Is Yoga Dead? The corporate takeover of a wisdom tradition and decline of our mental health.
10- 15 min read – yes, you have time for it; you easily scroll on your phone for 45 min a day. 😊 Just set the time aside, or break the reading down to topics a the time. I made it easy for you to pause reading by creating subheadings. Thanks for reading 😊
IS YOGA DEAD?
As I am writing this, I am exhausted. I own two yoga studios, and we are 19 months into our Covid crisis, ten years into an Instagram crisis, and seven years into a franchise/corporate yoga crisis. Lately, I find myself doing nothing else but trying to explain to people what it is that my studio offers. The word yoga has been highjacked so much by our current culture that those who still teach traditional mindfulness art are stuck trying to figure out how to market/explain what we do to new students. Yes, it is exhausting, but I do believe it is a worthwhile fight.
If you have been doing yoga for longer than 15 years, I bet you are bobbing your head in vivid agreement. But if you are new to yoga, you may be lost and think of my words as possibly nothing but angry fuming by a pompous yoga snob. Now, I am not concerned about what you think of me, that is your business, but I do care about yoga and the state of our world and our mental health, so let me explain what happened in the past ten years.
What is Yoga:
To begin with, let me define some concepts from yoga that have been around for 3000 years. Bear with me; this is necessary to understand the problem. You see, the poses, the physical practice is secondary. The poses are there to ask questions from our minds about how we respond to the universe. Physical practice puts the body into a level of discipline, challenge, and discomfort and the mind's job is to notice, become aware, and find a peaceful way of negotiating adversity. Our practice on the yoga mat is supposed to teach us how to be more resilient, patient, loving, hard-working in our everyday life. Yoga was never about escaping stress; it was about sitting through the discomfort until the practitioner finds inner peace despite what the outside world offers.
Much like in modern phycology, the saying goes; Mindfulness increases our capacity to bear the discomfort. Addiction is defined as a behavior that seeks to avoid discomfort. Still, avoidant behavior cannot process emotion, and when emotions go unprocessed, we get mental illnesses, such as PTSD, Depression, Attention Deficit Disorder, and so forth.
From the above definitions, you can see that yoga is an ancient form of philosophy and mental health therapy conducted through physical movement. The asana physical practice is anchored in a value system called 8-limbs, and the practitioner has to hold their inner dialogue in awareness and try to do the best to keep the 8-limbs in mind. What are some of these values, you ask?
Svadhyaya – self-study. Having an honest, clear view of self, who we are, and why we do things.
Aparigraha – non-coveting. Don't compare yourself to others.
Tapas – discipline, willingness to be uncomfortable, walking into the "heat" for the better good (yes, this is the idea that was highjacked by hot yoga. Yogis did not talk about actual heat; heck, they lived in India without electricity for 3000 plus years, they had plenty of heat at room temperature and no way to make things hotter... They talked about taking the "heat" from society's judgment, the judgment of inner self, and bearing the heat of discomfort of hard labor because the journey that one wishes requires perseverance.
Pratyahara – Sense withdrawal – that is getting RID of outside stimulus to sense the breath and the inner body and focus the mind on the study of Svadhaya.
There are many more values and value-driven meditation practices; I will spare the reader from listing it all; if you are interested, take Spira's Year-Long Journey into the Art of Yoga.
But with these yoga values in mind, Svadhyaya (Self-Study) Aprarigraha (none covet, don't compare) Tapas (perseverance, discipline) Pratyahara (exclusion of outside stimulus distraction), let's examine what happened in the past ten years.
Social Media – 10 years of crisis of yoga via Instagram and FB:
Yes, I know you are laughing; I don't even have to spend much time on it; reading the above paragraph, you see the problem already!
We yogis were always inspired by advanced practitioners, but it was not because we admired their bodies, new yoga pants, or physical abilities. Most advanced yogis have humble, used cotton pants, and some of them aged so much that they have lost physical gifts from God. But their knowledge, their wisdom, their inner spirit, oh that we yearned to be around. Not to become, but to be exposed to the truths, the raw, difficult messages, and lessons from life.
Contrast that to most folks cruising through Instagram where young women and men sexualize themselves to the public in sometimes questionable yoga poses to be liked. That is not yoga; that is narcissism fed by people caught up in coveting all that this person represents in our culture—sex, Fitness, Fashion. I know I don't have to write a long paragraph about how Instagram has caused mental illness and depression among young teens, but truly among all of us. People who spend a long time on social media report lower self-image and more feelings of sadness.
But in modern eyes, now people see this Instagram Acrobatic Fashion show, and they think – oh, that is yoga. No, people, it is not yoga. It is an Acrobatic Fashion Show. There is nothing wrong with it, but let's leave yoga out…
The Crisis with Franchise and Corporate "yoga" structure:
I will preface this by saying, with respect to the exception, there are few franchises owned by responsible yoga teachers who do their best to balance the tradition of yoga with corporate direction. Hats off to you; thank you for walking the hard path.
