Paradigm Shift: Yoga at the Crossroads

400px-Crossroads-sign

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.

Krishnamacharya ad

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.

 

Paradigm Breakdown

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.

21CY childs pose photo

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.

 

Images credits: Thanks to Eric Shaw for making this Krishnamacharya advertisement publicly available. “Yoga Rebel” image via tarastiles.com. Child’s Pose in L.A. courtesy of Sarit Photography.

 


53 Comments

  1. rhyll

    This is a clear, accessible, and brilliant article that I so resonate with and am so relieved to hear, in that it beautifully articulates the conclusions I’ve arrived at after 7 years of teaching. Thankyou!!!

    • chorton

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Rhyll. I was nervous about posting this as it is a big-picture analysis based on my own perceptions, and I have no way of knowing to what extent others share them without feedback. Much appreciated!

  2. Adam Sewell

    Many thanks for the well written article, Carol. It is my belief that although most things evolve, they do so, not necessarily for the better. Yoga in America has changed for various reasons.

    (a) THE PEOPLE practicing are different from the yogis of yesteryear. We are now a yoga society of people mainly dominated by caucasian women clad in skintight apparel, looking to gain a tight ass. Yoga was predominantly practiced by men, who wore cloths, not to see their tight ass in the mirror but because it’s just part of their culture. Until recently when yoga was introduced to fitness centers, there really were few places that even used mirrors. Because it’s all consumer driven, teachers will now adapt their teaching to teach what is popular in order to fill studios. They have to in order to stay in business.
    (b) THE COOL FACTOR means that it’s not only cool to “do yoga” but theres nothing wrong with making up your own poses or transitioning through them at 100mph even when it’s unsafe and not necessarily even yoga.
    © AMERICAN CONSUMERS are inherently arrogant and therefore feel the need to “improve” yoga because they think they know better. Many students in class, no matter how many times you tell them, will perform certain asana in a dangerous manner because they think they know better. I highly doubt many (or any) of Krishnamacharya’s students would have ignored his directions and debated with him.
    (d) EXERCISE SCIENCE is now integrating with yoga. Think about the locking your knees vs. not locking your knees debate, one of many. We know and have known for a few years now that locking your knees is not very healthy but try telling this to the yogis of yesteryear who have practiced for years with locked knees. Back then, there were no studies on these types of facts but now, not only are there dozens of studies to support not doing this by many reliable sources but we have access to that information at the touch of a button.
    (e) COMPARING YOGA TO THE MARTIAL ARTS, which have been around as long as, if not longer than yoga, the same thing has happened. Many martial arts dojos are now “boutique studios” offering you a black belt in 2 years or so. The old masters must be rolling in their graves. Americans have now removed the martial from many of the martial arts and when doing so, they have also removed the honor. The Samurai would bow to each other, bow to their swords, fight to the death and happily bow down and allow their opponent to take their head in an honorable manner after losing a fight. Although we don’t fight to the death any more, it’s really all about winning with an “in-your-face” attitude than performing honorably. I mention this because, although there are still some authentically driven dojos around, looking at the martial arts, which became popular in America not long before yoga, one can learn from what has happened and see where it is going.

    I could go on but now I have to go and teach a class to a studio full of Lululemon clad caucasian women…….. 😉

    Namaste.

    • what a great addendum to a fantastic article.

    • chorton

      Hi Adam – I feel what you’re saying but don’t think it’s the whole picture by any means. Because I live in a major urban area in a very diverse neighborhood and am very involved in the local and national yoga service and outreach movements, I see a lot of other, very different and powerful developments as well. For example, it is evident to me that there is a growing interest in yoga as a tool for holistic health, trauma recovery, and violence prevention among more and more professionals, community leaders, and just regular people who are working and living in low-income communities of color in Chicago. It’s under the radar mostly at this point but getting steadily more organized and visible. I also have had many deep experiences with just plain old vanilla studio-based yoga in my life . . . just remember, not all pretty white women are necessarily shallow, narcissistic consumers. Often they are oppressed by the media stereotypes, too; it’s just not as easy to see.

  3. Thank you for writing this piece. I am a relatively new teacher, and often find myself completely disillusioned with the current state of yoga. Branding myself and the commercialization aspect of modern yoga exhausts and often sickens me (thanks for the inclusion of a Tara photo). My unwavering desire in teaching is to transmit authentic and clear information, and I am always sitting with the question of what even is authentic at this point.
    I think the most important part of this article is that you included opportunities to look at the practice more deeply. There are many writers out there who are presenting nothing other than harsh critiques and fear mongering of yoga with no comment on how to evolve the practice and the training of new teachers. I look forward to the continued conversation of moving this important and potent practice of yoga forward. Namaste, Carol.

    • chorton

      Thanks, Rachel. I agree and feel that the yoga community needs to find ways to share what’s deep and positive about our experiences without lapsing into that sort of canned, feel-good, smiley face happy-speak that doesn’t resonate as real or convincing. It can feel a lot safer to stay on the grounds of criticism than venture into sharing what really matters to you when you’re feeling uncertain, disillusioned, etc. I think that’s a lot of what’s happening when we see yoga discourse turning sour.

