Why everyone practicing yoga might not save the world

The world would be a better place if everyone practiced yoga, right?

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That seems to be a fundamental assumption among yogis — at least yogis in the West. It’s one of those a priori pieces of knowledge. It just is true.

But is it?

In her now widely circulated piece, which I promised we wouldn’t comment on, Kino MacGregor bases her “confession” in part on this unassailable truth, that spreading yoga to the most people possible is absolutely a good thing. It also seems fundamental to projects like Off the Mat, Into the World.

It’s a belief that, I’ll admit — in the spirit of confessions, I guess! — I don’t share. I just haven’t been exactly sure how to define my concern about it.

Then last month, the good folks at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor posted the following quote attributed to David Swenson on their Facebook page:

“I have understood that meditations, prayers, asanas are just a tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfills difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more than an ego of a usual person. Spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.”

I’m pretty sure I heard David say something similar during a workshop. It likely was sometime around when he talked about whether getting a particular pose would make one happier or a better person. (The implied answer: No.)

I’ve kept this statement in the back of my mind, letting it root about to see what might grow. And where it has sprouted, for now at least, is as part of my thinking about the spread and transmission of yoga, and Ashtanga, to a wider audience. That spread isn’t necessarily a good thing. Yoga, asana especially, is just a tool. It isn’t good or bad, anymore than a rake or hoe is good or bad. (In this metaphor, is fertilizer bad? Does it depend?) We have any number of examples of exalted teachers who clearly tilled an ego-filled soil with their practice.

At its most harmless, this belief suggests to me a level of naivety. (I’m sure one answer back at me is that I don’t really understand the power of yoga. Maybe not. But that’s why I was struck by David’s quote.) Doing yoga isn’t enough. Certainly an introduction isn’t. There needs to be something more.

And that leads me to what I think is dangerous about this belief: it removes a sense of responsibility from the teacher-student relationship. Rather than a teacher having to take responsibility for a student’s education, progress, injuries and ultimately the product of that training, just providing the training is enough. A person being introduced to yoga becomes the goal.

But that isn’t, really, enough, as David’s quote suggests. (Somehow, this relates to the giving of boons to demons like Ravana, but I can’t quite tie that in a nice bow right now.) It is why a direct teacher-student relationship is best, is perhaps necessary. But, in 2013, we know that isn’t always possible, and it is only getting easier and easier to create broader and larger channels of information. If spreading the gospel of yoga is the goal, that’s great. But if you add in a layer of responsibility, it gets much trickier. Are there yoga poses that shouldn’t be on Youtube? Is there teaching that shouldn’t be online? Is there a neat and easy disclaimer that could be added? (The passing along of mantras, as I understand it, also is facing these questions.)

How yoga should be spread and taught is a debate worth having for those who are in the public realm of yoga — the teachers, in other words. As the 1995 Yoga Journal article about Ashtanga, which I linked to earlier, suggests, it’s a debate that isn’t new. (For those who are just doing their practice, it might matter little beyond its effect on how they will keep getting more training and information.) It may be a debate that is increasingly important when you add in the new forms of communication we have at our fingertips, the new ways there are to teach; there are nuances that swamis and teachers from just a few decades ago would never have encountered.

And it isn’t as though we can or should go back. I’d just argue that as part of this debate it is worth asking whether we should be trying to spread yoga as far and wide as possible, and if so, whether some additional care is needed.

Perhaps it is something that will come up at the Confluence.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

9 thoughts on “Why everyone practicing yoga might not save the world”

  1. David is correct. Asana practice is confused with yoga practice. It is already in us. We only have to strip away the layers of ego, observe the self. Bhagavan was beautiful. There is so much mind chatter on the internet. The thing I love about Ashtanga Yoga is that it is so focused on self practice all you have to do is do it and “all is coming.” You mix in the other 7 limbs and you can’t help but improve your life in good and bad times the practice keeps you steady and carries you through. I think too much is given to asana. Now there are turf wars over asanas. The machine is taking over yoga and commercializing every aspect of it. I’m so glad all you need is a mat and a place to practice and all the other stuff is meaningless.

