Recently someone asked me if I do “Yoga”.
“No,” I finally said, “I certainly do NOT do Yoga.”
I usually change the subject when someone brings up the dirty “Y” word. Normally, I do not explain
Let me start with 2 stories.
I remember many years ago I bought a book called something like The Yoga Bible (or similar). And the book told me, in all seriousness:
Yoga isn’t just about exercise. You can also combine it with Buddhist style meditations
And I was like, Yoga is a type of meditation. Surely the author of the Yoga Bible knew that?
The 2nd story
Many years ago, I was doing a Yoga class with Steve from the Yoga Sanctuary in Southampton. One of the students wanted Steve to sign a paper saying she had done an hour of Yoga.
Because she was doing a yoga teacher training course and needed to “prove” that she was doing X hours of yoga every week. Her instructor demanded it.
Later on, he said, “I really need to stop this nonsense. If her teacher doesn’t even trust her, why is he even bothering to teach yoga?”
Later on, I found out many teachers were feeling this anger. The Yoga “industry” has been taken over by the fitness industry, so much so that many people think of Yoga as only an exercise regime. You know, for tighter butts? And the fitness industry has different rules.
Targeting the Lowest Common Denominator
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Yoga?
A skinny girl in tight yoga pants sitting smiling at the camera? Or doing down dog?
I did an image search for Yoga, and this is what I found:
95% of the images were of attractive young white women. A good 50-60% were doing very demanding poses, like headstands with legs spread wide (and let’s be honest— even in yoga teachers, how many can do poses like that?). Another 60% are in places like sea beaches, mountain tops etc, you know, places I’ve never seen anyone actually do yoga.
But what’s the one thing common in all pictures?
It’s all sexy marketing.
So what’s wrong with this, you might ask? If people want tighter bums, what’s the big deal?
The problem is this: Most people, even yoga teachers, especially yoga teachers, believe the physical part of yoga, the twisting like a pretzel, is the only part of yoga.
I’ve learnt to hate yoga teachers because they all wave their hands in the air and pretend to talk about spirituality, all Oh just trust the body, just let go, accept what is blah blah blah. It’s bullshit because it’s not unique to Yoga— you could replace these platitudes in Pilates, kickboxing, running, or even disco dancing.
Imagine your Karate teacher gave you these platitudes:
Just kick that bastard in the head. Let go and kick. Let the universe flow thru your legs and into his nose. We are all unique snowflakes etc etc
Yeah, doesn’t work. But then it doesn’t work for Yoga either.
Another problem with this Yoga=Exercise equation is: An idiotic article I read in Huffington Post (and repeated in Cracked) that said something like Yoga was invented in the 19th century as a way to teach exercise to children
And I’ve seen many people repeat versions of this. And you know what? It is true if you accept Yoga as just another form of twisting exercise.
Don’t Call it Yoga, Maybe?
Now I have no problem with people teaching just asanas (translation: postures, which is what most Yoga teachers actually teach)– but then say you are an Asana teacher, not a Yoga teacher. I understand no one has heard of “asanas” but that again is a marketing problem.
And this isn’t such a radical idea– YouTuber Livinleggings makes it clear she teaches asanas and doesn’t believe in the philosophy of Yoga. And I’m fine with that. She’s honest about what she’s teaching– there is no fake spirituality.
My problem comes from half baked teachers who have shallow knowledge of the tradition and teach Yoga baked with lots of New-Agey platitudes “Oh love yourself ” “Trust the universe”. Trust the universe to do what– help me lengthen my hammies?
Before I can explain what is really wrong with these teachers, I need to explain a bit of background of what Yoga is, and how it came to its current status.
So what is Yoga?
In this post, I will briefly go over the traditional view of Yoga, then show how McYoga butchers this.
And a related question is, where do the asanas (physical postures) come from? But before we get to that, a little history.
The word Yoga has always meant Awakening to Your True Self— realising your oneness with the universe. Call it enlightenment, nirvana, awakening, or anything. But that has always been the number one and only goal of Yoga.
