Dear Yoga Community: We are not drug dealers. We are not pharmacists. Although it is helpful to understand therapeutic yoga practices as separate from fitness & exercise trends, STOP TELLING PEOPLE THEY ARE BROKEN AND NEED YOU TO CURE THEM. We have PLENTY to do teaching yoga without perpetuating this idea that we are a magic bullet for desperate people in pain. First and foremost, we should be teaching people what yoga is, and what yoga is not, and we are VERY far from that task being complete.
Scorpion Pose Can’t Cure Mortality
While frequently perceived as an “exercise” or activity, yoga is not a series of poses. Although yoga can be expressed or defined in a variety of different ways by sacred texts, it is above all else a state or condition, a being rather than a doing. Sometimes, in order to be physically able to sit contemplatively, one has to prepare the physical body, but even that is merely a preparatory aspect of yoga.
In Raja Yoga, as defined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, yoga is the condition of clearing one’s consciousness so that glimmers of a deeper sense of self can be seen beyond the ego. This means a diligent and aware practice that observes patterns of behavior nonjudgmentally, and consciously works to replace attitudes or actions that do not serve us with attitudes or actions that do. For instance, if you have a health problem caused by an activity, these practices would allow you to dig deep enough to find out what has been motivating you to engage in an activity that does not serve you, attenuating and weakening the compulsion until you have regained the ability to do what is best for you with conscious awareness. Many of these meditative practices are similar to those of Buddhism and Jain.
In the hero tale of the Bhagavad Gita, yoga refers to a pathway or attitude one has toward the divine. Karma Yoga is a path of selfless service, for instance helping those in poverty. Jnana Yoga is the yoga of the scholar, and involves study of ancient texts and commentaries, scriptures, and self. Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, and considered necessary to ground the other two in ethical rather than egotistical behaviors. The Gita is primarily concerned with how we make choices when faced with incredibly daunting tasks, and says that we must be true to our own duty in the order of the universe, however imperfectly, rather than perform the duty of another, however perfectly. As for finding security and confidence in what our duty is in the order of things, well, that’s what the yoga practice is for.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, yoga is a state or condition achieved by bringing balance to the body. The physical postures, most unheard of a millennia earlier in the time of the Yoga Sutra, were expanded to include cleansing and purification rituals before practice and ritualized physical routines. These deeply spiritual and religious practices dedicated to Shiva were designed to unite the internal masculine and feminine energies, route those energies through key parts of the body, and open up to the higher consciousness alluded to in earlier texts, through an energetic or physiological condition called kundalini, which later gets used as a primary focus in more modern traditions.
In fact, most of the poses considered traditional in the US until recently emerged as the result of one teacher, Krishnamacharya, as did the attempt to reunite the Sutra with Hatha Yoga texts. The text he used as a source was transmitted to him in a dream. His famous student, Pattabhi Jois, founder of the highly physically active form of yoga Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, expanded on this using a text that was, curiously, said to be eaten by ants and unable to be verified. As recently as a few years ago Mark Singleton, a yogi and scholar, ran across late 19th century pre-colonial texts on Western calisthenics, and traced the source of many “Ancient and Sacred Poses” to colonial western European military preparation.
As the Western Mind adopts this practice, hopeful of its magical claims but wary of full participation, they have taken the parts that are actually useful to the ideologies of our time, and extracted the most preparatory and inauthentic aspects. Not only will this not serve our culture, it does not serve Yoga, which will ultimately lose its ability to help anyone in this dilution of its most important and functional components. Scientific studies done on yoga involve practices heavily focused on breath work and cognitive restructuring, factors notably absent from most of today’s yoga classes. If you are approaching a class with the mindset that it is like the yoga of scientific studies, and it doesn’t feature the aspects that caused improvement, it is effectively snake oil. This is even worse when the wellness community piles on magical thinking.
Yoga Science vs Yoga Magic
It took decades, if not centuries, for yoga to be taken seriously. The science community often creates a “chicken or egg” situation with ancient practices based on anecdotal evidence. “These claims are unproven, therefore they are invalid. Because these claims are invalid, this is not worth studying to prove these claims.” Finally, as yoga began to expand as a form of complementary medicine, it also began to expand in renown as a magic bullet for anything that ails you.
