I got dem old-school yoga blues again, mama (apologies to Janis Joplin)

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune over the weekend about how blues clubs in Chicago are struggling.  That is, not so much the blues clubs in the white, tourist areas of Chicago, but the clubs on the mostly black West and South sides:  “The official Chicago blues scene — a magnet for tourists from around the globe — prospers downtown and on the North Side, catering to a predominantly white audience in a homogenized, unabashedly commercial setting.  The unofficial scene — drawing mostly locals and a few foreign cognoscenti — barely flickers on the South and West sides, attracting a mostly black, older crowd to more homespun, decidedly less profitable locales.”  [emphasis supplied.]

The more I read this article I couldn’t help but think that what I was reading was analagous in certain respects to the modern yoga scene, especially when I read this:

  “So what happens when an indigenous music . . . gets repackaged for sale . . . ?  An art form starts to die.”

Much has been written about how yoga changed when it came West.  I was in a workshop with Paul Grilley when he said that in order for yoga to be palatable for Western tastes the spirituality had to be stripped out of it.   Sure there are many teachers who teach a classical or as I call it, an old-school style of yoga, but how filled are those classes compared to the ones where the teacher dazzles you with a one-armed handstand, kicks your ass, and sends you home with a two minute savasana and no meditation?  From my own experience when I taught at a studio my “modern” vinyasa flow class had a lot more students in it than my classical vinyasa krama class where I usually had three or four or none at all.

Naming themselves after a Muddy Waters song, the Rolling Stones visited the South side of Chicago, home of the urban blues, to pay homage to  Chess Records.   That was the rock and roll version of going to India to see where it all started, to experience the undiluted roots of their music.

Times and tastes naturally change in both music and  yoga.  Even vintage country music has faded away to the sanitized pop version of what it is now.  As the article points out the nature and purpose of the newer blues clubs is different from the old clubs.  At best, the newer clubs are filled; at worst, the bands serve up an endless repetition of songs like “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.”  In those clubs where blues music is watered down and branded, no one expects the music to develop to the next level.

The newer clubs give the people what they want in order to fill the place whether it’s selling T shirts or having the bands play the same old tired songs.   Just like the clubs, yoga studios give their students what they think they want in order to keep drawing them in — yogalates, yoga with weights, whatever it takes.

In comparing yoga and art, one of my students said that art is always difficult to describe or explain, but you know it when you find it.  Great art, like yoga, has soul.  Yoga has morphed and changed since it has come to the West and while nothing can stay the same, I wonder, like the musicians wondered in the Tribune article, what is lost when the infrastructure of the yoga music is shattered.

As one of the musicians said in the article, there will always be the tourist clubs that sell the blues “brand” but “you can’t look to the clubs and the club owners to pursue blues as a culture.  It is to them purely a commodity, nothing more than a bottle of whiskey, and how much money you can make off of it.”

Not an ideal way for preserving an art form, whether it’s music or yoga.

20 thoughts on “I got dem old-school yoga blues again, mama (apologies to Janis Joplin)

  1. Excellent analogy. I should be looking for a job teaching right now, but I’m not sure I even want to get back into it knowing what my options are: teach the practice to a few students for little or no money, or lead some bastardized flow that I would never do myself to a roomful of sorority girls, fitness buffs, and bored housewives… Eek. Talk about depressing…

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  2. Hi Linda,

    Excellent blog on the dying art forms of yoga and Jazz. It reminds me of that film yoga, inc., which is really disturbing about what happens when yoga becomes a commodity.

    People in the West just don’t get yoga. I don’t know how many times someone has said to me, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not that flexible,” or “I don’t want other people to see me do poses.” (For starters, no one in yoga class is looking at you. Secondly, it isn’t about flexibility.) Frustrating.

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  3. I started taking classes with a “new to me” teacher. She’s a crone, has frizzy hair, a smoker’s voice, and doesn’t wear yoga clothes (her classes are $20 for 5 classes, so I don’t image she can afford Lulu’s) and we spend most of the class laying down or sitting doing gentle movements. I LOVE IT! I think there are 10 – 12 people in the class too (mostly older), so there are people who go to yoga who are looking for more than a workout. We are a very unglamourous class. Maybe it’s a rural thing, but like the real blue clubs, I imagine you can find the “real deal” if you look hard enough. You’re probably not going to find it in a yoga studio that’s right next to Lululemon, the same way you won’t find the best music in the tourist traps.

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    1. That’s Buddhism, not yoga! I don’t mean to be aggressive, but yoga (Pantanjali and all Hinduism) believes in the permanence of the soul, once it is separated from the Ego. Atman doesn’t die; Namaste isn’t a bowing to “nothing.”

