Did you get in your daily cultural appropriation?

It’s hard not to deliver this one with comment, so I suppose I’ll first say that my natural sympathies lie with the victimized and the marginalize. And I’m very cognizant of how easy it is to judge someone based on your own experiences and biases.

I also remember the value of calling power into question as a youngster. It is a critical part of the growing process; I tend to suspect those who didn’t go through that phase are the ones who cause the most problems when they are adults.

Still… this one may push me close to the edge of reason. A free yoga class at the University of Ottawa has been canceled due to concerns about cultural appropriation. The best coverage is from the Ottawa Sun:

Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of “cultural appropriation.”

Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.

Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” according to an email from the centre.


Acting student federation president Romeo Ahimakin denied the decision resulted from a complaint.

Ahimakin said the student federation put the yoga session on hiatus while they consult with students “to make it better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces. … We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”

Scharf offered a compromise, suggesting she change the name from yoga to “mindful stretching,” since that would reflect the content of the program and would “literally change nothing about the course.”

That compromise wasn’t enough.

I’m going to follow up my comment about the value of youthful challenging of power; one of the important lessons from doing so is the self-realization that results. I.e. coming to understand what you don’t know. That may be a factor here.

Posted by Steve

Making yoga accessible to the people who need it

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of argument that there is a lot not to like about how yoga continues to grow in the West.

There may be a lot of argument about what, specifically, to dislike, but from conversations I have with yoga practitioners (not to mention not-yogis), everyone seems to have some concern or complaint about some aspects of the “yoga industrial complex.”

One thing I think we all can agree is good is the relatively recent realization that yoga in the West tends to be a pursuit of the privileged — and subsequent efforts to address this.

There’s Urban Yogis. There are efforts in Africa. There’s more of an embrace of people who don’t like the usual Instagram stars.

All of that is absolutely great. Let there be more.

I want to add one other group, which in most cases isn’t underprivileged, but for which yoga as practiced (and set up as a business) is largely inaccessible.

It’s a group I belong to, so I’m biased.

It’s the 40+ hour a week, 9 to 5ers.

A big reason I have a home Ashtanga practice is time constraints. I really need to be heading into backbends and finishing poses by about 7 a.m. in order to be able to get ready and get to work.

In most cases, that’s about when a Mysore practice at a studio — from West Coast to East, north to south — starts. And that means I’m there with one or two others and then maybe get an adjustment and some backbend assistance. Sundays are the exception (and when a room is exceptionally crowded).

Frankly, it’s hard to cough up $180 a month for that. That’s just the plain truth.

When Bobbie and I were down in Encinitas while she took the Third Series training, I realized — not to pick on Tim Miller by any means — that were we to live down there (side note: I know few series students of Tim who haven’t pondered whether a move there is possible) and my maintain my same work, there would be days of the week that his schedule wouldn’t work for me. Maybe even like half.

Looking around at a sampling of Ashtanga schedules, this seems pretty routine. They work great if you have free mornings or, perhaps, some freedom early enough at the end of the day. But otherwise… it’s kind of hard.

Now, I know there is one big reason for this: Teachers have to practice, too. Do I expect a teacher to be up and assisting by 6 a.m., meaning he or she may have had to start practicing at 4 a.m. — maybe even 3:30 a.m.?

No, I don’t. I do have a shred of humanity.

The places that are set up for the 9 to 5ers are larger, semi-corporate places like YogaWorks. Their schedules kick off, often, at 6 a.m., and that first class is done by 7:15 a.m. If the place is really nice and has fantastic shower facilities, it’s even possible (although a bit of a bummer) to head straight to work. You just have to figure out breakfast. (And the post-practice coffee.) But spots like YogaWorks don’t always, maybe even often, offer Ashtanga, if that’s what you’re looking for.

And here at this blog, we are.

Those who know Los Angeles and know the YogaWorks here are perhaps saying, “Hold on a second, Steve.” And I get it. There is an unusual number of Ashtanga classes, even Mysore ones. Our friend Maria Zavala leads one in West Hollywood, beginning at 6:30 a.m.

To those folks, I of course counter with: Traffic. I won’t bore you with how long it would take me, even at 6 a.m., to get to WeHo and then back home or even to work.

And that’s the thing. Ashtanga is intended to be for house-holders. But to a certain, and important, extent, it doesn’t work that way, because of what house-holding means and entails.

That is, unless you practice at home.

I’m not now about the offer some solution. One doesn’t pop easily to mind. But I think it unfortunate that a whole big group of people — those with stresses at work, with long hours at desks, with perhaps a career they didn’t really intend but can’t for any number of reasons abandon (note: I’m not obliquely referring to myself there) — who really could use the benefits of yoga, and of Ashtanga in particular, are effectively locked out of experiencing them.

