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Yoga 2016: Fragmented, Contested, Reimagined

in YD News


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.

Paradigm Breakdown

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.

Starbucks Yoga

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




18 comments… add one
  • Yoga = union, integration. How wonderful it would be if the threads that Yoga has separated into could be woven back together, bringing what each has learned and experienced. Unified by the same purpose, just pursued in different ways?

  • Dave

    Yoga wars! lol
    The guru teacher to student way of teaching kind of fell apart a few thousand years when writing was invented. Someone can write this down, keep a record and check up on what I am saying. So maybe I should be a little careful with what I am saying… Except the old ways still try to hold on in yoga and others, the Catholic Church comes to mind, Religion wars!

    I would like to add; it looks like the author is doing some really great work with Yoga for Veterans, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and many other things. Thank you.

  • S.

    Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal: twin pillars of Yoga’s total destruction. Can we stop it?

  • Robert Wolf Petersen

    Brilliant. Thank you for this, Carol. Reading it, I was reminded of a time when my yoga practice genuinely felt like an antidote to all the bitterness and ideology of a divided world, and to make sense in a way that transcended those struggles.

    It’s this sentence, I think, that sums up the current situation most perfectly:

    “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.”

    Exactly. Yoga has become a cultural phenomenon, to be interpreted in the terms of whichever group chooses to claim it, and pressed into service for any convenient purpose. Whether that’s a natural step in the development of yoga, or a symptom of degeneration, I’m still figuring out.

    PS: are you saying that only one in 30 students actually *understood* the term ‘lineage’?

  • This is great, Carol. I’d add that the fragmentation — not only of method, but of goals — begins with the modernization, Anglicization, restructuring, and globalization from Swami Vivekananda onwards, and that the slow crisis in authority also has strong generational aspects. When I discuss things with YTT groups — usually in small independent studios — there does tend to be a sense of what lineage was (past tense), and an ennui surrounding how it’s to be regarded now. The stalwarts of Iyengar and Ashtanga methods also speak of fragmentation within their own subcultures, yet they still maintain significant centralization rooted in family dynasty. “Lay” practitioners that aspire to life-long learning may be outside of these circles, but they’re aware of their influence as centres of dedication. So I don’t think the 90s are totally gone. I also keep thinking that there’s some glue somewhere that connects the cultural projects you describe, or else the term “yoga” wouldn’t be such a cohesive meme.

  • p

    yoga is for liberation. liberation connects the shards selfie to social justice, we can use then to reflection.

  • Yoga Baby: out of the trenches, and into the world....

    No longer keeping up with the what yoga has become/is becoming, because it is exhausting, boring and unrecognizable…. And yet, a ‘Yoga/yoga is a microcosm of, well, something…. Something very compelling and of great interest to a great many (from various points of view). Hmmm.

    To me it seems the generations are cooling and warming. Downing and up and coming.
    The convos have been intense, and like Carol, the players are snuggling into their ‘niches’. Will yoga never-slash-ever end? Will yoga be transformed?

    Perhaps the now fatter-yoga-lady never truly sings.
    But just perhaps, the fluid future will shatter the glass.

  • What's the Rationale?

    Overall, this is a fair analysis. Not sure about the Starbucks Yoga section though. Is there really a major distinction between the CorePower teacher training (TT) and that of other studios? The CorePower website indicates that their 200 hour training is Yoga Alliance approved. The one commonality of most TT’s is the Yoga Alliance certification.
    You maintain that: “Their training is churning out teachers who’ve only practiced a few months before being authorized to lead classes.” Is it fair to single out CorePower, when this same criticism can be leveled at the vast majority of Yoga Alliance trainings?

  • Carol, I don’t agree with your statement that the assumption that “Yoga was about transformation – maybe even enlightenment” is gone. Just because the people you talked to seemed to know more about Lululemon than lineage doesn’t change what Real Yoga is about — and yeah, I said Real Yoga — transformation, the lessening of suffering. “Its status as a mind-body-spirit practice was taken seriously” — I know more than a few people who STILL take its status seriously, i.e., my students because I am a classically trained teacher in a lineage, the Krishnamacharya lineage for 10+ years. Also those take it seriously who send me emails thanking me for writing what I do in my blog: “I thought I was the only one who felt this way about yoga.”

    But as someone who lives in the Chicago area as you do, you nailed it: in my area of the Chicago yoga world, no one gives a shit about lineage. Ask me why I’m a broke ass classically trained yoga teacher — no one gives a shit that I trained in India for 10 years or with Krishnamacharya’s direct students. When I talk about the mentoring of newbie yoga teachers it’s like I’m talking about a dog with three heads. People chase quantity (hours) over quality.

