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Have you ever been to a yoga class, and felt like you were attending a fashion show instead? You know, all the fancy yoga pants hopping around in their down dogs and wild things… You might have a pair of Lululemon’s yourself. Then you understand that western yoga has become a serious fashion and fitness business. Do you think there’s something wrong with that? I don’t. Here’s why.
Recently a friend of mine sent me this article about the commodification and commercialisation of yoga. It’s written by an American (former) yoga teacher. She stopped teaching because she doesn’t agree with the western approach to yoga in which the spiritual side of yoga has been lost. She says:
She does have a point. But what is wrong with that, actually? Isn’t yoga meant for everybody? No matter what culture, what colour, what perspective you have? Yoga has so many different schools of thought, why can’t there be one that fits in ‘our’ culture? The importation of yoga to the West has not been a smooth ride. There were scandals (there still are), sects, so-called ‘Gurus’ (teachers) that abused their position and their students. When I grew up, yoga was something for hippies and anarchists. How much that has changed in the last 20 years. Business people, athletes, politicians, your next door neighbour, they’re all doing it. Yoga has gotten mainstream. And if it wasn’t for the ‘western’ approach to yoga, it might have still been considered an obscure practice. She goes on;
We’ve commodified, materialized and westernized a practice that has roots in a culture that we (and by we I am speaking largely to white folks here) are not a part of. We are taking an aspect of this culture removing it from its context and then we are changing it, claiming to own it, attempting to copyright and sell it and ultimately shaping it into something that is harmful to all of us.
Again, she’s right. I mean, I started doing yoga as an exercise regimen myself, 7 years ago. Though, I wouldn’t have started with it probably, if it would have been (too) spiritual. You have to find teachers or teachings that resonate with you.
A friend of mine, who is of South Asian descent, a woman who grew up practicing yoga her whole life, helped me see that how we practice yoga in the west is a HUGE departure from what it looks like for her and the culture she comes from. She helped me understand that yoga is a multifaceted spiritual practice, philosophical tradition, medicine system and way of life – not an exercise regimen.
Soul searchingFor most people in western societies it takes a long time to open themselves up to the spiritual side of yoga. We don’t have a society in which this kind of spirituality is a very easy thing to talk about. And what is spirituality anyways? If you look it up online, there are tons of definitions for it. Within yoga, and as I’ve experienced it, it is about being connected with your true nature. With your genuine self, with the essence of your existence, with the Divine. Wow, that sounds way treehuggery right? I know. It’s hard to grasp for my own mind as well. I always try to analyse things and understand them rationally. The funny thing is though with these spiritual matters, is that the mind can’t do anything with it. It is not rationally explainable, it’s a heart matter. You have to still the mind and just feel it. And that’s the purpose of yoga, it’s about the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind and becoming one (one of the meanings of yoga is ‘union’) with the essential nature, the Self (atman, brahman), so you live in perfect harmony and peace with yourself and the rest of the world (aka enlightenment). Oops, I did it again. Pretty out there huh? Not that I claim to have experienced anything like that (although I have experienced some things that are rationally incomprehensible). And I believe there’s no need to go that far, if you don’t want to do that/believe in that. Even when your purpose in yoga is not to reach enlightenment, yoga still lifts your spirit. By connecting your breath and your movement (which is just one way to do yoga), by being focused in the present moment, you stop worrying, and just live. That’s peace enough for many people already I would say.
From a work-out to a work-inIn my yoga classes I do focus on physical benefits. And I find that a down to earth approach can be as spiritual as anything. It’s all about focusing on the breath, that’s where the ‘magic’ comes from. If there’s a strong connection with the breath, yoga stops being a mere fitness exercise, and starts being a spiritual/mindful exercise. The more people relax, the more space there is for magic to happen. And that aspect (breath awareness) can be incorporated in any ‘fitness’ focused yoga class. There’s a big chance that eventually, as a person experiences the internal benefits of yoga, she/he comes to see it more as a spiritual practice, rather than a fitness practice. I have, so other people surely can too. They’ll realise that yoga helps them to calm down, accept who they are, combat depression and anxiety, deal with death and impermanence, love themselves – and the rest of the world, find peace, and be able to live freely. They’ll understand that there is no us or them, that we are all the same, we are all human, with human defects, but also with superhuman capabilities. That there’s no good or bad, that it’s all just a mix of everything. And that that exists in all of us. Then they come to see that the potential external benefits (eg muscle tone) are just a nice side effect. But definitely not the main reason/focus of the practice. Eventually people will forget about the yoga pants, forget about the latest Lululemon design. And if they don’t, then that’s fine too. If they just want to show off their hot new pants, look at hot pants (or rather what’s inside of them), have a nice work-out or social talk, that’s okay. At least they’re trying to do yoga. And that’s a heck of a lot better than staying at home binging out in front of the TV (although that’s perfectly allright as well of course. As long as you’re relaxed about it. That’s what brings peace to your mind. And when there’s peace in you, there’s peace in the whole world). So here’s to materialised yoga. We are all going to be saved by hot pants. PS If you want to read more on yoga and spirituality, here’s a couple of books I would recommend:
- Fuck It Therapy, by John C. Parkin (very good read, nice introduction if you’re new to the whole Zen thing)
- Buddhism Plain and Simple, by Steve Hagan (interesting, quite easy to understand explanation of Buddhism)
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, interpreted by Alistair Shearer (beautiful and simple to understand interpretation of the yoga sutras)
- The Path of Yoga, by Georg Feuerstein (a bit rigid/fanatic for my taste, but very rich in information).