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I’ve been a recovering Christian since the age of 16.
And I’m still in remission—shaking off the last layers of guilt, shame, and “I’m not good enough“-ness.
Thankfully, this has sharpened my radar to fanaticism and hypocrisy, which I can smell from a mile away now. It’s not just Christianity that breeds hypocrisy, though—it’s most of the world’s major religions.
I’m curious by nature and ask loads of questions. Daily. Hourly. This was never encouraged in Christianity. I find this to be the major difference between religious folk and spiritual folk—spirituality encourages asking questions and seeking our own answers, while religion doesn’t. Religion asks for blind faith in an unseen God, a mythical policeman in the sky, which is just silly.
I zoomed out enough to see the sh*t karma being collectively incurred and chose to bow out.
Fast forward 20 years. I’ve been teaching yoga for eight of those years now, and with each year that goes by, it becomes more apparent that the wellness world I’m solidly grounded in has some striking parallels to the church and hypocrites I left behind. The path of religiosity and modern spirituality is often plagued by sanctimonious, self-serving folk. Ordinary people who are so mired in the ego state of their extraordinary-ness that they fail to see what they often represent: lies.
Let’s be clear: gurus, shamans, and yogis are not the modern-day priests sent to save us. So how do we save ourselves?
There may be a bit of cultural appropriation going on here AND this could be an intro for a demographic that benefits from this “gateway” variation. Pun intended
‘Rage yoga’ is now a thing, and it involves swearing and beer breaks https://t.co/lWobbJ4Of3
— Amber Hotchkiss-Cropsey (@amber_cropsey) February 27, 2019
I thought it best to use five of the 10 yamas and niyamas—ethical guidelines that yogis strive to practice and embody—to explain how we can not be hypocrites in the wellness world:
1. Practice ahimsa, which translates into non-harm to all living beings in thoughts, words, and deeds.
Non-harm is a huge one. All deeds start with words and thoughts, therefore it’s best to keep those as pure as possible. Then this will translate into our actions—treating others the way you would want to be treated, and then some.
I remember when I’d been living in South Sinai, Egypt, post Arab Spring, I had the pleasure of teaching yoga to Bedouin women on Friday afternoons. The class was women only and taught in Arabic. One day, an ex-pat German woman had heard about my class and approached me to come observe. The women agreed under one condition: that she participate. She did, of course, and was seasoned in her practice.
Throughout class, I noticed the ladies were behaving different. They kept checking her out—she was being judged on every posture and pause. I realized that this was very much the same as I had felt in my early days of being a mixed race yogi (or wog) in Sydney, or what people of color likely feel when entering a class in a predominately white space. It’s the feeling of being watched.
I knew that the Bedouin women were warm, funny, and friendly, but they probably felt that this was their territory and safe space. Perhaps they feared class would soon be invaded by foreign women, who could take away from their familiarity with this space or maybe they were curious how other women practice, as they certainly hadn’t attended a yoga class outside what I was teaching. Either way, the tables were turned that day. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of what non-harm means on the mat.
The next time a new or foreign face enters our safe space, we must do our best to make them feel welcome. Exclusivity is non-yogic; inclusivity is ahimsa in action.
2. Practice daya, which translates into compassion.
An easy way to think of compassion is as an unconditional friendliness toward anyone or anything you don’t agree with.
I am a pescatarian, but not a vegetarian. I can’t tell how many times I’ve voiced this to fellow yogis or friends who were into clean eating and felt the vibe turn cold on me immediately. How is it possible to be more loving and compassionate to animals, while clearly not being able to extend that same consideration to fellow humans?
Surely, it must be understood that we are all on the path; some are just progressing at different rates and others are on paths that look similar but are maybe different than our own. And that’s okay.
Try not to judge, condemn, or label. Practice compassion daily—yes, even to meat, fish, or cheese eaters.
3. Practice ishvara pranidhara, which translates to surrender.
Contrary to popular thought, surrender is not quitting. It’s a conscious act of letting go. Think of it as a balance between being active, present participants while also accepting all that life throws our way.
To follow ishvara pranidhana, we’re constantly being asked to release the control and rigidity we hold over life moving in a certain direction. Likewise on the mat, there’s a fine line between instruction and control. Be the guide on the side, instruct and demonstrate. Be that shining example of goodness as best as you can be, but don’t turn into a Nazi when students go their own way. Students are not there for you to control. Be grateful they are attending your class and let them figure sh*t out on their own!
