Photo courtesy of superfamous.

The Schizophrenic Nature of Modern Yoga

Is yoga exercise? This question has surfaced numerous times over the last century in America. Every few years another political initiative sets off a firestorm in the loose-knit yoga ‘community.’ The most recent is a tax that Washington D.C. officials are imposing on fitness centers, causing studio owners to seek a loophole.

As quoted in the article linked to above, Richard Karpel, the (now former) president of Yoga Alliance — the only broadly acknowledged certifying body for yoga instructors in the country — would rather employ the term ‘union of mind, body and spirit’ than categorize yoga as equivalent to what treadmillers and crossfitters do.

In my twenty-plus years practicing yoga, as well as eleven teaching, I’ve heard this statement often: yoga isn’t about exercise. To a degree, this is true. The earliest recorded forays had to do with, as religious historian Karen Armstrong writes, yanking purusha (transcendental self) from prakriti (creatrix):

Yoga was a systematic assault on the ego, an exacting regimen that over a long period of time taught the aspirant to abolish his normal consciousness with its errors and delusions, and replace it with the ecstatic discovery of his purusha.

Mix this with atheistic Samkhya philosophers and kriya (intense breathing exercises) practitioners — who may very well have devised these techniques because they could no longer brew soma, a tea made from amanita muscaria, psychedelic mushrooms — and you have a very different discipline from what goes on in gyms and studios today.

But here’s the thing: Americans predominantly practice yoga to exercise. Since restless Indians began combining gymnastics, weight lifting and wrestling in the early twentieth century as a means of bulking up to fight their British occupiers, yoga has mostly been about working out. Given our high health care costs and obesity rates, adding this practice into our lifestyle is not a bad thing.

Except, that is, if you’re a studio owner who does not want to pay taxes that other fitness professionals must cough up. Suddenly yoga is not exercise at all, even if most of the clientele attend for exactly that reason.

It is rather fitting that Yoga Alliance argues against yoga being a health routine, considering how negligent its credentialing process is. Consider a few aspects of the 200-hour training program, of which there is extremely little oversight from the organization itself. Basically, you mail in your curriculum, pay your fee, they take your money and send you a logo. To stay registered, you keep paying an annual fee.

Here are a few of the requirements:

· One hundred hours of techniques, training and practice. Translation: take a hundred hours of classes, something you’d do as a practitioner anyway. One half of becoming a teacher is being a student. Taking classes with certified teachers is certainly important, but such a large chunk of time can certainly be used more wisely given this truncated road to certification.

· Twenty hours of Anatomy and Physiology. Ten are required with actual students, while zero are mandatory with a lead teacher. Of these twenty, however, only five must address yoga specifically. That means fifteen hours can be devoted to things like chakras and nadis — metaphorical bodily systems that do not actually exist. (They both have worth as interior roadmaps and psychological tools, but little practical value for the bulk of American practitioners.)

The modern American yoga teacher can be certified with only five hours of anatomical and physiological education. Granted, many programs offer more, though when an entire teacher training is only two or three weeks long — the shameful epitome of the yoga money grab — there is no way a newly certified teacher is going to know what to do when a student approaches them with an injury or needs alignment advice.

So the default statement becomes, and I’ve heard this often, ‘just do what feels right.’ This is not what I want to a professional to tell me, yet some instructors sidestep responsibility by claiming yoga isn’t fitness at all. The only problem is that they’re being paid to teach people exercise.

Is yoga more than movement? Absolutely, if you study its many complex facets. As the late religious scholar Mircea Eliade wrote,

If the word ‘yoga’ means many things, that is because Yoga is many things.

For example, yoga begins with the yamas and niyamas, ethical principles that must be followed before one even considers getting on a yoga mat. One is satya, ‘truthfulness,’ being honest in every endeavor. Yet claiming yoga is not fitness to avoid paying taxes while making profit from teaching fitness is dishonest in every way imaginable.

Eliade was right; yoga is many things. Recognizing that one of them is moving our bodies in a healthy way is important; we need to stay fit, individually and socially. I’m not sure why certain yogis are reluctant to label it what it is. Yoga might be diverse, but it cannot be whatever you want it to be, when you want it to be that, just to suit your needs.

Look no further than the hottest trend in yoga today: the endless barrage of inversions and contortions by Instagram posers. A stream of yoga ‘challenges’ are getting people strong and limber while also creating a culture of potential injury and shame. Many deceased yogis that teachers quote and cherish warned against using yoga to celebrate the cult of bodily exhibitionism. But they seem so distant and removed and our camera is right here, so what’s the harm?

Nothing, I suppose, if staring at yourself day after day is your thing. For more earnest practitioners, however, yoga really is more than exercise. It actually entails numerous workouts: exercising your morals, mind and emotions. But to abandon yoga’s physicality is to peel back history thousands of years. That’s simply not who we are today. Culturally we’ll fetishize before we deny. The country of excess could never understand the rigors of asceticism.

To romanticize what yoga once was is to deny who we are as Americans. In a nation with an estimated twenty-plus million citizens spending $10.3 billion on yoga each year, it should not surprise us that the government wants its slice. We cannot blame politics alone. Independent studios, relying on the cash cow of continual, barely regulated teacher trainings have made supply more prominent than demand.

If a studio only teaches meditation and philosophy, a credible case against exercise could be made. Otherwise, studio owners are creating an imaginary rift that does not exist in the name of faux spirituality. Claiming that your movement form is more special than others begins the road to fundamentalism, a path well trod by religious believers worldwide. From my understanding, yoga helps to ground you in the body and culture you live in, not fill you with false claims that you’re above it all.

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