  4. Thank you Carol for such a wonderfully structured essay on the development and changing mileu of modern Yoga. Indeed, all of your points are well thought through and insightful.

    I have a particular interest in the first point about the history of yoga and what an informed understanding of the past may offer the future of yoga. It seems, as westerners, we want a definite answer about the age and authenticity of yoga, and recent discussions on this topic appear like a pendulum to have swung from one extreme (5000years old) to another (it’s all new 20th c) with the truth of yoga’s history laying somewhere inbetween these two extreme views.

    My biggest concern regarding this issue is the lack of funding available for serious philological scholarship and historical research. Sanskrit is out of fashion in the university world, with many faculty positions in universities being cut or phased out. No doubt you are aware of the extraordinary efforts of scholars such as James Mallinson and Jason Birch to bridge the gap that exists in our knowledge on pre-colonial yoga, but it seems the yoga community at large and the academic university funding bodies do not value this work as it is seen to offer little commercial value.

    Yet, it would appear that much of the disillusionment in the yoga scene stems from the fact that modern teachers have played fiction writers with the practice and it’s past (adding / subtracting and molding Yoga to best fit commercial interests). Any research in this area would further our knowledge and help clarify a very blurry topic that until now has been hijacked by mythmakers. There are still so many unanswered questions about yoga’s history, purpose, practices and untapped wisdom.

    Currently, any funding on offer both academically/commercially is usually directed towards the health and therapeutic aspects of applied yoga practice. Indeed, I appauld such research, but I would also hope that culturally we recognize that without a historical and contextual foundation, the practices on trail in clinical research programmes are often misunderstood and misused.

    Also, although a lot of the points you discuss are not unquie to North America, my brief exposure to the American scene in LA made me realize that one must open the eyes of Americans to the yoga world beyond California. Modern yoga is evolving beyond US borders and this receives very little coverage. It is true that most yogalebrities have risen from within the Holywood and SF Bay Area which I feel has led to a ‘we know it all’ mentality. Yet, the development of a cultural paradigm in yoga is happening worldwide. Perhaps this paradigm shift is also a global phenomena that stems from modern humans questioning their purpose and ‘sense of self’ in this increasingly connected yet highly competitive world.

    • chorton

      Hi Jacqueline – Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I think that you are (unfortunately) totally right about the difficulty of generating scholars with the capacity to do serious historical research, particularly in ways that connect to the practice community – it is not a course supported by either academia or the mainstream yoga world in any serious (read: financially viable) way. So, we are particularly fortunate to have a few people who are doing it and hope that everyone who cares about this stuff will buy “Roots of Yoga” and similar work and support them!

      The question of how to understand modern yoga history vis-a-vis the longer tradition is a huge one on multiple levels. Several commentators here have rightly noted the importance of myth in all this – I agree with Ivan Nahem that there seems to be a pretty universal human tendency to want to root our beliefs in something unchanging, timeless, eternal. Yet our society is very fast-changing, tradition-breaking, and increasingly culturally divided so it’s very difficult for many people to take these sorts of beliefs for granted in the ways that they used to.

      I think that the men who developed modern asana practice made a great contribution and that there were good cultural, social, and political reasons that they historicized it the way they did at the time (claiming to carry on an unbroken ancient tradition when actually injecting a lot of very modern ideas and practices, silencing particular parts of the tradition in favor of others, etc.). One can also be generous and see it as a legitimate carrying forward of the tradition precisely by modernizing it – if you operate in mythic rather than linear time, then deep correspondences can be claimed even when the factual details don’t map on together at all. I think that’s what they were doing in their own minds. At any rate, we are left with the question of how to reconcile their presentation of yoga history with the one that we’re now learning from highly accomplished yoga historians. I don’t think that the right answer is to dismiss them as charlatans, for sure. No one would care about what they had done so many decades later if it hadn’t set something in motion that millions found profoundly valuable.

  5. Phillip Askew

    Wow! What an excellent article! So poignant, so insightful, so stimulating, so clear. Excellent, excellent read!

  6. Manoj Mehta

    I find it ironic that in Krishnamacharya’s ad, he is mentioned as an expert on at least 4 (or 5, if you take Yogacharya as him being an acharya of the Yoga Darshana and NOT yogasana) of the 6 darshanas/philosophies of Hindu thought plus an expert on the Vedas. Also, the ad clearly states Meditation in brackets. When, I wonder, did the whole focus shift to yogasanas, at the expense of the profoundly rich (and potentially more life-transformational) darshanas? Carol, I also wonder you seem not to have explored (I could be wrong here of course) the various other aspects of the entire ‘Yoga’ tradition and kept your focus mainly on asana practice. By going so deep into this area, do you think you also might be contributing to the (mis)understanding that asana is yoga and yoga is asana?