    It’s basically the reason I am moving to India end of this year where people couldn’t care less about Yoga Alliance or Lulus, instead they ask who my guru is. I have people there who WANT to study with me in the old school way. I can’t wait.

    • Yoga Baby...

      Moving to India? Well. After a few years there and no coming back to the States, get back to us. I really so think you will have something more to tell us. Looking forward to hearing from you in a few years (yes, I know you have gone back and forth, yes I have been there too).

  • Cool story, bro...

    This is all really nice Carol. I like the graphs and models which all make sense. However, it seems like you are a bit fragmented within your own practice by trying to “integrate the mix of Forrest yoga, trauma-informed yoga, and Vinyasa Flow.” Plus you have the egoic responsibility to provide a Ph.D level response to things. And from your fragmented practice comes this fragmented lens from which you write this piece.

    Patanjali gives us a short recipe to still the mind: abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ I.12, which will eventually lead to sarvārthataikāgratayoḥ kṣayodayau cittasya samādhi-pariṇāmaḥ III.11

    I won’t translate these because of the politics of translation takes on a whole different beast, but am sure you have come across these passage in your studies. Yoga won’t be “fixed” by you, or me, or Yoga Dork. It’s been around for thousands of years. The commercial enterprises like Corepower, Yoga Journal, Yoga Alliance? Let’s just say when you depend on the mighty dollar, your time is significantly shortened…especially when your standards allow neophytes to be teachers with minimal training. For now, our job is to straighten out our own lives.

  • isthmus nekoi

    I’m not sure if what Carol has described signifies the lack of a dominant paradigm. It sounds to me that the yoga paradigm if you will, has shifted to become more or less in line with today’s neoliberal/capitalist/democratic paradigm (which I’ll just shorten to neoliberal) in which each practitioner is positioned as a free, autonomous and informed agent, making and negotiating their own individual lifestyle choices in order to meet their individual needs.

    This is not to say that when yoga is commodified in such a way – like endless shelves of hair products meeting an endless array of personal grooming desires – it can no longer meet people’s spiritual needs or that yoga has become “bad.” However, I do think that

    – a paradigm of neoliberalism and its associated values is the dominant paradigm at play and this is what serves as common ground to practitioners;
    – between neoliberalism and (various strains of asana) yoga we may find points of antinomy, but also, it cannot be denied that aspects of each may compliment each other (e.g., how asana lends itself so well to its own spectacularization, or how yoga may be used toward biopolitical ends, or how a neoliberal economy has increased access to yoga and allowed it to spread);
    – while yoga practitioners may be losing a commonly agreed upon definition of yoga, this to me is symptomatic of modernity. In a neoliberal context, the individual reigns supreme, and the described loss of communal understanding should come as no surprize.

    I’d also note how the proposed conclusion to this fragmentation is an individualized solution – to turn within oneself, to ask oneself questions, to seek one’s own answers. This is not meant as a negative judgment because it’s as valid a response as any other. Only I wish to point out that this kind of thinking with its calls to personal growth and authenticity is again, entirely in line with a neoliberal paradigm. Things may be chaotic on one level, but on a different strata, there is a powerful logic at play.

  • John

    On the whole a better article than most on the topic.

    Thankfully the days of lineage are over. Lineage was always questionable and became outright nonsense the second the first person taught openly.

    Ironically, many of those 200hr teachers with a couple of years total yoga experience are safer to practice under than the old school ones. It was the sivananda people who started the whole two week TT thing, not the corporate MacShalas and, frankly, it’s hard to argue with.

    I’m not entirely sure that fragmentation is the only process. I see increasing conformity. Every one seems to agree that yoga should not be physically demanding of even the weakest student and that in some mystical way their practice, although just the same physical poses as the next teachers, is true “spiritual” yoga.

    For all iyengar’s many, serious, faults, I almost miss his day for the insistence that those simply doing physical poses to improve their health were doing yoga. The racism that casually assumes that, being Indian, he had to be in a position to pronounce what yoga was, is still very much with us, at least

    • Yoga Baby...

      John? Is this the john of yoga therapy is Arakansas? I have to agree, that less harm may be done by the ingenue. GOoD on you for pointing this out.
      I’m not sure that there is racism is assuming the Indian is in a position to pontificate. This is more than likely a ~~respectful~~ position, if wrong or correct…. It Depends.

  • susan

    This is brilliant: cogent, expansive, intelligent. Thank you.

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