Paradigm Shift: Yoga at the CrossroadsPosted on Jul 14, 2014 in Blog
Yoga used to seem so simple. You didn’t need to do a teacher training to develop a sense of the essential roots, structure, and meaning of the practice. Even if you’d started out seeing yoga simply as stretching, you quickly apprehended some sort of bigger picture through a subtle yet powerful process of cultural osmosis. Of course, there were disagreements over questions of technique: props or no props? ujjayi or natural, steady breathing? The level of agreement regarding more foundational issues, however, appeared so rock solid, they could be taken for granted. They didn’t require commentary or demand justification.
Over the past several years, this situation has changed radically. All the key claims that comprised the basic understanding of yoga that I’d first been exposed to as a beginning student back in the mid-90s have been strongly challenged. What was only recently widely assumed to be true has been repeatedly called into question, and not infrequently denounced. At the same time, strong currents of change have been reshaping the practice in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. As a result, there is no longer an easy sense that practitioners will naturally develop any shared sense of what yoga is and why it matters.
Yoga, in short, is experiencing a paradigm shift. Please be clear that in saying this, I’m not claiming that whatever yoga may tap into on the deepest level of human experience has been transformed. Nor am I implying that anyone’s individual practice is necessarily changing. Rather, my point is that the yoga community is currently experiencing a particularly intensive period of cultural change (at least in North America, which is the only part of the global yoga community that I feel I know well enough to write about).
My hope is that if we can gain more insight into the cultural paradigm that used to structure a common understanding of yoga – as well as some of the specific events that are causing it to break down – then we may also more clearly see how our actions today might impact the development of the practice in the future. Times of significant cultural change inevitably cause a lot of anxiety, as well as, at times, painful dislocation. They also, however, generate new creative possibilities and opportunities for social, cultural, and perhaps even spiritual change.
Can committed practitioners read the signs of the times and work with them in ways that are fruitful, both for our selves, our communities, and the world? I don’t know. But I do believe that it’s well worth trying.
The “Old” Yoga Paradigm
I started studying yoga in the mid-90s, became more involved with the practice in the early 2000s, and completed my teacher training in 2008. During that time, I found the following points to be widely shared articles of faith in North American yoga culture:
1) Yoga is a 5,000-year old practice. Concretely, this meant that going to a good yoga class at a good studio offered the possibility of plugging directly back into an ancient tradition that had been passed down through the millennia via countless generations of yogis.
2) Yoga teachers are rooted in guru-based lineages. The structure of yoga as a whole was understood to be based on a set of loosely linked lineages that faithfully transmitted the teachings of a series of enlightened gurus.
3) Dedicated practice guarantees physical health and spiritual attainment. Given that yoga was seen as rooted in the teachings of enlightened masters, as well as time-tested across the millennia, its techniques were naturally assumed to be essentially foolproof if taught and practiced correctly.
4) The “yoga body” is the physical embodiment of this spiritual attainment. The bodies of advanced yogis were regarding as awe-inspiring not simply due to their muscularity, beauty, or athletic ability, but rather because their capabilities embodied a level of spiritual realization rarely achieved.
5) Ancient yoga is authentic; modern yoga is corrupt. Western commercialism, cultural shallowness, and spiritual bankruptcy were understood to have created various ersatz forms of “yoga” that had nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing.
Caveat: In boiling down the “old” yoga paradigm (which, of course, in historical terms is really not the least bit old at all) to five bullet points, I realize that I’m hugely simplifying a more complicated reality, not to mention generalizing from my own, necessarily limited experience. In so doing, I don’t mean to dismiss the bigger picture, or other peoples’ perspectives. In fact, I’m very interested to learn to what extent these points resonate with other experiences of yoga, whether currently or in the past.
Rather, my goal in being so simplistic is to provide the easiest road map possible of where the yoga community has been and is now, so that those who care about it might be better able to see where we might want (and be able) to go next more clearly.
During the past several years, a number of factors have converged to pose a fundamental challenge each of the tenets of the “old” yoga paradigm listed above. Since covering them adequately would require a book-length project, I’ll simply mention some of the most notable, focusing on how they correspond to the five points listed above:
1) Yoga as we know it today isn’t 5,000 years old. Rather, it’s a distinctively modern set of ideas and practices. There’s a growing body of scholarship analyzing the historical development of yoga, and none of it supports the claim that what we’re doing now bears any strong resemblance to what was practiced in pre-modern India. Mark Singleton’s 2010 book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, was, of course, a pivotal work in this regard, both in terms of substance and success in crossing over from academia to reach the practice community.
2) Guru-based lineages have lost their former status due to multiple scandals and generational change. A shockingly high percentage of prominent gurus have been charged with sexual exploitation and abuse of power. Previously, knowledge of such incidents was hard to come by. Now, it’s splashed all over the Internet. At the same time, the generation of teachers trained by modern yoga legends such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois is aging. The new generation of popular teachers is quite different, often dedicated more to developing their personal brand than in transmitting a lineage.
