Yoga: Beyond the BS

Back cover image, “21st Century Yoga.” Photo credit: Sarit Z. Rogers, Sarit Photography

Back when there wasn’t much critical writing about yoga available, I tried to read as many blogs and articles that addressed some problematic aspect of yoga culture as I could. But that was then. In years, it wasn’t such a long time ago. In felt time, though, it feels like a distant memory.

Today, I expect my Facebook feed (which, much as I hate to admit it, is one of my primary yoga-related news sources) to be dominated by a non-stop stream of negative reports. To be sure, much of it is valuable, and most is interesting in one way or another. But the volume and intensity of this barrage of negative yoga news has mushroomed to the point where it’s beyond wearisome. I no longer want to read much of it. On a visceral, gut level, I’m sick of it.

 

Energy Suck

The endless barrage of yoga-focused negativity feels overwhelming, dismaying, draining. Sure, there are exceptions. After all, there are real problems out there. Periodically, someone addresses them in a way that feels uplifting, rather than discouraging. But most of the time, it feels like an energy suck.

Intellectually, I know that the topics I see people on social media going around and around on (and this is very much a social media phenomenon) are important: power abuses, cult dynamics, cultural appropriation, commercialization, commodification, yoga injuries, YTT mills, YA’s failings, unqualified teachers, fetishized hypermobility, and so on (and on) . . .

All are vitally important topics. I’ve written about many of them myself, and still care about them. I believe that people should talk about them. It’s good that the fake, fluffy, feel-good silence that used to surround such problems in the yoga world has been broken.

But. The negative, repetitive vortex that’s developed around yoga-centered critique feels toxic. After building momentum for years, it’s developed a self-perpetuating dynamic of its own. It’s become a churning tidal wave of negative energy. Often, I feel the underlying dynamic is driven by attachment to negative emotions and/or manipulative power plays.

Again, there are exceptions. But overall, what’s happening in the online yogasphere today doesn’t feel like constructive critique. And all too often, it seems to be overshadowing, rather than supporting whatever new waves of energy, inspiration, purpose, and passion are emerging.

This makes it a destructive, rather than constructive force. I fear that it’s eclipsing too much of the healing, pro-social, and transformative work that has been and continues to be done with yoga. As such, it poses a threat to the collective future of the practice.

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’ve become so turned off by the dynamics of yoga culture today that I’ve seriously considered walking away from it many times. I know that I’m not alone in this.

Given the staggering amount of shallow commercialism, narcissistic self-absorption, teacher betrayals, self-righteous crusading, and online policing and bullying that courses through so much of contemporary yoga culture, what’s left to like? Continuing to engage with a supposedly enlightening practice that’s perversely breeding such nastiness can seem pointless, if not idiotic.

But here’s the thing: Yoga works for me. I feel shitty if I don’t practice regularly. Physically, I get stiff and achy. Emotionally, I become more blocked, weighted down, and reactive. Mentally, I feel claustrophobic – increasingly trapped in the narrowing confines of my own thoughts.

I’m not as in touch with my intuition. I don’t appreciate the sunlight and shadows as much. In a holistic, rather than simply visual sense, I can’t see as clearly.

Over time, I’ve incorporated a variety of practices into what I consider to be my own personal practice. Some are what you’d expect of any reasonably serious practitioner: mindfulness, meditation, reading classic yogic texts. Others are more prosaic: e.g., regular bouts with the foam roller and other fascia-friendly tools.

Other practices I now consider part of “yoga” are less predictable, but at least as important. One that I learned in my teacher training is practicing looking closely at – and seeking to truly see – some of the grand old trees I walk by regularly. (There’s many in the park where I walk with my dog.) My root teacher, Ana Forrest, leads her students through many exercises in what she calls seeing and empathing. The deep purpose of this practice is to learn to apprehend and absorb some of the profound beauty that surrounds us every day – but that we normally fail to notice.

Typically, we walk through the deep green of the summer grass in the sunlight without really seeing it. We’re oblivious to that fleeting, mystical moment when twilight comes and suffuses city buildings in an otherworldly, magical glow. But we can practice being more awake to the wonder that surrounds us. And when we become more conscious, we’re more attuned to our life force and what nourishes our soul.

 

Asana Matters

This is yoga. It doesn’t require a mat, or even an asana practice. Yet anyone who says that asana isn’t important definitely isn’t living in a body like mine. Asana is very important to me. Often, I wish it wasn’t. But like it or not, I’m reminded of its value every time I slack off and go for more two days without it.

Ironically, I suspect that that the primary reason asana works so well for me is that by conventional standards, I’m naturally “bad at yoga.” I’m not one of those hypermobile teachers or former dancers or gymnasts who easily sails into fantastic poses. I’ve never been very flexible. And it’s only getting worse as I grow older.

I like to live in my head. I’m drawn towards disconnecting from my emotions and inhabiting a much less messy world of logic and rationality. It’s much easier for me to work adeptly with my mind than my body.

I also know from painful experience that I need to counter this constitutional imbalance in order to be healthy – not only physically, but psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

We are multidimensional beings. We need head and heart, body and spirit. Yoga asana has been the one practice I’ve found that’s given me the tools I need to knit my fragmented self back together in ways that support healing and holistic growth. So, at least for the time being, I’m sticking with it.

 

Stay Focused

Part of me would love to dump contemporary yoga culture (its yoga service and socially engaged subcultures excepted) and move on to something less aggravating. But that feeling is counterbalanced by reconnecting to my sense of gratitude for what yoga has given me. And when I’m in touch with that gratitude, I want others to have access to the same resource that has helped and continues to help me so much.

That means that part of my practice now needs to be keeping my eyes on the prize, and letting the bullshit fly by without becoming too agitated and distracted.

 



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