How did yoga get so soft and easy?

Over the weekend, there was another of those periodic “I’m giving up Ashtanga” posts in the blogosphere. You surely know the type I mean.

A few people highlighted it for our attention. We saw it. The thing is: There wasn’t really anything new.

Tantra? Via spiritandflesh.com

Quick reminder of our mission here: It’s to be a forum or clearinghouse for news, opinion and thoughts about Ashtanga, with a heavy emphasis on the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence teachers. Other stuff — yoga more generally, diet (as per Bobbie’s coconut water post yesterday), Hindu philosophy, a bit of Bhakti — fills in the cracks.

If we are going to stretch beyond that mission, we try very hard to meet two other criteria:

  1. Offer something universal, useful or, we hope, insightful for readers. This is meant to be the guiding principle of the (hopefully fairly rare) posts about our own practice. We don’t expect you to care how our practice was today. We think you might care if we encountered a barrier, a tip or an “ah ha!” moment that might help your practice. (Thus, I’m not boring you by letting you know how much Monday’s Badha Konasana adjustment killed.)
  2. Point you to something worth your valuable time. This comes from my journalism training, specifically regarding book reviews: So few people read books, it is not worth wasting a review on a bad book, on one you don’t think people should read. (The exceptions are the books that are culture phenomena that demand review.) In the same vein, we try to avoid telling you about online things that we don’t believe will add value to your practice. It’s our editing prerogative, admittedly.

Oh, one last tenant: We do try to be entertaining. And relatively brief. I’m failing at both of these this time.

That said, the combination of Monday’s Badha Konasana beatdown and yet another post about giving up Ashtanga because it is too hard and too structured and too dogmatic made me think this:

Who said yoga should be easy? Where did the blissed-out, loving-all-creation image of yoga come from?

Seriously, I’m asking. Because my experience and my growing knowledge base of yoga, Tantra and Hindu thinking (Hindu here meaning what it literally means, “of India”) don’t provide me any answers. I don’t see a basis for yoga as an easy path in the tradition from which it comes. And I really don’t get how Tantric-based yoga (or -inspired or yogas that claim some kind of loose Tantric root) can be anything other than hardcore and esoteric.

I think back, instead, to David Swenson’s imitating Guruji (at the Confluence and other times): “Yoga is hard!” And, at some point, David also joked: “I don’t practice Ashtanga. It’s far too difficult.”

Now, I’m not discounting the value of “yogas” that are a bit squishier than Ashtanga. (I might be discounting some of them, truth is told.) I’m open to a broad range of paths. (More truth: I’m “openish.”) What I’m more questioning is the priority or preference given to yoga that “feels good” or to a yoga that is a safe and happy path to the Divine. Why isn’t the default definition or idea of yoga something more like Tapasya?

Because my learning tells me that’s much closer to what yoga — and however asana fits in — was.

My guess is it has something to do with the Bhagavad Gita and Bhatki Yoga, but how that then translates into all these asana styles I don’t get. Somehow there was a confluence of two or more different Yogas. Where did the confluence of these happen? When? Why did the one emerge victorious, for lack of a better metaphor?

And, yes, I understand that our modern asana practice is 125 years or so old, with some roots that burrow further back in time. But this confuses things for me more: When Indians were creating these “new” asanas, their goal was something rigorous and awe-inspiring, something that could take pride in. It wasn’t something easy.

Today, though, yoga is. Does anyone know how that happened?

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

29 thoughts on “How did yoga get so soft and easy?”

  1. Hey Steve…

    First off, I want to say that I think you both do a great job in achieving your mission. And I am always impressed at the amount of content you provide in any given day without sacrificing quality.

    With that said, I have to say that I think looking to bhakti yoga as the culprit of yoga’s softening is not where I would venture. As a practitioner of bhakti within the Gaudiya sampradaya, I am often astonished at the things that our modern yoga culture pass off as bhakti. The practice of bhakti is simple, but not easy. For instance, to follow bhakti actually requires you to have a relationship with the yama and niyama before you actually begin (and yes, even that sticky one of brahmacarya…and trust me, it’s not simply defined as serial monogamy). Contrary to the popular misconception, bhakti simply isn’t sitting around all blissed out singing kirtan.

    And so for me the answer lies much more in the realm of yoga’s commodification. I’ve stumbled upon a new blog that is addressing this very issue from a satirical and yet very critical place called Babarazzi. It is worth checking out (http://thebabarazzi.com/).

    But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that in your reading of texts you have not found what passes for yoga here in the west. It’s amazing what can happen when engaging in a wee-bit of actual self-study. I once had someone tell me, “Yoga is about keeping an open mind.” I said, “Really? Where did you read that in any of the yoga texts? I can show you 100 places where it says yoga is about controlling the mind, but I can’t think of one where it talks about having an open mind.” The blank stare in response said it all. (It’s little wonder that I don’t have more friends.)

    1. Hi Thad.

      Thanks for the praise and the thoughtful response. And I very much appreciate your perspective on Bhakti Yoga, which is far greater and fuller than mine. Perhaps Bhakti has succumb to the same commodification / simplification as … can I call it Hatha Yoga in this regard?