    • chorton

      Hi Manoj: Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. My best understanding is that the focus shifted to asana in early 20th century India under teachers like Krishnamacharya because integrating the momentum of the “Yoga Renaissance” sparked by Vivekananda with that of the transnational physical culture movement was an excellent way to pursue core commitments set into motion under the rubric of “yoga,” including making the practice as accessible as possible, supporting a positive sense of Indian nationalism, building health and strength amongst the general population, gaining international recognition, and generally carrying forward a successful “yoga movement.”

      In my view, there was and will always be a necessary tension between the goals of making yoga as accessible as possible and having it require deep, intensive, challenging meditative practices and philosophical study (etc.). The more you prioritize accessibility, the more you also need to prioritize something that helps people with the immediate demands of everyday life. Asana does that quite effectively if taught well (stress reduction, relieving physical pain, developing greater equanimity, etc.). Only the rare person is driven to seriously pursue radical transformation. I think this has always been true and will remain so.

      Plus there is also the question of – radical transformation to what end? The traditional goal was to get off of the endless cycle of death and rebirth by achieving enlightenment. If you don’t believe in reincarnation, this whole paradigm falls apart. I think that everyone needs to reflect seriously on what their deepest values are and how and why their yoga practice does or doesn’t support them. When you get into issues such as reincarnation it’s really more of a religious faith-type issue and people are going to have fundamentally different and not infrequently incompatible views. I don’t believe in reincarnation so the traditional understanding of enlightenment has no deep meaning for me. However, I have no interest in arguing against those who do believe in it. I’d rather simply accept that this is a profound difference and see if there is any other common ground to connect on. It is a losing battle to drive to change such deep views. I’m not interested in converting anyone to anything (and don’t like being proselytized either).

      I certainly see the possibility of living a more enlightened life, however, and am interested in that. But all sorts of practices may contribute to that, including quite mundane ones like honesty at work, commitment to friends and family, etc.

      In writing about “yoga” in the contemporary North American context, I hope both to find ways to make the most out of the popular healing practice that we’ve inherited, and to point out that it is part of a larger tradition that offers much more for those who have the drive to explore deeper. Because I am a (small “d”) democrat and care about relieving suffering the world, I think that popular asana practice can be extremely valuable. While I’m interested in learning more about the broad range of yogic practices and see that as a valuable pursuit, fundamentally I’m more drawn to the project of a healing practice for the many than an enlightenment project for the few.

  7. Carol, I love your article. It brings up so many issues that I have felt very deeply myself. You made it so clear in your 5 points. Number 2 and 3 are particularly meaningful to me.

    I believe that yoga can change as it has changed anyway and it does not need to stay static as an unwavering ancient tradition.

    Also the injuries that are showing up after years of practicing by advanced teachers in a lineage make me really question some of the poses like putting your leg behind your head. Some people may have the anatomy in their hips to make this safe, but my guess is that ultimately this can be harmful to many, maybe even the majority.

    It will be interesting to see how many teachers, from the older generation to the newer yogalebrities will be willing to join this conversation without being defensive or feeling that their image is being threatened.

    • chorton

      Thanks for your comment! The injury issue is so important. I just talked to someone yesterday who had practiced for years but was taking classes at a popular chain of studios because they fit her schedule. She said that they were poorly taught so that she often didn’t do everything the teacher said as she thought the sequencing was poor and was concerned about injury. But then one day a teacher came up behind her and adjusted her so aggressively in Warrior interlock that she “fell on the floor screaming” with two herniated discs in her low back! That was in April and she is still going to physical therapy and can’t go back to practicing anywhere close to where she was before. Horrifying! I said that someone’s going to sue them soon, and she agreed. So, much as many might like to stuff the discussion, there’s just no way these issues are going to go away – nor should they.

  8. Yes very nice and clean analysis of where we are today, here in the U.S. I would say there are some few ways in which I feel disappointed regarding the recent findings and many ways in which I feel encouraged and even liberated. The first downside is that, oh jeez, it would indeed be so nice to entertain the notion that the right teacher is out there and will come along at the perfect moment. Who knows, maybe that’s even true, maybe all these sad stories are merely a sort of smokescreen, but, wow, it is so hard to trust now, knowing how often the feet of clay of teachers or gurus have been revealed beneath their holy robes. Secondly, I’m nagged by the suspicion that B.K.S. Iyengar contributed to the obfuscation of yoga history. I have to say it. Just for one example, unless I’m missing something, I would have to conclude that he and/or Krishnamacharya named most of the poses as we know them, to give them this air of historical gravitas. These names don’t exist beforehand. And I love Iyengar’s work, I hold him in the highest esteem, nearly, but the ‘nearly’ is because perhaps he hasn’t been exactly straightforward, and that’s slightly disappointing, if true… On the other hand, the joy remains that yoga and asana work are amazingly efficient paths, and as you point out we can now begin a new era of experimentation and consolidation, as well as the resuscitation of the public image of yoga and the yoga body hopefully making it more inclusive…. PS I think it’s also important to note that Mark Singleton has been occasionally annoyed, as he told me, with the popular idea that his work postulates that “yoga is only 120 years old” or anything of the sort. That was not his intention with Yoga Body, nor his conclusion. (And just to be clear I’m not saying you said this, Carol, just pointing it out because such misconceptions do tend to arise in these discussions.) See our interview with him on http://www.yogateachermag.com. In fact I think there is now a backlash against the idea of dismissing yoga history as so brief, and work is being done to try to excavate and establish what yoga has meant during its relatively lengthy tenure on the planet. Anyway, cheers and thanks again, another great article.

