MUSINGS ON 21st CENTURY YOGA

Last year I read an excellent book called 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice. It’s a collection of essays which summarize what’s happening in modern western yoga culture today, covering a myriad of topics from social activism, body image, the yoga economy, and intersections with faith.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the phenomenon of yoga in the west today.

It gives context to how the contemporary world of yoga has emerged and reminds the reader that yoga in Canada / the US is a new concept; and in the adolescence stage when it comes to its institutional maturity.

Most contributors in this book point out the opportunities that yoga has to grow into a finer form of itself. As a yogi that’s become more and more involved in this industry, three themes stood out to me that I think are causing particular challenges today. I’ve included some quotes from the book itself in the case that you want to read into this further!

YOGA AND SELF-ESTEEM

“Whereas Zen students often get lost in their heads as they strive for enlightenment, the average yoga student is fixated on the appearance and general mechanics of their bodies” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 58).

How often have we seen yogis incessantly obsess over perfect posturing when standing in a simple Tadasana? Why do we rely on smartly designed spandex to mark our identities as great yogis? What kind of messaging do we give to new yogis when the only images used in advertising and media are supermodels wrapped in mala beads and fancy outfits?

Many of the authors in 21st Century Yoga point out the irony of such an appearance-driven community. The significant attachment we have toward how yoga bodies look not only makes yoga unwelcoming, but it also harms the very people who do it. This obsession creates a muddied reality that Yogis can’t live up to, pushing them into patterns of addiction, depression, eating disorder, anxiety, and or burnout. It is counter-intuitive to the true essence of yoga, where we try to reduce the mindset of not enough (Aparigraha); where we try to build healthy relationships, saying namaste to the Other (Brahmacharya); where we try to be true to ourselves, and not let a comparison to others reduce our own light (Satya). The list can go on….

Frank Jude Boccio puts it well when he states how “[t]his very emphasis on the physical and performance of postures can actually make yoga inaccessible for many who could truly benefit from an integrated yoga practice. If looking good naked is the motivation to “get back on the mat,” then it’s truly a sad commentary on the depth of yoga practice in contemporary North America,” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 52).

YOGA AND CAPITALISM

Yoga is trending, and so is the idea of becoming a yoga teacher. I recently overheard a conversation between two friends where one said offhandedly, “It seems like everywhere I go these days I meet a yoga teacher.” Their friend replied with a hint of contempt, “Of course, everyone is a yoga teacher these days.”

In the millennial crowd today, it often seems that yoga teachers fall into the same trending category as hipster baristas, creative ‘makers’, and blogging mommies making it big.

While the intention of a yogi or yogi teacher is good, a subculture has been created around it; branding those who take the job as having jumped on the bandwagon.

While authentic teachers and practitioners know this is not true, a market has been created around this phenomenon, as the western world has discovered the profit-potential of a yoga economy. When it comes to teaching, franchise chains like Modo and Bikram have realized that churning out hundreds of new yoga teachers through trainings each year has massive revenue potential and is an easy sell (who wouldn’t want to go on an all-inclusive month long retreat to surf, learn exotic phrases, and join a crew of like-minded people?).

The point is, we have created a consumeristic yoga culture expanded by franchise studios, filled with yoga apparel, branded by curated social media feeds and fuelled by a growing market of people’s desire to look like the pro on the cover of Yoga Journal. When the cost of joining this community is pricier than a YMCA membership or pair of running shoes, this form of exercise becomes inaccessible to most. I love Matthew Remski’s comment on how without a new mindset,  “...yoga will continue to market itself to a consumer-class consolation, offering a fashionable inner peace to a preciously small fraction of humanity” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 121).

A great challenge for Modern Western Yoga Culture will be to create that new mindset. A new mindset will help to build an anticapitalist space, with just enough love and peace to attract the masses but not too much revolting to scare them away. What Remski says is,

“I need [yoga] to provide community. Community that acts consciously and pragmatically for the common good. Community that is not bankrupted by its exclusive consumer classism. Community that reaches out as much as it reaches in” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 110).

YOGA AND ECOLOGY

The other bit of irony of yoga of the 21st century is that as we become increasingly self actualized, we can grow increasingly distant from worlds around us. With greater awareness of the self, we must also develop a greater awareness of the Other. Not just the human Other, but also the ecosystems we depend on and the species that are part of our home on Earth. In the West, the typical yogi can easily become a sustainability hypocrite; sporting eco-friendly yoga mats at ‘natural’ yoga retreats, while also drinking from plastic water bottles, driving SUVs, and living in large single family homes. Without a change in mindset, as we become more focused on Ahimsa, Sangha, and Pratityasamutpada, we also live within what Michael Stone would call “...a growth-based capitalist economy that’s destroying the biosphere and taking us all with it” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 153).

21st Century Yoga introduces its reader to a set of scholars who have studied environmental issues in a deeply personal way. They’ve drawn beautiful connections between the disconnected human society and our ecological environment. They remind today’s yogi that their beloved practice of yoga has potential to reconcile the self with the physical environment we depend on. As Thompson says,

“Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered in today’s tamed environments. It’s easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 68).

Using yogic language, the ecological yoga scholars explain concepts generally only shared with burgeoning environmentalists in a lecture hall.

Concepts like finite resources and prosperity without growth are democratized in the yoga studios; parallels drawn between ecological paradigms like closed systems and the yogic philosophy of karma.

Our world is so connected, be it our water systems or our internet work spaces. This interdependence is the key to our liberation.  

IMPACT?

This book helped to inform my understanding of how yoga intersects with other passions of mine like ecology, social enterprise, self-esteem, and self care. Beyond the ways that yoga manifests itself in the world, these stories have also shed light on my personal practice. I’ve developed a healthy dose of skepticism toward the exhausting striving for ‘bliss’ in yoga. Whether it’s the studio’s name, a yogi’s hashtag, or the flippant use of the word in class, it’s too easy to just say you’re trying to ‘find bliss’. Does bliss exist today? What does finding inner peace really look like?

I keep Remski’s comments on inner peace close as a reminder. He says, “I’m suspicious of too much peace, in fact - it’s a sure sign that I am splitting in some way, and avoiding some shard of rage. These days I need my peace dressed with just the right amount of piss and vinegar to get things done in the world, and to fall hopelessly in love with the Other. Because it is no longer appropriate to our survival to speak of happiness in individualistic and internal terms. We can no longer retreat into ourselves to find happiness. We must meet the Other where she is” (Horton & Harvey, 2012, p. 119).

Want to keep reading? Check out the book itself here.

Horton, C. A., & Harvey, R. (2012). 21st century yoga: culture, politics, and practice. Chicago, IL: Kleio Books.

Sarah Steiner