The sexy butt, if you ever get one, is only a side effect 🙂
Yoga in the Gita / Yoga Sutras
The Gita is the first main book that mentions Yoga and mentions 3 types: Wisdom/Analytical (think Who am I?), Devotional (Bhakti), and Spiritual Works (Karma, which is more than just doing charity).
There is a 4th one called Raja Yoga, but the Gita doesn’t talk much about it (at least, not in detail). Raja Yoga is sitting meditation, pure and simple. Krishna says this is the most powerful one, but only gives very basic instructions (like sit on a soft seat and focus on your breath/forehead etc).
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali go into detail about this Yoga. It also gives the best description of what Yoga is in the 1st 1-2 sutras:
When the fluctuations of the mind become silent, then the Yogi sees his/her True Self. That is Yoga
Simple and to the point. Silence the non-stop monkey chattering of the mind, and you will realise your true nature.
The Yoga Sutras gave a step by step process to silence the mind. And the techniques were very practical.
And for a long time, the Yoga Sutras were the only game in town. But they had a big problem, one so big it stopped most people from sticking with meditation.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika — Making Yoga Easy (or Easier)
The problem was this: Working with the mind is very hard. If you’ve ever tried to sit for meditation you know that in 5 minutes you’ll be thinking of taxes or what you had for lunch.
And this problem doesn’t easily go away no matter how much you practice.
And many people noticed it.
And that’s when Hatha Yoga came in.
Hatha came from another branch called Tantra (not to be confused with the modern neo-tantra sacred sex multiple orgasms nonsense ). Tantra is where the concept of Chakras/Kundalini comes from, and Tantra Yoga focuses strongly on working directly with the Chakras, most commonly by working with the different gods/goddesses who control these chakras and their elements.
Tantra is a vast topic and I’ll have another post on it.
For now, the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika decided to take the concept of Kundalini from the Tantras and combine it with the meditation of Raja Yoga.
The new thing, the genius of this method was: Instead of working directly with the mind, you work with the breath (or more technically, Prana or Chi or Ki, the vital life force).
Yoga says the mind and breath are linked.
So Hatha Yoga uses the body to control the breath (Prana), and Prana to control the mind.
It can be called wagging the dog. If you haven’t heard the joke:
Why the dog wag the tail? Because the dog is smarter
If the tail was smarter, it would wag the dog
Hatha Yoga wags the dog. The dog here is the mind, something very hard to control directly, but something that becomes easy when you control it indirectly using the breath.
Controlling the body is relatively easy, and controlling the breath, while hard, is much easier than controlling the mind. More importantly: Controlling the body/breath is something that can be learnt by practice.
You can spend 10 years, and still not be able to control your mind.
But if you spend 2-3 years regularly, you will become good at Asanas/Pranayama (control of body and mind).
And this was the genius of Hatha Yoga— you now had a proper system that anyone could follow, and not just monks who could spend 20 hours a day meditating.
Modern Yoga and its fixation on the physical postures
And this is where we come to modern McYoga, or the Hijacked by the Fitness Industry Yoga.
Asanas, or physical postures, were a prequel to doing Pranayama, or control of breath, which itself leads to Raja Yoga or control of the mind.
Like I said, nothing wrong with wanting a good butt. But that was always a side effect.
But for some reason, modern yoga fixates only on the physical part. The spiritual path is completely absent, or even worse, replaced by empty platitudes to Be yourself or Trust the process or learn to surrender
Or as I call it: Shit people share on Facebook because it makes them feel more inspired
Even if you don’t believe in the ultimate goal of “oneness” with the universe, just learning to calm the mind has great benefits in and of itself. That is why meditation is so popular.
But McYoga isn’t even aware of this great tradition. It works only on the physical level, teaching asanas just for the sake of improving the body (and to repeat, nothing wrong with that, if it were a part of something bigger).
McYoga spreads in 2 ways:
The way it is taught
I’ve already given an example of how yoga teacher trainers have to log the number of hours they practised, and get it verified. It works that way because that’s how the fitness industry works.
Also, measuring hours practising postures is something easy to track. You can’t really track how many hours were spent meditating so you just track the easy thing.
