A Case for Anarchy in Yoga

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Radical transformation is the provenance of yoga. The promise of bringing about change in oneself through will and determination, being able to derive truth and purpose by observing our own experience rather than succumbing to societal conditioning or the influence of outside authorities, is inherently revolutionary. The compartmentalization and standardization of practice techniques, and the parsing of yogic experience through a scientific lens, has created the perception that yoga can be neutered of its subversive underpinnings. Yet, truly authentic expressions always seem to retain a spark of the unknown that refuses to be ordered.

People love yoga. Even with all the fadists who embrace it, who are likely to fall away in time, there is no denying the unexplainable benefits that happen when humans share space and breath together. As yoga’s popularity has grown exponentially, and been capitalized on, there is an increased call to define what it is and how it works. This is because there are a lot of people doing lots of different things and all calling it yoga, many of questionable merit. The resulting injuries and confusion from the unregulated world of yoga seems to warrant some sort of intervention. There is a natural impulse to want credentials and feel legitimate.

Where is the quality assurance/quality control plan for yoga?

Now that yoga is also a business, the market bends towards an inflation of expectations and prices. The current model, which largely depends on hours-based teacher-training, has resulted in people investing large sums of money in training programs with the expectation that upon completion they will be ready to teach. The registered schools and trainers rely upon this notion to bring in the revenue, and are often doing their best to make good on it; however, the limitations of trying to fit yoga education into a set schedule of hours presents us with the gross irony that time can never be the measure for wisdom. 

However, if you consider yoga to be a form of physical fitness more than a source of spiritual truths then it becomes imperative that a set of objective metrics be embraced. In order to protect the public from charlatans, an evidence-based methodology must be employed to assess competency and assure some kind of quality control. The idea that we just let anybody out there do whatever they want without any regulation seems reckless, and is the reason most readily cited for injuries and abuse, despite a lack of evidence to support the claims. Not to mention all those who dropped the cash and have done the hard work of becoming competent teachers, but who see others less qualified with the same letters next to their names, and desperately want to feel like their certification means something.

But not everything can be quantified, and that’s a good thing.

Some things in life can’t be measured in numbers. Things like love, truth, health and yoga point to subjective experiences that are entirely qualitative in nature. What they are, or what they feel like, can be different for every person who decides to inquire into them. What skills must be acquired, or how long it might take to learn them, cannot be universalized because they are entirely specific to the individual. The scientific method is inadequate to understand these aspects of life. The harder we try to reduce them to simple component parts that can be named and categorized, the more we lose a sense of the whole. In fact, their elusive nature, and the inability to define them in scientific terms, is what makes these dumbfounding parts of our lives so special and gives them value.

But the idea that yoga has a mystical component, or is beyond scientific explanation, holds no weight for anyone who sees practice as merely a physical pursuit. To this sensibility, questioning the relevance of science to measure all things is an argument for ignorance or irresponsibility. And with plenty of examples of eastern modalities that have been codified into quantifiable hours and training, why not yoga too? Unfortunately, there is no real way to resolve the disparity between those who think yoga can be policed through objective metrics and those who find that notion ridiculous because both sides of the argument start from widely different viewpoints.

The detrimental effects of trying to control the unknown, and its profound mystery, is the very essence of what yoga is designed to undo.

Sometimes yoga starts out as one thing and becomes another after you’ve been practicing for a while. Many who start out just wanting to sweat, unbeknownst to them, end up discovering tools for seeing life in completely new ways that challenge the nature of consensual reality. Even scientists, at least the honest ones, admit that health encompasses more than science alone can explain. If we create rules that govern the conditions under which someone would be permitted to offer or teach yoga, based on a set of assumptions that often change over the course of a lifetime, then we quite possibly stifle the process of yoga’s evolution.

Throughout history, yoga has functioned as an alternative to the status quo. Only in its modern manifestation do we now run the risk of limiting its potential in this regard. It’s fine for people to take only the parts of yoga that serve them, but it is not fine to disregard for others those parts cast aside. For in those aspects of practice and experience that defy our sense of order, and where we rely upon the unpredictability of our intuition, that is where we are able to see beyond the ingrained patterns that betray us and our planet. Let us not conform so strictly to societal norms that it further obscures the quiet impermanence that yoga teaches us to embrace.

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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.