It’s our annual YogaDork’s State of the Yoga Union. We’ve asked a few select leaders and thinkers to share their reflections, predictions and perspectives on the year of yoga that was, 2015, the year of yoga that will be in 2016, and the state of the (yoga) union.
by Carol Horton
Back in the day – which was really not all that long ago – the yoga world was largely divided by teacher and method.
Iyengar students disapproved of what was disparagingly referred to as the “jumping” method practiced by Ashtangis. Ashtanga students disapproved of what was (only 20 years ago) the newly invented method of Vinyasa Flow. Students of TKV Desikachar disapproved of what they saw as the overly rigid, non-individualized methods of both Ashtanga and Iyengar, as well as the mash-up, “anything goes” mentality of Vinyasa. And so forth and so on down the line: Whether obnoxious or polite about it, most serious students were firmly convinced that their method was “the best.”
If students of different lineages had fierce disagreements about method, however, they still shared some general framework of meaning. Yoga was about transformation – maybe even enlightenment. Its status as a mind-body-spirit practice was taken seriously. It was important to be trained by a master teacher – or, if that wasn’t possible, at least by one of his (or occasionally, her) top students. The idea of becoming a yoga teacher without at least a good decade of solid practice under your belt seemed strange, almost sacrilegious.
Today, that shared set of assumptions is utterly gone. Last year, when I led a discussion on contemporary yoga at one of Chicago’s top independent studios, only one student out of 30 knew the significance of the word “lineage.” Everyone, however, was quite familiar with Lululemon.
This isn’t to suggest that the “old” master teacher-based structure was perfect. As those who’ve followed recent developments in the yoga world well know, this “old paradigm” was undermined not only by encroaching commercialization, but also by such internally-generated problems as a shockingly high incidence of “guru scandals,” along with physically injurious and/or psychologically manipulative practices. Without doubt, many serious students of yoga who were socialized into it “back in the day” are still grappling with some sense of confusion, loss, and disillusionment.
In 2014, I described such changes as causing a “paradigm shift” in yoga culture. Today, I’d say that we’re fully into the next phase of the Kuhnian cycle, “model crisis”: or, a full-fledged “paradigm breakdown.”
Yoga culture has become highly fragmented. It’s not simply that different camps are divided over how yoga should be taught. Rather, there are so many different camps, which hold such radically different concepts of what yoga is about, that many have nothing in common with each other whatsoever.
There is no longer any even loosely shared set of understandings regarding what yoga is, or why it’s worth practicing. In most cases, this manifests as simple ignorance: the yoga-and-beer crowd has no clue about what the Ashtangis are doing. In some cases, however, it produces conflict.
Cultural Appropriation and the “Yoga Body”
In North America, South Asian activists and their allies have successfully turned the once-simmering debate over the cultural appropriation of yoga up to a boil. Meanwhile, in India, the Modi government has launched an unprecedented and often controversial campaign to make yoga a central part of both its own political profile, and the identity of the Indian nation as a whole. While seemingly congruent movements, these forays into the cultural politics of yoga actually make the proverbial strange bedfellows, as the North American movement is firmly planted in the identity politics of the cultural Left, while the Indian one is rooted in the Hindu nationalism of the political Right.
Meanwhile, campaigns against the narrowly stereotyped “yoga body” pushed by activists determined to gain traction on body image issues have attained a level of media attention and public support that felt unimaginable only a few years ago. Suddenly, it’s possible to be a curvy, or even self-identified “fat” woman, and a yoga model/celebrity, as well. In a now familiar cycle, advertisers are increasingly jumping on a marketing opportunity that yoga teachers dedicated to sharing the practice – and not simply selling clothing – created. Where this will lead remains to be seen.
Instagram has played a pivotal, and quite interesting role in both the movement against the stereotypical “yoga body,” and the real-life intensification of it. I recently had a young woman in one of my yoga classes who perfectly fit the “beautiful yoga body” mold: young, thin, bendy, pretty, and white. She told me that she had repeatedly dislocated her shoulders in order to get the most impressive shots of her performing Wheel pose on Instagram. Still in her 20s, she was now so injured that she elected to spend much of my class in child’s pose, with much more limited mobility than many of the much older students there.
Meanwhile, the biggest growth trend appears to be Starbucks-style corporate yoga chains. In my hometown of Chicago alone, we now have almost 30 CorePower Yoga studios. Not too long ago, there was only one non-independent studio in the metro area. As a result, our oldest, and most well-established independent studios have turned into niche “boutique” destinations for those seeking a more “traditional” yoga experience.
I’ve met several yoga teachers who started at CorePower, and some who did their teacher training there. While everyone reported a positive experience, it was always communicated with chagrin. Their training is churning out teachers who’ve only practiced a few months before being authorized to lead classes. It’s mushrooming scene in which the overwhelming majority of students and teachers alike have no sense that the sort of carefully delineated, lineage-based yoga culture that I took for granted back in the 1990s ever existed.
Know Your Niche
I could go on (and on) with examples of how highly fragmented the culture of yoga is today. But what’s the point? There are so many different yoga scenes that it gets wearisome and boring to try and list them all.
The upshot is that teacher and method are no longer what divide yoga practitioners. Rather, it’s their conscious – or in many cases, unconscious – commitment to particular cultural projects, ranging from looking hot on Instagram to promoting body acceptance, from promoting corporate yoga to combating cultural appropriation. In many cases, these projects are so divergent that it no longer makes sense to assume any sort of shared understandings of yoga at all.
Because there is no longer any sort of overarching paradigm that even loosely unites yoga culture, it’s more important than ever to reflect on what each of us seeks in our own practice, and whether the cultural niche that we find ourselves in is truly the best for our own particular needs, desires, and visions.
Personally, I’ve lost interest in tracking the sprawling yoga scene as a whole; a project that I used to find fascinating. Instead, I’ve committed myself to working with the Yoga Service Council, while further refining my own personal practice and teaching methods to better integrate the mix of Forrest yoga, trauma-informed yoga, and Vinyasa Flow that’s most influenced me, along with various pranayama, mindfulness and meditation practices.
I’m also excited to explore further connections between yoga service and political activism. As anyone who’s been paying any attention to the news knows, we’re experiencing an uptick in both political engagement, cultural conflict, and social turmoil. In the U.S., a wild-card election year is about to shift into higher gear. So, the question I’m asking myself now is: how can my practice help me to engage with this emerging historical moment in the most generative way?
Live the Questions
What are you practicing for? How do the physical postures, or asanas, impact your heart and mind? Do you have the right supports – teachers, community, training, knowledge – to harness such mind-body synergies for authentic personal growth?
How does your yoga connect to the rest of your life? How does your life connect to your family, community, society – and the world? Are you making the most out of your limited time on this earth? How could your practice help you answer that question honestly, and fruitfully?
Given the multiple and often conflicting cultural enclaves in the yoga world today, it’s more important than ever to explore such questions regularly. How, where, why, and with whom you practice profoundly impacts not simply how well you perform Triangle pose, but how well you’re living your life.
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Currently, she is editing a book on Best Practices for Yoga for Veterans. Carol serves on the Board of the Yoga Service Council, and teaches yoga in Chicago. An ex-political science professor, Carol holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, and has written numerous research reports for leading foundations, nonprofits, and public agencies on issues affecting low-income children and families. For more information, visit her website, www.carolhortonphd.com.
artwork by Bradley Basso
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