Yoga in 2015: Parsing the Signs of the Times

vintage clocks

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .                                                           – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The “Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2015” just released by the American College of Sports Medicine once again placed yoga on their Top 10 list. Fitness industry experts noted that the staying power of yoga is remarkable. “The yoga folks surprise me every year,” study author Walter Thompson confessed to NPR:

He thought yoga would’ve gone the way of Pilates, quickly dropping off the top 20 list. But people who promote yoga, he says, have figured out ways to get new people to try it. Whether it’s Bikram yoga or power yoga, “they reinvent themselves so it continues to be popular.”

Ah, yes. Isn’t it great? From Ashtanga to Polga, yoga covers the waterfront. Whether you seek an ascetic spiritual practice or hedonistic yoga party, we’ve got it all. This incredible flexibility (pun intended) is what’s enabled yoga to remain a “recession proof” $10.3 billion industry. Viewed from a strictly commercial, big business perspective, the yoga world is in exceptionally great shape. The best of times!

Yet as J. Brown recently noted, “it’s hard times for yoga teachers.” Whoever’s making those billions, it’s not your local studio owner or teacher. On the contrary, most are finding it harder than ever to make a living in what’s become a badly over-saturated teaching market increasingly dominated by corporate studio chains.

Things may be rocking for the Core Power Yogas of the world (up to 25 studios and counting in my hometown Chicago), but it’s a different story for the little guy – perhaps even the worst of times in recent memory.

 

A New Low

Unfortunately, however, the problems plaguing the yoga world today get much, much worse than that.

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the high-profile yoga “scandals” (Anusara, Kausthub Desikachar, Bikram), a new one hit the headlines. And as bad as the others were (not to put them all in the same pot – to be fair, each must be considered separately), this one, which involved the ongoing sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of children at Australia’s Satyananda Yoga Ashram during the 1970s-80s, is even more tragic, shocking, and deeply disillusioning than the rest.

True, the crimes at the Mangrove Mountain ashram are decades past now. The fact that it took this long for the survivors to be heard and that the center was under the auspices of the prestigious Bihar School of Yoga that entire time, however, is yet another disgracing stain on what had long been seen as a venerable yoga lineage.

Piled on top of the earlier history of reported abuses by prominent yoga gurus, one can only wonder why anyone would remain loyal to the guru-based lineage model. Because whatever valuable role it may have played in the past, it’s evident that it’s produced unacceptably high levels of dysfunction and tragedy in our world today.

To be sure, not all modern lineages have been plagued by abuse. But the most important of those that stood untainted by scandal are gone: B.K.S. Iyengar passed in 2014, Pattabhi Jois in 2009. Further, the all-too-human foibles of these venerable teachers are being openly discussed in ways that was simply not done in the recent past. In today’s jaded, commercialized yoga culture, the godly halo that was once projected onto such leaders is gone.

The upshot is that the narrative that once assured sincere practitioners that a series of great gurus had arisen – men with the power to plug us directly back into the power and wisdom of an ancient spiritual practice – has cracked. In fact, it appears broken beyond repair.

This generally isn’t a concern for the newest generation of students, most of whom have no clue whosoever what the significance of the lineage model might be. For many longtime practitioners, however, its breakdown has produced a profound sense of disorientation and loss – as well as, in some cases, grief, anger, and shame.

At least in some quarters, then, there’s a painful sense that yoga writ large has fallen into very bad times indeed – a veritable season of Darkness.

 

Rethinking Tradition

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

            – “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen (1992)

When you put these two trends together – the boom in corporate yoga and the bust of the lineage model – the state of yoga today can look quite bleak. Of course, if you’re only interested in “workout yoga,” none of these bigger picture issues matter. The more that you’re invested in yoga as a meaningful mind-body-spirit practice and/or an ancient (if diverse and evolving) tradition, however, the more there’s cause for concern.

Nonetheless, I personally feel much more hopeful about the future of yoga than I did a few years ago. In part, this is because I’ve become more accepting of things that I don’t like about the field. I’ve also become more confident, however, that what I love about it really does matter. Plus, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to connect with a lot of great people who are doing exciting, inspiring work in the yoga community, both in Chicago and beyond.

From this vantage point, I see the breakdown of the guru-based lineage model as opening important new avenues for yoga teaching, philosophy, ethics, service, community building, and more. I’m jazzed by path-breaking collaborative writing projects (Yoga and Body Image, 21st Century Yoga); newly ambitious social service and activist organizations (Yoga Service Council, OTM); and unprecedented studies of the lived experience of contemporary practice (WAWADIA, Survivors on the Yoga Mat). I’m also excited about the explosion of interest in the healing power of yoga for trauma, and in bringing yoga to major social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons.

There’s also a lot of great work going on that I’m less directly involved in. The Bhakti Yoga/Kirtan scene is vibrant. The field of modern yoga studies is slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the academy. New approaches to understating anatomy, movement, and the physical body promise to enhance our knowledge of asana tremendously.

In these and other creative, yoga-inspired initiatives, I see people integrating their passion for yoga with the rest of their lives – and their communities, and the world. This is exciting, promising, and badly needed in a society that’s inundated with physical, emotional, and spiritual malaise and suffering. Plus, I believe this new wave of work is well in line with the spirit of the modern yoga represented by leaders such as Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Many of the leading figures in the development of modern yoga in early 20th century India were revolutionaries. And they weren’t afraid to change tradition in order to keep its deeper spirit alive.

My hope for the yoga world in 2015 is that more and more practitioners will make the warrior’s choice to practice in ways that seek the Light and stare down the Dark. That strive for wisdom while accepting the inevitability of foolishness. That keep the faith without doing so blindly. That inspire hope while having compassion for despair. And that learn through hard-won experience that no matter how bad the times may be, the human spirit has infinite capacity for renewal.

 

This post was written for YogaDork’s “State of the Union 2014-15” series and is cross-posted with permission here.

 

 


1 Comment

  1. “The field of modern yoga studies is slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the
    academy.” I can attest to that as I have taught “The Theory and Practice of Yoga” at Georgian Court University, Lakewood, NJ as a 3 credit course for undergraduate and graduate students. I look forward to more integration of all aspects of yoga into college curriculums because yoga has so much to offer us as a path toward compassion and wisdom. Thank you for your post. Namaste.

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