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Not Your Parents’ Yoga

in YD News, YogOpinions

by J. Brown


Major tectonic shifts in the modern yoga world have created an entirely new landscape for both the industry and consumers. The founding generation of yoga trend-setters, whose innovation and entrepreneurial spirit fostered what is now established convention, have largely achieved the goal of ushering yoga into the mainstream of society, and no longer speak from the same obscure or vaulted mantles they once did. And some of the most renowned among these figures have fallen from proverbial pedestals, revealing the fallibility of yoga celebrity and a vacuum of substance.

The second official study of the yoga industry, since the first in 2008, was released last month and the perpetuation of yoga and related commerce has not slowed in the least. In the last five years alone, we’ve gone from 15.8 million to 20.4 million Americans practicing yoga, that is a 29% increase and represents 8.7% of American adults. Spending on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, vacations and media is estimated at 10.3 billion a year, almost double the 5.7 billion estimate from 2008. Among the 91.3% of Americans who do not practice yoga, 44.4% say they are interested in yoga but have yet to give it a try.

I started teaching yoga when I was 23 years old. At that time, there was no google, youtube, facebook, twitter or Lululemon. There was no 200-hour yoga teacher certification. There were no commercials for banks with people doing yoga poses in them. And there was no multi-billion dollar yoga industry to fuel. Now, I’m forty years old. I am married with a kid and I own a yoga center and train yoga teachers in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I rode the crest of the yoga wave that started in the early nineties and have grown into my adulthood along with the emergence of yoga in our culture.

I remember watching the rise of John Friend and Anusara Yoga and thinking to myself: “Wow. This is the future. This is what is possible for a yoga teacher to achieve.” Now that the brand is all but defunct and the man is considered by many to be a pariah in the field, there is a tragic irony to the youtube videos of once prominent and self-identified Anusara Yoga teachers who sincerely hope to help others better brand themselves into abundance.

Things have certainly changed when a teacher who, over more than a decade, earned reputation and standing for an overly aggressive teaching style, is now considered an expert on the injurious nature of yoga. And a senior science writer from the New York Times who was once an expert on the proliferation of nuclear weapons is now writing about the proliferation of yoga. Unfortunately, his reductionist assertions about the safety and origins of yoga and the sensationalizing of scientific data has served to obfuscate the issues more than further any understanding or educate the public.

Among serious-minded practitioners, there is palpable discontent with the course the yoga industry seems to be on. Teachers, who in the past were voices defining what yoga is in the 21st century, are now understandably more concerned with enjoying their latter years than attempting to push back against entrenched forces that care little for the soul of yoga. The newer generation has often been thrown out into the wilderness without the tools or knowledge to fulfill their impulse to carry the torch. In the absence of teachers framing the conversation and defining yoga in authentic ways, the market will always fill the gap with whatever sells.

The good news is that we may be reaching a turning point. That will happen when enough people who have practiced yoga for long enough come to their own informed determinations about what yoga is and why they practice it. I can’t think of the last time I met someone who had never heard or read of yoga before. There is a new savvy among the uninitiated and greater discernment among veteran attendees. And while most of what they hear and read about yoga is horribly inaccurate, still more and more, people understand that yoga is being utilized with different purposes and there are choices to be made.

Folks are not buying just anything as yoga anymore. And they are telling their friends. The rampant commercialization and co-opting of yoga has become so overblown that even the unfamiliar are skeptical. Times remain too tough to effectively continue hocking candy-coated platitudes. From out of the daunting malaise of pressures and seeming demise, conditions are becoming more ripe to slough off obsolete thinking. No more will we be led around by false gurus or complacent with hypocrisies. No longer will success be defined by status or achieved at the expense of others. We can and will do better. Let us have the courage to imagine it so.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com



31 comments… add one
  • abbylou

    Thank you for writing this piece. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • “The good news is that we may be reaching a turning point. That will happen when enough people who have practiced yoga for long enough come to their own informed determinations about what yoga is and why they practice it.” –

    ditto, glad to have read this, thanks! 😉

  • Thank you for this.

    Yes: not only are we seeing a greater savvy and demand for accountability among yoga practioners, but I think we are also beginning to see and hear from yoga teachers/yoga thinkers who have matured along the continuum you lay out.

    Teachers and thinkers who have seen what rapid popularization, commodification and commercialization do to a thing, positively and negatively. Teachers who’ve come out the other side of ‘this is how much a yoga teacher can make’ or how empowering and gratifying it can feel to be a rockstar, to an honest assessment of why accountability and ethics are important for them to practice. A community of teachers and thinkers who – as you do – practice accountability and ethics *because they see that as yogic*.