      Again, I don’t mean to be a jerk, but this is part of the reason we’re losing “spiritual” customers. If you are teaching Buddhist wisdom, let your clients know that (and understand at the end of the day Buddhism is nihilistic by definition–it only offers the hope of ceasing to exist).

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      1. I’m not really sure how you got Buddhism out of what I said . . . I am familiar enough with Buddhism to know that there is none of it in the class I described. This teacher talks about spirit all the time and if I had to guess as to her spiritual leanings, I would say she was more shamanistic than Buddhist!

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      2. Kevin, do you really believe that Buddha was not a yogi? frankly, some of the most “spiritual” teachers I know are Buddhist yogis. I don’t see anything “not spiritual” about the Brahmaviharas — compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. And Patanjali’s Sutras have nothing to do with Hinduism…if you do a very close reading of them you will see how there is no way Patanjali was NOT influenced by the Buddhadharma. I would invite you to take a close look at Chip Hartranft’s translation of the Sutras.

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      3. That’s what I always thought, too–and that there was a lot of cross-influence between the two. I am not really sure why Buddhism isn’t spiritual–I know lots of Buddhists who would take a offense to that–is it because there is no God (spirit/soul), and if there is no God then it’s not spiritual? Just trying to understand Kevin J’s thinking.

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      4. for Kevin: Atman doesn’t die, and neither does Energy. It’s a fact of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed so it that regard what was never born can never die. I have heard the Dalai Lama say that.

        So what difference does it make if something is called “god”, “atman”, “soul”, or “spirit”? they are just labels.

        From Hartranft’s translation of the Sutras: “To Patanjali the supreme purpose of the phenomenal world is to evolve to the point where it can reveal great interlocking truths: that awareness is intrinsically free and that every human being can come to know freedom. An important feature of the Sutras is Patanjali’s emphasis on embodiment. Asana and pranayama are the ground of the yogic path. With the body and all its phenomena in view, their impermanence and lack of selfhood come into focus as stillness, what Patanjali called nirodha, develops. ….the dependent conditioned flow of cause and effect that mind labels as the body can only be seen as devoid of intrinsic awareness or permanence when it remains under the continuous scrutiny Patanjali recommends for yogic awakening.”

        Don’t confuse Patanjali with Hinduism, or more correctly, the sanatana dharma. Patanjali was also influenced by the samkhya views at the time.

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      5. Hey Guys:

        I apparently replied in the wrong place. My response was to the other Kevin’s note which has lots of Buddhist metaphysics in it. Sorry Grace, I didn’t mean to offend you (or Kevin).

        With that said, I now feel compelled to defend my position. Pantanjali’s Yoga is considered in India to be one of 6 orthodox Hindu philosophies (because it accepts the Vedas as authoritative). Buddhism is not an orthodox philosophy in Indian Hinduism–Buddhism is a rejection of Hindu thought about spirituality. And yes, some of Pantanjali’s writings and Buddhism are identical, so one of them is copying the other in ideas concerning ethics and such, but that still doesn’t negate my point. Pantanjali believes in the soul; Buddhism does not. That is simply a fact and not my take on it.

        And it doesn’t come down to a belief in God verses something else. Buddhist metaphysics believes all existence equals suffering. In order to not suffer, you must not exist–even as a soul or spirit. Authentic Buddhism only accepts this reality we experience verses “no-thing.” Our job is to realize our delusion, and when we attain that understanding, that there is nothing else beyond our deluded mind/Ego, then we can stop reincarnating and “go out like the flame of a candle;” we cease to exist as anything–not even a united, amorphous, collection of good vibes. That extinction is Nirvana for Buddhism. And compassion actually means that we feel sympathy for people who are stuck in the delusion that they have any kind of permanence–they don’t as spirit or anything else.

        Now if you want to restrict spirituality to things we can do in this reality (loving people, being cool, letting go of anxiety), that is of course fine. Just realize that what Buddhism is actually saying is that we need to release all aspects of our Ego (mind/psyche) so that we can cease to exist forever. Again, just look at the spiritual language teeming within yoga and you will see how it varies from Buddhism’s emphasis on letting go of all existence.

