More styles, Less depth?
Server: How would you like your yoga today?
Miss Anorexic: Reeeeaaaallllly hot, otherwise I just can’t get a good sweat going!
Server: Any cream with that?
Miss Anorexic: No thanks, I come here twice a day to lose weight!
Server: Next please, how would you like your yoga today?
Mr Agitated: Yogalates for me with extra foam.
Server: Certainly Sir. We do have to charge a bit extra for Yogalates with extra foam.
Mr Agitated: No problem. My mind adores the extra foam, it’s great to feel all stirred up after yoga, otherwise it just feels so boring and still!
Server: Next please, how would you like your yoga today?
Mr Distracted: Hmmm, what would you recommend?
Server: Well, today’s special is Meditation with Pranayama.
Mr Distracted: Oh, I don’t really like meditation, I can’t sit still, and as for Pranayama, I already breath all day, I don’t think I need any of that. How about some Vinyasa level 5 with really loud music?
Ok, the above scenarios are fictitious, but sometimes contemporary yoga seems like going to Starbucks. Not just because of the myriad styles of hatha yoga, but we now have a complete smorgasbord of hybrids – Acroyoga, Yoga Sculpt, Crossfit yoga, Aerial yoga, Naked yoga (yup, classes being offered in New York), Glow In The Dark yoga (hopefully never to be combined with Naked yoga!), Rage yoga (where u can swear your head off and scream a lot), Broga (for men only) the list goes on.
So maybe it is time to take a pranayamic breath and ask ourselves what actually constitutes Yoga, and what has become of it in the rush to consumerize this ancient practice.
The oldest surviving definition comes from the Katha Upanisad around 700BCE, which defines yoga as “holding the senses steady”. Roughly 200 years later, Panini defined yoga as samadhi, which literally means “bringing everything together”.
Down the chronological line, the Bhagavad Gita written around 200-300 CE talks of yoga being “skill in action”, or how to act in a manner that does not give you more karma, “balance/evenness” and “separation of the union with pain” – which refers to the pain caused by samsara (the cycle of birth, death, rebirth).
Subsequently in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras we find yoga defined as “stilling/restraining the movements of the mind”. There are several more definitions of yoga in the historical texts, but I think this is sufficient to highlight an important point: there are no definitions stating Yoga to be “getting more flexible and stronger”, “losing weight”, “improving cardio”, “gaining greater self confidence (read: ego)”, “performing amazingly difficult poses to impress those around you”.
My teacher, Carlos Pomeda, talks about Yoga being the pursuit of freedom from our conditioning (karma). We try to deconstruct our identity, not switch one with another. Hopefully we come realize this pure blissful consciousness is our fundamental nature. It seems obvious to most genuine yoga practitioners that seeking this connection can only begin to take place if we internalize, which requires introspection and a lot of patience, since for most this journey of discovery is a long one.
So I return to the original enquiry whether the “Starbucks yoga” of today is really leading students towards this path. Moreover whether all the hybrids are Yoga at all, or rather an entertaining form of exercise!
I suspect this statement may have some practitioners leaping off their mats in defense of their hybrid, but to assert an activity is truly a Yoga practice, there needs to be some genuine link to the purposes of Yoga as outlined above. When yoga practice is all about performing rather than informing, is it Yoga? I argue not. If we define yoga as anything that incorporates poses resembling asana, without any regard of the true purpose of performing asana – which is to prepare the body for a journey to restrain the fluctuations of the mind – then we risk diluting and trivializing this wonderful and ancient art/science/philosophy. When the by-products of yoga practice such as improved strength, flexibility, balance become the raison d’etre for attending yoga classes, then we have, in the 21st century, stolen a wonderful tradition and altered it beyond recognition to fit the cultural tastes of our times.
This article does not permit the time or space to address every hybrid individually, so I shall focus on a couple that are relevant to my own personal experience- martial arts and aerobics/fitness training. I taught and competed in martial arts for many years before discovering Yoga, and I would challenge anyone to argue that the ultimate goals of martial arts and Yoga are equivalent. Even slow moving forms of Tai Chi are focused on precise bodily movement to enable ones chi (prana) to move effectively and thus enhance ones physical and mental health, but there is nothing stated in any of the leading tai chi organizations’ literature that refers to the spiritual goals of yoga.
Let me also take a moment to address possible objections to my contentions:
Argument 1: hybrids attract newcomers, who might not otherwise discover yoga as they would not choose to attend a hatha yoga class. Whilst newcomers might indeed try one of these funky fusion offerings, it is misleading to suggest it bears any resemblance to Yoga.
To me this argument does not hold water – taken to its logical conclusion one could call anything Yoga – “xyz-yoga” maybe circus-yoga, soccer-yoga, train spotting-yoga saying it will open the door for participants to discover the real practice of Yoga. If it does not look, feel, smell, taste or sound like Yoga, then it probably isn’t Yoga. If people are not ready for a real Yoga practice, that’s fine. Let them come to real Yoga once they are ready, rather than dumbing it down to the point of being unrecognizable.
Argument 2: sankalpa (intention) behind the activity, not the activity itself, is what determines whether it is Yoga or not. Absolutely! The intention of both teacher and student is very important. Is a hatha yoga class really Yoga if practiced with wrong intention? But when hatha yoga, which has been tried and tested for hundreds of years, is practiced with right intention then the fruits of that practice flower in the way the student thinks, speaks and acts, both within and beyond the yoga studio. This ultimately assists them in their evolution towards self-realization.
The recent trend towards various hybrid yoga practices offers nothing additional in assisting students in this journey.
How does wearing florescent tubes round your wrists in a dark room enhance one’s inner journey? How does focusing on a partner in Acroyoga assist you in the introspective journey of Yoga? It might help the practitioner develop trust in others, but so does rally car racing where the life of the driver is in the hands of the navigator reading the map, but nobody calls it “Rally Car Racing Yoga”. How does using weights to sculpt your body whilst forming shapes that simulate yoga poses lead the practitioner away from the most superficial of koshas (layer of being), the physical kosha?
I contend they do not, and are merely marketing gimmicks to attract the modern man/woman, with a very short attention span, looking for the next cool fad.
In conclusion, saying anything that brings people into the yoga fold is beneficial, as these students will eventually find their way to a deeper understanding is wrong. Those within the yoga community who value the origins and essence of Yoga should be skeptical that this misrepresentation of Yoga will lead students towards the path of self-realization. If what is being taught has nothing to do with Yoga other than the label of the class, then it is unlikely students will find their way through these classes to any deeper understanding, and in so doing we perform a dis-service to genuine Yoga.
When you add caramel, cocoa powder, whipped cream, marshmallow, rainbow sprinkles and mint flavouring to your coffee, there comes a point when it is no longer recognizable as coffee. Let’s wake up neo-Yogis and smell the coffee…the real coffee!