A response to the New York Times article of January 5, 2012 – “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad
What a wonderful opportunity this discussion has been for yoga in the west!
For the most part I agree with this article. It’s unfortunate that part of its aim seems to be sensationalism and the statistics quoted are incomplete at best. But, let’s face it– those of us in charge, yoga teachers, have been perpetuating a false notion of yoga ever since this wave began in the early eighties. The simple fact that one can get hurt doing yoga doesn’t even get to the source of the problem. The deeper problem is that yoga teachers have been purposely obfuscating the truth about yoga in order to serve their own personal ego needs.
Unfortunately, most yoga teachers have bought into a hierarchical way of looking at yoga study and teaching that puts a person on top – the guru – and everyone else below. This is a dangerous structure and it requires a lot of people to buy into it in order for it to work. In order for it to work there has to be an agreement that someone essentially holds the power. In the yoga world this is really insidious because the person holding the power is supposedly the most “spiritual”, as well. That is an extremely seductive proposition for someone considering becoming a yoga teacher! By becoming a yoga teacher we can take care of our own insecurities by rising to the top dog position – not just top dog, but top spiritual dog! Part of maintaining this hierarchical structure that keeps the teacher on top is making sure that the students don’t start to think they are as good as the teacher!
Once you have a position of power it is very difficult to give it up. If you want someone to think of you as in some way better than they are, you will have to lie to them – simple as that. And the secret of many yoga teachers is that they feel this need. They feel the need to pretend to be “better” then they think they actually are. It is not that they are really not good enough. I will argue that they are good enough. The problem is that they don’t believe it, and they feel a need to present themselves dishonestly.
Back in the eighties when yoga was just getting big in Los Angeles I noticed a very insidious trend developing. Yoga, because it is an amazing practice, was taking off with the elite population of the film business and the rich-and-famous. Fine. But what wasn’t fine was that the film business attitudes and values were becoming the benchmarks of success in yoga, as well. The exact same concerns permeated the yoga culture: who’s on top, who’s the biggest star, who’s classes are the fullest. It didn’t take much time for the competition to be about who is the most spiritual. Sadly, I realized that this was to be expected. We were doing what people do. We were bringing yoga into our culture, and our culture was beginning to shape yoga, rather than the other way around. OK. Fine. But is it really fine when the teachers – the supposed leaders of the yoga world – bring the cultural values that they so often speak against – into their yoga and their own scramble to be at the top of the heap? Really, that is not yoga. It is however, human.
As we know yoga has become quite big in this country. And it has developed along with the cultural values that we hold so dear: success, individuality, achievement, and competition, to name a few. And that is not to mention the underlying ego needs that shape us, like wanting to be special, wanting to look good, and wanting to be held in the highest regard by our peers. We, as yoga teachers, are not immune to the culture and certainly not to our own ego needs. We tell people who come into our classes, in all their expensive yoga gear, often full of craving to improve and refine their own ego mask, that yoga is noncompetitive. Right. Who can believe that from a teacher who is still trying so hard to top his or her colleagues in class size, has not accepted his or her own ordinariness, and would give anything to be on the cover of Yoga Journal.
There were a few early whistle blowers about the dangers of this problematic structure way back in the eighties, most notably (in my experience) Ganga White, Joel Kramer, and Ana Forrest. But as the movement grew, the ego masks of so many rising yoga teachers in the west hardened and everyone seemed to be silently agreeing to not tell the truth. It has been like the emperor who has no clothes. I cannot help but think that many of the intelligent yoga teachers in this country have been aware of this and willing to stay silent because it protects them from being seen to be simply ordinary. Ordinary is what we all are, and what no one seems to want to be. It’s all about our own personal vulnerabilities and the things that we still do not want to accept about ourselves – our humanity. Something that if you go deeply into yoga you must eventually accept.
Isn’t it our responsibility as yoga teachers to go deeper into ourselves and come out telling the truth? Finally, some people who have been practicing and teaching as long as I have may be publicly telling the truth. I applaud Glenn Black! He is not unique in finding that the very postures and techniques we have been so actively presenting for years may not be helpful. In fact, I will bet that all of us have known this. Why is this hidden? Who gains from keeping this hidden?
I also do not believe that there is a system that is inherently safer than the others. The Iyengar system is just as likely to injure people as vinyasa. Even the gentle viniyoga approach is bad for some lower back issues. People will want to hold on to the validity of their own system. However, if you are honest, and you are not living with difficult injuries, you will admit that you have had to modify your practice a lot in order to stay healthy.
What I believe is at the bottom of this basic dishonesty in the yoga world at large is a lack of deep practice. Asana is a small part of this! When people tell me that they “get on their mat” to practice I wonder what they are doing with the rest of their time and how they expect yoga to bear significant fruit from a practice that is primarily on the mat, i.e. asana.The key is for yoga teachers to practice yoga – and go deeper. Try self-acceptance. Pair self-acceptance with a keenly discriminative mind and begin to inquire into the nature of life and yoga. Don’t be a spiritual mood-maker. Stop pretending. Get ordinary. This would be the best gift you could offer to your students.