Have we yoga teachers fallen asleep while riding the momentum of the growing popularity of yoga in recent decades? Perhaps we had, but no longer. It appears the scholars have arrived on the scene to pull our bed sheets down and awaken us with a shock of cold air. Have you felt the breeze yet?
While the popular blogs, publications, and social media forums pump out seemingly endless quantities of self-help advice, top 10 lists, and, what writer and yoga teacher Matthew Remski aptly describes as the “commodification of private fantasies marketed through parodies of self-expression” for the yoga masses, scholars like David Gordon White and Mark Singleton have been asking the questions that have the potential to overturn our accepted versions of the story and applications of yoga. They steer us toward critical questions about how we practice, teach, and train our teachers, and why.
Though these and other scholars’ works are presented through a particular lens, and also perhaps with a particular agenda, it’s hard to ignore their message: The origins of our asana practice, our history, even our motivations are proving to be quite different from what we may once have believed.
Despite Mark Singleton’s advice, in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, to avoid the tempting trap, I read the initial criticism with a bit of relief. The surprising revelations about the questionable origins of modern asana practice focused heavily on the practices coming from the tradition of Krishnamacharya. Not my lineage, phew! But, with closer inspection and the passage of time, it becomes all the more clear that not one of us is absolved of the responsibility of taking a closer look.
Sean Feit, in a recent a recent commentary discussing the changing understanding of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and David Gordon White’s new book on the topic, says a few words that hit close to home when stating this of the the popular trends in “American self-help yoga”: “I see Affirmational Non-dualism as reflecting a quite delusional recent strain of spiritual practice, in which a privileged class uses yogic-sounding ideas to affirm their self-absorption rather than deconstruct the tendencies of mind that cause division and suffering, both individually and socially”. Ouch. But I can’t help but think that the recent explosion of yoga selfies, among other yoga culture oddities, is proving his point quite nicely.
All schools, all teachers, all students of yoga are subject to this radical reframe of our “Tradition” toward an understanding of a complex web of contradictory small “t” traditions, some of them recent, some ancient, some helpful, some beautiful, and many outmoded and shown to be injurious or ineffective by the practitioners who have lovingly upheld them through the past generations of western yoga.
For me, as a devoted teacher of yoga, and a recent one at that, these revelations inspired more than a moment of disillusionment. How could our beliefs be so out of line with the reality of yoga’s past? But this disillusionment gave way to a freeing perspective, one that acknowledges our most influential teachers as beautiful, brilliant and fallible artists shaping and delivering the practices they have learned and grown. This view allows us to unhook from blind devotion, mystique, and fundamentalism, it allows us to evolve. We might see our masters, founders and gurus not as purveyors of an ancient truth (or fallacy, depending on our perspective) but as artists who, much like us, shaped the strands of tradition into dynamic relationship with themselves and with their students. We could choose to say they “made it up”. But we can also choose to say “as do we all”, and then follow suit, incorporating the changing understanding of the physical body and exploring our rapidly evolving social and cultural needs. We have the opportunity to offer the best of our tools by redefining our goals and our methods, and, perhaps, by stepping away from the camera and its accurate portrayal of our enthrallment with our own admittedly lovely images and turning our attention instead to those people and places in the world who need it most. One might even say we have an obligation to ourselves and to our students to do so.
So while we have grown, in recent years, to turn the lenses of our cameras back on ourselves, is it possible that we may not be so readily turning our gaze back onto our own behaviors, alliances, and aims? Is it possible that some yoga teachers have become, as Matthew Remski suggests in a response to a recent blog post, “unwitting mouthpieces for the forces of sexualization and objectification that are always already going on around them”. Is it possible that our understanding of the history, mechanics, and outcomes of our practices needs an extensive overhaul?
Acknowledging the possiblity raises some important questions. I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I have many questions about how we as teachers should communicate about and act upon the shifting sands on which many of our practices have been built. Do we dare question our stories? Our methods? The scope of our training? I hope so. And I look forward to the conversations that result.
Kate Pousont Scarborough
Director, Shelburne Falls Yoga
(Interested? Check out Matthew Remski's thought provoking new project. WAWADIA- What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?)