This is not to say there aren’t great benefits to yoga, and that ancient practices with millennia of anecdotal data don’t have value. Sometimes yoga may have a value that cannot be explained by science’s current understanding, suggesting that ancient wisdom may be describing an effect they did not understand metaphorically. Sometimes the study of yoga has caused scientific research to explore deeper aspects of the neurological system’s connection to breath, expanding our understanding of stress response. However, it is vitally important that teachers are able to distinguish between what is a medically supported statement, and what has not been medically supported, or has been “proven” by bad studies. (There are MANY tales of mythical powers gained by yoga in the ancient tradition, including superhuman power, the ability to become virtually invisible, etc.)
Worse than teachers spreading magical thinking faster than critical thinking, now that there are studies that prove or suggest cause for further study, the types of practices that are helpful are harder and harder to find as people try to find more magical and instant alternatives. Why spend years learning how to perceive the world differently when you can lose 30 pounds in a single hot yoga class? If you actually do see a shift in weight, most likely do to sweating out any water weight and achieving a state of dehydration, you win. If you don’t lose the amount of weight your magazine’s unrealistic expectations said, you must have done something wrong. What the person “did wrong,” however, seems to always amount to not aligning the pose correctly, not breathing hard enough, or not trying. It is rarely that striving that hard or clinging to unrealistic expectations can cloud our judgment and become obstacles to practice, although this is in the Sutra.
And there’s the rub: we not only don’t understand what yoga practice is, we locate responsibility for practice in the wrong places, and we locate responsibility for outcome in the wrong places. It is the student’s responsibility to produce an outcome, although working for fruits rather than labor is explicitly against every yoga teaching. It is the teacher’s responsibility to disburse wellness to you, not help you find and identify it inside of yourself, despite this being counter to all texts and understandings of what the word guru meant. People who have had brief training in yoga poses begin to order people where to shop, what to eat, or how to live as a grounds for excluding them from the yoga community, rather than non-judgmentally suggest alternatives and help students make their own, informed decisions. People who have never walked another’s path will start to judge them as Not Properly Spiritual, and begin to tell them how to “Fix Themselves.” People who are unable to fit into a particular dress size or body style are told they are not practicing correctly, while the teachers who should be guiding them act like a cross between drug dealers and pharmacists:
“If you do what I say, I will fix you. If you do 108 Sun Salutations a day, you’ll be better. If you aren’t, you must not have done what I said right. Go clear your heart chakra and come back to me for your next hit of feeling good.”
Psssst: They’re Dealing You Drugs You Already Have
But I’m NOT a drug dealer. I’m not selling anyone something outside of themselves. I’m not giving anyone something they don’t already have. I don’t instruct poses you can only do when you are in a room with me. I teach you movement and body awareness, so that you can see all the cracks and crevices of your interior space, all of those areas you’ve hidden or ignored due to social pressures, financial woes, and trying to Get Ahead In Today’s World. And a huge part of that involves you learning that YOU AREN’T BROKEN.
Right now, someone is reading that and experiencing resistance. I can’t know who. Perhaps it is someone with bipolar disorder and chronic pain who has given up any hope of being happy or feeling good in a human body. Perhaps it is someone with a mysterious condition like fibromyalgia or neuralgia, who has suddenly found that, although yesterday they could walk around fine, today they have a deep painful ache in the core of all of their joints. Perhaps it is the person who has been trying to lose weight, or quit smoking, or not drink so much, who has fallen off the wagon for the 150th time. Maybe it’s someone who defines him- or herself as an athletic go-getter, who, after the car accident, is wondering how to even walk again, let alone use their usual self-care ritual of running half marathons as a relaxation technique. “You don’t know me,” they’ll think. “I really AM broken.”