        I am truly sorry to prattle on, and I won’t add anything else in the future to this great discussion. My only intention in passing on what I’ve learned is for people to understand more clearly what they are following and thinking and subscribing too. I have no interest in talking you into any belief or winning an argument. On the plus side, right on to Linda for this forum, and right on to all of you for being so passionate about the subject–there’s hope for yoga yet. Namaste~ Kevin

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  4. It’s an excellent post Linda, and it sent me back to something I’d just read in Richard Freeman’s wonderful foreward to Michael Stone’s book “The Inner Tradition of Yoga:”

    “It is completely understandable why there is such a strong tendency to take the active ingredient out of yoga, to package it to please and to sell, to avoid the very heart of yoga and, thereby, to avoid reality. Genuine yoga exposes the insubstantiality and emptiness of our self-image, which allows us to see the insubstantiality and emptiness of everything. Eventually remarkable courage, commitment, and compassion arise from yoga practice, and through those, a wonderful insight and joy. Yoga is far nicer than anything we could have wanted or bargained for. We simply have not been able to wrap our minds around it, and so before investigating it on its own terms, we are selling it unopened and untasted in the spiritual marketplace. The traditional context for yoga, awakening to the simple truth of impermanence, to universal death, is all that has been missing. That is what awakens our compassion and shows us the interconnectedness not only of all beings, but of techniques, styles and viewpoints.”

    So, very much like real blues, real yoga is fearlessly turning towards that which the rest of the world is hell-bent on avoiding. The cool thing, as you know far better than I, is that once your subtle body gets a taste, a glimpse, of real yoga there is a yearning there that will not go away. As Father Thomas Keating says, “we’re built for perfect love, and nothing less will do.” Haunted by yoga, haunted by the blues – not a bad place to be.

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  5. As a Kundalini Yoga teacher, I can so relate to Paul Grilley’s statement, or rather, lament, about the spirituality being stripped away. I recently taught a class of kundalini newbies, and told them that the class would probably challenge their notion of what yoga is… because I think so many believe that yoga is all about the asanas or looking like the cover of you-know-which yoga magazine! : )

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    1. yes, Paul was referring to when yoga began to make a come-back in the 1970s. He was talking about how people like movie stars and other “weirdos” 😀 — were doing yoga back in the ’40s and ’50s, and then it came back with the hippies along with other “woo-woo” practices. but for it to become “mainstream”, spiritual references had to be stripped out for it to become popular.

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  6. I’m having some moderate success at sticking with the original spiritual foundation of yoga, and I think I understand why. I try very hard to make the wisdom rational, practical, and simple to understand. I think as instructors, we’re damaged by all of the misunderstanding and new age stuff that gets thrown around in a lot of classes–stuff that sounds great but (because it isn’t yoga) doesn’t really work in the “real world.” Yoga and Eastern philosophy are designed to speak to the human condition and are extremely poignant and applicable when properly understood. To ruffle feathers a little more, Buddhism (which is the “spiritual” trend now) has done enormous damage, since it is great at identifying the Ego but offers nothing spiritual–a fact that most followers fail to understand–sorry to all you Buddhists~Kevin

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  7. “but offers nothing spiritual”

    what do you mean by “spiritual”?

    If spiritual to you means nothing other than God or a god, then I think that is a rather limited view of the Buddhadharma. What is not spiritual about the Buddhist concepts of karuna — compassion — or metta — loving-kindness — towards all sentient beings, the same things that Jesus taught?

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    1. I appreciate your references to Chip Hartranft, Linda-Sama. About a year ago I was able to take a weekend seminar with him on the subject of the overlap of Buddhism and Patanjali. Being Buddhist and a yoga teacher I wanted to hear what he had to say on the subject. And it was an excellent weekend.

      I find too like most yoga teachers, I think, that asana is the door through which our students enter. I find also that given the opportunity many yoga students want to know more and they don’t shy away from talk about the spiritual. At the studio where I teach I lead a group once a week that is supportive of the individual’s inquiry into their spiritual path. It’s an open group and on average 8-10 people come in, and it’s been running now for over four years. So, I am encouraged. My own experience is that while people love the bodywork, their interest goes further. And if we teachers have our own spiritual path based in yoga – which can include a good deal of the Buddha’s wisdom – and we are willing to share our experience with our students, we will find that they will be very receptive.

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  8. Well, hand me down some Robert Johnson! Nice post and right on, I think. Ours is a soul-sucking age. Although, I did hear recently that the kali yuga is at its end and the coming age is going to head in the other direction. But it could take a while since these yugas are something like 40,000 years long. To preserve the soul of yoga in our hyper-material land I think we have to walk the walk and testify! As a teacher I feel an obligation to study as deeply as I can and to practice and to make an offering of my teaching to my students. And I won’t be goin’ down to the crossroads to sell my soul…

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