    “Who Am I ? Enquiry.

    For all thoughts the source is the ‘I’ thought. The mind will merge only by Self-enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am l?’ will destroy all other thoughts and finally kill itself also. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire to whom did this thought arise. What does it matter how any thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask to whom is this thought occurring. The answer will be ‘to me’. If you enquire ‘Who am I?’ the mind will return to its source (or where it issued from). The thought which arose will also submerge. As you practise like this more and more, the power of the mind to remain as its source is increased.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi

    “‘I exist’ is the only permanent self-evident experience of everyone. Nothing else is so self-evident as ‘I am’. What people call self-evident, that is, the experience they get through the senses, is far from self-evident. The Self alone is that. So to do self-enquiry and be that ‘I am’ is the only thing to do. ‘I am’ is reality. I am this or that is unreal. ‘I am’ is truth, another name for Self.”

    -“Be As You Are”
    The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi
    Edited by David Godman

    1. I’d point out that there have been asana turf wars in Ashtanga going back 20 or more years, as the Yoga Journal article attests. But that’s the way of the real world.

      I’ll admit, too, that I’ve read Ramana Maharshi (and we visited and spent some quiet time at his ashram around Arunachala on our Yatra), but he just doesn’t resonate with me. I can’t do my thinking here justice. Maybe I can’t do my thinking on this justice anywhere.

      For now I’ll just say I’m surprised not to be more absorbed by his thinking.


  2. Maybe if everyone practiced yoga, then we would all be one more step towards self realization. Would the world be a better place? Who knows. Ultimately, everyone is responsible for themselves, their actions, and whatever they choose to plant in their fertile soil. Should teachers have a yogic code of ethics? Yes. Should teachers be responsible for their students? Not really sure. Isn’t that concept just due to ego telling us that others cannot be responsible for utilizing information in a responsible way unless we set them on the correct ‘path’? And if we take that to the extreme, then we could even argue that yoga should be withheld from some people as they are not ready for it! Why not let them decide. The world has changed and the internet is a fact. (Hey, we’re on it right now!)
    The Krishnamacharya genie is out of the box and I don’t think we can put it back!!!

    1. I totally agree the genie is out of the box, and is being aided and abetted by the Interwebs.

      I don’t want to imply that individuals can’t be trusted with yoga, or that is shouldn’t be available — I just don’t know how or why we got to a point where the simple imparting of that knowledge seems to be an end in and of itself. My worry, to try to go metaphorical (as I was listening to a Richard Freeman interview today, yes, via iTunes!), is that that just leaves people at the door, when the guidance ought to take them inside and show them around a bit.

      Perhaps another way to look at it is: Is there a difference between saying, “I’m spreading yoga” and “I’m teaching yoga.” Is one better than the other?

      Or another way, based on what you wrote. I feel like there is a assumption that we (or yoga teachers, I guess) just need to show people that first step toward self realization. I guess I don’t think that’s enough — even at a time when it is easier and easier to just push people that first step. If we think that’s enough, though, then we (or yoga teachers) are absolved from doing anything more.

      And I guess I figure that that “anything more” is the harder, more important work.


  3. Agreed, for the most part. Teaching is bound to be harder than spreading, but just because you can do one well doesn’t mean you cannot also do the other. You have to get people to the door first, then they and only they will decide if they want to come inside or not. Once inside, you can show them the merchandise. No one at the door equals no one to teach, however committed you may be as a teacher. In essence, spreading feeds the teaching. Those that want to go deeper will find a way anyhow. You could say Guruji was a good teacher for decades……..then along came the spreaders……Manju, David et al……..and here we are! The spreaders still taught to the best of their ability. You could also argue that yoga started in India and was there for centuries being spread by word…….then along came planes and other forms of transportation and people took advantage of that and now yoga is in most countries in the world. The internet is what it is! If it ain’t the internet, it will be something else.

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