Yoga's Greatest Challenge

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A lot of people who go to yoga classes are not really interested in yoga. At least, not in the sense of being seriously committed and willing to take on a radical inquiry into the nature of being, and having the courage to manifest what is discovered in attitudes and actions. Most folks just want a good workout that will tone their bodies and make them feel less stressed, without being all too clear about what that might actually mean or entail. The trappings of mainstream yoga have led to an obfuscation of not only the greater challenge for individuals but the potential rewards for our communities and planet at large.

I have been in a bubble of sorts for the last decade. I opened a niche center that rode the latter currents of the yoga boom and managed to hold its own on grit and principle until gentrification overtook the neighborhood. Returning to the wild world of independent yoga teaching is both familiar and not. Some things haven’t changed at all. Still just a room with a decent floor and people showing up at the same time to engage in breathing and moving. But there are noticeable differences. No longer is yoga the refuge of rag-tag seekers existing in the margins of counterculture.

Somewhere along the way, we went from passing on the wisdom of ancient cultures to pleasing customers.

Regardless of whether we lament or embrace the Instagramification of yoga, the imagery and ethos that have come about in modern postural practice have bred an entirely new set of assumptions and context for inquiry. Before the business of yoga solidified into what it has become, going to a yoga class involved a degree of determination. There was incense, chanting, and philosophy at the forefront. It was intimidating. The uninitiated had to have the courage of their convictions to put themselves into a space that was unfamiliar and strange. No one felt obliged to placate or cater to the wishes or demands of attendees. 

Now that the ability to advance practice in ourselves and others is tied to our ability to sustain a business that can house the space needed, owners and teachers have no choice but to place more emphasis on making people happy with their purchases. The onus is no longer on the aspirant to demonstrate a seriousness about their inquiry, but on the teacher and centers to ensure people feel that they are getting their money's worth.

Advanced yoga is rooted in the sort of buy-in that can’t be measured in dollars.

For all the money being spent on yoga classes and teacher trainings, there is an increasing demand for offerings with more depth. Unfortunately, the turn of tides towards commercialization has disenchanted many of the earnest practitioners who have cultivated the nuance and understanding that people are hungry for. Serious practitioners are disgusted by the business practices that are propelling centers, and feel themselves being pushed out when they don’t capitulate to the pressure to conform to what sells better. Consequently, just as the population of yoga class attendees is getting older and requiring practices better suited to latter stages of life, the staff of teachers available is getting younger and less equipped to meet their needs. 

But the centers are in a bind. Because without new people coming in they will die. And in order to keep those people coming in they need to sell it in a way that gets them in. Getting people in the door has been the overriding justification for all the many expressions of yoga with questionable merit. How many times have we heard the “gateway” argument? That if it gets people started in yoga then it’s good because it will lead to a deeper inquiry down the road. Well, maybe not. If survival is contingent on forever catering to the whims of what is fashionable, and placating our cultural conditioning, then the progressive advancement of yoga in our societies begins to cease.

We tried to give people what they want so we can give them what they need but instead ended up just giving them what they want.

In our efforts to make yoga more appealing and profitable, we have also created counterproductive expectations. The idea people have about what yoga can do for them is often rooted in manipulation, and presents an obstacle to learning the real benefits that yoga offers. Unfortunately, it’s hard to sell people on addressing the things that are most difficult in ourselves to face. The alleviation of suffering, and cultivation of direction and purpose, require profound self-examination sustained over time. You can’t just buy it.

The greater tragedy is that in adapting yoga to the mainstream mores we have sacrificed the aspects of yoga that will most benefit humanity and our world. Awareness, equanimity, and kindness are the ultimate accomplishment. And being able to merely execute intricate body positions does not get us there. Seeing mutuality in all beings has not been served well by the fitnessization of yoga practice. The greatest challenge before us is not in the yoga poses we teach but in how we manage to impart practice that resists the distraction and distortion that are leading us awry.

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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.