    • iyengar and JOIS…. Yoga businessmen… You are correct.. they knew nothing but asana and exploited it to westerners.

      • I would thoroughly disagree with the idea that Iyengar, or Jois for that matter, knew nothing but asana; I would suggest digging a bit deeper. Iyengar in particular has struck me as a profound student of all aspects of yoga, as perhaps best exemplified in his stories in Light on LIfe. And his work with all aspects of yoga is pioneering and astonishing. Did he fudge a bit with the history, to extend the reach of yoga? Perhaps. Do I think this is the worst crime ever? Not at all.

    • Laura Sharkey

      Ivan, regarding your observation about the confusion around Mark Singleton’s work, I think it’s worth noting the connection between Singleton’s most publicized – and controversial – point (the age of asana, not yoga as a whole) and the emphasis on asana in North American yoga teachings. It is not surprising (although it is unfortunate) that Singleton’s conclusions have been misinterpreted, given our tendency to focus on asana at the expense of all other aspects of yogic practice.

      • Point well taken. Of course other aspects of yoga (as, say, delineated in the Gita) were around for much longer than any kind of emphasis on posture, but that doesn’t mean it all just happened recently either. There was early work done in China with postures for health, as David Gordon White has identified; also poses as a form of tapas; the Nath yogis and their texts; Tantra; the extremely odd Shritattvanidhi as revealed by N.E. Sjoman — all of this points to much innovation during the last millennium or so. I don’t think we need to cower in any way because we emphasize asana these days; it’s a response to our life and our culture, and as many have said, it’s an evoluttion. In my interview with him Mark Singleton defines his objectives thusly: “The point of the book is to offer a cultural history of certain strands of yoga practice in the modern, transnational world, not to assert the recent invention of particular asanas. One may reasonably say that over the past 100 years certain forms of yoga have developed which are very interesting and unusual, and which have developed in dialogue with technologies and philosophies that were not previously part of the yoga traditions. That is the basis for an interesting cultural history. But one would have to be blind not to see that yoga has other histories, some of which stretch back a long, long way.”

        • Laura Sharkey

          Ah, good point. So even narrowing the discussion to asana, Singleton’s thesis has been oversimplified to the point of misinterpretation. I agree with your observation that our emphasis on asana is a response to our current situation. What I find troublesome (and could be addressed by in-depth consideration of Carol’s point 1 in her “opportunity” set) is how, as a culture, we tend to feel a need to anchor contemporary practices into the past (often rewriting history in the process) as a way of validating them. I wonder if the popular reduction of Singleton’s writing down to a single (and apparently misunderstood) point is simply a balancing of the scales, as it were. Too far one direction, then we push back too far in the opposite direction, all the while giving more attention to the direction of movement than to the validity and accuracy of the information. I wonder why the concept of evolution as a natural and inevitable process gets so frequently swept under the rug in favor of debate about whether or not any change at all should be permissible.

          • “Then we push back too far in the opposite direction, all the while giving more attention to the direction of movement than to the validity and accuracy of the information.” Well said! We do get caught up in change/movement, swept along. However I would question whether the urge to root current paradigm in the past is something unique to Western culture(s). Is this not how histories come to be established all over the world, all the tall tales told, particularly with regard to spirituality, which by its very natural concern with the magical often involves mythologizing? And then we grasp hold of these myths with both hands because they appear to give us stability. Yes even in the yoga world, here there and everywhere, mythologizing, shoring up our stories, hurling curses at any enemy who dares challenge our cherished beliefs. It’s how we do. Historians have the task of trying to sift out the truth, but in most cases it’s good luck pal. But yeah, Carol is brilliant here in identifying the opportunities: perhaps there can be a shift now toward the acceptance of a kind of groundlessness, the sort Pema Chödrön talks about, where we don’t just grab on to passing branches for safety, we get brave enough to ride the river where it takes us.

            • Laura Sharkey

              Interesting connection you make between anchoring in history and the need to mythologize. That makes a lot of sense. And yes, Isee your point about that being universal, rather than just North American.

