and the beat goes on….

I promised to write about the talk I went to about whether American yoga is in crisis, but I won’t. That ship has sailed. In the meantime the discussion continued over at elephant journal “Real Yoga Practiced Here” and at Brenda’s house with her post “Whatever happened to dignity?” where she said, “And yet even the yoga community seems full of practitioners keen on branding themselves and selling yoga shoes to “help spread the word”–as if the word wasn’t spreading just fine on its own without a lot of pictures of hot, young bodies doing arm balances.” Even Rainbeau Mars kept popping up to let us know that the “Rainbeau Mars Lifestyle” is really all about just spreading the word about yoga (and buying Adidas clothes) and if y’all don’t see that then y’all are just haters. Nikki asks whether we are practicing real yoga and Diane muses about yoga group think.

Our judgments (whether about yoga or anything else) are based on our experiences and assumptions. So for people who believe yoga is just another fitness class, then American yoga is not in crisis. If one sees yoga as a deeper spiritual (whatever that word means to you) or personal exploration, then one might think American yoga is in crisis if one sees the emphasis placed only on the physical.


You do your yoga and I’ll do mine. My yoga contains asana+pranayama+meditation plus occasional chanting and mudras. That’s what I teach and if someone walks into my class and doesn’t like what I do, there are a gazillion yoga teachers out there, find someone else. Simple. And metta to you.

But putting your leg behind your neck or even both legs does not impress me. Children can do that. Show me how you live your life. Show me what you can give up on a 10 day retreat without complaint. I also don’t care how many translations of the Vedas or Upanishads or any other yogic text you’ve read or whether you can chant the Sutra-s backwards.

I have over 1000 hours of training and teaching experience; I’ve been told I have a “beautiful practice”; I have a closet full of yoga books some of which I’ve read more than once. But if I was still operating on automatic pilot, if I was still reacting to things inappropriately, flying off the handle (and I am NOT saying I do not get angry), or treating people badly, what good did all those yoga hours do for me? So is yoga an exercise or is it about transformation? Is it about the journey or the end result?

I returned to yoga in the mid-’90s for a purely physical reason just like many people come to yoga. I returned to yoga to help rehab my severely arthritic shoulder from arthroscopic surgery. But as soon as I started moving my body in that beginning yoga class, barely able to move my right shoulder even after 8 weeks of PT, that whole mind-body-prana connection kicked right in. That bhavana was like an IV. I was introduced to yoga via meditation over 30 years ago when I OMed with Allen Ginsberg, so that barely sprouted seed laid dormant for a very long time until it was watered at just the right time. Conditioned Genesis in Buddhist talk.

So don’t talk to me about Forrest Yoga or Jivamukti Yoga or Bikram Yoga or Anusara Yoga. I don’t care about names with capital letters. Yoga is yoga and why practicing “just yoga” isn’t good enough anymore is beyond me. I’ve heard Krishnamacharya’s son Desikachar say that yoga contains X, Y, and Z and if it doesn’t contain that, then you’re just doing acrobatics. As I’ve said more than a few times about this thing we call yoga in OM-merika, you can call a dog a cat all you want to, that still doesn’t make it a cat.

As Nikki asks in her blog post “Is my yoga practice making any inroad in how I function in life?” Or as one reader said in my post “I am my shadow self”, “if Yoga isn’t pushing you outside your comfort zone, it ain’t really Yoga.”

Why do you yoga? Not “do yoga” because yoga is about undoing, not doing. Yoga does us. I’ve always thought that the reason more people don’t yoga is because stepping into yoga takes courage and many (most?) are afraid to see what might come up.

The abused women I teach at the domestic violence shelter don’t care about Lululemon pants, an Adidas lifestyle, about chanting Sanskrit, about your favorite translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or whether I can stand on my head in the middle of the room. They care about changing their lives. They care about how focusing on the breath can calm the mind. They care about relieving their suffering, moment by moment. If someone with the idea that yoga is just another way of working out looked into the room and saw our yoga, they might be confused because we’re not in pretzel poses or trying to perfect chaturanga dandasana. We’re not sweating. We’re sitting. Breathing. Maybe facing a few those demons….mindfully.

“Can we do hatha yoga (or any other form of bodily training) with the same wisdom that guides vipassana practice?….

A specific example from my own practice and teaching: I do viniyoga, which emphasizes constant awareness of the conditioned movement of the body and breathing in all postures. This helps bring about a more vivid quality to the breath sensations, making breath awareness meditation more accessible. This is an asset for yogis engaged in ànàpàna-sati [mindfulness of breathing], especially for those with faulty breathing habits, which can incline the mind to distraction. If the postures were practiced with the same deliberate mindfulness used, for example, in walking meditation, such conscious breathing and movement would not only facilitate meditation practice-it would be meditation itself….

