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Fast food yoga - commodifying the sacred

20 March 2016

In recent years, a plethora of new 'yoga styles' have emerged. Many have extraordinary names such as: ‘Voga’, ‘Tequila Yoga’, ‘Playboy Yoga’, ‘Glow Yoga’, ‘Rage Yoga’, ‘Chocolate Yoga’, and ‘Baked Yoga’ (for stoners).

A prevailing attitude of 'anything goes ' proliferates and many of these new yoga brands have become big business. Yoga is being steadily secularised: cut off from its Indian ancestry, so that a doctrine held sacred by so many for so long, now appears to be up for creative reinvention by anyone with a teaching diploma and a savvy business model.

I'm going to go out on all eight limbs here and probably get a few heckles up but I believe I am entitled to have an opinion so here goes:

It's not yoga anymore!

There you go, I said it. It's certainly not yoga in any traditional sense of the word. I'm sure it's good fun and possibly has lots of health benefits. But is it yoga? Seriously … ‘Rage yoga?’

“Rage yoga: [reyj yoh-guh] noun: a practice involving stretching, positional exercises and bad humour, with the goal of attaining good health and to become zen as f*ck. More than just a practice, Rage Yoga is an attitude.” - Rage Yoga homepage

Yoga is one of the six Darshans - viewpoints of Indian philosophy. The word ‘Yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘Yuj’ which is usually translated as ‘yoke’ or ‘union’. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary reveals an array of alternative interpretations including ‘harness,’ ’remedy,’ ‘cure,’ ‘charm,’ ‘incantation’ and ‘endeavour.’ Within the time-honoured framework of yoga as a path to ‘Moksha’ - liberation, yoga is often interpreted as ‘union’ and the resultant realisation of one’s true ‘Self’ identity.

The seminal text on yoga is widely regarded as the Yoga Sutra, composed by Patanjali around 2000 years ago. Patanjali begins by providing a crisp and erudite interpretation of yoga as the calming of the ‘chitta-vritti’ - mental modifications. Many practitioners, my own teacher included, defer to Patanjali’s classical definition. Patanjali’s aphorisms go on to elucidate the nature of consciousness and offer a systematic method by which to transform a distracted mind into a focused one.

“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations in the mind, then the seer abides in their own true nature.” - Patanjali 1:2-3

Some of the principles of yoga described by Patanjali can be applied to a broad range of mental & physical activities that may not have anything to do with yoga. For example, I enjoy juggling and when I juggle I can sometimes get into a very calm, meditative state of mind. I can use some of the principles of Patanjali's eight-limbed yoga to improve my concentration: I assume a steady, comfortable posture, regulate my breath, concentrate my mind and immerse myself in the juggle. If I was to then declare that I have a new form of yoga called 'Juggling Yoga,’ it would be a bit misleading because I'm basically juggling and applying some of the principles of yoga to juggling. The same goes for almost any activity.. cooking, knitting, dancing and running.

My point is that there is a big difference between using yoga principles in an activity and actual ‘Yoga Abhyasa’ - which means yoga practice. What constitutes yoga abhyasa is the consistent practical application of those practices which have been passed down through the lineage of respected teachers and whose basis can be found in authoritative texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The practice is then cultivated over time.

‘Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” - Patanjali, 1:14

Within each successive generation of yoga teachers, there is inevitably innovation and experimentation. However, some of the new, exotic strains have become so far removed from yoga’s established conventions that the practice ceases to be recognisable. Yoga was never designed as something that one could earn a living from, so modern yoga teachers have had to be fairly creative to do so. The approach some western teachers have adopted is to omit those parts of the system they find unpalatable (or don’t understand) and to then impose their own perspective which is often drawn from a combination of new-age spirituality, aspirational thinking, anatomy & physiology and also psychological and academic narratives. In the absence of sufficient knowledge of yogic Shastra - doctrine, there is a tendency to then connect the dots through manufacturing and projecting an imagined reality of what yoga ‘is.’ This spurious creation is then received as truth by unwitting students who may in turn pass on the distorted teaching. Is it still yoga, just because someone erroneously says it is? And if it is not yoga, then how can it legitimately be promoted and marketed as such?