But you’re not, though. And that’s my point. You’re just different right now. And maybe you won’t even be different in that way forever. But you will always, for the rest of your life, be someone different than you were the day before. Sometimes that involves the natural changes to human tissue: back pain, stiff neck, etc. Sometimes that means that at certain life stages, you are dealing with people’s injuries, deaths, or illnesses more often, while at others you have to deal with career, family, and education changes redefining your sense of self. Sometimes you are just using a temporary bandage to cover an open wound while it is healing. The only person who can decide what is right or wrong is the person living the life and copping with these changes. I am only able to help you find that person inside of you and help you trust that that person isn’t the horrible person you think he/she/it/they is.
Sometimes we are so afraid of what our Self looks like, that we believe everything Others tell us. Our society says we are fat or ugly, we are too loud, too rude, too angry, we aren’t thin or charming, or kind enough. Yoga teaches that there are many, many aspects and layers we call selfhood, and most of them, though necessary, aren’t real and ARE changeable. Your body tissue a little doughy? So what. Not feeling blissful 24/7? That’s OK. Those things are aspects of self we have to sheath our Real Self and allow us to interact with this outer, material world. Becoming one with everything sounds like a great idea until you decide to do it with a county bus. Then having a separate ego self is pretty convenient, from a squishy mortal in a world of corporeal matter kind of way.
As for what the Real Self is, how to know it from ego, how to train yourself to detect the changes in flavor and sensation between aspects of selfhood: well, that’s what yoga is for. If only I could spend less time in class telling you how to get a tight butt with Warrior 3 pose, and more time on how to internally sense your base, Lizard Brain desires and reframe your thinking before your amygdala takes over and starts performing your actions for you. So many people are focused on yoga as a replacement for their Thursday night Zumba class, coming in aflutter with anxiety and on a tight time table, snapping their fingers and sniping, “Chop, chop, lady, I need to get my Me Time” because they have been physiologically conditioned to shut off their mind and perform a series of robotic actions. How sad that they miss the aspects of yoga akin to the Bene Gesserit training of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the ability to face their fear, look it in the eye, and allow it to pass through them until only a stronger sense of individual self, mindful of and connected to community, remains.
The more my students look to me to provide them with a remedy, the more I have to remind them that it is the idea that they are broken that is hurting them. The more they look to me to provide them with relief, the more I have to remind them that it is simply a breath, simply a stretch, simply a mindset, all things they already possess and have forgotten how to use. The more a student tells me they don’t practice because when they are at home they don’t know the Right Things To Do, the more I tell them to just listen to their body and move in ways that unlock their tight joints, strengthen their weak chests and necks, and stretch their overburdened backs. The more my students think that yoga is a drug I am providing them, the more they are missing out on what they truly have available to them AT ALL TIMES.
When I tell you to put your arm up into Warrior 2* and look out in that direction, I may be helping you release shoulder tension and finding strength, but what I’m really doing is telling you to feel that sensation. You are looking outward, preparing for battle, taking aim. You are finding your prey: it is the parts of you, the sheaths of self you didn’t need, that are getting in your own way.
(*One aspect of today’s yoga culture is to view Virabhadrasana poses as being about “Peaceful Warriors” to be in alignment with today’s understanding on non-harm. Virabhadra was a magical creature summoned by Shiva for a vengeance murder in honor of his recently self-immolated beloved.)
So, please, wellness community: Stop treating every human as though they are broken, damaged, diseased, and in need of a cure that only you possess. They are simply human, just like you. Please stop treating every human as though we need to all walk the same path in the same way. People who are unable to perform physical poses can still practice yoga without being treated as inauthentic or outsiders. Some people may not be ready or willing to change their diet, their wardrobe, their body type, their religion, or may have more important things going on right now before they tackle anything else. They may need to find a centered, restful place to handle whatever they are going through long before they are ready to tackle overhauling their life. Some students may get their anger and fire turned up by a hot, active practice and find today’s athletic styles worsen their sense of anxiety and anger management. Some students may need to burn off some tension, but still find a quiet, calm space at the end, so they can remember what calm looks like.
But giving students who think they are lost, damaged, wrong, or not good enough the message that they aren’t striving hard enough, that they need to work harder for results, that there is a better Self just beyond them and out of reach, is just not yogic to me. Perhaps there are students who need that path, but the majority of mine already have that inner roommate, and are coming to me to find the strength and ease to evict it.