    While the pain has been deep and the faux paux rediculous, it’s a good thing yoga has grown: it is available to people who otherwise would not have a practice. Myself included. Most of us, included.

    I think those teachers have probably always been there. But we as a yoga culture are ready to practice with them.

  • trying to figure out who this is- anyone?
    “Things have certainly changed when a teacher who, over more than a decade, earned reputation and standing for an overly aggressive teaching style, is now considered an expert on the injurious nature of yoga.”

  • Dang it! Once again I have read something you wrote and found myself nodding “yes” as I’m reading. I have to get out to your studio.

    • Vision_Quest2

      Me, too … I remember being promised a free class maybe over a year ago …

  • Thanks, J. Brown. I really liked your piece.

  • I ws just thinking about you yesterday, J, and I’m glad to see the new article posted.

    Will have to read again and respond later. Thanks for it!

  • Nice piece, nicely written too 🙂

  • TK
  • Not only was there no Facebook, Twitter or lululemon when I started practicing, there were no yoga mats either!

    I’ve been watching this evolution for a long time, and have been duly disappointed by the ginormous missed opportunity. Yes, there may be 20 million people practicing asanas, but how many are being exposed to the rest of the system? And I’m not talking about candy-coated platitudes here. I’m talking about the exceptionally painstaking and humbling work of embodying the yamas and niyamas in a mindful, nuanced way. I’m talking about looking deeply at our own stuff, the stuff we project onto others, and the filters we apply to our experience. Until more teachers are committed to this humbling work, yoga will continue to evolve in the direction it’s going.

    I do hope you are right, that things are changing, and that the yoga community as a whole is starting to see through the illusions created by those who are more concerned about fame and fortune than the soul of yoga.

    • hopeful

      I hope so too. though I haven’t seen much of that change yet . May need a few more media hound yoga celebrities to crash n burn before. Time will tell. Like you mentioned,( though I don’t know g.b. myself) many of yesterdays aging hard core physical yoga practicioners are now touting their “therapeutic knowledge and expertise”. so many ways to “evolve” and stay marketable and in the limelight.

      • Vision_Quest2

        Yeah, I would like to live to see same happen with today’s Dice’n’Briohnys, Brock’n’Kristas, Kathryns, Meghans, Rachaels, etc. Yoga was never meant to be all about “flying” …

  • Thank you for this great piece.

    I think that once “the masses” embrace a niche, they often only embrace the part that appeals to them the most and that adds to their identity. That is probably why yoga in modern times is often considered the asana’s and perhaps breathing exercises. Most people will have never heard of the other limbs of yoga – and that is fine as long as you are honest to yourself and others about what yoga is to you. There will always be individuals who pretend to be true yogi but actually have a hidden agenda to make lots of money, it only takes time before the masks fall off.

  • Nice piece, J. I admire your optimism and your idealism. And I anticipate that the yoga community will see two general orientations developing in response to this malaise, one being a rejection of traditional yoga as “obsolete thinking” in favor of a yoga re-boot that favors an ’embodied spirituality’, and the other being a renaissance of traditional yoga as taught by a new generation of teachers who have embraced it. In either camp I think that people will, as you have predicted, demand more than “candy-coated platitudes”.

    • Vision_Quest2

      Why make us choose?

      I am now studying pilates and dance. They keep me practicing yoga. Definitely in the renaissance of true “old school” yoga camp, though; for what that’s worth. Back in my day, there had been a breakfast cereal, with the slogan, “Trix are for kids …”

    • abbylou

      I hope you are right. I have been practicing asana for 7 years, consistently taking classes with the same teacher for 4 years. I know she is knowledgeable and could teach traditional yoga, but I suspect that she is not allowed to do so. I am starting my 200 hour TT program tonight. It puts me off that I had to sign up for a TT program to get traditional yoga instruction. I don’t even want to teach yoga. I just want to advance my studies to include more than asana.

  • I just wanted to add my voice to this discussion and say that inasmuch as traditional yoga may be the best for realizing holistic benefits, we have to be truthful to ourselves and admit that we’re in the era of commercialization and personalization. I think everyone needs to have the freedom of choice in choosing what kind of yoga is best for them. Capitalism aside, I think the fact that more Americans are taking up yoga means that we’re becoming much healthier by the day, and that’ always a good thing.

  • Greetings! Very useful advice within this article! It is the little changes that will make the greatest changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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