Yearning for Yoga
"Yoga is not a workout, it is a work in." Rolph Gates
Upon reading this quote, I was immediately struck by how relevant it was considering the current climate of the yoga industry. It seems the lines between fitness and yoga have been blurred. With yoga classes now incorporating weight training, loud music and language specifically alluding to building a better body, the yoga industry is quickly forgetting about its roots and trying to gain mass appeal by watering itself down to a mere fitness class.
I did a profile a couple years ago on a very experienced, senior yoga teacher in the Ottawa area and she said something during that interview that has stuck with me ever since. I asked her how she thought the yoga community had evolved over the past decade in Ottawa. She said: "I don't know that what we're currently teaching is yoga. Are we yoga teachers or entertainers?" She also mentioned the pervasive marketing gimmicks to sell yoga classes and workshops, and the steady erosion of knowledge occurring as yoga teacher trainings continue to multiply with more and more less experienced teachers leading these trainings.
Yoga's biggest problem, in my view, is that it doesn't take itself seriously enough. Would a medical school choose its newest interns to teach future doctors? Would a flight school choose recent graduates to teach its new crop of would-be pilots? So why does the yoga industry not choose its most experienced and knowledgeable teachers to lead their teacher trainings? On this note, I must commend Yoga Alliance for their rigorous standards review and its new requirements that lead yoga teacher trainers be highly knowledgeable, experienced and qualified. But these requirements only apply to schools registered under their umbrella. For any non-Yoga Alliance registered yoga studio, anything goes.
More than once, I've had students mention to me that they hadn't done certain poses in a long time until coming to one of my classes, poses such as Warrior I, Tree Pose, balancing poses in general. These types of comments perturb me, to say the least. These are foundational poses that are disappearing from the classroom. My guess is because they don't fit into sexy "flow" classes that are now all the rage. Are teachers more preoccupied with impressing their students than teaching them yoga? With creating convoluted flow sequences rather than focusing on a few poses a little more in-depth?
I suspect this is where that erosion of knowledge becomes apparent - it's easy to distract students from the teacher's lack of knowledge with a fancy flow and loud music. The truth is: it's incredibly difficult to be a good yoga teacher. And yet, it's marketed as the most accessible thing in the world. Want to be a yoga teacher? Sign up for a training and in a few weeks, or a few months (depending on whether it's an intensive or not), pouf! you're a yoga teacher. Everyone who applies is accepted, there are no exams, and no one fails. It's no wonder the yoga profession isn't regarded as serious. It's like in any profession, to be good at it takes hard work, dedication, continuous study, practice and passion, and perhaps most importantly, experienced mentors who can help shape future teachers, but that's certainly not the impression being given. It's not surprising that yoga teachers are usually derided in mainstream media as being flighty, new-Age-y crackpots. We don't take ourselves seriously enough.
There are some exceptions: I believe the Iyengar tradition is much stricter about who can study to become an Iyengar teacher, and the process is much more rigorous than a typical Hatha Yoga 200-hour teacher training.
Yoga now seems to be outwardly focused: on appearances, marketing, distractions. However, I do see glimmers of hope: Yoga Alliance's leadership in asserting the importance of knowledge and experience; the rising popularity of meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction, and the certainty that once the pendulum swings one way, it's bound to come back.
I recently attended a Bikram Yoga class (my last one being about a decade ago). Yes, I'm aware of the recent Netflix documentary on its founder (I watched it twice) and here is where I separate Mr. Choudhury and his reprehensible behaviour from the practice itself, just as it was pointed out in said documentary that "his" sequence was actually taken from his teacher, and not his own. I mention this Bikram class I took because it was a reminder to me of what yoga can be: unpretentious, simple, challenging. There was no music, no flows, no gimmicks. It's a set sequence, every time, and the teacher was experienced, knowledgeable, kind, supportive, yet unobtrusive. No one was trying to impress me with their awesome playlist or complicated flow. It was just yoga, and it was its simplicity that allowed me to do a work in, instead of a workout.