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Is the Cult of Yoga Ruining the Culture of Yoga?

in YogOpinions

yoga-cult-cultureHave you heard the latest? Black women are making white women cry in yoga class. No, not by saying anything mean, or enacting evil Jedi mind tricks of wedgie proportions. No, it’s their very presence, the act of being in class that made one XOJane writer very upset indeed.

Allow me to back track a bit. Last week the internet was engulfed in a fiery fit of WTF over an article writer Jen Caron wrote about her experience in yoga class when a “young, fairly heavy black woman” was looking on in “despair” and “contempt” and made her feel uncomfortable and self-aware. Or was it actually completely devoid of awareness, as we all quickly learned upon reading. And the internets were off to the races to point out the racist-ness of the whole thing.

I won’t go too much farther into the race issue, as I am not black and can not speak for a black woman, and it’s been examined and responded to fairly thoroughly, even by a fellow XO Jane contributor who writes:

You may not even be aware of the level to which you dehumanized the Unnamed Black Woman behind you.

I could never quarrel with your experiences. They may be different from mine, but I respect that they are yours. What I do have trouble respecting are the experiences of Unnamed Black Woman as written by you because with no word from her they are wild conjecture at best and pure fiction at worst.

As well as Maya Rupert who responded via the Huffington Post with An Open Letter to the White Woman Who Felt Bad for Me at Yoga where she explains, with rationale and a touch of snark and humor, that it’s not the fault of yoga’s lack of inclusivity or that there are less black people teaching or practicing yoga, but the systemic issue of racism deep-rooted in our culture.

And that didn’t happen because your yoga class doesn’t have enough black instructors or even because you seem uncomfortable around black women.

It happened because we live in a society steeped in a system of patriarchy so strong and so insidious that we learned from a young age and have it confirmed daily that you and I can’t both be happy with who we are…

It happened because we live in a society steeped in so much racism that it honestly didn’t occur to you that I don’t view my race as a burden that must be “accommodated” in order to feel comfortable doing yoga. It runs so deep, that you assumed that being confronted by your whiteness plunged me into a jealousy so deep, I had no choice but to curl up into a ball and stew in my own anger.

Original author, Caron, actually says in her article:  “I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of…my skinny white girl body.” She ends up leaving the class in tears unable to finish her practice, while we’re encouraged to think aw, poor thing when it’s actually wow, that is an incredibly shameful display of well-intentioned naïveté, at best, and racist ignorance, at worst. But the author has received enough virtual tongue lashing, and has actually had to change her pen name and delete online accounts in the aftermath (which is kind of sad).

While I think the race issue is an important one, we can take a step beyond the initial shock and read between the lines to discover yet another hint of what yoga culture perpetuates as it continues to grow: the perception that it was/is meant for skinny white girl bodies, which is still alive and well, and maybe even more so in the minds of skinny white girls. (Let me digress for a second to say there’s nothing wrong with skinny white girls practicing yoga. One love, y’all.) But Erika Nicole Kendall points out on NYMag‘s The Cut that it’s not even really the culture of yoga that’s the problem, it’s the cult of yoga.

“The culture of yoga, since its origins, has always been about uplift – of not only yourself, but also the world and its people around you,” Kendall writes. However, the “cult of yoga,” she continues, has arisen from the popularity and ubiquity of yoga as a sport-like endeavor with “the original principles of peace and simplicity replaced by competition and one-upmanship.”

It’s an interesting point. Yoga culture is about inclusion. It’s about union. We’ve all seen it. But the cult of yoga, the one where we’re distracted from our main focus, our eyes lifted from our mats, our minds telling us stories about fellow yogis in the room, painting pictures of their faults or misgivings or “despair” to the point that we can’t even finish our own practice is where all of this goes barking up the wrong tree pose.

The cult of yoga leaves us with people who boast of their “well-versedness” (as Polachek [aka Caron] does) instead of using their knowledge to help a fellow student learn. The cult of yoga leaves us with people who focus on what classmates are wearing (is her “tastefully tacky” sports bra better than my tastefully tacky sports bra?) and how to best them instead of paying attention in class. The cult of yoga deems it appropriate to snark on someone’s body and abilities instead of acknowledging that everybody starts somewhere. The cult of yoga has left us with a student who would rather run home and write an essay about her own failures of empathy than use her emotions to make a difference. The cult of yoga is ruining the culture that makes it so marvelous and valuable.

