For all the flexibility of mind and spirit it’s supposed to bestow, yoga in America is a resolutely orthodox endeavor
The self-improvement yoga promises is not an achievement of the body but rather achievement through the body. At least, that’s the party line. “Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah,” reads the first of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient document that serves as contemporary yoga’s ur-text, though very few self-described yogis have read it. The Sanskrit phrase can be approximately translated as “yoga is the calming of the mind’s fluctuations,” and it’s often quoted in classes as the ultimate purpose for the poses—headstand, warrior, downward facing dog—that have largely become synonymous with the broader spiritual practice. Through assuming these shapes, you pause your usual internal monologue, or at least become aware of it. You establish control over your mind by manipulating your body.
Given yoga’s ubiquity in the United States, the many schools of study, and the entirely unregulated nature of the countless teacher-training opportunities available, there’s much variety in classes. But as with any cultural phenomenon, it is subject to trends. Physical practice, or asana, is supposed to be only one component of the eight limbs of yoga, but few yoga teachers go beyond lip service in emphasizing the nonphysical limbs: a chirpy nod to satya (truth) here, a vegan-promoting appeal for ahimsa (nonviolence) there.
Most Americans are familiar with yoga primarily as a form of exercise, and while they may be suspicious of its tinge of Eastern religion, taking a class at their workplace or local gym is likely to dispel any fears they may have about being paganized. Many 50-minute fitness-center classes don’t allow for much more than a few sun salutations and a shoulder stand. Yoga studios are a bit more willing to tolerate motional and metaphysical commentary from instructors, but even the teachers I’ve found who use sutras as a jumping-off point at the start of a class almost always relate those sutras to the physical movement instead of letting them stand alone as guideposts that might be considered apart from the accompanying acrobatics.
I came to yoga initially because I was tight. In the first class I took, at my local YMCA, the instructor—a personal trainer—taught from a book open in front of her on the floor. A radiant woman with a mean forward fold told me her hamstrings were once as unforgiving as mine, but yoga changed that. With a promised miracle in mind, I’d dipped in and out of classes for years, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I met a teacher whose charisma made it impossible for me not come to class. She had boundless energy and genuine tenderness, and she delivered aphorisms in a low, sincere voice: words about softening, self-love, forgiveness, strength. Every second in her classes felt full of honesty and kindness. Some of the most beautiful moments of my life occurred on the floor there as I lay still and silent in my own sweat. In her hands, yoga generated moments of insight in a safe space. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s easy to believe that asana could be a direct channel to a more authentic self. It’s a possibility I was not alone in chasing; most diehard yogis—you know they’re fairly diehard if they describe themselves as such—believe they are becoming better people first and better bodies second, even if the body is all they focus on.
How asana will transform you can be articulated in many different ways. Some teachers and books say you’ll recognize the limits of your body, the potential of your body, the strength of your body as well as its fragility. Some stress that you can learn to love your body, be grateful for your body, to forgive your body and, by extension, yourself. Balance poses will teach you humility and humor. In backbends, you embrace openness and vulnerability. Inversions prove your courage. And so on. That’s what makes it yoga rather than mere exercise. If I heard a yoga teacher say, “This is movement and nothing more,” as though they were teaching the equivalent of a step aerobics class, I would be shocked.
In spite of this, almost everyone I met practicing and eventually teaching yoga came to it expecting physical results, not spiritual journeys. They wanted more flexibility or to lose weight, or they were following up a doctor’s suggestion that it might alleviate health problems. Occasionally, middle-aged men would tell me they were interested in stress relief, but no one ever told me they came to yoga for a higher level of awareness or to become a better person. From day one, the vast majority of people arrive on the mat expecting exercise. The spiritual portion they can take or leave, turn off or on, as their own interest dictates.
Even outside the yoga community, the ideal of a “yoga body” is familiar to the point of banality. We all see this body promoted in ads for varieties of workout clothing, hear it referenced in controversies about form-hugging spandex pants, and deployed as visual shorthand for a healthy lifestyle in food commercials. Among serious practitioners, discussions about the constant promotion of a light-skinned, young, very slim, and very agile body—in everything from magazines to studio websites—almost always involve a loud chorus defending such images as “inspirational,” eliding the more honest assessment of “aspirational.” Why should we not be “inspired” on our paths to use our body for spiritual growth? As revered yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar famously said, “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”
One of contemporary yoga’s more pervasive catchphrases is to take your yoga with you “off the mat”: the courage you discover when you lift your legs over your head in a forearm stand can be drawn on outside class to confront a co-worker who’s been spreading rumors or to talk financial problems with your spouse. (There is no equivalent saying to indicate you might access something already familiar; you don’t bring your yoga “onto the mat.”) The body is what comes first, otherwise what comes after won’t come at all. To transcend your physical self, you must master it.
