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Yoga’s Marginal Utility

in YD News, YogOpinions


Among longtime yoga professionals, there are some well-kept secrets. The reasons for these truths to remain unspoken are rooted in protecting both personal and professional interests. But, for many, the veneer has worn too thin and what once was an article of faith now feels like perpetuating myths. For those untangling the mess of confused emotions and experiences, honesty is our only saving grace.

I remember a time when yoga teachers were exotic. They had one foot in the dim mystical past and the other here among us. I tried to play that role for a while. Shaved my head. Spoke in a subtly affected tone to communicate my sense of inner calm (even when internally I was anything but). I was mirroring the teachers that came before me. I was entranced by the lore, the mystique of the lifestyle, and it worked for a time. My body and mind got more strong and flexible. And yoga became my life’s work.

Senior yoga people rarely admit it but, as time goes on, less physical practice is warranted.

Let’s just be clear about it: teachers in their forties, fifties and sixties likely practice every day, but the form that practice takes is often not the same as what they lead people through for ninety minutes or more in their classes. Sure, they have done the practice they are offering. They’ve done it for many years and know it in and out, well enough to impart it to large groups with great charisma and inspiration. But, most of them first developed this material at an earlier time in their lives and, since then, their needs have changed. This is not to say that what they are teaching is no longer valuable, just that it is not always representative of what someone’s practice wants to look like as time goes on.

At some point, the importance of moderation in physical practice becomes painfully obvious. Years of persistent or excessive practice, and countless in-class demonstrations, take a serious toll. It becomes impossible to deny that those extensive standing pose sequences, which so many students crave and teachers love to create, are perhaps the reason why so many sacroiliac joints are screaming in agony. Unfortunately, the pressure to be forever challenging ourselves physically as a measurement of progress, creates an incentive to mislead sensibilities and potentially to make disingenuous claims.

The importance of lessening physical practice over time is belied by the predominance of a “do more” mentality and the sixty-ninety minute convention.

In the majority of yoga classes today, the object is to see how far you can go. You identify your “edge” and then see if you can go past it. Sometimes, this becomes an aggressive push where the teachers’ job is to see if they can take you farther than you think you can go on your own, to reach your fullest potential. Other times, it’s more friendly. We explore where the “edge” is and use props for support. But in both cases, the same underlying context remains. Whatever it is that you want from yoga is not on this side of your physical edge. If you want it, you’re going to have to forever do more.

Another common disconnect has to do with the duration of practice. Those who develop self practice know that when arbitrary time requirements and physical goals are relinquished, the amount of time and degree of effort that one spends in practice can vary greatly. This is best exemplified by the use of the word “integrated.” When someone asks the teacher how long they practice when they are by themselves at home, the response will often begin with something like: “Well… my practice has become more integrated.” Basically, this means that they practice for a few minutes here or there, whenever they feel like it, but rarely make themselves do a full sixty- or ninety-minute program.

Continued effectiveness as marketing fodder keeps prevailing tropes alive, despite being revealed as myth.

Few of us in the yoga profession are free from guilt when it comes to perpetuating myths about yoga. We’d all like to believe that more practice is always better. Certainly, a never-enough sensibility is better for business. But the hard truth remains that more practice is not always better. Effective and sustainable practice requires more modulation than the majority of group classes currently suggest or allow for. There is an inherent conflict of interest between the financial need for increased attendance and an organic ebb and flow of practice and teacher/student interaction.

I don’t know what to do about any of this. Pushing people harder sells way more yoga classes than inviting people to rest. Allowing the public to see your flaws does not readily make for effective lifestyle branding. But there is a growing number of earnest yoga professionals out there who, like me, are done with handing people a line of bull just to get them in the door. The teachers that came before us were shrouded in hopeful observance that has fostered both a profound coming forth of yoga into our culture, and a series of conflicts to be reckoned with. Those of us who wish to carry the torch are going to have to forge new models that might retain yoga’s mystical wonder, without the delusion that practice is infallible

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster 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 jbrownyoga.com



9 comments… add one
  • Beth

    I actually see this post as contributing to many of the so-called “myths” about yoga. For example, you are assuming that younger people want a stronger, more active practice, whereas older people do not. Generalities like this are what make many people shy away from yoga–i.e., the belief that it has to be a certain way for certain people.

  • Insider

    I’ll let you in on an even bigger secret: most yoga teachers regardless of age do NOT “likely practice every day”. Also, their home practice likely does not replicate their class practice, regardless of age. It is highly unlikely that most teachers have a home practice consisting of 90 minutes every day at the same level as their class practice, regardless of age. Therefore, I find this article to be based on a false premise.

  • John

    I think this is a narrow view.

    Plenty of us have largely abandoned public yoga classes because we need more physical activity. It isn’t as simple as “pushing people sells”. There’s a real problem with physically active yoga teachers projecting the physical fatigue of their routine onto sedentary students who desperately need to be more active.

    For every wrecked senior teacher I’ve seen Another who uses yoga to fund an active lifestyle that involved very little yoga practice, not because yoga was bad for their bodies, but because it enabled them to do other, more challenging and interesting, stuff.

    My experience is people go to yoga for affirmation and approval. They go to iyengar so they can feel their technique is superior and they are smart people willing to challenge their ego. They go to Astanga to feel they are the elite willing to subjugate their body to the “toughest” training to challenge their ego. They go to jivamukti to feel they have a superior understanding of “true yoga” and are more “spiritual”. They all go to get a meritorious feeling of having done something physical that will improve their health, their figure, and their personality. What pays is feeding this feeling – telling them other classes are “just gymnastics” (as though the average astangi could do even 30 seconds of gymnastics) – telling them their technique is improving and they are challenging their ego – adjusting them so they feel they can achieve more – playing drill Sargent so they can bask in how tough their training is.

  • This article is interesting and makes some good points. However, I can’t relate to the idea of “pushing students past their edge”. Maybe that’s a New York thing or a different yoga style thing but in my teaching I never push students past their edge. There are two good reasons for this, one, yoga can hurt and we are seeing more yoga injuries than ever. Two, people constantly push to the edge without finding satisfaction. There will always be further to go. I like to think of ahimsa, protecting our body by taking a moderate approach to physical practice and santosha, being content with our current physical body. My students love my classes and they get “enough” but I remind them to allow yoga asana to change the body over time, over a life time if nessasary and that it’s not a quick fix.

  • My yoga teacher never pushed students past their edge. His teaching methodology is awesome.

  • My teacher would push me but never to the point of where I felt like I wasn’t meant to do yoga. You do make some very good points though.

  • Thought provoking and insightful. Interesting how varied the reaction is. Any time you can spark this type of response, it makes for a good discussion.

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