      How did it all go from austere, devoted, rough, tough (the rishis, right…?) to blissed-out folks at Wanderlust? That’s probably the crux of my question.

      Again — not that there’s anything wrong with that. (And, again, truth: Maybe I think there’s a little wrong with that.) I just wonder how the one idea came to dominate mainstream and even yoga-stream thinking.

      Finally, I’ve seen the pre-wedding pics — you don’t need many friends when you’ve got Frances! 🙂

      S

      1. That is very kind. There is no doubt I am a blessed man in so many ways.

        I humbly attribute all my good fortune to my practice and dedication to both the bhakti and ashtanga margs.

        I think you are right that bhakti yoga has, or at the very least is in the process, of being “interpreted” by the modern western mind. Much to the chagrin of committed, actual daily practitioners. All you one need do, and I don’t recommend this, is check out Kasey Luber’s video “Sh*t Bhaktiyogis Say!” on elephant for a prime example of all that is wrong with this approach to bhakti yoga. In fact, if you want to watch the video to hear exactly what bhakti yogis don’t say, then the video would serve a good purpose.

        And I am with you on the vacillation between caring how people “get things wrong” and letting them do their own thing. At the core, I do have a problem with it, but thanks to my practices I know that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

    2. Hi Thad. Bobbie here. Thanks for this comment (and for the kind words). This actually cleared up a lot of things about the practice of Bhakti for me. I’ll understand it differently now, with more clarity. Much appreciated.

      1. You are most welcome Bobbie. I meant every word.

        Also, I’m happy to be of service in clearing up any misconceptions about the practice of bhakti that I can and I’ll even do so from actual scripture instead of from what just “feels” right. If you have any further questions before your upcoming yatra, I would be happy to converse further.

        Keep up the good work. It is much appreciated.

  2. Steve and Bobbi,

    This is continually a relevant concern with Yoga, Ashtanga as well as other systems.

    I’ve been reflecting on the Pizza Effect lately; the conversation around this notion has been very helpful for me!

    Our ideas of Yoga, Ashtanga, yama and niyama, vinyasa, bhakti, et al are very susceptible to this effect.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pizza_effect

    Thanks again for sharing daily,
    jason

  3. I agree with Thaddeus, you do an excellent job. As a soon to be 51 year old Ashtangi, I need to modify some poses; my inner knees are sore and I don’t want them to get worse, old shoulder injury, plus just lack of ability(Mari D of course!). I found David William’s workshop incredibly freeing “if it doesn’t feel good you’re doing it wrong”. I want to do this for the rest of my life, give it up – never; modify – absolutely!! Another good thing David said, is it Dogma or common sense – follow your intuition, not dogma. And whatever you can’t work on, there is always plenty you can work on. We have a choice about how to feel about our practice – think that one is from David Swenson, love him too!!

    1. When did you take the Williams class? We had one day of exposure to him — maybe a year and a half ago now — and we found him a bit discouraging, actually. (A few specifics: He said that in two years you’d get all the flexibility you’d ever get and he talked about knees, once damaged, never being the same.)

      I wonder if he’s refining his message as he seems to be getting out and about more?

      S

      1. he was here in WV 5/31-6/3, said the same thing about flexibility – I figured he meant if you were as intensely dedicated as he (was) is that you’d “peak” in about 2 years – I saw it as a bell curve thing – lots happens at first then not so fast – plus that age thing. I know from the time I returned to Ashtanga (about 3 years now), I have progressed more than in my first 15 or so years of yoga practice, that’s all I need to know! and I know I have more depth inside me, so definetly not 2 years for me! I loved his attitude in every way, so freeing!! I felt like I touched the heart of yoga!

      2. You may have hit on what failed to resonate with us: It felt like his teaching was done so through the prism of his own practice, which was extraordinary. As the “archetypal stiff white guy” (Tim Miller’s description of me), I didn’t find that was able to approach the practice from a perspective that I could relate to very well.

        That said — we only spent one day with him, so that’s a first impression. And not said with any disrespect meant.

        S

  4. I, too, am grateful for your thoughtful, funny, interesting Ashtanga and yoga-related posts, Bobbi and Steve. Thanks for your dedication, and, more importantly, discerning, intelligent taste in what you share.

    As for why yoga has become synonymous with melty, squishy, soft, relaxing in this country? I concur with Andy and Thad: two words – repeat customers.

    I taught for several years at a wonderful yoga studio that offered led “Ashtanga” – but didn’t like us to teach any of the “difficult” poses in Primary because they wanted to make sure “everyone” could do the classes. So, no Parivrittas in the standing sequence, no Janusirsasana C, no Marichasana B or D, no, no, no, no. Aaargh! It is a very successful studio, and, I think, a great place to be introduced to the Ashtanga practice. It’s students for the most part are happy with what it offers – a quality experience, and an authentic yoga experience, too. They are not just teaching exercise, as some studios do, but teaching all 8 limbs of the practice there.