Yoga is taught as a purely physical discipline, closer to Zumba or boxercise. That is how teachers are measured, that’s what all the training books focus on.
The way it is marketed
I spoke of this earlier as well. Yoga is marketed using sexy young women, the same as beer or fast cars are marketed.
The messaging always is: Look at this babe. You can become her/get her if only you sign up for our $29.99 classes
And that’s why you see all these women doing those impossible headstands— they look sexy.
Again, exercise is good, yoga is a great exercise. But the way yoga is taught and marketed, it’s like there is nothing beyond the physical aspects of it.
Yoga as a spiritual discipline
If somebody asks me if I do “yoga”, I have to resist the temptation to ask “Do you mean the spiritual discipline to become peaceful, or the twisting into a pretzel thing?”
But I don’t as I’m too polite. Also, people stare at me, wondering if I’m on drugs.
What’s wrong with McYoga? It presents a dumbed-down version of a much larger tradition, and removes what I feel can be the best marketing for Yoga: Learn to feel peaceful and get a great butt as a side effect.
It seems to me that in the race to appear sexy, the heart of Yoga has been lost.
And it completely ignores the fact that you don’t need to do physical asanas to achieve a calm state. In Raja Yoga they are completely optional, and even in Hatha Yoga, they are subservient to Pranayama (breathing techniques).
Lots of people would benefit by learning Pranayama/meditation to become calmer, peaceful and be more in control of their emotions.
Let me end with the Yoga sutras definition of Yoga again:
Yoga is the stopping of the uncontrollable disturbances of the mind, so our true nature of joy and peace can be seen.
Beats a sexy body any day of the week.
Update: After writing the first draft of this article I worried if I was being a cranky old man, so decided to see if anyone else agreed with me.
I found this great article in the Scientific American by Barry Kaufman:
I genuinely enjoy looking at all the varied and intricate yoga poses on Instagram. But from my reading of the yoga literature, it doesn’t seem as though the theoretical intent of yoga is primarily for physically attractive people to display with pride their ability to twist themselves into a pretzel. Rather, it seems that the most growth-oriented benefits of mind-body spiritual practices occur when we aren’t using them as a tool for satisfying any of our basic needs—such as our needs for security, belonging and self-esteem. Instead, such practices seem to lead to greater maturity, wisdom, compassion, acceptance and unconditional positive regard toward others when we repeatedly attempt to cultivate the ability to be witness to our mind and behaviours so that we can catch when our crafty ego has hijacked the system in a way that is detrimental to our own self-actualization and self-transcendence.
Which has me thinking: Perhaps it’s time for all of these yoga and mindfulness centers to chill on all of the extrinsic purported benefits they are claiming (“Better heath!” “Better sex!” “Amazing concentration!” “Great success at work!”), and just focus on the benefits of such spiritual practices for allowing us to realize that such concerns of the ego are just the ego doing its thing. That awareness, in and of itself, is enough of a benefit to last an enlightened lifetime.
Andrew Taggart is a bit more harsh:
Consider the kinds of Instagram posts that show a very revealing picture of a yogini or of someone in the midst, she says, of some kind of “transformation.”
Time was that such would have been alluring magazine ads for Calvin Klein perfume, for the first point is clear. It is to capture the gaze and to seduce the viewer.
But what’s bullshit about it, you ask. Well, she’s not on a spiritual quest even though she pretends that she is and even when she keeps telling herself–and millions of others–that she is.
But this post by Andrew gave me another puzzle– McYoga is all about looking good and getting the likes, while appearing to be more spriritually advanced than you are. McYogis don’t want to admit they are doing it for the likes and followers, so no it’s all “Look at me, I’m on a Spiritual Journey!”
I don’t want to end this on a negative point, so let me give some solutions to people who may have been sucked in by McYoga:
If you are interested in the physical postures of Yoga for health/good butt, that is 100% fine. Just lose the fake spirituality, ‘k? Pilates/Callisthenics/Zumba/Ballet teachers manage to post pictures of themselves without making any grandiose “enlightenment” claims.
Related: McTantra – Do you want fries with your fake Tantra?