            • susanne

              The quest for historical origins is a “modern” obsession that has permeated not only the yoga world but has existed in all religious thinking and belief in modern societies since the 16th century C.E. Just think of the Bible fundamentalists wh insist on the literal-original meaning of the bible. They too are completely unaware of the intentional fallacy, of course. Much of the scientific-empiricist hermeneutic of modern bible scholarship assumes the same “modern” principles of how we know what we know. So does the yoga “world”…. Due to the globalized knowledge transfer in our postcolonial (or rather neo-colonial) world, this quest is now found almost anywhere and is legitimated as “scientific” and hence “truth.” Thus modern western posture practice and its intellectual justicifications are inherently bound to the modern-western paradigm. I continue to be surprised that there is so little talk about the neo-colonial aspect of the modern western “yoga” endeavor. All of it is in an intellectual mess actually….

  9. Michelle Marchildon

    As with everything, yoga is evolving. My own physical practice this year is evolving from a thing of joy, to strictly rehab, and thus, back to a practice of joy. I love that you analyze this, and do it so well.

  10. I love this! Many of these issues have been on my mind as I teach lately, and I find myself on bad days feeling totally ungrounded and unsure of what I am doing teaching yoga, even as I have been doing it for over 10 years. This feeling comes from not having a sense of place in contemporary yoga culture, and perhaps comes from not having one teacher or guru, as would be the traditional model. There are many individual teachers out there who I feel aligned with, but my students are the ones I interact with every day, and they often come in with an impression of what yoga is that I almost have to fight against. On good days I feel exhilarated and inspired by the deepening of my understanding of yoga and so grateful to see that reflected in the thoughtful writing that you and other yoga scholars have done. I long deeply to bring this conversation more into the mainstream, and to change the cultural perception of who yoga is for and what it does. Every Sunday I go to the farmer’s market and give out free class cards to my studio, and it has been enlightening (if not predictable) to see who will take them and who will politely decline with an amused smile. As you might guess, young, fit, white women will take my cards, men will take my cards and say “I’ll give this to my wife/girlfriend”, most others decline. When I started practicing 15 years ago, and when I started teaching 10 years ago, I remember more diversity in the studios I was at. I was usually the youngest one in the room, and many of my teachers were men who had learned from other men. One of my first students was a woman who came in her wheelchair, and my fellow teachers included men and women in their 50’s and 60’s. Anyway, thank you for an excellent summary that serves as a strong jumping off point for deeper conversation about where we are at, and where we are going!

  11. Laura Sharkey

    Carol, this article is intriguing! I have not been practicing long enough to have experienced the pre-shift conventional wisdom. It is interesting to me that my understanding of yoga in the first year or so that I practiced was very much in line with your 5 original points. As my personal practice evolves, my understanding of yoga has shifted dramatically to a much more nuanced, less black/white awareness. Some of my newer understanding has enriched and deepened my appreciation for the practice and some of it has disillusioned me. I don’t know how much of the shift in my perspective is due to shift in the larger paradigm and how much is due to my increased knowledge and ability to comprehend the more complex aspects of the practice, but either way, I see it as an evolution of sorts. Your second set of points mirrors quite closely the path my personal evolution has taken, leading me to believe that either you have nailed it, identifying the organically and universally viable adaptation required, or I have simply followed the path that is natural to you because I am a newer student in the same modern-world “lineage” to which you subscribe. Either way, your second set of 5 points is critically important. Regardless of the “goodness” or “badness” of each evolutionary point, the deeper examination you suggest creates a potential for leveraging the changes in a productive and collaborative way. Your 5th point, in particular, may be the one that determines the viability and integrity of yoga in the future. No matter what new form yoga takes, if it is not meaningful in an authentic, real-life way, it really won’t be of much value.

  12. paul

    The shift discussed here is only about the west’s narrative about yoga, which seems to shift about depending on the community so I don’t see a paradigm change there, especially if it is just about the consequences of body image or other issues related to asana. I do see a potential one in the outreach programs (Off the Mat, Yoga Gives Back etc), that have potential to change how yoga is practiced, sold, and relates to the broader culture; such endeavors have always been around (prison yoga in particular), but never made it so much into the public as they have begun to.
    The noise around de-linking yoga from India and religion/spirit seems very faddish to me, more a gimmick of promotion (usually by the pro but also the con); maybe these personalities will have a lasting influence but I’ve seen no evidence of this. The many more resources available compared to the 90s are going to better address injuries, not so much a shift so much as just things getting better. (btw, International Association of Yoga Therapists now offers therapy accreditation, yet only some guy’s blog is mentioned- what’s the deal?)

    In the “old paradigm” write-up, 1 and 5 are/were presumably in harmony, which is an important aspect I think is ignored in the analysis.

    In India there are several large yoga organizations built around and by a guru personality (with their share of scandals).. such things aren’t going away, and a school/university would quickly turn to solid any diffusion of lineage transmission of western yoga styles. Traditional guruship isn’t going away either, it is an intricate and intimate personal relationship that isn’t likely to see public light.

    It will be a paradigm shift when the many yoga writers write less about themselves and instead write about the necessity of practicing peace!

  13. cindy

    Yoga is many things to many different people and that’s alright with me. I wish that those wishing it were only one way would open their minds and let it be. I personally found my body attuned spiritually with yoga but do not expect or require that for others. Freedom please.