And off the mat, despite our best efforts to be helpful, our best friend might still return to that abusive relationship. Or our teenage son will start dating a ditzy diva who we despise. Well, tough—we’re all blessed with the freedom to make choices, even if those choices take us or loved ones on a wild ride for another year. It’s their path. It’s their journey, and ultimately, their own soul’s evolution. Sometimes the best thing to do is breathe and walk away. Surrender and let them be.
4. Practice saucha, which translates to purity.
The Sanskrit term can be literally translated as cleanliness or clearness, and covers the cleanliness of body as well as the purity of mind.
Being a mixed race little girl growing up in Australia in the 80s, I was always fascinated by the source of things. I wanted to know why my clothes were made in China or how it was possible for the food on my plate to have come from some faraway country. What I have been practicing since is understanding the source of all things, which to me is the essence of purity.
Knowing where our avocados come from gives us a deeper feeling of connectivity. Being aware that some farmer in Mexico has worked hard cultivating the fields, making that beautiful ripe avocado accessible to you, is a blessing we take for granted in the West. There’s a lot less disconnect when you focus on source and cultivate gratitude for all that goes on behind the scenes to make your smashed avocado on toast possible.
It’s the same with our $100 Lululemon leggings. Where do they come from and what exactly are they made of?
The company has factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia, with a long, complex supply chain that’s not wholly transparent. Workers in these factories are most likely working long, punishing hours, as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory tragedy sadly didn’t change much for the people at the bottom. Lululemon decided against signing two industry-led initiatives, and haven’t reviewed that decision in six years.
What makes up the DNA of our yoga leggings is mostly plastic—not good for our wellness, or the planet’s.
Purity isn’t just limited to our cleansing rituals and yoga practices. It goes beyond the mat and into the world. Longevity and sustainability must be considered, and the peripherals and bigger picture must be taken into account. Next time you go shopping for yoga clothes, check the labels and find out the back story—any decent brand will willingly provide this information.
5. Practice asteya, which translates to non-stealing.
Like a lot of yogi-centric ideas, there’s many layers to this one. Non-stealing can mean literally stealing money from someone, but it also covers theft of time, energy, ideas, and culture.
Here, I will focus as best as possible on cultural appropriation. This is a heavy one, so bear with me.
Yoga originally came from India, as part of sacred practices and texts in the Hindu religion. The fact that a whole bunch of Westerners have revived it and brought it over here means it will be appropriated—that’s a fact. To what degree depends on individual practitioners. The mere act of observing anything in nature changes it.
Active participation and practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and several different lineages again means these sacred forms will be interpreted differently. This happens all the time across ancient cultures. We all have different ways of teaching, and students learn quite differently also. However, when teachings are taken from ancient texts, re-branded, patented, and imprinted with our own logos and copyright, this is clearly theft. Yoga can’t be owned by any guru, teacher, school, methodology, or governing board. The dilution of yoga’s essence, which is connectedness, wellness, wholeness, and ultimately self-realization, is also theft.
Then there are the more recent instances where various forms of yoga, like Beer yoga, Gin Yin, and Cannabis yoga have been introduced. Sure, a wider audience may be reached, however in the process, the pure essence of wellness and wholeness are lost. People turn to alcohol and weed to numb out, while most people are drawn to yoga to become more self-aware, connected, and strong. Asteya is not present in any shape or form when yoga’s essence is compromised with a drug or alcohol-fueled class. In fact, doing so also violates ahimsa, since these classes can cause harm to students.
It’s important to check in with yoga’s moral guidelines to see if the way we want to teach aligns with these set principles instead of just focusing on what’s trendy or socially acceptable. Next time we look at developing a new form or style of teaching, we must first ask ourselves, “Does this contribute to the greater good or create more chaos and harm in the world?”
We don’t exist in an ethical vacuum—yogis should be aware of this as much as the next person. We have a duty to care and take responsibility, and a moral code of ethics that exist to guide us. Ignorance is not bliss in this case. Responsibility can’t be discarded just because we don’t own up to it.
Hypocrisy in the wellness world can be addressed and dissolved with awareness and our own daily practice and built-in ethical guidelines. And I hope we get there, because in another 20 years, I don’t want to have to say that I’m a recovering yogi.