That’s just it. It’s not about chakras or kundalini rising, as valuable as this approach may be. It’s just that when I do yoga, I do vipassana.”
BODY PEOPLE, MIND PEOPLE, by Larry Rosenberg

You do your yoga, I’ll do mine.

is there an "American spiritualism" like "American yoga"?

Yes I know I promised to write a review of the talk I attended about whether American yoga is in crisis, but I think that topic is a very small part of a much bigger picture. So I will throw the question out there: what are we lacking that make people do this:

James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2

I’ve never seen the movie The Secret so I have no opinion about Ray and what he puts out, but know many people who have and who have thought it the greatest thing since sliced bread (I’m dating myself with that phrase.) I’ve also heard many New Agey people talk about the Law of Attraction (and who hopelessly confuse it with karma) and just have to wonder: why do you feel you are so utterly lacking in anything? It is almost a luxury in this country — one of the richest countries in the world with so much material and yes, non-material, things available to us — to feel that we lack anything! I have met people in India who have nothing compared to westerners yet are content. But I digress.

The psychology of people who will blindly follow a “guru” (whether American, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) has always fascinated me so when I read Brenda’s post about American false idols I had to ask, what are we looking for when we follow a “brand name” in yoga and spirituality?

Speaking of false idols, read these posts:

The Unquestioned Gurus of the Religion of the Self (that contains the great subheading “Psychopaths as Teachers of Right Living.”)

The Cultivation of Inflation and The Culture of Narcissism in Personal Development

One of the comments to the first link was this:

“…that you can’t just take the most sacred ceremonies from another culture that you do not belong and have not paid any dues too (sic), mix it with whatever you feel like and sell it off as a business venture. for decades actual native americans have tried to warn the white culture about fraud ripping off and bastardizing their culture and ceremonies. no one listened opting instead for the glittery promises of the new age gurus and plastic shamans.”

I found that one comment (especially about paying your dues and mixing things up and selling it as a business venture) on point with the recent discussions about western yoga. Just sayin’.

Roseanne’s excellent posts on the branding of yoga caused spirited discussions as do my posts on Americanized yoga v. what I practice in India. So why isn’t practicing plain old yoga good enough for us? Has yoga in its partnering with companies like Adidas and fila merely become part of this culture of narcissism? Has yoga in this country become a new religion of the self?

To those who stand around a yoga “master” who performs “advanced” asanas at a yoga conference and applaud and film it to put it on YouTube, are we not celebrating the cult of narcissism in a vacuous yoga celebrity culture that we at the same time scoff at?

Amanda wrote one of her always brilliant comments to this post:

“- I suspect the ‘faddish’ and ‘hypercommercialised’ nature of American yoga is what many people object to beneath this critique of contemporary yoga, but don’t verbalise it as such.

– the question of authenticity also jumps out as an issue: does Anusara, Jivamutki, Forrest or whatever style of yoga represent an immature innovation based on shallow Western values such as commercialism and body image or true cultural change within yoga? (Only TIME will tell on this one!)

– babies teaching babies yoga. I agree but our western culture tells us we can do anything if we have the money. Thus, we see 23 year olds running yoga schools. (see my earlier point about paying your dues.)

– an unhealthy obsession with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as ‘the last word’ on yoga at the expense of other texts. Hasn’t anyone read Georg Feuerstein or Mircea Eliade?

– an obsession with difficult and physiologically/psychologically harmful or futile asana which ‘apparently’ grant one the body of a hyperflexible, twenty-something. Again, this is the current Western trope of youth/perfection/image that pervades every facet of our lives.”

“If we wish only to teach poses or postures, it would be better to call what we do by a name other than Yoga.” Donna Farhi in Yoga Beyond Fitness, page 125

I’ll ask again as I did in this post, is Americanized yoga a mile wide and an inch deep? And if it is, I will ask again as I did at the beginning of this post, what are we searching for that so many of us unquestioningly put our bodies and minds and psyches into the hands of false idols, whether it’s in the yoga world or elsewhere?

What say you, yoga teachers? Are you a fitness teacher or a yoga teacher? As a commenter said in Brenda’s post, “We are (essentially) fitness instructors. We need to be happier with that role I think.”

I don’t know about anyone else but I have not spent $10,000+ to be a fitness instructor. I was a certified fitness instructor for a short time and I can tell you that as a yoga teacher what I do now is light years away from what I did before, which is why I think the “become a yoga teacher in a weekend” programs are a great disservice. BECAUSE I deal with peoples’ emotions and psyches when I take on private clients, that’s the main reason I’m applying for a certificate course in Jungian psychology, to learn even more on top of what yoga and Buddhism has already taught me about human psychology. Speaking of dealing with the mind, if I conducted my own yoga teaching training program each student would be required to sit for a 10 day silent vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka tradition. Talk about a brain enema. Teachers, know thyselves.

