Make Yoga Radical Again

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Yoga is officially mainstream. No one thinks of going to yoga class as being a subversive act anymore. To the average person, attending a yoga class is comparable to taking pilates, crossfit, or zumba. The golden age of expansion for yoga has succeeded in removing the taboo but the vestige of its radical underpinnings has been whitewashed in the process. Fortunately, in the margins of the industry, a new renaissance is quietly brewing.

There has long been a strained dichotomy between the transformative experience of yoga and the means of commerce that have set the stage for its popularity. Earnest efforts to “get people in the door,” rationalized by the notion that even the most watered-down version of yoga will still potentially lead to something more, has obscured the very essence of learning yoga in the first place. The potential for yoga to be of greater use to our society hinges on whether or not we can shift the narrative away from narcissistic posturing to re-engaging aspects of practice that require greater commitment and provide deeper rewards.

For the sixties generation, yoga was part of an awakening of consciousness.

The initial wave of westerners bringing yoga back home was an extension of the cultural revolution of the sixties. Yoga was a means to break free from the confines of oppressive social mores. Expanding consciousness so that we could see beyond the limitations of our entrenched injustices was the reason for practicing yoga. The experience of inward reflection and transformation that yoga offers is a perfect tool for evolving human understanding and expression. Yoga was reserved for those who were trying to be part of the change they wanted to see in the world around them.

Yoga had yet to become big business. You had to search it out in obscure living rooms and church basements, Being into yoga was a way of expressly not participating in the gross consumerism and intolerance of previous generations. It was part of a lifestyle choice that represented the possibility of a more egalitarian world based on peace and love. At least, until the culture balked and everyone started to cash in.

As time went on, yoga became more about building brands than learning sutras.

The ideals of the sixties generation did not lead to the cultural liberation that was lauded. Much of what started out as a vision for a more harmonious world, has gradually morphed into little more than a set dressing that continues to surreptitiously lull us into complacency, and fuels an insatiable need to consume. At some point, fostering peace and love gave way to marketing and increasing wealth. Yoga became just another avenue for folks to capitalize on a counter-culture that would eventually disappear.

By the time the eighties were in full swing, people started to think of yoga as a potential way to make a living. Not to get rich, mind you. Because there were not that many people doing yoga yet so there wasn’t necessarily that much money to be made. Cigar boxes at the front door where you made your own change weren’t raking in big bucks for anyone. But a profession was born nonetheless. And once some money started to come in, the allure of bringing it to scale was inevitable.

Peak commercialization has been reached.

Anyone who has experienced personal transformation through yoga practice likely has an intuitive sense that something has gone awry. Not just with the way we are selling yoga but with what appears to be a reversion into fear-based actions that blind and oppress us. Even with the best of intentions, the yoga industry has too often become more about exploiting low self-esteem to sell people interesting content than healing or expanding anyone’s consciousness. Expanding people's consciousness would likely destroy the revenue streams that have come to define the status quo.

But the numbers are down across the board. Because a lot of people are over it. There is greater access to stuff online than ever before and people are just sick and tired of feeling ripped off by being lured into click-baity ads while we are surfing around on our phones operating from our lizard brains. The time has come where we are finally realizing how much we need to limit our exposure to these toxic influences. Yoga offerings that are in line with that, rather than exploiting it, are becoming more attractive. People are being more selective about where they are putting their money and efforts, and rightly so.

Yoga’s revolutionary legacy has never been more relevant.

Recent efforts to reform standards for yoga teachers are disconcerting. Doubling down on an industrial model that is not working, so you can justify its existence instead of creating a mission that actually helps people, is nothing more than an exacerbation of the existing problem. Those who refuse to sacrifice the nuance and pedagogy that inspires them are pulling their hair out to see what appears to be an inevitable capitulation to the market forces that have made yoga irrelevant. Reinforcing the industry standards is a mistake. Having the courage to disrupt and reshape an industry that is no longer serving humanity is the yoga.

The landscape is utterly ripe to usher in a new renaissance for yoga that is deeper, more relevant, and better at addressing our suffering. And it’s happening. In the most unexpected places, thoughtful practitioners are sloughing off outdated models and reinvigorating yoga with sincere inquiry and new understandings. Despite the turn of events that has made yoga seem small, the huge power it holds remains untouched. For, at its core, yoga is the most radical thing you can do. May those with the will and courage to envision something better have the fortitude to carry this mantle.

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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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