by J. Brown
A number of long-time yoga teachers are deciding to stop referring to what they teach as yoga. In the past, the term yoga represented a freedom to explore and discover truths outside western cultural norms. Now that yoga has largely become a western cultural norm, fueled by the advertising prowess of a multi-billion dollar industry and challenged by scholars questioning appropriation, public perception has been shaped in ways that have made the word yoga seem limiting. However, the teachers are the only ones who hold the power to define what they do, not scholars or the industry.
I teach yoga. The form that takes goes against what is the conventional expectation of average yoga class attendees — only because the idea that people have about yoga is often colored by sexualized images and a work-out mentality that has been bred deep into us. Ironically, these entrenched mores that motivate people to come to yoga are the very thing that I am hoping to undo through practice. As if attempting to impart yoga was not already elusive enough, navigating a whole bunch of counterproductive preconceived notions makes things doubly hard. Sometimes I grow weary of always having to explain how and why what I do is not meeting the public expectation.
The question of what yoga is, and who has a right to claim any authority over it, has always been a heated debate among earnest yogis. But one thing is for sure, if our definition of yoga is contingent on another person, especially someone who is revealed to be something other than what we predicated our understanding on, our sense of yoga will easily become confused or destroyed. And for many who are interested in more nuance than Instagram allows for, it would make sense to stop calling what you do by that name and look for alternative language.
Does the omission of anything that I imagine might be triggering for people really make my class more safe and inclusive?
One of the major trends playing into a falling-out-of-love with the word yoga is the momentum behind a call for yoga classes to be more accessible. It’s true that the yoga industry has become grossly homogenized and exclusive. The rising costs of yoga practice have played into issues of class, barring access for huge populations of people who are in need. The marketing and packaging of yoga into a sellable product has spurned a destructive idea of a “yoga body” that is wrought with misogyny. Yoga teachers looking for soul fulfillment more than financial gain are rightly wanting to foster change.
It is undeniable that in order for yoga to be shared there needs to be trust between teacher and student. And it is the teacher’s job to set the boundaries and establish the communication essential to that dynamic. But the realities of life are such that, despite every effort to be thoughtful and open, we will never be able to avoid all the slings and arrows that we risk incurring. There is not one style that will fit everyone, and it is misguided to expect teachers to preemptively sanitize their offerings as a way of avoiding the rough edges that often define the most important work. This is not meant to be a justification for teachers to be irresponsible or abusive. The exposure of mistreatment and harm committed, even by some of the most revered teachers, is a necessary part of the evolution of yoga in modern society.
Over the years, there are a lot of established teaching directives that have been proven to be wrong. Insisting that everyone keep their knees over their ankles in lunge poses does not prevent injury, opening your chest does not necessarily open your heart, forever extending your spine does not get rid of back pain, and pushing your body as far as you can every time does not lead to realization or enlightenment. Effective teachers need to refine their offerings and adjust what they do through the lens of their own experience and, hopefully, with the kind of transparency and compassion that invites us all to be who we are without imposition.
Who gets to define yoga? Guru figures? Advertisers? Or the grassroots teachers who grind it out everyday trying to be of service?
I totally understand why some are deciding to exit yoga. Exchanging the word yoga with “movement” or “somatic” does potentially spare the trouble of having to articulate what yoga is, and the entanglements of history, power dynamics, and abuse that are causing so much disillusionment. It is undoubtedly confusing to discover that so much of what we were taught is based in myth more than fact. However, I am not willing to concede the definition of yoga to the obfuscation of marketers or yoga’s most blessed and imperfect forbearers.
I know what yoga means to me, based on my personal practice, study, and the discernment of my experience. As helpful and necessary as outside references have been in my learning process, my understanding comes from within me and does not depend on anything or anyone outside of myself. My ability to communicate this understanding to others is imperfect. My yoga does not mean certainty in all things and I make mistakes, which I hope to take responsibility for and correct . I consider yoga to be a multigenerational and multicultural thread that reaches back into the dim mystical past and runs through humanity, from the earliest of ancient wisdom cultures to the civilizations of today. There is power and magic in this and I will continue to call it by the name imparted to me, yoga.
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.