Are We Entering a Yoga Desert?


Having grown up in the eighties, I have no memories of fresh produce at our dinner table, much less anything organic. Often, my whole family sat around watching tv with individual fold-out trays in front of us, eating Chun King frozen Chinese hors d’oeuvres that were heated in a microwave oven and served in the plastic container we bought them in. Back then, convenience and economy were valued over nutrition, and unhealthy patterns of eating were developed that I reckon with now in my later years.

Mass production and scaling of yoga look to be on a similar course as food was during my childhood. Despite the extraordinary growth of yoga as an industry, newer generations of practitioners, who have only come to know yoga in the internet age, often have less access to substantive teachings on yoga than I did when I came into the fold. There is simply no way to be exposed to the depth of a contemplative practice while scrolling through Instagram feeds. Chances are that the demise of meaningful yoga will lead to a greater sense of crisis before a larger realignment might occur.

Just because it brings them in doesn’t mean it’s good.

The initial boom of yoga into mainstream culture has, in part, been fueled by the notion that more people doing yoga is a good thing no matter what form it takes. In theory, it is true that yoga can potentially be had in any and all forms. However, this abstract concept has largely been co-opted by marketing schemes that play shell games with people's good intentions. The suggestion is that even if what is being offered as yoga has very little to do with yoga, it acts as a gateway to potentially discovering something more substantive. From this perspective, the end justifies the means and more people doing something superficially resembling yoga is better than fewer people engaging in the profound inquiry that it truly is.

The truth is that selling people on yoga with gimmicks and coercive techniques is not really getting more people into yoga. Really, we are just capitalizing on insecurities with quick fixes and half-truths masquerading as wisdom. Those that are able to find their way to actual yoga do so despite the onslaught of ads, verging on soft porn, that shape the prevalent representation of what yoga looks like. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that we can do the work of fostering yogic understanding while still adopting methods designed to manipulate a prevailing economic system that values profit more than human well-being.

Reductionist science is not the answer either.

In response to the drought of depth that plagues too many yoga classes, people often turn to science to fill the void. Certainly, there is a lot that can be gained by looking at yoga through a scientific lens, but reducing yoga to science is like eating only vitamin supplements instead of vegetables and expecting to be healthy. As much as we might like to believe that the human system and phenomena of life can be explained through empirical studies, anyone who is being honest would admit that no one knows enough to say this with any real certainty. Even among the experts there is generally a lot of debate, and much of what we think of as settled science is not the least bit the case.

The inability of science to provide us with any real certainty about much of the world is precisely why people are turning to yoga. In many instances, yoga comes into play when the limitations of science and medicine have been reached. A science-based approach to yoga may prove more beneficial than an injurious fitness orientation, but both contribute to the obfuscation of an elusive mystery that has touched the hearts of so many and allowed for the ideas and practices of yoga to endure as long as they have.

Healthful yoga diets cannot be limited to sugary snacks or processed formulas.

Unlike kids of my generation, my two children have eaten more raw organic vegetables in the first four years of their life than I did in the first twenty-five of mine. So, the nutritional wasteland that was my childhood has passed somewhat, and nowadays there are a lot more folks, like myself, who have come to new ideas and understandings. In order to do so, we’ve had to abandon patterns deeply entrenched in us. So much so that changing them felt nearly impossible. Yet many of us have changed. And just as we have come to better recognize the importance of providing ourselves the nutritional value that only comes from nature, so we might also come to see more clearly how yoga is best propagated.

There are still lots of places where there is no Whole Foods to be found, and we will likely see continued exploitation of yoga obscuring the transformational power that is its boon. However, there is always a smoldering ground swell of people cultivating their own gardens, skirting the debilitating effects of gross capitalism and recapturing the roots and essences that nurture us. As bleak as it may seem, humanity's capacity for healing and love will not be paved over without a sincere fight, waged by a determined few.


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.