It’s not surprising, then, that this institutionalized obsession with the body can have troubling manifestations in individuals. Some fixate on certain poses to the detriment of their health. I’ve met many yoga devotees with hamstring attachment pain, a symptom of an overaggressive pursuit of deep forward folds. Some adopt strict behaviors the medical community labels disordered, such as excessive exercising and highly restricted eating. Some are on constant “cleanses,” consuming almost all their calories in liquid form, moving from one regimen to another. Others also undergo protracted periods of gluten-free and vegan eating in the name of detoxifying, and all this while working their body strenuously for several hours a day through increasingly demanding postures.
When the body is the only tool for internal betterment, pictures of accomplished bodies are a useful, if not necessary, aid in the self-improvement quest. These images tell us that a mastered mind looks like both feet in the air; a slim thigh resting on an upper arm; a pretty, smiling face hovering above the ground. Yoga is full of naturally flexible, arguably overly flexible women, who receive validation for touching their face to their knees in a forward fold even if collapsing into themselves in that way requires little effort. Teachers readily employ such students to illustrate poses for those who are far less flexible, or simply praise flexible students for their genetic gifts. During my teacher training, a man with decades of experience in instruction repeatedly did this, calling upon the loosest woman among us to serve as models because of how easily they could plop into full splits. For all the assertions that no one can ever truly master a pose or that it doesn’t matter if you ever achieve the most advanced variations, most classes are not led so noncompetitively.
For all the flexibility of mind and spirit it’s supposed to bestow upon those who embrace it, yoga in America is a resolutely orthodox endeavor. By “doing yoga” with your body, you yourself will become yogic: peaceful, wise, measured. This promise is offered to all with no exceptions; it is supposed to hold true for everyone who arrives on their mat because the movements are presumed to bring it about almost indiscriminately. With your mind’s fluctuations calmed, you access a level of excellence that non-yogis cannot. You become a morally superior specimen. Yoga teacher and philosopher Matthew Remski articulates this when he writes, “My heart clings to [the idea]—substantiated by the literature of hatha yoga, by the way—that there must be some resonance between a person’s embodied creativity and their intersubjective empathy.” In other words, if your body is inflexible, your mind must also be limited.
I’ve heard particularly devout practioners claim that yoga, if it were even more widely practiced than it already is, would eliminate murder and soothe tensions between nations. It’s common knowledge among yoga devotees that if only politicians did yoga, civility would be restored to our government. (It’s less commonly known that Congressional gyms already offer regular yoga classes.)
Speculations like this might seem too facile to be worth criticizing, but they’re a symptom of prizing the body as a foolproof thoroughfare to one’s heart. Though Americans may treat sports heroes as gods and resist acknowledging their obvious flaws, rarely does a form of exercise itself convey the philosophy that physical prowess leads to holiness.
For those who are able-bodied and fairly fit, physical exertion as a shortcut to moral enlightenment is an easy sell. As long as you show up for a few ultra-toning hot-yoga sessions several times a week, there’s no need to make any sacrifices or changes to your current lifestyle. You can drive the eight-tenths of a mile to class alone in your SUV, side-eye the women who asks you to move your mat over, and treat yourself to Lululemon afterward without ever surrendering yoga’s holy glow.
The muddiness of “physical exercise equals spiritual tool” framework complicates the standard to which yoga instructors are held. Should teachers be immersed in spiritual teachings, or does the physical study bestow that knowledge automatically? Should any practical knowledge of anatomy and preventing injuries be included in any teacher-training curriculum, or is it enough to study the sutras and let the asana instruction guide teachers in keeping students from overexerting? If asana is a path to enlightenment, wouldn’t the wisdom it bestows include an ability to self-regulate and an inability to make serious mistakes that cause damage to others?
Yoga therapist and yoga therapy are phrases that anyone can apply to themselves in advertising, with impunity. Most teachers push back aggressively against state attempts to regulate training programs or license yoga instructors, as is done with forms of body work like massage or physical therapy. In a 2009 New York Times article, one New York City teacher claimed regulation would “destroy the essence of yoga.” In an article in Yoga Journal on local regulations, a Texas teacher claimed that yoga, which is estimated to be a more than $10 billion a year business, was “more of an art form than an industry.”
One of my fellow teacher trainees admitted she didn’t want to learn about anatomy because she worried it would demystify her intuition-based style. She’d already been through one 800-hour teacher training that apparently couldn’t spare any of those hours for learning how most human bodies are fit together. Plenty of yoga teachers regularly revere and center on the body without having an understanding of it on an academic level. The view of “Western science” as a contaminant also plays into this resistance.
