Yoga Extremism

 

Polarization seems rampant across all sectors of modern life. Debates on money, politics, religion, and even yoga, readily devolve into diametrically opposed camps. Moderate voices are lost in the din of intolerance and most folks understandably turn away from the discussion with disgust or lament. But without someone staking the middle ground, and others who embrace and support it, chances are the problems of the day will continue unabated.

The digital yoga world has been all a flutter of late. I haven’t seen this kind of activity since the heyday of the yoga blogosphere some years ago. Of course, even though the original articles still live on someone’s blog, the comment threads are all happening on Facebook. Which is definitely a problem. Commenting on Facebook is kind of like driving in a car by yourself. People will say the most horrible things to other drivers, things that would never be OK to say in person (see Louise CK.)

Subtlety is often lost in a Facebook comment and becomes paralyzed in the face of unadulterated vitriol.

There are some legitimate and important discussions happening on a range of relevant topics. Is the marketing of yoga just another insidious suggestion that makes people feel ashamed of their bodies? Do yoga teachers require more trauma sensitivity training in order to be effective? Is corporate America bastardizing mindfulness practices? Does Hinduism have a rightful claim to yoga as it’s origin? And are people really being honest about what is happening in yoga practice as regards injuries? All of these are important questions. And that they are being played out in a public sphere is a positive.

However, while these questions may be on point, the comment threads that follow often fail to do them justice. I sometimes marvel at the knee-jerk stone throwing and wonder what folks are hoping to accomplish. Every once in a while, there will be an earnest exchange. Where points are conceded on both sides and it feels like a real conversation and some learning has happened. But other times, it all just feels icky and hurtful.

I have a strict policy when it comes to Facebook comments: always write a draft in a separate text window first before you copy/paste and hit “post.” Especially with that shift-return to end a paragraph thing on FB. It behooves us to consider carefully before we click off our rants into the ether for all to read. Even when you delete it shortly thereafter, someone already got the notification and will still call you out on it.

Whatever yoga means to you, rest assure someone else feels differently. That yoga encompasses opposing views is what makes it so confounding.

Recently, some perturbed Indians have been leveling fair criticism of what they see as the co-opting and appropriation of their heritage. Even to the extent of taking issue with yoga terminology. For instance, “Modern Yoga” vs “Yoga in the Modern World.”  The former implies that yoga was somehow incomplete and modernity has made it relevant. The latter is a more accurate description.  Whether or not you feel this is a valid criticism, it cannot be denied that anything westerners know about yoga has come to them by way of an Indian man. And western culture also has a terrible tendency to claim things as its own without due respect for the sources drawn upon.

If you think of Hinduism as a matter of faith or religion then it’s easy to separate it from yoga. But if you consider Hinduism to be part of a larger set of Dharma teachings and heritage then they are inextricably linked. Either way, it can’t hurt for us to be more sensitive towards the culture that is responsible for yoga teachings. As many yoga teachers are beginning to question the language they use when they are instructing people about yoga poses, we ought to also examine the words we use when we market our yoga-based services to the world.

When we are talking about yoga, accuracy begets the nuance that advertising scoffs.

Last month, I taught at a yoga festival. My program, “Gentle is the New Advanced”, was billed alongside several other conventional vinyasa styles. The majority of people who came to my workshop reported that the reason they did so was because the word “gentle” appeared in the title. When we got into practice, something became clear: folks had very little sense of there being any middle ground. Either you’re lying around on bolsters with no  “work” involved or doing high impact aerobic asana and sweating yourself into a frenzy. The suggestion that any pose can be done in a slower and simpler way seemed foreign to the familiar models. I couldn’t help but feel that these extremes in practice sensibility, as well as the comments on Facebook, are reflecting a need for lost nuance.

I can appreciate people having strong opinions and expressing them to provoke conversation and inquiry. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I can be quite assertive myself. And I believe that most people who are passionate about yoga and active on social media are well intentioned. That both easterners and westerners have the ability to interact on Facebook is pretty cool actually. But perhaps we can all benefit from easing up on the sharp elbows. Where one extreme ends the other begins. Somewhere in the middle is where we are not at odds, even when we disagree.


p.s. In the spirit of this post and an effort to create more in-depth content, I am excited to announce the launch of J. Brown Yoga Talks Podcast. I will continue to post my blog as usual. But I will also now be putting out an hour long audio conversation each month as well. The first episode is dropping in two weeks. Stay tuned.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.

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