Humans love a good rivalry.
Whether it’s the Montagues vs the Capulets, The Greasers vs. The Socs, the Red Sox vs. the Yankees, the East Coast vs. the West Coast or Dunkin vs Starbucks, we just always have to choose a side. We need a top dog, an underdog and a wild card. We love our hierarchies and our social ladders. While a bit of friendly competition and sportsmanship is a healthy part of our human nature, often compelling us to work harder, train better and do our best, the division can quickly turn into something darker; gangs fighting in the streets, nations sending their armies to war. While our yoga nations aren’t quite engaging in a full blown civil war, we have undeniably been thrust into division and have created a culture of cliques complete with name calling, exclusion and bullying. Yogis everywhere have taken to the “real yoga’ vs. “not even real yoga” argument, somehow overlooking that the mere existence of this dispute goes against everything yoga stands for. The very word “yoga,” translated from Sanskrit means literally “to yoke” or “union.” Exactly what yoga was meant to unite had been widely debated for centuries: The mind body union, the union of one’s self with the divine, the union of one’s fingers with one’s toes in forward fold. The one thing that we can all pretty much agree on though, is that “union” is a term that describes the coming together of separate things, being, etc. and it would be an incredible stretch to turn that word into anything close to “division.”
So, how did we manage to turn an ancient practice of peace, non-violence and acceptance into a real life version of Mean Girls? I suppose you could take the easy way out here and point to social media. While the rise of sites like Instagram have undeniably contributed to a bump in the reach and popularity of yoga as a whole, blaming it for the current state of our community is a cop out. In fact, I would argue that social media has helped to shed light on the issue at hand and is proving to be an essential weapon in the fight against it, allowing more diversity, opinions and ideas to come crashing in to our sacred practices. Can we blame all of our problems on the acrobatic handstands and next level gymnastics flooding our feed under the hashtag “yoga?” Sure. But if we did that, we would just be deflecting the blame from the real problem: us. That’s right, the problem is us: the yogis of the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard/seen/read other yoga teacher talking about how “this” isn’t yoga or “that” isn’t yoga, how “this” form of yoga isn’t real yoga and “that” form of yoga doesn’t count. The hypocrisy really shines through when these same yoga teacher start every single one of their classes with a long winded speech about honoring your bodies, your personal practice and always include some form of the sentence “as long as you’re breathing, you’re doing yoga.” Does anyone else see the problem with that? All it takes to do yoga is to connect to your breath…. As long as you’re breathing in the way/space that they deem appropriate.
I’m calling bullshit here.
It’s time to drop our ideals and lean into the practices that we’re always preaching. It’s time that we get back to our roots and unite this beautiful, diverse community of ours, once and for all.
The modern yoga world is comprised of so many different styles of practice and schools of thought. The options are plentiful and they vary greatly even from one studio to the next, from one teacher to the next, from one student to the next. Your practice is 100% customizable: hot, cold, room temperature, fast, slow, with hip-hop music, in silence, under black light, lit by candles. While some yogis have taken to bashing this diversification, I find it to be beautiful and refreshing. Was black light Buti yoga practiced in ancient India? Nope. Yoga also wasn’t practiced in stretchy, skin tight yoga pants with a $90+ price tag or on brightly colored mats made of toxic plastics and rubbers. So, who decided that women painting their bodies and calling in their warrior goddess spirits are lesser yogis than those who roll out their Mysore rugs in the ashrams of the far East?
The evolution of yoga is exactly that, an evolution, a nature progression from something simple into something more complex. There will always be practitioners that remain true to the ancient practices and their commitment to uphold the teachings are important so that we are able to understand and appreciate the values and traditions that have paved the way for modern yoga. However, we must also recognize that there is room here for everyone, every practice, every style and the majority of what we call yoga in the United States today would be unrecognizable to those humble yoga beginnings. There is space in this world for us all of us to co-exist and we should all be able to agree that a yogi choosing to practice power yoga in a heated room has zero effect on another yogi’s Ashtanga practice. Why then, do so many yogis allow the negative thoughts and judgment of another’s practice to occupy space in their mind or to go as far as to call out another’s practice as wrong or “not real?”
I relate this scenario to a baby learning how to walk. In those early stages when they’re tumbling and falling and stumbling around, what they’re doing isn’t exactly “walking,” but it is impossible for them to develop the skills, muscles, coordination that they need to walk, run and jump without that beginning toddling stage, just as many people who find yoga don’t have the desire or ability to jump right into a 90-minute silent meditation practice or a rigid Bikram class.
Yoga finds each of us at different times and in different ways. Yoga found me in the midst of my 60lb weight loss and at a time that I was just looking to change up my work out routine. The first yoga class that I ever attended was a community flow at Lake Eola park in downtown Orlando, surrounded by hundreds of yogis at all different levels, all different body types, backgrounds, goals, lifestlyes.
At that stage in my journey, it was the ability to blend in to the sea of diversification and the burn in muscles that I otherwise never used that kept me coming back to my mat. I then transitioned to power yoga and would grudgingly suffer through the Savasanna at the end of class, counting ceiling tiles and feeling like a prisoner in my own racing thoughts until it was finally over. Was I still doing real yoga? Yes. Those torturous moments in Savasanna were the toddling stage of my yoga journey and if any yogi had told me then that what I was doing wasn’t “real” yoga, I can’t imagine that I would have had any desire to continue down that path. Yoga did eventually take me gently by the hand and lead me deeper into the practice, taught me to quiet my mind, to be kind to my body, to enjoy and actually long for the deep peace found in Savassana, to view my practice as so much more than a work out, but it was a journey that I had to discover in my own time. My story is in no way unique and many people will come to yoga in similar ways, just stumbling through. Instead of pushing them to the ground and mocking their attempts, I challenge, you my fellow yogis, to lend them a hand. Encourage their baby steps and simply offer your guidance and support for their journey
As a community, it is not our place to judge how anyone else chooses to practice, to tell them that they’re doing it wrong, except where safety is concerned, or to balk at whatever brought them to their mats. Yoga is a journey. If the first step of their journey is finding a power yoga class as part of a fitness routine, let it be. If we tell that person over and over again that they aren’t doing “real” yoga, why on Earth would they ever want to take the next step, to be a “real yogi”, to enter a community that has done nothing but mock and judge them? . If you want more people to know “real yoga,” you must first be the light that leads them there.
I encourage each of you to soften your words, your opinions and your judgments and to simply find gratitude for each yogi who chooses to roll out his or her mat, no matter where or why. Let us lift them up and be the light that leads them down their spiritual path to awakening. Allow the light and love in you to simply honor the light and love in them.