3) Yoga can cause injury and there are no foolproof methods. Logically, this point follows from the discrediting of the two above: if yoga wasn’t developed by enlightened gurus and time-tested across the millennia, then why would it necessarily be foolproof? Further, William Broad’s recent book, The Science of Yoga, dramatically broke the silence on yoga injuries, which are now being acknowledged and discussed in unprecedented detail.
4) The “yoga body” has become a controversial cultural symbol. As yoga expanded from the counter-cultural margins to the commercial mainstream, the “yoga body” came to be represented by young, thin, pretty white women performing advanced poses with beatific expressions on their faces. Cultural critics started exploring the often-negative relationship between yoga and body image that subsequently developed, and more and more people are listening.
5) There’s no agreement over what constitutes “authentic” yoga. While various micro-communities share common perceptions, there’s no longer any overarching frame of reference that seems to unite them. If anything, there’s a growing refusal to have any standards regarding anything related to yoga at all, on the grounds that such distinctions are “judgmental” and “unyogic.”
Of course, the details of each of these points can be debated. The overall picture, however, is clear: every major element of the “old” yoga paradigm is being questioned, attacked, refuted, or simply ignored. What had until recently worked well at organizing widely shared understandings, experiences, and beliefs into one coherent package suddenly seems misleading or irrelevant to many. The old paradigm has lost its power, and nothing new has yet emerged to take its place.
Turning Loss Into Opportunity
Boiling cultural beliefs about yoga down into such summary lists may strike some as cold-hearted or even offensive. And it’s certainly true that there’s an inevitable feeling of debunking that comes with such analyses, particularly when talking about something like cultural beliefs about yoga, which had been operating at more of a vague, fuzzy, quasi-mythological level before. My intent, however, is not to criticize the “old” yoga paradigm or applaud its breakdown. Rather, my hope is to bring both sets of cultural developments into sharper focus so that we can see what’s happening in the field more clearly.
Beyond this, I’d like to suggest ways in which the breakdown of the “old” paradigm offers new possibilities for positive change. Because so many of the critiques of it are so recent – scholarship detailing the recent vintage of contemporary asana practice, in-depth analyses of the conditions contributing to yoga injuries, denunciations of the negative messages communicated through popular images of the “yoga body,” and so on – it can be difficult to see beyond them. And when that happens, the cultural climate can start to turn sour, dominated by a negative sense of disillusionment rather than positive feelings of possibility.
I believe that the current moment calls those of us who care about the future of yoga to explore such positive possibilities in collaboration with others. Rather than responding to see the loss of old verities with cynical disillusionment, we can see it as an opportunity to explore the practice more deeply. For example:
1) As we learn more about the particularity of the modern yoga tradition, the rich diversity of its pre-modern precursors becomes more apparent. Believing in an eternal, unchanging tradition flattens out the many fascinating, provocative, and potentially important alternatives to contemporary practice that a more accurate reading of yoga history reveals.
2) Dissatisfaction with the guru-based lineage model can be channeled into a commitment to developing new ways of training teachers and transmitting the practice that are better suited to our society today. As more people start to see that both yoga gurus and yogilebrities often generate the same sort of problematic interpersonal dynamics, there is more interest in investigating the psychology of the teacher-student relationship, and developing healthier and more empowering alternatives.
3) Opening up the discussion of yoga injuries creates new incentives to investigate different varieties of modern asana practice in more depth, and make them safer and more effective. Once yoga teachers are freed from the myth that asana should be timeless, unchanging, and foolproof, they are free to change and refine methods based on concrete feedback regarding what works well for whom, under what conditions, and for what ends.
4) Critiquing the standardized model of the “yoga body” empowers practitioners to develop new ways of visually representing yoga, and new methods of body-positive teaching and practice. Seeing the contradiction between selling yoga using images favored by the diet- and beauty-industries and teaching it as a means of holistic health and empowerment raises critically important questions of how best to adopt a body-centered practice to speak to the needs and concerns of a body-shaming society.
5) Giving up the belief that there’s only one authentic form of yoga invites us to reflect on what’s really important to us about it and why. If the yoga tradition is understood to be multi-vocal and ever-changing, then the criteria for authenticity must shift away from an imaginary ideal rooted somewhere long ago and far away, and toward an investigation of what constitutes a meaningful practice right here and now.
Of course, what’s meaningful for different practitioners is going to vary tremendously. Still, simply sharing a sense that yoga can be meaningful – that it can offer more than stretching and stress relief, that there’s a deeper tradition to carry forward – can create a vital sense of connection. The trick is keeping that common ground open and vibrant without lapsing into division and conflict. This isn’t easy, as it’s high stakes territory. Nonetheless, with practice, it can be done.