I recently read an article that called Americans to task for the way they approach “yoga”. I was in complete harmony with what it had to say. In fact, I’d long wondered at the way in which “yoga” was being practiced in the United States.
When I was 13, back in the late 60s, I bought a book called YOGA FOR AMERICANS, and taught myself yoga — alone in my bedroom, doing the asanas with only the advice of Indra Devi, the author of the book. Yoga was an unknown practice back then in Pennsylvania — Californians were probably already practicing yoga more often, but not the people livings in the cookie-cutter-developments of suburban Philadelphia. I remember being briefly happy, but then horrified when, in the 1980s, yoga started getting popular in my area of the country. First, yoga classes were offered privately. Then they started being offered at gyms. Then, yoga studios began to open. Now, don’t misunderstand, I have nothing against the more wide-spread practice of yoga. But, often, what was being taught, as far as I’m concerned, was not traditional yoga. “Hot yoga”, “aerobic yoga”, “yoga dance”…….I had already been practicing yoga for nearly fifteen years when this yoga craze began in my part of the country. My yoga was a very slow, meditative yoga. Holding various positions for extended periods of time, doing intentional breathwork – that was my yoga. I also did aerobics and weight training – but they were separate workouts. I could not accept a practice that called itself yoga that included rapid movement from one asana to another, in a kind of demented gymnastics workout.
Neither could I accept what America did to yoga. Marketing exploded: yoga mats, yoga “bricks” and other equipment, yoga videotapes, yoga books, yoga magazines, more yoga books, yoga clothing, yoga jewelry, CDs of music for yoga, or yoga chanting….even yoga “food”.
Yoga means “yoke”. It is a practice, the central intention of which is to connect the body, mind and spirit of the practitioner. What does that have to do with a yoga wardrobe, or your new patchouli-scented yoga mat?
I did my yoga in old, loose fitting clothing, often the same clothing that I’d worn for years. I never required new outfits for my yoga practice. I couldn’t align this focus on acquisition with a practice that was supposed to offer balance and release. It seemed to me that what was practiced in America was Neoliberal Yoga. It was about achievement, acquisition and perceived superiority. There was a Social Darwinist flavor to it – not only in the competitive nature of the yoga performance itself – who can do the most outrageously difficult asana “flow” with lightning speed, but in the sense that if you can’t afford the classes, the clothes, the food, the books, DVDs, CDs and the luxury yoga retreats, then you didn’t really have the right to practice yoga.
So, yes, it has an elitist quality, the powerful smell of superiority on display. In short, I say that American Neoliberal Yoga is a sort of anti-yoga.
As the article pointed out, in these classes and retreats, you look out over a sea of white bodies – few Indians, at least a few of whom should know more about the practice of yoga, I would think, given that it is a practice originating in India. You also see few to no black bodies in the yoga classes. Why might that be? Again, I suspect it has to do with the perceived white elitism of the American yoga culture. It also has to do with the miserable truth that, in America, wealth is not only concentrated in the hands of the very few, but it is concentrated in the white hands of the very few.
Anyway, my suggestion is that we ignore all the high-priced classes and equipment and outfits. Getting back to the philosophy and goals of yoga would be step one.