So you ask, what is wrong with Franchise/Corporate yoga. And I say, absolutely nothing, let's just not call it yoga. Capitalism is based on the monitorization of concepts. Monitorization is dependent on people wanting more of it, buying more of it. Now how do you convince people to want more of a yoga journey that is teaching you to be self-aware, shut out external stimulus, not covet more than you need for basic sustenance, and not compare yourself to others, to walk the hard path that sometimes you feel you wish to give up? Good luck selling that in our current culture; now you know why I am so flipping tired. 😊
Instead, yoga in the mainstream slowly becomes about masking stress; yes, I am using the word masking deliberately because you cannot run away from anxiety; stress can only be managed by being aware of our emotions and facing problems. But that is hard fatiguing work, and we are already tired. Instead, we want a moment away from all of it. The problem is by demanding peace through yoga, we are practicing avoidant behavior, yes this is better for your liver than drinking alcohol, but it is the same concept. I mentioned the definition of addiction in the early part of this essay; addiction is our desire to avoid difficult emotional situations, but avoiding material cannot be processed. As long as we practice avoidance, we cannot heal. So we finish a "yoga" class, we temporarily feel better, but then all the life stuff happens, and we go back for more temporary relief through "yoga." This is a wonderful cycle if you want to make money on yoga, but not when you are interested in teaching yoga and healing stress and anxiety through a wisdom tradition.
Yoga never tried to make you feel better; old school teachers in the 1920-1990s were tough; they questioned our opinions, our self-concept; we held yoga poses for so long our legs were shaking. We did not always like our teachers, but we always respected them. Once we got hooked on yoga, we managed the difficulties in life better. We wanted more, more challenges, more lessons, more philosophy. But at first, it was very tough. (yes, that is is the art of teaching, which could be another big topic about the complex balance of discipline but not harm and how our litigious society and current cultural complexities, unfortunately, makes teaching very difficult – but oh, that is a rabbit hole as well, so let's file that away.)
Let's go back to the point that initially, any new habit, fitness, or otherwise is hard to sustain. In Scientific research, it has been demonstrated that mindfulness, much like any psychotherapy at first, we feel worse before healing takes place. It makes perfect sense if you think about it; noticing our self-harming behavior at first leads to a lower self-concept until we manage to turn things around and accept ourselves with love while changing possible harmful habits. None of this stuff is easy, especially initially; most of us want to run away and never do it again. Now that does not work in a capitalist structure; in our attention-deficit culture, we have 10 seconds to convince a customer to stay.
So corporate yoga did what it had to do to make itself profitable; it removed the teaching of yoga concepts and added loud, distracting music, so the students never have to hear their inner dialogue. They never have to self-study or notice their thoughts. Classes are structured instead of pratyahara, sense-withdrawal / internal study; classes aim to take you out of yourself, so you never have to experience inner life. Music, lights, ambiance, and focus only on poses, add to this a mirror in the room, and the mind is wholly occupied with external stimulus; how do I look, how do I compare to others, do I have the "right" form, do I enjoy this music, will the room make me feel relaxed.
So "yoga" in these settings is exercise, fitness at best. Unfortunately, the quality of yoga education is so rushed and basic that even the exercise part is taught mainly by instructors who do not understand anatomy. Corporate studios tend to have a memorized sequence that the teacher repeats. That is not teaching; that is script memorization. But let's not go down that rabbit hole, that is a different blog, and I have been writing about harm from the Yoga Alliance teaching structure for a long time.
I want to emphasize there is nothing wrong with enjoying exercise, entertainment, and relaxation! Heck, I love it as well; only, let's not call it yoga. It is not yoga; it is exercise, entertainment, and relaxation.
The Crisis of Covid:
And then came Covid. Most of us are so stressed out; there is too much anxiety and depression. People are burned out. Unfortunately, when we are burned out, we want relief. Relief we find by running away from tough feelings and suppressing difficult emotions by eating, drinking, entertainment, relaxation. There is nothing wrong with that, I very much understand it, and we need to do it! BUT and here is the biggest problem of our current over-commercialized world. We also need true yoga, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and challenging mental health work. We need both to thrive.
The world is set up more and more to support our addictive mind, and we keep talking about how mental illness is increasing, anxiety is growing in our culture, but we never think about fixing our culture; we keep thinking about how to feel better, which of course will make us feel worse. We are caught in a devilish cycle.
And of course, because we crave to feel better, to have great experiences, corporate/franchise yoga studios are thriving. And as salt on the wound, post-pandemic, they are expanding, taking advantage of the stressful economic situation of the individually owned, teacher-owned, traditional yoga studios. It is not enough that traditional studios cannot compete for attention in marketing via social media; what we offer is not addictive and sexy enough. But now, we have to compete with corporate studios with deeper pockets that can provide pretty facilities, showers, and a spa-like experience.
So I ask you, Dear Reader… Is yoga dead?
Social media has its place; capitalism has its place. The question is, can we use Social Media responsibly to create a healthy society, not one caught up on sensationalism, sex, and narcissism? Can we run businesses in a capitalist world in a way that sustains quality teaching and product? I think it is possible, there are those of us willing to fight to balance our world, but it feels like we are fighting not just Covid for economic survival, not just the corporate studio next door; we are fighting against a cultural take over of our mind and spirit.
Can we reclaim the word; Yoga? Or is Yoga Dead?
I know I cannot fight the world; God knows I tried, it is exhausting. But I can write this article/blog, and if you like the message, please share it. And don't forget to support your local teacher-owned quality yoga studio, even if the bathrooms are old, even if there are no fancy lights. Notice quality yoga teachers; learn to differentiate between teaching and instructing. Support good teachers and good studios that nurture the Wisdom Art of Yoga!
Thank you for reading,
Dora – owner of Spira Power Yoga studios
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