We have reduced Yoga to postural performance, a hunt for bodily shapes.
Our modern minds classify Yoga as a challenge, a workout, that other thing that the local gym offers after the Zumba class.
I’m not talking just about new students or people who are not involved. It’s common to hear teachers describe Vinyasa as “more up-tempo/harder/sweatier” and Hatha yoga as “gentler/slower/more relaxing,” as if they’re talking about the settings on a treadmill, totally distorting the meaning of these terms.
Consequently, “yoga” attracts largely people who already have the ability to mimic the external aspects of it and who, naturally, capitalize on that ability (dancers, gymnasts, and so on).
Even when the physically privileged, Insta-worthy influencers attempt to impose some sort of philosophy or spiritual teaching on their gymnastic demonstrations, most of the time these refer to a goal-oriented culture. “The Asana you want to skip is the one you need the most” (a phrase neighboring with “no pain, no gain). “Practice and all is coming” (“all” here meaning the fancy handstand). “If you wanna do this, try this first” (addressing the Asana-collectors).
When faced with the crucial question, “So, what’s the difference between Yoga and any other fitness regime?” things start to get awkward for this demographic of yogis: “Yoga is about deep breathing and/or flowing with the breath” (so is dancing, martial arts, and potentially any other physical activity). “The poses bring awareness and calmness” (implying that poses shared with so many other disciplines hold some metaphysical or exotic properties when practiced as “yoga”). “It’s about learning to breathe when you’re challenged” (you should see boxing!).
Modern Yoga has become a cool and hip way to exhibit somatic privilege and deflect the underlying narcissism by claiming there are spiritual reasons behind it.
Even worse, many of those enjoying the privilege falsely assure the rest that with enough work they will also reach that level of strength, flexibility, and so on, conveniently omitting that genetic disposition plays a huge part in such attributes.
When the goal itself becomes the execution of acrobatics, contortionism, or just body image, there will inevitably be those who are less able or gifted in that aspect. This creates a division between an elite of “chosen ones” who dictate trends, exercise regimes, aesthetics, and so on (and who, of course, make money off of it) and the rest, the “unworthy” majority who look up to them and who will consume anything from reels to training courses in an attempt to make up for feeling inadequate.
This is a basic marketing scheme structured at the cost of our overall wellness, health, and safety in our practice. Because once the internal aspects of yoga have been removed or oversimplified, we are left with a physical modality that makes no sense and is even potentially harmful: people start over-tensing, over-stretching, over-breathing, and damaging their joints under the false impression that what they’re doing is “good for them” because hey, yoga is supposed to be good for you.
But this new Frankenstein-yoga they’re practicing has been steadily disconnected from the core knowledge and wisdom that made it valuable in the first place.
It’s not about “building strength and flexibility.” These are by-products of creating good blood flow through effortless movement. It’s not about “getting the pose” but modifying its key components to individual needs. Neither is it about “flowing with the breath,” which is usually expressed as panting and noisy chest breathing. It’s about tuning in to the subtlety of the energy that is way deeper than respiration. And that “getting a good stretch”? Stretching is blocking your yoga, but that’s a topic for another day.
Yoga on a physical level is about firmness but without tension, lengthening but without (or less if we’re being honest) stretching, using the respiratory muscles but with less air coming in and out. On a physiological level, it’s about internal health, organ maintenance, dominance of the “rest and digest” mode of our nervous system, manipulating the flow of blood.
But most importantly, Yoga is meditation, relaxed focus, and delicate absorption. It is the piercing through delusion and false identifications. It is Self-knowledge.
So the next time you come across a video named “HIIT yoga,” “Yogilates,” or “The 5 best yoga hamstring stretches,” do yourself a favor and pass.
*Dancers and gymnasts are awesome; learning to perform tricks and skills with your body is very hard and inspiring, and in other words, this isn’t a knock on other physical modalities. They simply are not Yoga.