  14. Bravo, Carol. Very well done. I would continue to emphasize, as you do in #1 of you second list, “the rich diversity of its pre-modern precursors becomes more apparent…” As far as I can tell, yoga has always been a wildly diverse and contentious philosophy and practice. This is not a modern phenomenon, but rather an ancient one, clearly on display even in the Bhagavad Gita. What could be more diverse than the Gita’s yoga as ascetic withdrawal vs. yoga as mental conditioning for warriors?

  15. I would also add, without sounding too denominational, most of your eminently sensible prescriptions are readily evident in “Kripalu Yoga– A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat”, written in 2006 but formulated in the mid to late 90s (as you relate in your article about Kripalu from Feb. 2012 http://www.thinkbodyelectric.com/2012/02/kripalus-reincarnation-and-anusara.html). I would give credit to Kripalu for being way ahead of the curve on all these important issues. But then I realize that many people consider Kripalu too watered down and, well, secular, for their taste, although I don’t find it so myself.

  16. The Sarit photo says it all: carefully drawn lines down a rough road that runs through a neighborhood of new construction, a Lulu horseshoe on her back, rebellious purple hair color that defies “natural” while she bows in the tradition of one who has a master. That’s good enough for me. Hasn’t the desire to reign in the wild horse of the mind been at the crux of yoga however we know it? If there is no collective mind but many I see the dust flying and hoofs stamping and manes tossing as long as we are human. I do love the way you approach the riddle as always.

    • Laura Sharkey

      Hilary – just had to comment that I love the imagery you invoke in your comment, and you make a very good point!

  17. Claude

    Claude Mohonathan – South Africa
    Your article makes very interesting reading – I have learnt and practiced yoga about 12 years ago, taught in South Africa and in the USA… I noticed that yoga has generally become very commercialized and my impression is “What material benefit can teachers get from yoga”. The masters of Yoga like Iyengar and similar teachers will soon pass away and how do we “accommodate” those that want a “different” taste of yoga?
    I always wondered why Bikram Yoga so popular about the young adults? – a topic for another discussion.

  18. Magda

    Reading this I’m soo happy I don’t live in US (no offence). Where I live it is still clear that yoga is based on ancient tradition and you can’t just make it your own way because you think you are so briliant trainer… And it’s quite clear that if you “develop your own yoga method” it’s more about you than yoga…
    B.K.S. Iyengar refreshed and organised the ancient knowledge, and gave his own knowledge coming from his practice – no, not on self-thinking, talking about yoga on conferences, looking to the mirror etc;) how all this modern teachers do – just practice.
    And as far as it may be confusing for people from US working with the old knowledge to make it readable for modern people is not the same as creating your own method:) So Iyengar bases on the real, ancient yoga. He just made it available for others.
    And there were no scandals around him.
    He trains teachers and training for teachers have all the time the same and clear standars. There are levels, requirements for each level, exams for yoga teachers – it’s all clear. So Iyengar teachers are not ageing. We have many young and well-trained Iyengar teachers:) But if someone is too lazy and to self-concerned to invest in own training then you have so-called “yoga teachers”. And no wonder there are injuries! But it’s not yoga that causes them. It’s bad, ignoramus, narcissistic teachers who don’t teach real yoga. And it’s people coming to the class with theirs phones (???!! it’s absolutly not possible in good yoga school to allow it, good yoga school prefer to lose such client than to corrupt yoga) and focused on their butts, or others butts – so they don’t focuse on yoga and instructions. Btw. when I see slim almost naked, standard-beautiful women advertising yoga it’s clear for me that someone who stands behind it thinks about money, and some kind of gymnastic styled for oriental one – not yoga. And sorry – but you have plenty of oriental-like fitness in US and not many yoga… So again – no wonder people in US suffer injuries after such “practice”.
    It’s all kinda simple. Stay with the truth, don’t compromise the truth and values for money. Keep it all simple. And you won’t need to debate on paradigm.

  19. astounding article! THANK YOU. as a yoga teacher, i sometimes feel pressure to fit the stereotype of not just the “modern yogi”, but the “modern yoga teacher”. its so dulling to think that the purpose of many yoga classes is to find body strength nirvana, instead of mind/body/spiritual connection. while i still feel like a rebel in creating my own style of teaching (away from this modern expectation), i am reminded every day that the roots of my training stem deep and are critical in my place as teacher, as well as student.

  20. Laura Sharkey

    Carol – I’m curious about your thoughts on a point that I believe is significant, but that isn’t in your list: I see the beginnings of a shift in North American yoga culture away from the duality of physical vs. spiritual (i.e., enlightenment is achieved only when the practitioner releases all attachment to the body and physical existence). In the original paradigm, the body is essentially a burden that must be tamed (as referenced in your points 3 & 4) and leveraged in support of the mind/spirit’s growth. We are beginning to gravitate towards a more holistic perspective that views embracing the physical/mortal aspects of existence as necessary for spiritual growth, and stresses integration of mind/body/spirit rather than mastery over – and ultimately, separation from – the body. I’m curious because I don’t see it in your list, but based on your previous writing, I believe this is a point you view as important. Perhaps it’s not a current paradigm shift because this newest perspective is actually closely aligned with Tantric ideology? Can you comment on that?