    Still, as much as I loved this place (and still do), it became, ultimately, frustrating for me as an Ashtanga practitioner. And so, I looked elsewhere to find what felt to be a more authentic – and challenging – version of the practice. This meant traveling several hours to Mysore classes, or practicing by myself, or with a friend. That friend eventually tired of the challenge of Ashtanga – it was “too much for her body” – and she now does Svaroopa Yoga. Which, if you have ever done it, is perhaps the most squishy of all the modern “yogas” and the exact opposite of Ashtanga. Yet, she swears by this practice as being the best practice for her now – as the truest experience of the state of yoga, for her.

    To each his or her own. The asanas are really just a means to an end, right? One tool in the toolkit Patanjali outlined. For some, myself included, asana must be difficult, challenging, exhilarating, frustrating in order for the other “limbs” to manifest. For others, they are able to get to the same place, without the challenge of difficult asanas – or sometimes, any asanas at all (lucky dogs!).

  5. I used to take an “All Levels” class at Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop, and it was definitely a welcoming 90 min. class that was not the strict Primary Series. Asanas were often broken down and presented with many different cues and points of focus to draw your attention to. I guess my point is, strict adherence to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Primary Series as we know it to be ain’t gonna be bringin in the students en masse. I think every yoga studio has to alter it/soften it if they want to make a living.

  6. All,

    First off, I appreciate the kind comments directed toward Bobbie and me. I’ll have to do occasional posts that encourage “You guys are great” comments. 🙂

    More seriously, I appreciate the comments and discussion, as this touches on (for me) an important issue. I guess you’d call it the “authenticity of yoga.”

    And I realize that it’s probably impossible to really reach that. What’s that even mean in 2012? What did it ever mean?

    What I’m wondering about, struggling with, is what Michelle talks about her friend saying: “the truest experience of the state of yoga, for her.” Do any of us have a fix on what the “state of yoga” is? It seems like, along with these squishy forms of yoga and the blissed-out Kirtaners, the “state of yoga” has come to mean “where/when I’m happy.” (I think what Thad talked about with “an open mind.”)

    I’m happy. I’m one with the Divine. I’m in yoga.

    Now, I guess that fits with Ramana Maharishi’s “Who am I?” writings. But is just any approach that gets you there right? By which I mean: Is it really getting you there?

    And, now I think I’ve written myself to my point: I’m skeptical of these “easy paths” — opening to Grace, just chanting for 24 hours (Thad, emphasis on the “just” to follow your point). Where’s the hard work? (I’m not sure an emotionally challenging week at Kripalu or Esalen, even if you cry a lot, counts.)

    OK, enough, I’m annoying even myself now. If you’re still reading, I thank you.

    S

    1. “Where’s the hard work? (I’m not sure an emotionally challenging week at Kripalu or Esalen, even if you cry a lot, counts.)” LOL 🙂 !

      You’re right – I suspect most folks seem to think “Yoga” is this blissed-out state of euphoric wellbeing, where everything feels wonderful and happy – whereas, that’s not exactly what Patanjali says it is at all:

      योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥
      yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ ||2||
      When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear. ||2||

      तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् ॥३॥
      tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam ||3||
      For finding our true self (drashtu) entails insight into our own nature. ||3||

      What he describes sounds more like clarity, consciousness, awareness, acceptance – than bliss or happiness. That feeling of euphoria after asana practice may just be the endorphins kicking in!

  7. I do find ashtanga to be a very very structured yoga often times taught by some very very structured and disciplined people. There were a few times I was not sure if ashtanga was right because too much structure for me is actually confusing and limiting. The key was realizing that there is not one “right way” of practising yoga. A persons practise is their own and ashtanga is very accommodating in that way. Also, one can still enjoy the benefits of what a structured yoga practise has to offer. Ashtanga is definitely challenging but not impossible or “too hard”.

  8. I am not an Ashtanga practitioner, but I am interested in the history of modern yoga. My answer to your question would be that the revival of Hatha yoga that occurred in early-to-mid 20th century India was led by teachers who wanted to make the practice more widely accessible to ordinary people. It was bound up with Indian nationalism and anti-colonialism, and there was a strong sense of the importance of building the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the Indian people. At the same time, there was a push to share the gifts of yoga with the rest of the world. Asanas were deliberately simplified, linked to everyday health concerns, etc. This made yoga much more appealing and accessible to the average person, both in India and the West.

    Fast forward to early 21st century America. The democratizing impulse is still there – there is a widely shared ethic that it’s right to share yoga with as many people as possible. Now, however, the surrounding culture is one of aggressive consumerism and materialism. In this context, Hatha yoga is naturally and inevitably cut off from its roots in Indian culture, where it traditionally fit into much larger systems of philosophy, spirituality, religious practice, etc.

    So, the trend in the US is to “sell” yoga in the same way that other fitness, self-help, New Age-y spiritual, etc. products, practices, and services are popularized and sold. And in this culture, what sells most easily is the feel-good quick fix. We are always looking for that silver bullet to make everything all right- and fast. Yoga fits into this larger pattern.

    Plus, with the primary demographic practicing being relatively affluent white women, there is an easy tie-in with glamorous images of the “yoga body” that also sell well. But the dominant view is that this is all to the good because it brings more people to the practice. And that view is in fact very much in keeping with the foundations of modern yoga.

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