Saturday, February 23, 2013

How I Help Perpetuate The Modern Yoga Narrative

Someone marvellous shared this funny little graphic on Facebook, and it made me laugh out loud. Which is it's own form of yoga, by the way.  It also made me think, on a deeper level, about that question of why we go to yoga, and how what was once an exclusive and sacred (not necessarily good things) discipline of spiritual seeking has become boiled down in our minds to one word: "flexible".  Whence this post....


Now that yoga is fantastically popularised and pretty much mainstream, the average modern yoga student probably isn't familiar with the roots of yoga, beyond knowing that it originated in India a long time ago (like, when movies where still in black and white? ;) ). Many probably remember from their parents' generation of yoga that it had some kind of a spiritual component, but our generation doesn't like having "foreign" spiritual ideas thrown at us when we go to a public space. We prefer billboards, commercials and glossy magazines telling us what the world is all about, thanks, telling us what to value, and what we are worth. We fervently defend our right to not to learn about alternative philosophies unless we deliberately choose to (it's such a chore), as opposed to considering it our right (duty) to deeply examine the many facets of an issue before making a decision. No, we prefer to make decisions first, generally in the time it takes to "like" something on facebook, and our world rewards us for having the strength of character to simplify life into clear-cut dichotomies upon which we can make snap decisions and express strong opinions. (Is it any wonder politics is f$^@#*ed??)

In any case, I won't be the first or the last writer to comment on the disconnect between the roots of yoga as an integrated practice (mind - body - breath) and the narrative of modern postural yoga. Nor will I be the first or last to conclude that hey, to each their own, and if more people are doing yoga, then great, and there's nothing wrong with just doing asana to stay healthy (or bend yourself into a pretzel, or just feel good) and that being the end of it.

And to be honest with myself, and you, as a yoga teacher I play my own part in perpetuating the dominant narratives about yoga. In my classes, I teach 95% asana and only 5% pranayama. Sometimes I teach "fancy" postures. My cues and explanations focus mainly on the physical body, peppered with frequent reminders to breathe, and smile, and "be present". Most of my students, even my long-term ones, don't know about the koshas, or the doshas, or prakriti and purusha, or moksha, or any of the other fundamental building blocks that shape the yogic worldview.

Yet not only do I know a bit about these concepts, but I relate to them, enjoy thinking and talking about them, and believe they offer a valuable perspective, one that is much needed in the modern world. So why do I help perpetuate the modern yoga narrative in all its bland, asana-focused-ness?

The truth is, I'm lazy. There is only so much time in a yoga class, and I have a cleverly designed sequence to get through, and still leave time for a long savasana.

The truth is, I'm concerned what my students will think. I believe they come to yoga expecting a work-out, and generally a tough one, at that, and I'm afraid that if I don't give it to them, they won't come back, they won't like me.

The truth is, my students paid for an asana class, not a philosophy class, and that's what I feel like I need to give them.

The truth is, I had to sign a contract agreeing not to preach my own personal philosophies during yoga class. Really. I did.  Edited to add: this is fair enough! It would be wrong to use my privileged position as a yoga teacher to tell others what to think or believe. But, where is the line between discussing yoga philosophy and "preaching a personal belief"? Some people are offended at even the use of sanskrit in a yoga class - in any case, it makes me nervous.

The truth is, my own practice is pretty much asana dominated, my meditation and pranayama having somehow slipped out and not quite been put back in.

And so I go, and I teach, and I practice, and I perpetuate the modern yoga narrative, all the while knowing that it doesn't satisfy me.

*It doesn't satisfy me.*

But I smile and stand in front of a class, and perpetuate the narrative, because that is what's expected (obligated?) of me and because that's what I know how to do.

Yet I believe that there is a space in a yoga studio for honest conversation. A space for education that goes beyond the physical. For the exchange of points of view, the discussion of complex concepts that can't be resolved in the time-it-takes-to-click-like-on-facebook.

A space where people are willing, have the courage, are thirsty to go beyond the physical and examine, re-examine, their relationships with themselves and the world. 

I believe in that space - and that I can play a part in creating it. That I must help to create it, each time I step onto the mat.

Readers, what do you think?