Kendall explains how she used to be that “young, heavyset” yoga student when she started her practice. She looked to yoga as “breathing room to de-stress” and shares that what she learned from yoga – patience, forgiveness, humility, trust – “saved my life.” It didn’t matter what color, size, shape or sex she was, yoga was there for her. The yoga without side-glances, the yoga without outside judgement and essays written from a pedestal in a vacuum. The yoga that wasn’t commercialized to the point where we feel too self-conscious about our bodies and lacking wardrobe because the cult has turned into a Mean Girls clique.

How do we bring yoga back from the brink of cultastrophe? As a community let’s all do our part by keeping an open mind and remembering, as cheesy as it sounds, that yoga is not about me, but about we.



7 comments… add one
  • Perhaps some “fault” can be laid at the feet of those “teachers” who seem to be failing their students, black AND white, skinny and not, female and male. It’s the TEACHERS who need to create the culture (not the cult) of inclusiveness, who must embody at all times what they wish their students to aspire to; that culture of inclusiveness, of acceptance of who we are and where we are TODAY on our path to better self-awareness, where we’ve BEEN (for historical context) and where we wish to BE.

    Yoga is not meant for fashion-clad Cirque du Soleil wanna-bes but for those seeking to know themselves better from the inside out. We may begin with the body (and yes it will look better with consistent practice and a shift in diet) but it should never end with the body. As Ashtanga teacher David Swenson put it “you can learn all the advanced asanas out there but if that doesn’t make you a better person it’s not doing you any good”.

  • S.

    It seems like YD is a little late to the party with this post, but I am glad it is being addressed. Commenter Sandra makes an excellent point about the culture of yoga coming from top down. Who was this teacher who would allow a new student to buckle on to her elbows and be oblivious to her strugglings?

    It appears now there are two types of yoga emerging in the West: the first is the kind that is traditional and follows all 8 limbs of yoga. The second type is fashion industry and gym rat driven. It lustily goes after patents and inappropriate relationships with vulnerable students. It veils itself with words like “hot” “power” “flow” and “core” and “coaching”…none of which are mentioned in ancient yogic texts. It has large festivals that promote a “yoga rock star” image, rather than teaching that this image is just an illusion and hinderance to personal growth. It is obvious that Ms. Caron (Polachek) is from the second type. We need to expect more from our yoga teachers, and we need to stop churning out so many of them who are inexperienced not only in yoga, but in life itself.

    • VQ2

      S. is right. Unfortunately there is a market for this second type. I’ve always posited that this second type should be called “movement with breath awareness” and not “yoga”.

      Trouble is, that other practices of “movement with breath awareness” such as mat pilates, Feldenkrais, and The Alexander Technique got the memo early … to be inclusive, affordable, and NO fashion show, for the most part–and hardly identify with this “yoga” impostor …

    • davevarga

      Very well said.

  • John

    Having read the original article (perhaps edited post backlash) it displays a good deal more awareness and humour than it gets credit for. It is, for example, quoted selectively above. Above we get “was looking on in “despair” and “contempt”” and in the article we get “or so I imagined”. That “so I imagined” is a pretty key phrase to leave out. Sure there are plenty of problems with the original piece despite that but it’s interesting that we don’t get a balanced critique, we get selective quoting as the “true yogis” denounce the “sport-like endevor” ones and once again we see everything that happens in yoga and gets publicity as a chance for people to explain that if only every one else understood yoga the way they do these things wouldn’t happen.

    The true “cult of yoga” is the obsession people have with making cultural (and financial) capital out of their superior understanding – and, because it’s far easier, there are more of these in the “I’m more spiritual than you” camp than in the “I’m more physically accomplished than you” one

    • Thay Singh


      I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t get the massive offense vibe from the original article. All I read into it was a moment of personal awareness being somewhat awkwardly shared, but then again, most of the triggers in the article don’t really touch me. What I find deeply sad is that the story has become about how offensively clueless the author was, rather than a more relevant one about how a clueless person encountered a little bit of light.

      Mind you, the internet has little interest in character growth. Mostly its about finger-pointing, mockery, and shaming,; but that’s a whole other issue 🙂

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