The Pathologies of Modern Yoga: Where we are, what we are doing and where we are going

 “I don’t really care if you can chant the vedas or if you can get your foot to the back of your head or blow vapor out of your bottom. I don’t really care unless through your practice you have managed to become a decent human being.”

-Donna Farhi

I recently watch Donna Farhi’s keynote speech at the 50th anniversary conference for the International Yoga Teachers Association in Australia. Farhi is a yoga hero to me, primarily because she is deeply reflective, intelligent, and doesn’t alter herself to fit a yoga prototype. She is a world-renowned teacher that doesn’t own an Instagram account or anchor herself to a yoga brand. She keeps an open mind to yoga, and speaks eloquently about the issues it faces and where it is going. A self-described “maverick”, she explores and questions yoga in a refreshing manner that places her in a leadership role in the yoga community. In her recent address to yoga teachers at the IYTA conference, she made some points that really stuck with me.

One thing that I find interesting about yoga is how prolific it is, and also how few people are willing to discuss it critically. Farhi addresses the things that need to be talked about in a calm, clear way.

After I listened to her talk, I found myself pondering three  points she brought up concerning the current state of yoga and what it is reflecting not of yoga, but of ourselves.

  1. Modern Yoga is Embodying our Cultural Pathologies

Farhi begins her talk by weaving in and out of the variations of entertainment yoga becoming popular: goat yoga, beer yoga, and nude yoga. She does not talk down about any of these variations, but does question if yoga is catering toward pathologies in our society. A pathology is symptomatic of the culture and if left untreated, leads to unhappiness, stress and disease. These pathologies may consist of multitasking, looking busy, stress, drinking vs. dealing with issues, etc. Yoga adapts to the culture and society it is in, and changes are nothing new. Personally, I think these yoga innovations are what you make of them. You can get something out of each class, but it may not be something you consistently do- a sort of novelty yoga. The question is, what does having a beer in plank while a goat is standing square on your back say about ourselves and our culture?

  1. Our consumerism leads to endless craving.

I had made peace with the idea that yoga was a commodity in our consumerist society, as everything is. People acting as consumers have the choice to choose and purchase items; this choice allows for new ideas and businesses to spring up, hence the invention of trendy yoga events with beer and live animals. Farhi notes that that consumerism results in a craving, which separates people from being connected and dissociating and competing. This lack of threshold from simply being to mutating so that competition and self-aggrandizement is now a part of yoga.

The question is, what does having a beer in plank while a goat is standing square on your back say about ourselves and our culture?

  1. We want attention.

Flaunting and objectifying yoga to gain attention, especially in social media, is rewarded. But do these forms a fair representation of yoga? As Farhi puts it, “the map does not represent the territory”. I often feel this way, advertising yoga poses on social media that don’t have much to do with how yoga influences my life. The issue is, getting an accurate pictoral representation of yoga eludes me; how can you take a picture of a complex practice that conveys what you want to an audience? The task may sound simple, but it is irritatingly hard to pin down. I suspect this is why yoga is presented as a series of advanced postures in front of beautiful scenery- it doesn’t sum up what yoga is, but it looks good, and we want people to look.

Two Yoga Paths: One of inquiry, One of Acquisition

Although we may try to find a visual representation of yoga, it is ultimately only understood in the context of practice. While the expression of yoga is diverse, the ultimate outcome is usually the same, coming to the realization that, as Farhi puts is,“the little you is an expression of a larger whole”.  Farhi describes yoga as occurring in two paths: one of inquiry, and one of acquisition.  Investigation, curiosity, life-long learning, adaptation, deductive reasoning and critical thinking characterize the path of inquiry. It is a path that ultimately leads to self-knowledge and is a process of evolution. In contrast, the path of acquisition is characterized by acquiring things, striving to obtain thing, assumption, accumulating status and focuses on questions like “what do I look like? How famous am I?’ this path ultimately leads to self aggrandizement and is essentially a product of survival. This path also fits seamlessly into consumerism, as it is always looking for more. Is one path wrong? Not necessarily. As Farhi points out, each path leads you to a different destination. The path of inquiry leads to community and collaboration and being loving, while the path of acquisition leads to competition and fear.

As a yoga teacher and student, I try to reflect on how my teaching reflects not just on me, but on the larger yoga community. Sometimes I think I balance this pretty well, and other times, I don’t. It is challenging to market the benefits of yoga when an advanced pose on Instagram appears to garner more attention.

Although one path may not be wrong, Farhi ultimately sums up my feelings by saying “ I know what party I want to go to”. The question is, which party would you choose?

Tradition Should not be Blindly Followed

Has traditional yoga always been a path of inquiry? Farhi makes the point that following “traditional” yoga paths does not necessarily mean you are being fair to the alterations the field of yoga has. As Farhi points out, if inquiry is ultimately met with limiting pressures to serve the ideology of one teacher, a student never graduates to be an individual thinker. Students instead are taught obedience to power, not obedience to truth. This leads to a hierarchy of teacher-student, where the student never moves beyond. And let’s face it- things change. Society and the cultures that guide them and the people in them change and adapt over time- they have to survive. Incorporating the shifts we see in medical science, neuroscience, somatic, and research ultimately helps us understand yoga on a deeper level. When such knowledge is ignored and not included in a yoga ideology, it is no longer serving the people, but rather the larger organization.

So what is the solution? From my own experience and the perspectives in Farhi’s talk, as teachers, we need to understand how yoga works and improve what we do. We have to be willing to discuss, debate and debunk ideas in yoga that are not true and not carry them on blindly in the name of tradition. We also have to keep discussing, addressing and adapting  what we know.  Informed discussion about practices we have assumed are sound, and some of the newer practices that are trendy, are key to reflecting on ourselves and the larger yoga culture. Only then will we see not only the path we are on, but the potential end destination.

We have to be willing to discuss, debate and debunk ideas in yoga that are not true and not carry them on blindly in the name of tradition. We also have to keep discussing, addressing and adapting  what we know.

Watch Donna Farhi’s keynote address below.

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