  1. Well i don't comment often on blogs but this time i feel like it.
    It is funny how your post is reflecting my exact same situation. I also feel kind of guilty for teaching an asanas class but as you said i also feel that's what is expected of me and what the students pay for. Now, and it is not to brag, i practice about 2 h/day of meditation (10 years), i'm a tibetan translator and i'm studying religious studies in college (mainly buddhism and indian religions) since 10 years. I feel like i have lots of knowledge and experience to share but the occasion is not there. Except for a few sentences during class and some exchange when students come personaly to me there is no real transmission. Honestly it is very frustrating as i feel asanas are important but when contextualised and joined with pranayamas and meditation then the real magic happens. The one that deepens each day, the one that allows you to reach such states of clarity, bliss and thoughtlessness that you start to get what the text are really talking about, the one that bestows upon you insights on the inner workings of your mind and bring awareness in every corner of your life so that slowly by slowly you get rid of this thick layer of ego (not done for me yet) and start enjoying life on whole new level...
    Well sorry about this rant, in fact i think like you said that there is indeed a place for sharing this in a studio but we have to be cautious : first we have to lure and attract the students with the asana aspects and then gently add here and there small bits of the bigger picture. The thing we have to watch out for is to try to keep the New Age stuff away, we have a responsibility as teachers to transmit knowledge based as much as possible on facts and personal experience so that everything doesn't get watered down and lost.
    Anyway thank you very much for your post it made me optimistic.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment! It's true that it's hard to have a meaningful exchange in a 75-minute group yoga class, and it's OK to interact with people on a personal level after or outside of class. I guess the important thing is to offer the space. But I don't like the common notion that we have to "lure" people in with the physical aspects of yoga, even though I can relate to that. Surely the mental benefits have some allure to people, as well?

      I also think we are hard on ourselves - there is no way you can transmit what you have learned through long years of study + practice to a group of people in a short amount of time! It has to be experienced for itself. I guess the best we can hope for is to inspire others to explore for themselves!

  2. your brutal honesty with yourself (and us!) is brilliant. thank you for this! opening a dialogue in this way opens every kind of door.

  3. Thank you for teaching, writing, and challenging. All three, as with many things (if not everything) in our lives, require "fully arriving" to exact benefits. People come to asana practice for many reasons - remember the blossoming curiosity during your first classes as a new student? - and to many that practice indeed remains in the physical component. The confluence of life circumstances and our reactions to them play a major role in whether we're ready to fully arrive.

    I'm a firm believer that people should share and teach what rings most true to us presently. Given the breadth of styles in which we frame our practices, there must be - and there is - non-sectarian, universal, empirical examination of those roots of yoga as we are on our mats. (And then, some would say off our mats.) Kudos to you for advancing these spiritual and mental components!

    Fully arriving allows us to be authentic. Yet that's the crux: teaching often (and correctly) is toward the average of a class, but advancing those spiritual and mental components requires an authenticity in the student so unique that it's a struggle for every person in a crowded class in, say, seventy-five minutes.

    Teaching at that intensity is among the most difficult things you'll do. Those of us who are arriving more fully will hear whatever wisdom you're sharing, and then we'll verify it through empirical experience, because that's how we grow. Even if it's just a mention of some building block of the yogic worldview slipped in during those transitions. So, please, work them in somehow!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment - you give me inspiration that there is a desire out there to learn, and change, and explore! I completely agree - we share and teach what our current experience is. Once we start teaching from a formula, and not from our present experience, we are not really teaching anymore. I like your phrasing of "fully arriving". It conjures images of all of us being on the journey at various stages, and rather than simply "arriving" somewhere, the journey is in fact about how present we can be with that constant process of arriving.

  4. it is very questionning your post, i like to read your blog, my english is a bit poor for express good about the subject. i love philosophie class, but personally, i dont feel ready to teach them so i also foccus more on asanas in my class

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Lila. You are right, it's important to feel ready to teach something before you share it. :) Et STP, n'hesites pas d'ecrire tes commentaires en francais... je ferai de mon mieux de m'exprimer en reponse!

  5. I also enjoyed this post- it was interesting to read your thoughts and the realities and struggles that you are facing. I think also it's important to note that many of your students don't pay for a philosophy class... and I would have to say that I have had some similarly aligned thoughts during a yoga class...
    BUT- if you promoted the class as having 'some philosophy' or a few extra minutes, or a bit more pranayama, then students would come in prepared... and open to receiving.
    That is, like you said, a yoga studio- teacher discussion though.

    (puis Lila, il y en a plusieurs de nous qui comprenne le français- c'est un plaisir pour moi itou de communiquer en français sur le sujet de yoga- y faut que j'en trouve plus d'auteurs francophones!! :) ET j'aimerais itou en lire plus de vos pensées et commentaires si vous vous sentez plus confortable à vous exprimer en français!).

    1. Yes, I totally agree - if you go to an asana class and the teacher talks for 60+ minutes, it's definitely not fair! I am also not a fan of when teachers talk *the entire time* during a class: silence is important and a valuable part of a yoga class! I love the idea of "marketing" the class as a class where philosophy is discussed or where there is a focus on pranayama or meditation - as you say, that way people will come if they are interested and not be put off.