  21. .. and maybe add, or repeat this all with a consideration for the “belief” caused motions, notions and noetics in general,,, would “being passionately agnostic” allow clarity in viewing our birth to death existence, with the allowable consequences of just aweing with respect our floating observers,,, is all good, be well, and thank you for this beauty thread!!

  22. Thank you for another great article (and insight) Carol. We will be sharing…

  23. How can something be changed without knowledge, experience, and development from what it actually is? What you write about is not actually yoga or any new developments but rather a breakoff from what it was by people that are changing it to their biases. There can be all kinds of articles and stuff said for this but in the end, none of the results of the original are attained or experienced in the new modern yoga.

    • Should probably just let this slide on, but just curious really about your sources. You seem to believe that you have the knowledge, experience and development to know what yoga “actually is”, but I’m wondering how you have arrived at that? Is it simply a feeling about what pre-modern yoga was, or some kind of research that you’ve done? What Carol is speaking of in terms of yoga history is well-grounded in scholarship, so it might be well to provide some kind of background to your views, if you want to participate constructively in a conversation.

      • Brad

        And I would ask you to ask yourself the same exact question? No matter what I would state, it would not matter.

        • Brad

          More so i would attempt to get you to read the upanishads and then other ancient texts of yoga. Then I would try to have you realize that translations are faulty by cultural understandings and the lack of having them in comprehension, so you will only understand a very little from your own perception which is limited. This is why there is need for a guru to unwrap the knowledge. Then we can talk about the techniques, that have no translation into modern yoga as they do not exist there. Then we can look at the fact that modern yoga is based upon Western exercise theory only and mixed with Western spirituality concepts. Not only this but then the actual experience, if one was to have any, is unguided and left to ones own ahamkar to identify with. This all be said, then modern yoga is based in asana only. So no results of the actual path as explained in any of the ancient texts or the tikas (subtexts that go into detail, are not available in any translation). What we are left with is a modern take on yoga which has been turned into a Pravritti Marga of identifications an attachments which is opposite to the actual path.

          You cannot learn a different language when translating it to english. Nor will you learn that language without knowing the culture it comes from.

          What does it matter my background or experience?

          • Brad

            and then i would also ask how can one explain that the experience of all that is is not accessible through the mechanical techniques of Western lens vantage point that is thought to be what yoga is or means that is taught here but to come off as some egoic or in some more advanced manner not to mention the reaction to this by the readers own individual ego and perspective therein? The entire base of understanding that there are levels of attainment or capacity is highly disregarded in the Western world of yoga and the homogenization to we are all one and that we are all the same is the consensus mutual agreement but far from correct.
            What of siddhi being a natural result of a real yoga practice concurrent to following what is in scripture? Siddhi is not found in the path that is trodden by what is laid out by modern yoga or every modern yoga teacher would be at a much higher level of attainment, would they not? This can all be seen by the standard of what is it to be a yoga teacher. 200 to 500 hr course, followed by workshops by other 200 to 500 hr certified teachers, yet no gurus exist. Where can it all lead but exactly where it is going. There is a story that explains that when the milk of a cow is taken it is pure. Then it goes to the factory where processes are done to it. Then it is sent out to be distributed by delivery where water is then added to it by the delivery men (this is well known in india). By the time the milk reaches you, it is no longer pure milk but a milk product. Where is the pureness, the authentic? Whats in your milk?

            • The “real” meaning of the Bhagavad Gita,in my opinion, is that infinitely wondrous reality (represented explicitly by Krishna in the Gita) transcends all humanity, and thus transcends all gurus, too, since they are human.

              The only valid guru is one that help the seeker see this transcendent reality, but it doesn’t necessarily take a guru to convey this. The Gita itself says there are a number of ways to achieve this awareness, not all of the lengthy or arduous, including a simple magnificent flash of insight from thinking about it.

              This transcendent reality is no different in character than the infinite wonders of modern science, in my opinion. See “My Dinner with Vyasa” http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/my-dinner-with-vyasa/.

              (And yes, I realize this is my own personal vision of the Gita, not inviolable truth. Anyone who says they have that, no matter what their lineage, is truly deluded.)

              • @Bob. Thanks for jumping in with your sage citations.

                @Brad Although I’m delighted in the recommendation of the Upanishads, I’m just not interested by the kind of rigid outlook you’re currently espousing, it just doesn’t interest me. There are many paths to God. As the very sage Bob Dylan put it, “Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine.” All the best – peace.

