Desecration of Yoga in the West

I live in Boulder CO, where the power of white privilege tends to hurl well-intentioned liberal ideologies into a full circle of elitism and hypocrisy, like some hyper-spiritual ouroboros shitting pious dogmas into its own mouth. The roots of the ideology are lost, and all that remains is a masturbatory cycle of waxing ideals that do little to serve the world, and more to boost the egos of the shit stained, birdbrained trust-fund puppets who think that the right combinations of hashtags and bumper stickers give them moral and spiritual authority over the rest. This behavior is perpetuated in many ways, like when our neighbors cry out against climate change as they annually dump hundreds of gallons of water on their invasive (yet manicured) lawns, or when vegans—ethically opposed to consuming a bit of organic honey—have no issue with the devastating ecological impact of rendering milk from almonds. It also applies to the way that the ancient, universally accessible science of yoga has been monetized, sexualized, colonized, and rebranded as a pastime for the affluent, Lululemon-clad, avocado smoothie-sipping white women that Boulder is renowned for. Indeed, the rebranding of  this anti-yoga culture as a fast track to spiritual superiority has been so successful in wealthy communities, that it’s difficult to fathom where this trend began, and the philosophies from which it devolved.

When Indian yoga disciple Swami Vishnu Devananda—tasked with introducing yoga to the west by his master Sivananda Saraswati—arrived in San Francisco in 1957, I doubt his vision for yoga in the Americas had much to do with performative fitness or ass-shaping workout gear. According to The Sivananda Companion to Yoga (the very book that popped my yoga cherry), Sivananda said to Vishnu Devananda “Go, people are waiting. Many souls from the East are reincarnating now in the West. Go and reawaken the consciousness hidden in their memories and bring them back to the path of yoga.” I share this detail because it is the root of the intention of bringing yoga to the West: Consciousness. Vishnu Devananda then mentions in the forward of the book that “Anyone can practice Yoga, no matter what their age, condition or religion. Young or old, sick or fit – all can benefit from this discipline. After all, everyone has to breathe, whatever their walk of life.” This detail is also important, because it emphasizes two other fundamental yoga doctrines: Breath, and accessibility to all.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati, in case you need a refresher on what a classic “yoga body” looks like.

            I am lucky that my introduction to the practice, The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, is consistent with Vishnu Devananda’s ideals. Yoga felt safe and accessible, when I first dipped my toes into the Sivananda waters, and once I started practicing regularly, I noticed subtle changes in my mind and body almost immediately. “Though yoga begins with the body, it ends in transcending it” writes Vishnu Devananda, explaining that, while maintaining a healthy body is an important facet of yoga, it is but a brush stroke in the big picture of cultivating higher consciousness.

The book that started it all.

         I have been practicing yoga for over a decade, and I am even certified to teach the activity to others. People are mystified by this, when they learn about my yoga background; it’s as if the very words “yoga teacher” are fetishized with esoteric intrigue. To many, yoga is synonymous with sexy. And if it isn’t sex that pops into your head when you think about yoga, it’s probably some beautiful, lithe person performing astounding feats of balance and flexibility that comes to mind. However, any yoga book that’s worth a damn will tell you that, above all else, yoga is a breathing practice. All someone needs to begin a yoga practice is their breath. So why is it, when I mention yoga, that the reaction I get from 90% of people is “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga”?

            At this point in history, most people’s impression of yoga is deeply influenced by social media. When you search the hashtag “yoga” or “yogi” on Instagram, the majority of content is performative fitness or blatant sexualization of the practice. These things are not yoga, and neither fitness nor sex appeal is a prerequisite to a valid yoga practice. I feel bombarded by the same convoluted ideals when I walk into any corporate yoga studio… Sex is used to sell yoga, and the majority of classes offered are workout-oriented parodies of yoga. Truly, most classes nowadays are mere yoga-inspired workouts, because in lieu of emphasizing mindfulness, you must endure an aggressive instructor and loud music (and probably a class full of manic narcissists) pressuring you to push harder and harder to achieve an ass like the ones featured on the cover of Yoga Journal.This type of environment is utterly toxic to the yogi who seeks stillness, balance, and connection, and it’s completely discouraging to new yogis who don’t believe they are fit or flexible enough to participate. The concept of yoga has been so warped and abused that the people who stand to benefit the most from the practice do not feel empowered to seek it out. I have overweight family members who will never set foot in a yoga studio because they do not believe they belong, simply because their bodies are inconsistent with what has been sold to us as a “yoga body”, whatever the fuck that means. In this way, every corporate studio, every yoga influencer, and every TV depiction that paints yoga as a fairytale activity for rich housewives has failed our society by gatekeeping this universal medicine.

One of the images that appeared on my Instagram feed under #yoga, and one piece in an overwhelming catalogue of evidence that the concept of yoga is being incorrectly and unethically wielded to perpetuate a culture of materialism and objectification.

            Another important factor to consider, regarding why yoga feels inaccessible to so many, is the collective expense of all the components that we *think* we need to start practicing: a studio membership, yoga mat, an assortment of yoga outfits, and any of the other colorful (and largely redundant) props that Instagram tries to sell me daily. The big secret that none of these trendy yoga brands want you to know, is that you don’t need any of that bullshit. None of it. A studio practice can be beneficial, but the few studios that don’t adhere to toxic corporate standards often cost upwards of $200 monthly! My yoga practice started out of a book, and I would practice every night on the living room carpet. I never had a mat, and never went o a single class for my first 5 years of yoga. And yet, I benefited remarkably from my solitary practice without spending a cent. Sure, my horizons expanded once I finally went to a studio, but recently I’ve been fed up with the cost and culture of studio yoga, and have returned, once more, to my humble home practice. I’m here to dispel any myths and insecurities about what media has told you a yoga practice *should* look like, because my most profound moments in yoga have happened in the peace of my home, naked or clad in t-shirt and sweatpants, away from the pressures of a studio.

 The funny thing about it all, is that the devotees in CorePower yoga classes following #yoga on social media are unaware of the part they play in the capitalist yoga charade; it’s the only yoga they know, and this saddens me. Corporate yogis probably believe they are participating in an enlightened activity, when really, they in their NAMASTAY IN BED t-shirts are participating in the mass commodification of an ancient philosophy. To me, real yoga starts where the pursuit of perfection ends, and this is antithetical to what we are all taught about yoga by media outlets and goal-oriented class culture. Yoga always taught me to be compassionate with my body, yet these Instagram models and yoga teacher celebrities only seem to fuel diet culture and unhealthy workout habits. Corporate America certainly has yoga clamped tight in its jaws, but that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly inaccessible to common men and women. Let’s reclaim the mala as a meditation tool instead of a fashion accessory, and make yoga about feeling good instead of looking good. Refuse to compare your experience to these false idols and turn your attention inwards— Inner strength has no price tag.