      Another important point is that I think that most people who come to yoga experience changes in their bodies and their minds (and often their hearts) after doing the practice for a while. As teachers I think we owe it to our students to contextualise some of these things and share the yogic perspective on things like the body/mind/spirit relationship, energy channels etc. I think this is important no matter what kind of class people sign up for - otherwise, people might think they are "strange" or alone in what they are experiencing, or not have any framework to understand the changes. Thanks for continuing the discussion!

  6. I have the exact same fears about teaching the way I do- that the students came for an asana class- and added to that challenge is that I teach in Germany and many of my student don't speak much English, so that further fuels my idea/fear that if I go into too much (any?) philosophy/background that they won't come back. It might be cool to have a class specifically made for people who are interested in going a bit deeper- call it something like yoga philosophy fusion or something, you know? Where you let the students know ahead of time that they will get more than just the asana practice and then they know what to expect and everyone is happy...

    1. Hi Candace, thanks for the comment! It's funny because when we say our fears out loud, they sound so much less scary! I think it's a great idea to have a specific class where you let people know in advance that the class will include, for example, a short introduction to a philosophical topic, a pranayama, and then asana. That way people who want to go deeper, can. But still, part of me thinks, yoga is yoga, not aerobics. We shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge the rich and deep wisdom that is the foundation of the practice!

  7. I'm a student - not a teacher and I have a deep yearning to MORE than asana but hard as I try, I simply haven't been able to find it in a local class. I've also tried to make connections with the local instructors outside of class, hoping that it would develop into discussion about more than life in general, but it hasn't been very successful. In a couple cases, I've actually discovered that the only yoga that the teachers do is the yoga in classes - they don't have a home practice - asana, meditation or pranayama.

    I've become quite discouraged and even thought to become a teacher on my own just to learn more. Instead - I rely on the net. I take classes online. I download audio programs. I read everything about yoga and meditation (and Buddhism as that interests me also) that I can get my hands on.

    It sounds like you have things to share from your heart and perhaps in little doses, your students may be receptive. I know that as a student, I don't mind hearing a little bit about what the teacher is thinking or going through as it gives me things to think about. And sometimes it can lead to deeper discussions after class. However, the key (I think) is that it DOES come from your heart - from your essence.

    Thank you for your posts.

  8. Hi Kris, your comment is such a relief to hear! It's great to know that many students want to open their minds as well as their bodies through yoga. The internet is a great resource and there are many wonderful things out there - I guess one of the beautiful things about yoga is that it is a SELF practice: no one else can do that work for you! I agree though, you can only teach from what you know and, more than that, what you have internalised. If yoga teachers are not actively practicing at home or are not actively going deeper into their own self-study, then they won't have much to teach!

  9. I love this post, keep coming back to it.
    I know the first few years of my blog were all about asana, nothing but, the balance is better now perhaps but it's been a struggle to reduce the asana aspect of practice, to let it go and practice less. That feeling sometimes when you've practiced half the number of asana that you practiced in you Ashtanga practice to make room for meditation and pranayama and yet feeling somewhat that you haven't really practiced- crazy.
    Think I'm getting the hang of it finally but I wonder if I'd be able to teach like that or end up resorting to more and more asana.
    And if asana is what somebody expects in a lesson/class/session, how to introduce those other elements and encourage the shift of focus.
    Luckily I have no plans to make a living from teaching yoga, so I can teach I guess what I want and let them take it or leave it but I can't help feel I have a responsibility somehow to put that other option/view of practice out there.
    Recently I've been frowning at Sharath doing those little demos' in Conference of the fancy advanced postures. Would have loved that a few years ago but now think he should be downplaying that side.Try and get rid (or downplay) the idea that you should move on to 2nd series and then 3rd and 4th but rather deepen the asana in primary, make an Advanced practice form the simplest of postures through a focus on the breath. Bt then perhaps Ashtanga falls down if you try and that and it becomes something else...krishnamacharya's Ashtanga.
    See confused all over the place comment, that's why I've ended up deleting it five times already.

    Would it be OK to repost this at my place, think it's important stuff.

    1. Hey Anthony, thanks for commenting. And of course, feel free to repost this, I'd be honoured. :)

      I think what you describe is exactly what is MEANT to happen when we do yoga, and we can all relate. As I've grown in both age and practice, I "care" less about "advancing" in my asanas, and more about creating balance and harmony in my body. I focus less on doing "that next pose" and more on being deeply aware in "basic" postures, tweaking my alignment and muscular engagement.

      I think when we teach, it IS important to remember that the practice takes time to grow into something more. But what I don't like is the common teacher mentality that we are "luring" or "tricking" students, through asana, to have a shift in experience. I think as teachers we can and should (as long as grounded in our own experience) put these things forward in a philosophical way, so that those who are open to it can find that place of deeper connection.

      I think one of the things that eventually turned me away from Ashtanga was the way that the other limbs of yoga, especially pranayama and meditation, are systematically absent from the teachings, and the focus is on asana. You may be right that Krishnamacharya essentially thought that Westerners were too rajasic or too dumb to "get" anything beyond the physical practices of yoga... But that was then and this is now; I think our consciousness has changed.