                • Brad

                  If it doesn’t interest you, then why even have a conversation about it? To stand to your conviction of your view? If it doesn’t follow what has been written and codified, then why call it yoga? The BG also goes into what is yoga and why. Is that rigid? The standpoint of rigidness only comes from an under-experienced mind in what is espoused as rigid. Yes, many paths to god. If yours is Western exercise, bless you. Just don’t call it something it isn’t, what’s the identification about anyway? I could put it from a different point of view. Turn it around, if one was living your rigid view point and on that path with all its necessary details, from the place you are speaking, it invalidates that persons path as well as what the texts state. Then there is also the question of why would any of it be expounded upon and written down or codified if it does not matter and it is whatever someone wants it to be. The entire view point holds no water except to protect ones own identification. There are many levels. Best to you.

                  • Brad

                    One more analogy that will explain the point… What is being taught out there as what is ghee is severely wrong if you were to look up in any of the Ayurvedic texts. Consensus, mass knowledge/superficial information thinks that sticking a stick of butter in a pot and melting it down is ghee but it is only clarified butter. It is not the same and does not have the same results. In the Ayurvedic texts, ghee is a digestant. Cows milk is cold by potential and has no digestant qualities.By turning it into butter and then melting it down to get all the milk solids and water out, it remains cold and has no digestant properties. yet this is what is thought to be ghee. Understanding and following what is taught in the texts makes one see this and also understand what needs to be done to make real ghee. With this ghee one will have the desired effects as per the shastra, without it, the results cannot be the same. But to the unknowing and inexperienced they do not even know of this information and believe that what they are making is ghee. and then who is to talk about this ghee in the first place but one who knows better, has the education as well as the experience as to why and how. What is anything less is avidya. All of the vedic vidyas require discernment and detail.

              • Frank

                I wonder what BG you are reading.

                karpanya-dosopahata-svabhavah
                prcchami tvam dharma-sammudha-cetah
                yac chreyah syan niscitam bruhi tan me
                sisyas te ‘ham sadhi mam tvam prapannam

                “Now I am confused about my duty and have lost all composure because of weakness. In this condition I am asking You to tell me clearly what is best for me. Now I am Your disciple and a soul surrendered unto You. Please instruct me.”(Bhagavad-gita 2.7)

                Guru is one – or that – which dispels the darkness of your ignorance. If this does not happen, there is no Guru.

                If this spirit of discipleship is absent, teaching is futile.

  24. This article may be incorrect about Iyengar teachers aging. We may just may be a bit older than the 20 somethings who are currently dominating the “yoga scene.” That’s because it takes a tad more than 200 hours to get certified in this style…more like several years. Most who are teaching yoga as a fad will hit a brick wall with this method. It takes discipline. While the article says there is no agreement on what is “authentic” yoga, there are very few teacher training schools who do not refer to Iyengar or his works. His teachings and his method of training teachers will live on for generations.

  25. I enjoyed this article, and I have definitely experienced the shift, but I will ALWAYS be drawn to Yoga as a spiritual practice and those who dedicated themselves to a lineage that took hold of their heart and wouldn’t let go. The tight ass is a bonus.

  26. Renata

    Thank you for bringing up the discussion!

    It seems that the so-called solid, timeless and unchangeable Yoga tradition was more of a selling device for outsiders.

    Yoga diversity has long been discovered by scholars (as I`m sure you know), as writes Mircea Eliade in Yoga Techiques, 1975: (forgive me my translation)

    “Yoga is a misleading term. Its meaning has changed in every century. In fact, if there is a “classic”, “systematic” Yoga, there is a popular, “baroque” Yoga as well; if there is an “ascetic” Yoga, another one, erotic, will compensate it. If, in certain traditions or sects, Yoga is above all a system of “magic” practices, in other traditions, Yoga is mainly a way to obtain the union between the human with the divine soul. This extreme diversity of meanings and values reveals the functions Yoga had in the history of Indian spirituality.”
    (and now diversity also reveals the functions of Yoga in our spirituality and fitness culture, reflecting our context, society and age as well.)

    Another problem is the globalization of the American Popular Yoga with its manifestations, (and I add “popular” bc I know there are many people doing great work in the US), to the point that some people don´t know that the practice originated in India, or that a class can be slow, or that it´s not all about fitness, where American teachers are overvalued, etc…

  27. A very interesting article and comments, I have really enjoyed reading. I am a yoga teacher living in the UK and what was written totally resonates with what I am seeing here in the UK. Yoga continues to evolve and change is part of life and growth. I teach two classes a week in a gym and I adapt what I teach to suit the student/client. Yoga never used to be on a gym timetable but is now very popular with some members and 20 years ago there wasn’t that many yoga teachers in the UK, it is very different now, there are thousands of ‘teachers’. This is largely due to the umpteen yoga training courses on offer and the business of yoga has become very competitive which is quite ironic, given the philosophy of yoga. Namaste 🙂

  28. Interesting views indeed.
    But it is obvious that the “American yoga” is not the medieval Hatha Yoga, which is not rooted in Yoga Darsana of Patanjali.
    What IS this apparently hedonistic egotistic fitness cult is to be shaped by its teachers and practitioners facing the market society.
    A moment to look in the mirror.

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