by J. Brown
The novelty of yoga has been worn down to almost nothing by a multi-billion dollar industry that cares little for its tenets, like the crumbling shreds of a shoddily made pvc mat from China. But from out of the ashes of craven images and advertising schemes, a new discipline is emerging.
Early on, just as the nineties boom happened, I found my way into to a niche that challenged some of the conventional wisdom that became standard in yoga classes. As the years have gone on and the industry has grown, a lot of that conventional wisdom I was originally pushing up against has been morphed by standardized teaching methods and data-driven business models. In the absence of the old rubrics by which yoga was once gauged, alternate criteria for teaching and learning yoga are being adopted.
Questioning power dynamics, inclusivity, and safety is the new normal.
Never before have I seen so much “bottom-up” sort of change in yoga. There was a time when protocols all came from the masters atop the disciple pyramid. And while some maintain that this dissolution of the original hierarchy of transmitters is where yoga has gone wrong, the fact remains that the majority of teachers are no longer looking for answers from on high. Credibility is no longer something bestowed upon you but is instead determined by the work you do and the inclinations of the yoga-going consumer.
Also, decades or more of sticking to unexamined directives and their related injuries have caused many to become disillusioned with the bill of goods we were once sold. Pain tends to be more convincing than the power of myth. And while those images of Tao Porchon-Lynch doing unbelievable poses at age 98 are still amazing, the three hip replacements she’s had along the way are seemingly more relevant than ever. Now that yoga has become so firmly codified as the emblem of a healthy lifestyle, the determination of its efficacy is being more thoroughly weighed against people’s actual experience and the rigors of science.
Teachers are expected to make students feel safe in ways that early innovators were not concerned with. Even those who consider this trend to be a detrimental form of political correctness are still having to make adjustments to protect themselves in the new climate. Of course, this is greatly complicated by the advent and predominance of social media, which has created new avenues for obfuscation and garnering market share.
Students are coming to yoga with an entirely different set of filters than previous generations.
Average newbee yoga attendees of today rarely arrive with any expectation of deep philosophical inquiry, or are even interested in yoga outside of its potential fitness benefits. Emphasis on the physicalities, and the creation of gym-style scaled yoga centers, have effectively compartmentalized and packaged classes into a sort of teaser, geared more towards enticing participation in lucrative trainings than providing instruction in any traditional sense.
Evolving scholarship has not only been laying bare an edifice of faith, but has coincided with the passing of Guru lineage holders and the falling pedestals of once powerful brand ambassadors. Impassioned yoga students of today would have a field day with the likes of BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois in their Yelp reviews. Harsh adjustments are becoming taboo, consent cards and trauma sensitivity training are the new fashion.
Where does the influence of the teacher end and the students’ self-empowerment begin? Is yoga a process of adherence or discovery, or both?
Most yoga teachers, on some level, were trained to tell people what to do. Most students expect this of their teachers. But, in absorbing all these shifts underfoot, sincere teachers are beginning to change what they are telling people. They are no longer comfortable with a continuation of the same shapes and cues that failed to lead to the heights they were promised. With external authorities stripped of some of their stature, practitioners have no choice but to resort to the discovery of their own devices.
Good teachers are still imperative. Everybody needs a little help sometimes. There wants to be a way for someone to invite a friendly, and hopefully informed, outside reverence when pursuing a process of self-healing and support. Regardless of the viewpoint that we subscribe to in yoga, be it of a more athletic , scientific, or spiritual bent, the proof is always going to be in the people. Like it or not, we just can’t get away with the same old shit anymore. Those rising to the challenge by providing an example of transparency and honesty, are the ones inspiring new generations of earnest aspirants to carry the torch forward.
The new discipline is inner-knowing. Teachers are only so good as they are conducive to a person no longer needing them. The veil has been lifted just enough that there is no pulling it back over our heads. Time has come for us to get clearer about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Effective yoga teaching is becoming less about imposing an arbitrary catechism on someone’s experience, and more about stirring the kind of inquiries that lead to students being able to make their own determinations.
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