      Thanks for continuing the discussion! I am sure I will post again on this soon, as I reflect on all the comments etc.

  10. I very much enjoyed this post, and particularly the opening paragraph. I think you, rightly, contextualized these ideas by first establishing the historical/social paradigm in which we are seated. There is a huge shift - maybe even an awakening - as Westerns stammer to practice Yoga. They are hungry, and excited. And that is good! Asana is the route to so many other things, and so the focus on the posture is simply, perhaps, the stage that we are in.

    As for all the other limbs of yoga, I think the key is to feed crumbs - just little morsels - and perhaps these morsels will excite your students, and perhaps some of them will delve deeper. Perhaps it is the case of simply mentioning that, according to some of the modern teachers that have carried the yoga practice forward, that focusing our gaze can have a double function of quieting the mind. That that gaze is called drishti in Sanskrit, etc. You could say that for many, the Asanas themselves are just a small part of the body of yoga, and then to encourage them: It is an important part, and good for you for showing up and practising.

    I don't think there is any need to force this progression (just like when practising asanas, after all, we aren't all going to jump through to seated today). To remain a passionate teacher who continues to deepen your own eight-limbed practice... that is best.

    1. Hi Kclea, thanks for you comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think it's always important to contextualise what we are studying and teaching - but at the same time, we have to be wary of limiting ourselves within cultural stereotypes, i.e. the notion that Westerners can't handle deeper yoga philosophy. But as you say, I think that we have outgrown that, and we are hungry for more.

      Your point about "forcing" is VERY important - it is NOT a teacher's role to 'demand', 'force' or 'require' ANYTHING, least of all deeply personal beliefs. Rather, we can open a door, but each student must choose when, and how, to walk through it, and where they go from there.

  11. You were speaking of "building blocks". I feel that is a fine description.

    Now, since all people live different lifes, everyone needs different "building blocks" - or at least feels that need differently.

    Me, for example, I came to Yoga just a few years back and enjoy it tremendously. I came for the fitness aspect and that is still my primary focus by far. But I also found (again) meditation and breathing. But I am also a Christian. I enjoy Indian philosophy and studying different cultures, and singing and listening to mantras; but these things are only intellectually stimulating, their spiritual value doesn't go far beyond that of any shared rich experience. Here is a "building block" I just don't need for I already have one that gives me all that I could ever wish for when it comes to spirituality.

    From this example to the general: I feel the strong emphasis on Asana or bodily health and fitness is the result of this "building block" being the least or let's better say most common denominator. That is not a bad thing. Asanas may not be the essence or the destination of Yoga, but they are, after all, it's core.

    Also "complete Yoga" is not a lifestyle that was meant for everyone. Just as not every Christian is supposed to live like a monk. "Complete Yoga" is an offer and one should take the parts one feels the need for and that are best suited for ones individual situation.

    Allow me to add another thought that is not connected to your post but to the topic in general: I have a lot of sympathy for western yogis who try to fully embrace an authentic yogic lifestyle but I have grown so very very tired of yogis trying to outcompete others yogis by being "more" yogic.

    A last personal thought: Singing is a part of the yogic experience that is in my opinion to often overlooked.

    1. Hi Anon, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think there's an important distinction between philosophy and spiritually, and when I refer to philosophy I mean exactly what you describe: an intellectual framework. See my other post on "why yoga is not a religion" for more details!

      I don't really know if spirituality can be "taught" (I certainly wouldn't try). But yoga does open the door, through breathing and meditation, to connect to your inner self, and whatever you find there. And in this way, you're right that asana is one of those "door-openers". But my question is, are teachers really doing enough to open those doors if we ONLY teach asana? Are we doing justice to the practice by only teaching asana and emphasising the physical? By demonstrating "fancy" poses that are beyond our student's reach, or, as you say, getting engrossed by how "yogic" we are or aren't? I don't think so, and that's what dissatisfies me!

      And I COMPLETELY agree about the singing! It's a wonderful practice that so few people pass on! I'd be interested to know how you feel about singing mantras, which often invoke hindu deities? Are you comfortable with that? Or do you only sing the non-devotional mantras?

  12. This is a fascinating post to read as a newcomer to yoga. I have an instructor who, at the very start of class, will introduce a concept (say, tapas), give a quick description of it, and how we can apply it to our poses & practice (noticing & feeling the fire of transformation in our poses).. well, my example may not be totally correct, but that's the idea. I'd personally love to learn more about the philosophy but it's overwhelming, so I like the little bite-sized nuggets that I can immediately apply. And if I was in the class but NOT interested in learning about it, it only took a minute or two so no real time lost.

    My 2 cents :)