more powerful/subtler parts of the practice out of the discussion altogether. I am no expert. But the more I practice, the more I crave a real teacher (guru), someone who learned from someone.

  3. Helene Scott says:

    Wow… this is great. I too came to yoga a few years ago finding a much needed respite + healing ground. I then went through training to deepen my own practice, not sure I wanted to teach. Through the training however I lost my way a bit. Even injured myself through 'pushing' and to be honest…competing. ugh. I've now come full circle and am back to taking classes from the teacher whom gave me so much solace years ago with her calm quiet style. namaste.

  4. Jenifer says:

    Not only do we need to get back to basics in terms of our teaching, we need to get back to basics in our teacher trainings.

    While I know that mass teacher training processes existed before the big teacher training boom, this boom is creating part of this problem because the focus is not on effectively training teachers for what they need to know to lead a good class (defined as you describe), but to simply bring more income to the trainer or studio by training as many people as possible, including people wholly inexperienced in yoga practice.

    What I've observed in classes and in dialogue with many teachers from many different trainings — including ones that are considered generally sound — is that many of them don't learn alignment, modifications, or sequencing theory (or the biomechanics that underly those things). Likewise, many of them don't learn sequencing theory — they are taught a set sequence and then asked to "create or elaborate" on that.

    And sometimes, I think, the teacher trainer doesn't even know the basics of alignment and sequencing theory themselves, so any creative elaboration is celebrated even if it is completely inappropriate or unhealthy. This has been my experience of many teachers trained in these mass trainings post 2004. When I attend classes and/or speak with these teacher trainers, not only do they simply not value the alignment/modification and sequencing theory process (and the underlying anatomy) — or, they say they do but it's only a small portion of their training. . . just meeting the YA standard — they truly do not even know this information.

    So, this is why we are seeing it more and more in the yoga classes — it's not just teacher's egos. . .it's that they don't actually know better because they don't know what they don't know about this information *or* about the training that they took.

    I ease off on teachers, and put the onus on teacher trainers. I am one, too. So, I'm definitely holding myself to this standard.

  5. Susan says:

    Love that you're putting this out there! I am not a die hard yogi, but I do long for the occasional yoga class and I have left studios because I felt that nasty competitive energy. Not being a pro myself, it made it very hard to just let go and do what worked for me. I always felt that I had to keep up even when my body was telling me to slow down. I actually injured myself one night because of it and gave up yoga for a while. After I moved from NYC to a PA suburb I found a small studio that teaches from where the student is. There are yogis of all levels in the class and everyone is encouraged to honor their body and practice at their level, while still having the freedom to challenge themselves if they want to push forward. But it's never a necessity. Because of that the class is so much more rewarding both for my body and my mind. Kudos for bringing up a touchy subject!

  6. Anthony says:

    Wow! Great article and great responses from like minded people. Thank you Tova and all who are re-enforcing this topic. I love yoga!

    But it has been a sad couple of years for me and the path that yoga seems to be driven too, I’m no longer enjoying these type of “sport” classes. I come out of a class now feeling all confused, like what the hell just happened, and where is yoga?

    I feel like as everything in this culture leads to a competitive-ness, who can do the best pose, who can lead the most intricate class, who can be the best!

    Just like sports! I love to play hockey but dislike the competitive nature of it, I like the therapeutic aspects that hockey brings me, just like yoga,

    And now when I go to class I feel like I am in another sport.

    If that is the direction yoga is heading to, I feel like they should change the name, and stop polluting the essence of yoga.

    Just like Bryan kest change his styles name from yoga, to Power yoga, so should this weird path yoga is on. It is now, to me called Sport yoga.

  7. Jenifer says:

    I think this is a situation of a matter of time.

    I practice and teach from a tantra tradition — which integrates the physical practice with everything else. In my tradition, the asana is the doorway to the rest of it. As your house gets in order, everything else comes along with that and/or grows out of it in time. And, you are also more open to that subtler process.

    Speaking to it too early is often a turn off for students. Many people come to yoga looking for a myriad of well-being benefits (such as peace of mind — which doesn't directly come out of asana, does it?), and they can "hold on to" the asana as a part of the total method. So, I focus on the basics of asana, the proper alignment, and I teach in that process the underlying philosophies and ideas when talking about how to practice asana (practice it without clinging to a notion of what you "should be" able to do in a posture — just be in the posture. This is practicing asteya and santosha in the practice of asana!

    A good teacher — who is well trained, grounded in the tradition but also practical and living in the modern world — is able to not just focus on asana, but focus on how asana works for both body and spirit/soul (whatever you would call it).

    And real gurus are different from acharyas. Both words mean "teacher" — but guru means 'teacher with weight' or a master teacher. I'm just an acharya, myself. 😀

    Gurus need to be sought — and go carefully, because there is also corruption there. But you can also find greatness. Good luck on that search.