Krishnamurti said, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”: “…as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.”

I think I’ve brought up some more questions, so talk amongst yourselves.

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and I thought Jazzercise was dead

“Ana Brett & Ravi Singh’s dynamic style of Kundalini Yoga is the best of both worlds: its spiritual depth and energy work will satisfy your Eastern yearinings (sic). Its cardio element, with lots of ab work, stretching and toning will satisfy that Western need to get everything covered!”
(emphasis supplied.)

You can’t make this stuff up. I found the video on Facebook via Yoga Dawg’s blog.

There’s a great discussion going on about Americanized yoga at it’s all yoga, baby, so I thought I would post what one of my students thinks about Ana Brett and “her” style of yoga. I want to say from the beginning that I am sure Ana Brett is a nice person and dedicated and I know many people love her bubbly style and yoga videos. If they work for you, great, to each their own. If she wants to dance around to Bollywood hip-hop music, call it kundalini yoga, and make a buck off it, more power to her.

But like any other celebrity (and we certainly have our yoga celebs now), when you put yourself out there, be ready for criticism. IMHO, I have to say that adding the Buddha statue to her “yoga” mix here is pretty cheesy but maybe that adds the requisite “spiritual depth” for those of us with Eastern “yearinings”…just sayin’. Hey, at least Buddha’s face isn’t on her hot pants. whew.

The discussion about Ana Brett and her yoga clothes choices started a long time ago here (sorry I can’t find the exact post.) At that time I asked my students what they thought about the way Ana Brett markets herself and the most pithy comment came from a 17 year old student who will graduate from high school next year. She’s been my student for about three years — she’s a young yogini with an old soul. I wanted a young person’s opinion since I am old, jaded, and cynical.

So given the recent blog discussion on Americanized yoga, this video, and the talk I’m attending this week on whether American yoga is in crisis, I thought it was the appropriate time to publish my student’s comment (I did not change a word.)

“Ana Brett has some very legitimate things to say about yoga and I would be willing to bet that her DVDs are pretty good based on what people said. I understand wanting to see her body to learn about the alignment in certain poses. In Iyengar, which she studied, that is very important so I can see where she is coming from. Now I am not really a conservative type of person, tattoos, piercing, and multi-colored hair I don’t mind and in fact I love. However baring that much skin is out of place in a DVD about yoga. Her outfits would be fine many places but just not with yoga. Yoga is spiritual and so much emphasis put on the teacher’s body is rather distracting from spiritual intentions.

I don’t think that her point is as Blisschick said “as women, we can TAKE back our bodies and change the (negatively) sexualized perceptions of them.”

Because Ana said “We are sexual creatures, and we all use our sexuality consciously or unconsciously. Advertising is almost all about sex! When our DVD covers were shot, I was going for strong, confident, and healthy. Those are the attributes I aspire to and wish to inspire in other women. Some people, I guess, look at the covers and just see overt shameless sexuality. And yes, I can see where, especially the Kundalini Yoga for Energy & Super Radiance cover could be considered “sexy” and mainstream. But is that so bad?”

She said she can see how people would see it as sexual and that it is geared towards the mainstream (which is not inherently bad, getting the Yoga word out is good!) However trying to appeal to the mainstream with sex is not the way to go, and that seems to be what she was implying. After reading her answers to the interview questions I think that she does enjoy the true bliss of yoga and her intentions of happiness and appealing to many are also good. I do think that she is degrading herself and lowering the respect she gets by dressing that way.

When I see her covers of her DVDs I ask why does she dress that way? She said that “it was for the practical reason that it looks better”. Looking better is not really a practical reason. It doesn’t make women feel liberated to see a sparsely clothed woman. To me it seems like mainstream America is influencing yoga and not yoga influencing mainstream America.

I think that truly liberated women, in this day and age, have the confidence to cover their bodies and still feel beautiful/appealing. If she feels like she can’t show proper alignment without showing her body and she can not appeal to the public without bearing so much of her body on her DVD, she is not giving herself enough credit as a teacher. There are so many yogis that raved about her DVDs that she has something going on other than a great body, so Ana Brett, appeal with your bliss and not your looks, break out of the constraints that societal constraints and liberate women.”
(emphasis supplied.)

Talk amongst yourselves.

(P.S. I’m not dissing Jazzercise…I loved it, did it for 10 years, and almost bought a franchise. The video has inspired me to go find a Jazzercise class again! Note I said Jazzercise, not yoga.)

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