“The Purpose of Yoga is to Get Out of My Own Way…

The purpose of the practice is not about emptying the mind (I can’t stand it when I hear that line, it’s such bullshit). I’m alive! My mind is not meant to empty; it’s meant to work and stay on task and visualize and dream and be my number one fan, in the moment and beyond” - Rebecca Lammersen, Elephant Journal 29/02/16

I believe that many of the freestyle, personal interpretations of yoga, (like the example above,) are diminishing and diluting the significance of the tradition. Eventually, the word itself could become meaningless in our culture....much like the word 'yogi' has already. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'yogi' as someone who has 'mastered the practice of yoga.' In Tibetan, the word 'yogin' refers to someone who has spent many years in silent contemplation and has completely brought their mind under control:

‘An individual who has spent years in isolated retreats practising secret self-transforming physical and mental exercises, and through these techniques has developed extraordinary control over both mind and body.” - The Yogis of Tibet

Baba Rampuri wrote that each human being is comprised of 72,000 Nadis, energy pathways and that the difference between a yogi and a non-yogi is that the yogi knows and feels where each one of those Nadis is located.

These days, look on Instagram and anyone practising postures for a couple of weeks is calling themselves a 'yogi'. Personally, I believe that none of us is fit to call ourselves a yogi. How many of us can say that we have truly brought our mind under control? How many of us understand where even just one of our Nadis is located? Practising some asanas even for a couple of hours each day doesn't by default make us a yogi. The bar has sadly fallen pretty low.

Yoga is essentially a subjective, personal experience. It is not quantifiable or measurable in the external world. You can't see it, it has to be felt inside, therefore anything could theoretically be claimed as yoga because there is nothing to disprove the notion. To the “anything goes, it's all yoga baby” crew I would say “ok, is swatting a fly in my living room yoga? Is killing a rodent?” Of course not, so what are your criteria? We have to have some form of mutual consensus as to what is and isn't yoga.

For the sake of clarity, rather than manufacture our own new, broad definition, it might be helpful to look toward the tradition itself and the precedents set by actual yogis that have walked this path before us. For example: Patanjali’s formula of the quietening of the mind and realisation of the self; the Karma, Bhakti and Jnana paths described by Lord Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita; or the Hatha yoga method for the unification of prana and apana vayus and the subsequent awakening and ascension of Kundalini shakti. A common thread that runs through all of these discourses is the idea that yoga is a remedial practice that leads us towards Moksha (liberation) from the inherent Dukham (difficulty) of the experience of worldly life and its cycle of Samsara: life, death and rebirth. Yoga is not the pursuit of practices that agitate our minds or further strengthen our attachment to Maya and the transitory, material world.

It's arrogant to presume that after practising some asanas and pranayama for a few years, maybe completing a 200-hour teacher training course, we can just invent our own new style of yoga: put our own individual stamp on this ancient practice and then teach our new flavour to others. What happened to Guru Parampara? What happened to humility and respecting the Sanatana Dharma to which yoga is inextricably bound? For the past 50 years western yoga teachers have had unimpeded access to the fruit of a 3000+-year-old tradition and what have they come up with? Fast food yoga. Yoga that sells. Physical yoga in a thousand different flavours. Yoga has become an industry that peddles an assortment of pretty accessories for our egos. We have become a community of shape-makers, poseurs and selfie-gram narcissists.

Modern yoga is a little bit like a spoilt teenager with an attitude problem: self-obsessed, arrogant and convinced it knows better than it's parents.

You can call anything you like yoga of course and good luck with that but it doesn't necessarily mean that what you’re doing is actually yoga. I sometimes like to dance around the kitchen whilst listening to Mozart... I'm dancing, but if I called it 'Ballet dancing' I wouldn't be fooling anyone, least of all myself.

If you look to other spiritual, physical and mental arts such as Tai Chi, Kung Fu and Chi Kung, there seems to be an adherence to fundamental principles. When we disregard the roots of the yoga tradition, what is the cost to our integrity and also the value of what we are offering our students and those taking up the practice for the first time? It would seem as if in our quest to earn a living and benefit financially from yoga; to stand out from the crowd and offer the next big thing; we have sold yoga out to free market economics and in so doing have found ourselves left holding glass beads in place of flawless diamonds.

I don't have the right to tell anyone how they should or shouldn't practice yoga and am expressing my personally held opinion. I don’t claim to be an authority and the more I research this great subject, the more I realise how little I know: how little many modern practitioners know. I hope that even if you don't agree with everything I have said, that it may challenge you to question your own vision of yoga. Are the principles that you practice aligned with those of the tradition? I encourage practitioners everywhere to take a little time to study the extensive history of yoga. Look at some of the big questions that seekers before us have asked and the truths that they uncovered. The yoga tradition is filled with rare insights, beautiful wisdom and timeless truth.

OM Shanti

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James Russell Yoga Teacher

About James

James is a yoga teacher & researcher who's practised yoga for 24 years. He holds an MA in Traditions of Yoga & Meditation from SOAS, University of London, where he specialised in premodern yoga.

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