I was a guest yoga teacher recently, on two meditation retreats. In these retreats we explored yoga as a somatic, mostly self-directed experience, with students following and trusting their inner inquiry, rather than mimicking the teacher. For many this approach to yoga was a revelation.
After both these retreats, several students shared with me an outpouring of why they usually hate yoga. A reminder that these students were on the retreat for the primary purpose of practising meditation, not yoga, though some of them had a long connection with yoga. It was fascinating for me, as a yoga teacher and yoga studio owner, to hear their comments. It crystallised for me many of the challenges I face running a yoga studio in the modern context of yoga today. It also affirmed the long journey I have made – and am still making – as a yoga teacher, to dig deep and find a way to teach yoga that is authentic to me and the community of students around me.
I was impressed that they trusted me with their critique of yoga and took this as acknowledgement from them that somehow the yoga I was presenting was not like ‘other’ yoga. Of course as their critique gained momentum, I was very tempted to defend, but I simply listened, knowing this was a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall and overhear a conversation that I would rarely be privy to!
So here are the comments, quite an outpouring, but I will let them speak uninterrupted:
“I usually hate yoga.” (Gasps and laughing all round as the silence is broken, almost as though everyone is ‘meant’ to like yoga.)
“Yoga is so conformist and restricting, everyone’s yoga postures exactly the same as each other, lined up like little boxes, all the same. ”
“Yoga teachers try really hard and are so nice, but yoga is so stylised, with alignment based on simplistic formulas.”
“Yes and then the teacher comes round and so ‘expertly’ forces your body into the same position as everyone else. Where is the intelligence in that?”
“Everyone copies the teacher and if you can’t do it, you feel inadequate. There is no affirmation that my body might need to do something differently.”
“It is all so goal-oriented, mastering poses, you can either do the pose or you cant.”
“Yoga is worse than overtly competitive sports, because the competition is hidden in yoga, people secretly coveting the pose or body of someone else as we all aim for these fancy poses. Yoga seems obsessed with the body. Yoga can make people feel worse about themselves, not better.”
“I know a woman who stopped doing yoga at her gym because she put on weight and was embarrassed to keep going.”
“Yes, there are some studios where I feel like I have to be young and skinny to be there. And they all wear the same trendy yoga gear! I feel excluded by all the glamorous yoga images on social media, young and beautiful yoga instructors showing their cleavage as they do some fancy yoga pose on the beach.”
“I went to a yoga class that was more like aerobics than yoga, so fast and hyped up, there was no time to even know what I was feeling in my body, let alone breathe properly or be fully present!”
“If I went to my local studio there would be more than 30 people in a class! And the teacher does not have the skill to help everyone practise safely. I have seen people doing awful stuff with their bodies – and then it’s on to the next pose and the next pose..”
“I can’t stand the trite, ‘spiritual’ teachings, the simplistic ‘theme for today’ at the start of a class or some pretty words at the end, with pretty quotes regurgitated from Facebook. Where is the genuine sharing from the teacher, where are the yoga teachers who can share wisdom about life, not just move us through endless postures with simplistic platitudes?”
“And its so confusing all the ‘styles’ of yoga. The names suck you in, you think that ‘Divine Nectar Yoga’ (just a made up example) sounds great and you go along and I can’t see the difference with other yoga styles, yet each teacher seems to subtly put down other styles and put their style forward as somehow superior to all the rest. It has become such a competitive marketplace.”
“And what about the abuse from some spiritual teachers? Where is the questioning of the ego in these teachers? What about the teachers that teach with so much charisma and charm? Don’t students project their goodness on to the teacher and then feel worse about themselves?”
“And what about how yoga teachers tell you when to breathe, that’s a good one isn’t it! Inhale, exhale…Are we all meant to breathe as one are we?! I would asphyxiate if I only breathed when the teacher said to!”
I admit that, as a yoga teacher and yoga student, it is therapeutic to write this. It feels honest, and necessary, to say that much of the yoga world has become commercialised, image and fashion conscious, exclusive of many people, often based on simplistic alignment and spiritual approaches and with an overemphasis on the role of the teacher. There is truth in all of these comments, in many parts of the yoga community. I feel angry, sad and horrified at times at what yoga has become.
I also feel deeply for the yoga teachers who are doing yoga in ‘another’ way, who are making a true and authentic inquiry into this thing called yoga. We can take heart from the comments above as they show there are people who see through the commercialised approach and want something different. It takes enormous skill, patience, courage and resilience to go against the commercial yoga tide and stand true to the genuine wisdom that yoga can reveal.
I stand with the dedicated, experienced teachers offering a genuine inquiry into the experience of body, mind, heart and life. We can feel that we are on the fringe and unseen. Personally, this fringe is the centre of my yoga life and I couldn’t do it any other way. So the challenge remains for yoga teachers and yoga communities to support each other to keep going – because we actually deeply love yoga.
With special thanks to Ilan Abrahams, Rick Harvest and Wai Ying Tham for their helpful feedback.
Anahata Giri is writing a series of articles that explore yoga as a way of fully embracing the whole mandala of life. www.oneheartyoga.com.au