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When Yoga Empowers: The Three Perspectives of Understanding

in Featured, YogOpinions

by J. Brown


There are three general sensibilities that shape the process by which someone comes to an understanding of yoga, and its capacity to empower. Each approach offers benefits but, contrary to common assumptions, they do not all lead to the same conclusions or results. For purposes here, these perspectives will be referred to as: transcendental, transformational and sacrosanctual.

The transcendental perspective presents a way of going beyond the world of time and space. Liberation from pain and suffering is attained through adherence to tenets articulated by a master. Before the skills and knowledge required to obtain the ultimate goal of realization are bestowed upon the selfless devotee, the student is made worthy through rigorous austerities.

The transformational perspective seeks not to go beyond but instead strives to create things anew, so that the aspirant becomes more immune to pain and suffering in life and potentially reaches higher states of awareness. Strict hierarchies are replaced with levels of achievement. Accomplishment in the practice ritual tends to be closely linked to steps along a path, of which the teacher is a guide.

The sacrosanctual perspective does not seek to go beyond or strive to create anew, but rather starts from the premise that what is currently taking place is entirely complete. The practice is a means of easing the pain and suffering that happens with life by providing a vehicle for nurturing an appreciation of the ordinary condition. Understanding is shared through mutual friendship.

Of course, all three perspectives constitute one encompassing interplay. However, the differences between them are what account for the lack of consensus among the broader yoga community on fundamental principles.

From the transcendental standpoint, the transforming and sacrosanct models are ignorant of a singular truth. From the transformational standpoint, the transcending model disavows self-expression and the sacrosanct model is nonsensical because it lacks a linear progression. And from the sacrosanctual standpoint, both the transcending and transforming models deny what is already in place and amount to a subtle form of aggression towards ourselves.

Identifying these discrepant views is not just a matter of intellectual fancy. They are determinative both of the experience that is being provided to the public and of the impact that yoga is having on our culture. Yes, broadly speaking, yoga is universal. However, the wisdom of providing power-style yoga to recovering drug addicts or soldiers with PTSD is highly questionable. And the prevalent narrative that starts with a sincere desire of people to feel more centered and relaxed in their lives but is quickly transformed into a never ending quest for poses, awareness, stillness, liberation or enlightenment is profoundly lamentable.

If someone has been attending yoga classes regularly and still feels like they kind of suck at yoga, chances are that the classes they are taking are responsible for making them feel that way. And the viewpoint of the teacher, whether it be voiced or not, is at fault.

Having a yoga mat tucked under your arm has become a symbol for self-improvement. Yet another box to check on a long list of things that are supposed to push us to be our best. This explains the overriding emphasis on ever-challenging practice sequences and intense adjustments. The torturous nature of the majority of yoga classes provides a perfect psychological pacifier for our feelings of inadequacy. Unfortunately, keeping seekers stuck in a loop of bandaging over wounds that are simultaneously being aggravated is not empowering anyone.

The modern yoga world is on the cusp of a new era (see Not Your Parents’ Yoga.) The question is what role this uncharted territory will play in the lives of people. There is little chance that those who are firmly rooted in a transcendental or transformational sensibility are going to simply drop their positions and embrace a sacrosanctual perspective. But for anyone who is not so already aligned or are dissatisfied with the long-term results they see from the time, effort and money they invest in yoga practice, some serious consideration as to the context and mentality of their endeavor is certainly warranted. And if yoga is going to be more than just another insidious perpetuation of low self-esteem, or a vehicle for selling us stuff by dangling abstract carrots to reach for, then those who assume the role of yoga teacher need to be questioning what they are doing more and taking interpersonal responsibility for the instruction they are providing.

Life cannot be made any more miraculous than it already is. That we have come into existence and currently reside here together is a wonder beyond all comprehension. To be empowered means a full embrace and expression of ourselves as inherently whole, without conditions. Only with this recognition will yoga practice actually serve to facilitate the embodiment of our given worth and purpose.

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



11 comments… add one
  • Transformational and transcendental approaches both assume a void that is to be filled by the seeker, when “it” is found or realized. It seems to me very much the Western way of viewing Eastern wisdom. Well done piece.

  • Lala

    I like this. I have a very strong aversion to the transformational approach on a gut level. I have practiced with some teachers who adhere to the transformational school, whom I really respect, but with whom I feel cannot connect.

  • Lou

    We live in a world in which every step we take is motivated by self improvement, competition and measurement. It is not surprising that we then apply the same values to our understanding of yoga practice.

  • This is possibly the best explanation of this issue that I’ve ever read. I feel like I appreciate aspects of all three perspectives. I believe it’s imperative to seek understanding from teachers along the way, but I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t flawed. I believe all forms of authority should be questioned. I believe it’s our nature to want to improve ourselves, but we can learn to do it in a peaceful way.

  • Interesting to read your perspective – I tried ashtanga for about 6 months (which I know, isn’t enough to really get to grips with it) but I struggled so much and nearly gave up on yoga completely. One day I randomly decided to try a bikram yoga class and it changed everything for me… i felt like finally i’d found a yoga style that I could actually do! Hadn’t occured to me it could have been specific to that particular ashtanga instructor – perhaps i’ll give some other classes a try.

  • Great insight… thanks for sharing. Yoga is truly an evolutionary journey and its important that we consider it as part of a whole personal development journey. Yoga is never going to bandage a low self esteem issue, but as part of a holistic lifestyle where we work upon our selves then it can certainly help 🙂

  • Great post! Yoga is the best exercise and it’s fun too 🙂

  • Yes! “Life cannot be made any more miraculous than it already is. That we have come into existence and currently reside here together is a wonder beyond all comprehension.”

    Just posted to my new site “Best of Yoga Philosophy” ​ http://bit.ly/13WYsIM, as well as facebook and twitter.

    Bob W.

  • Thiago daLuz

    Does anyone know of popular classes for yoga in Fairfield County? I just don’t like doing it by myself, I prefer getting a little bit of a sense of community out of it.

  • Rainbow Patchouli Bracelet

    I think maybe I’ve been subconsciously trying to integrate all three, maybe even more, practices in my life.

    I had a fairly regular practice of Bikram, 2-3x a week, for about 5 years, which gave me a lot, but every time I tried to increase that to 4-5x a week, I fell flat, tired, exhausted. So I reached out to another yoga studio to see what would happen while adding other classes to my yoga practice.

    Lately I’ve been doing Bikram 2x a week, Kundalini 4x a week, and Yin/restorative 2x a week with classes (and daily in the mornings at home). And I really love the way it leaves me feeling. It’s a lot of yoga, and a bit of a cyclone to keep up, but maybe it works because of the balance it creates?

    I do agree that there is a lot of cultural baggage that limits us, which has gotten brought over with the regiments of traditional yoga styles from SE Asia, and that those, especially combined with excessive striving, can lead to injuries rather than progress.

    But we are all just trying to work out as much realization through our body as possible given the limited time that we have. I try not to get too attached to the path I am following lately as I figure this out little by little.

  • lanvin

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