Those who teach anatomy for yoga are not in consensus over whether knowledge of anatomy is enough to make physical practice safer; instead they point to a climate that allows mindful choices and sensitive attention to each individual’s abilities. And in some ways, the anatomy debate dances around the larger issue of how well instructing students as its own precise skill is imparted in most trainings. With or without an anatomy portion, many teacher trainings are better understood as protracted workshops designed to deepen one’s personal practice. (The topic of instructor responsibility and conduct is primarily addressed in the context of adjustments—should you ask before touching a student’s body or just go for it?) This is logical. If you believe personal practice is the path to understanding in the most radical, encompassing sense of the word, why bother with particulars of how to lead?
Since almost all yoga classes are focused so intently on the body, discussions about what happens beyond the flesh are curtailed to platitudinous soundbites about nonattachment and letting go of judgments. In this environment in recent years, the yoga world has seen several “sex scandals”: John Friend, the former head of Anusara, was revealed to be using his influence to have sex with his students and employees (who were often one and the same.) Bikram Choudhury, the bombastic founder of the intensely proprietary Bikram yoga, faced several lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. Cameron Shayne, founder of martial arts and yoga fusion Budokan, wrote an ill-conceived post arguing against discouraging “hot” sexual relationships between yoga teachers and their students. Nobody in the American yoga community was surprised by these developments. Shocking Bikram scandal should shock no one, read one appropriate headline.
As is made clear by Shayne’s shamelessly amoral letter, the many apologists who rushed to pardon Friend’s improprieties, and the numerous Bikram students who ignore their unhappiness with his misogyny to further augment his considerable profits, “nonattachment” too often translates into the dismissal or excuse of any yogi’s unethical behavior, no matter how calculatedly selfish. All these men are still teaching yoga, still earning money, and still enjoying the adulation of many “followers.” We continue to believe in yoga’s emotionally curative powers even as we observe many people adept at asana act in appalling ways. And we use “nonattachment” as a way to brush aside criticisms of the sexism and racism that plague American yoga while remaining deeply attached to a faith in asana.
All these news stories point to the same truth: In the U.S., yoga often begets a toxic culture that encourages, if not outright rewards, dangerously inflated egos and chronic irresponsibility. Bikram’s style of yoga, speculated Benjamin Lorr in the Daily Beast, does “not so much attract narcissists as breed them.” But the extreme particulars of Bikram yoga—the heated room, the unchanging sequence—are not so different from many other schools, and the teachings are the same: These poses are the pathway to self-knowledge; you are your own best resource; you are divine.
While this is a message of life-changing empowerment for individuals who have struggled with a sense of worthlessness and desperation, it’s injecting an ego speedball into those already convinced of their own superiority. An assortment of fancy poses becomes one more exhibit in their collection of evidence that they’re someone very special.
After years of immersing myself in yoga, I quit. It happened slowly. First I cut back on teaching classes, then I stopped teaching altogether, and then I quit attending.
After several years of intense practice, I became concerned about my increasing eagerness to look impressive and strong in classes, to show off my body’s capability instead of attending to the more nuanced aspects of asana, to hold certain poses for competition’s sake, to actually enjoy the inability of others to do what I was doing. During this period, more than one teacher used the oblique shaming tactic of “Don’t let your fear control you” to try to turn me, literally, upside down in a handstand or forearm stand, poses I loved but was reluctant to perform in open classes because of the inevitable ego flare that came with it.
The common “fear” simplification is only one of the many one-size-fits-all ideas about what emotional experience particular yoga poses are supposed to evoke: We store negative emotions in our hips, twists are calming, and so on. Once, during a teacher workshop, I asked something about twists that are aggravating. (I was thinking of standing twists in particular: Reverse triangle, for instance, is a very unpopular pose because of how challenging it is.) The entire room almost gasped. One woman looked at me with such horror, it was as if I’d confessed to murdering babies.
The environments I found myself in weren’t supportive of the vulnerability and constant introspection yoga can provoke, if allowed to. Yoga studios were full of drama: Cliques formed around the showiest and most attractive teachers, gossip spread about sexual misconduct, and some studios made petty accusations that other studios wrote fake Yelp! reviews of competitors. An studio owner once wrote me a bizarre email that made it clear she didn’t realize I was already one of her instructors. Against this neurotic backdrop, it was hard to access and provide the warm attentiveness I thought my students deserved.
The best outcome of my yoga was not stronger arms or looser hamstrings but a greater propensity for self-awareness. I came to yoga a naturally inquisitive person. The instructors who knew how to direct that curiosity into my own moods and attitudes and experience as a body gave me a powerful tool for discerning unhealthy situations and responding appropriately. In other words, yoga gifted me with the ability to recognize why I needed to leave yoga.
It’s okay to feel bored in a handstand instead of afraid, and it’s okay to be angry in a twist instead of soothed. Why dictate these fickle eruptions of the mind when the goal is to quiet them altogether? If we could work harder to clear away the superficiality, the orthodoxy, and the contradictions of contemporary yoga, its true value would be more accessible. The first lesson? Yoga might start with the body, but that shouldn’t be where it ends.