We’re having a discussion in my yoga teacher training about how yoga has evolved. I wrote up a long post and felt it was worthwhile sharing here. Here are some of my thoughts:
I did not mean to offend anyone by bringing up the Ashtanga controversy of the late 1990s. I was simply sharing how the *yoga media* at the time was talking about it – and I was not that deep into yoga to really be in the know. All I remember is that when all this power yoga stuff started becoming popular there seemed to be quite a bit of concern about it.
If you are under 35 you probably do not remember how yoga used to be in the 80s and 90s. It was different. It was definitely gentler and more “esoteric.” Yoga studios weren’t franchises. Yoga teachers were not celebrities, except for “Lilias” who appeared on PBS. If you watch old yoga videos, you’ll see more mature women in leotards doing more classical hatha yoga styles. I had not heard of “yoga flow” in 1995 and it certainly wasn’t an option at the local yoga studio I went to in Los Angeles. A good amount of yoga was still guru-based – many of the original gurus who had brought yoga to America were still alive. (Actually, in my mid-20s, this sort of yoga scared me. I preferred the new agey local studio to any sort of “real” yoga at the time.)
If you look at old issues of Yoga Journal, you’ll see a dramatically different publication from the commercial pseudo-women’s magazine it has become today. Back in the 90s, Yoga Journal was a more serious publication that featured pictures of BKS Iyengar vs. the perpetual skinny young white woman on most of their covers today. (Not that I have anything against skinny young white women, I was one for a very long time.)
The introduction of hatha flow starting in the late 90s has made yoga much more hip and appealing to young, fit, mainstream people, especially young women, who do get a lot of benefit from the practice. Unfortunately, I feel the commercialization of yoga has been bringing in elements that were never intended by the original yoga gurus. A tendency to focus on physical fitness and appearance over the spiritual benefits is one of the primary problems. Yoga Journal is a horrible leader in this area – last year they had a search for the next “yoga model.” With this sort of atmosphere, it’s not surprising that Ford model Tara Stiles, who has never bothered to get her 200-hour Yoga Alliance certification, feels qualified to run her own teacher training program in her 20s.
On the other side, there’s a focus on “lineages” with celebrity gurus taking the place of the wise men from India who originally traveled to the U.S. to share their knowledge. (Don’t get me wrong, some of those “wise men” were corrupt and abused their power – such as Amrit Desai and Muktananda.) Many of these lineages are now taught in group classes without the benefit of the guru-student relationship to provide one-on-one training and support. Because of this, there is a trend towards cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all yoga.
I’m not saying that all yoga “franchises” are all bad. I’ve been trying out Bikram Yoga lately and I can see a lot of benefit from it. But what makes Bikram Yoga most successful – its franchise model that teaches teachers to use Bikram’s own language to guide classes, and its emphasis on uniformity – is its biggest weakness. Fortunately, most Bikram poses aren’t too dangerous, though you could certainly hurt yourself in the class or pass out if you are not careful.
The problem with certain lineages like Bikram or Ashtanga is that they are set in their poses, and once the guru dies, there’s not a lot of room or permission to change up the sequence. Then there is a tendency towards religious defense of the particular pose sequence, and no moderating influence from the original guru.
Some of these styles may not last in the long run. I look at an older lineage like Sivananda, which is dying out, it seems. I’ve really enjoyed the Sivananda classes I went to, and thought the adjustments I got there were the best I’ve ever had – but the practice itself is not modern and cannot evolve. Sivananda’s basic class consists of 12 asanas and some pranayama. Three of the poses are very problematic for people with neck issues – headstand, shoulderstand, and plow. You can do a moving dolphin instead of headstand. But there’s not much room in the practice to modify otherwise.
Ultimately, I think yoga studios need to do a better job of filtering their students into appropriate classes. In my vision, the yoga studio of the future would actually be more of a wellness center, where, when you first join, they sit you down, assess your physical health and capabilities, and then recommend a sequence of classes and wellness practices for you. If this were done, then people like my 40-something friend wouldn’t be jumping into Ashtanga class with minimal previous hatha experience and only the bad form of his Kundalini yoga practice as precedent. (And I love Kundalini yoga but there are huge problems with it as well.) This is my friend who herniated his disk after going to Ashtanga classes here at Yoga Yoga. And he’s not fat, or out of shape, and so probably didn’t think twice about doing Ashtanga. But was he flexible enough to be trying those transitions between poses or doing the Marichyasana series? Apparently not!
Not all yoga is for every body, though I do believe there is some form of yoga for everyone. The studios need to do a better job of educating their teachers and their customers…but this may also naturally evolve as modern yoga matures. Hatha flow in its various forms has only been really popular in the past 10 years, and it’s attracted a lot of very young people into yoga. As people grow and mature and find that they need something different, yoga will change again.