Thoughts from Yoga Journal’s editor-in-chief Kaitlin Quistgaard, Kripalu’s David Surrenda, Sharon Gannon and more.
There’s been such a barrage of responses from the yoga community over that article, that the New York Times took it upon themselves to host their own debate. (perhaps to quell the flood of letters to the editor?) Is it tiresome? Yes. Should we still participate? We’re still here and breathing, aren’t we? The annoying part (or one of the annoying parts) is that they headlined the debate: Me, Myself and Yoga – Is Yoga For Narcissists? Really NYT?
This is how they present the debaters:
In a Times magazine article last weekend, the author quotes a yoga teacher blaming “ego” for yoga-related injuries and pointing out that “the whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.” If that’s the case, then why is narcissism so often on display in the yoga studio with students spending huge amounts of money on gym memberships and gear and even clamoring to mark their territory with their mats, hours before the class begins?
Has the practice of yoga changed so much that not only the teachers are narcissists but most students are too? How can we reconcile a spiritual practice with a fitness trend in a culture that already emphasizes the individual over the community?
Sigh. Still we read on.
Here you go. The experts the Times have summoned on narcissism, and yoga, where we’re forced to witness the redefining of yoga again and again:
Yoga, American Style by Suketu Mehta, author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” and an associate professor of journalism at NYU:
Yoga was never meant to be a competitive sport, like ice hockey. But when it spread to this robustly competitive nation, where it got turbocharged by money — the U.S. yoga market is worth $6 billion a year — its original meaning got dispersed. What is now called for is a broader understanding of the meaning of yoga.
Hatha yoga is not for everyone. The other forms are. Not everyone can — or should — stand on their heads, but everyone can use their heads to make the world a better place; yoke their emotions to their intelligence and feel more centered.
In this sense, the greatest teacher of yoga is not Iyengar or Bikram, but Gandhi.
No Apologies Are Necessary by Kaitlin Quistgaard, editor in chirf of Yoga Journal:
Yoga students come to the mat as we are — with all of our imperfections. And yes, that means with our vanity, our ego, our unskillful decisions and often with a willingness to take a good look at ourselves and work fiercely toward changing attitudes and behaviors that we can see aren’t working. Along the way, we might enjoy the byproduct of better health, a calmer mind, even a cute backside. Do we really have to apologize for that?
Why Are We Discussing This? by Sarah Miller, author and teacher of Kundalini Yoga:
Because yoga is “good for us” we seem to have this fantasy that the practice of it will not create anything negative. Well, look at football, baseball, soccer. Even at the youth level these sports can be very corrupt, and certainly cause physical problems. Yoga is not a sport per se. But anytime you have human beings and bodies and physical challenges that involve strength, beauty, stamina, will, you will have jealousy, lying, cheating, physical and psychic injury. The idea that yoga will somehow exempt itself from this because it’s “Eastern” is kind of hilarious, maybe even racist — we think only things we invent should be competitive.
Yoga’s issue with the ego is not simple. The problem with the ego is that we need it. It’s what holds us in reality. The ego is nothing more in a way than our relationship to other things, to other people. It’s a measuring device. It’s something we need but that we can’t get too dependent on. Like love, like sex, like food, like people.
The Purpose of Yoga by David Surrenda, chief executive officer of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health:
Yoga is meant to be a system of increasing awareness and decreasing disease. It was able to enter into the American mainstream by presenting itself as a tool with many benefits, including reduced stress, increased relaxation and greater flexibility. It has continued to grow through American gyms as something that cultivates aerobic capacity and builds strength. But many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise.
The “narcissism,” which is not uncommon in many sports, is the result of an emphasis on exercise that misinterprets what the real intention of yoga practice is. Yes, one can increase muscle mass and decrease waist size, but that’s not the real goal. Much of the yoga practiced today has actually become the antithesis of yoga as it is meant to be.
What Yoga Is and Isn’t by Ganesh Das, aka Carlos Menjivar, managing director of Jivamukti Yoga School:
Sharon Gannon, the founder of the Jivamukti method, recently told me that yoga is whatever you want it to be. It can be a path toward enlightenment or a practice to enhance one’s ego — the outcome depends on the intention of the practitioner.
That said, she believes that yoga is a path toward enlightenment, and that you must practice with that intention. Which means that you must find ways to remember God while you are practicing.
When yoga is practiced with the right intention, it diminishes our self-centeredness, allowing us to become more aware of our responsibility toward the larger community — the other people, animals and the environment we all share.
Be Wary of the Master by Joslyn Hamilton of blog Recovering Yogi:
It’s just another facet of our litigation-happy culture that we don’t like to take responsibility for ourselves. We choose deities to worship, whether they are Hindu gods or modern-day yoga celebrities. We think of yoga teachers as being perfect, regardless of their level of training or experience. It’s true that yogis can be competitive and vain, and that’s where a lot of injury happens. But worse than our narcissism as students is our willingness to cede our authority over ourselves to a yoga teacher or to group-think. That’s when we get hurt. When we listen to the teacher — instead of to our knee. There’s a complete lack of critical thinking.
One of my favorite teachers, Rusty Wells, has a mantra I love: “If it feels wrong; it is wrong.” At the end of the day, yoga is just a tool. It’s up to us to use it wisely.
Well, that clears it up.
- More Reactions to NYT on Yoga: President of IYNAUS, Salon.com, The Awl, Baxter Bell via Yoga Journal
- Is The New York Times Wrecking Yoga? The Community Responds
- Yoga Injuries and Battered Egos, ‘How Yoga Wrecks the Body’ via The New York Times
“We choose deities to worship, whether they are Hindu gods or modern-day yoga celebrities.”
I was in a workshop with Lama Surya Das where he said that we used to have spiritual elders…now we have celebrities.
Celebrities and yoga marketers who should be thankful there is actual gym yoga (such as YogaFit) and other mild styles to choose from, instead of increasing the noise-to-signal ratio with Briohny videos or whoever is the upscale gym flavor-of-the-month …
so the real question now seems to be, why discuss this?
gee, how ’bout simply because it’s another human endeavor –
and people, being diverse, have differing ways to examine things
i, for one, am glad there’s such an intense response and willingness to engage
these things, such as is yoga prone to injury or not, is there more to yoga than poses, and (shudder shudder) what qualifications might be considered as desirable for those teaching any of the limbs, physical or spiritual –
have been shunted away for too long under the rubric of “it’s a religion” – “it’s tax-exempt” – “it’s foreign”d
this is not the first time in u.s. history yoga’s become wildly popular; carol horton, among many, has lots of good articles on this history
time and again, yoga’s been beaten back into the back of people’s minds, for whatever reasons
if it’s to survive this time, and i do think the new global communications will ensure that, these discussions, are just the beginning…
Right on on what Joslyn Hamilton said, 100% spot on
There are, basically, two types of Yoga: real and phony. Real Yoga is Hinduism; taught by Hindus and not for a fee. Phony yoga is obviously the opposite.