Maybe the next life will be more accommodating.

Posted by Steve

Mysore a top yoga school in India plus eight places to make an asana of yourself

A couple of lighter things to get your through the weekend.

First up, KPJAYI makes this list of the top five yoga schools in India:

Ashtanga Institute is located in Mysore and is run by the descendants of Guru Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who has been teaching yoga since the 1930’s. The yoga institute offers intensiveAshtanga yoga classes throughout the year. The institute emphasises on vinyasa as the central component of Ashtanga yoga. Vinyasa is breathing and moving while performing the asanas. One needs to apply at least two months in advance as this is a much sought after yoga institute. The institute does not provide any accommodation although there are many nearby.

But I actually like a line from its description of an (the?) Iyengar school in Pune: “The renowned yoga centre attracts several students from all over the world, but it could be difficult to get a place in the institute as it is always full.” Wow, several students! Sounds crowded.

The second piece is from the LA Times: Eight “cool” places to do yoga. For instance:

OK, forget all the names of yoga poses you’ve learned. At the Sofitel Paris Arc de Triomphe in the heart of the French capital, guests receive a deck of cards with yoga poses based on Parisian landmarks.

The downward dog becomes the pyramids of the Louvre; the cobra pose, the gargoyles of Notre Dame. And of course the Eiffel Tower is the tree pose. You can do the self-guided workout anywhere in the city or in your room.

But there’s also this:

The Montage Laguna Beach adds a spiritual and healing component to its 2015 Mind and Body offerings. On Sept. 19-20, participants may take a two-hour yoga class and then receive 60-minute spa treatment and lunch at the Spa Montage.

As part of the series, Diana Christinson leads what’s called the Manomaya kosha (one of five koshas of yoga). The session costs $329 per person (not including hotel room).

An Ashtanga teacher gets in the mix.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga yoga class — for women only

In my Ashtanga Google alert on Wednesday — my inbox fills so yours doesn’t have to — I noticed a listed for a women’s only class (at what looks like a general yoga studio), which happens once a week. It immediately got me thinking about whether segregating classes out would be a good, a bad, an indifferent idea. I imagined a class for stiff white guys, for instance.

Clicking through to this women’s class didn’t provide much more information; there was no description or anything. But there was a listing for another class: for men only. And basically it is what I just described: for stiff guys.

Based on the Ashtanga practitioners I know, I think one of this system’s main attractions is its universality: We’re all practicing (give or take our abilities) the same poses, in the same sequence. Yeah, there’s Second and Third and onward, but we all start with Suryanamaskaras and at least a few standing poses (and are supposed to do First once a week). And bandha, drishti, breathing are all common.

I also thought about one of the panels at next year’s Confluence (now open for pre-reg):

11:30 am-1:30 pm – Women’s Panel Discussion with Diana Christinson, Kathy Cooper, Dena Kingsberg, Leigha Nicole and Mary Taylor moderated by Shelley Washington (lecture/discussion/Q&A)
Each teacher will share the profound gift of yoga they received from their beloved teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and one of their favorite stories relating to Guruji. This discussion will offer an opportunity for students to ask questions of the teachers.

Which is to say: We aren’t all the same. And maybe it suggests a rationale for some type of, occasional, practice segmented off for men, women … those pesky adolescent boys we all hear about, the infamous “Ashtanga for seniors.”

I don’t know.

Would something like that attract you? Repel you?

Posted by Steve

When yoga really saves your life

Great story at NPR today. Link is here and a little taste:

When Mugbe was 7, his dad, John, died in a car accident. His father was an electrician, and his salary supported the family of five children. Walter’s mom, Catherine, didn’t work. Suddenly, the family was in crisis. The two older siblings had a tough time. At a very young age, Walter Mugbe felt he had to make sure his younger siblings had enough to eat.

To earn money, he began transporting drugs for dealers. By the time he was 10, he was selling drugs and picking pockets as well.


In 2007, Paige Elenson came to town. A businesswoman and yoga teacher, she co-founded the Africa Yoga Projectand began offering free classes in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi to ease tensions after election-related violence and give people a way to “positively transform lives.”

There was a class at the school where Mugbe practiced soccer, so he signed up. He went through the poses for the first time. He was in downward dog. He lifted one leg to the sky and brought it down in front of his body, parallel to the front of his mat. He folded himself flat over his leg. He was in half-pigeon pose. (That’s the sequence in the animated gif above.)

“I felt so free and safe at that moment,” he says. He was always on the run in his criminal life. And now, his worries were gone. “I felt light, like something was weighing me down and all of a sudden I felt free. It was a brand new experience for me.”

Walter Mugbe kept taking yoga classes.

Some family members and friends thought he was getting into a crazy cult.

I think that’s a fun way to end things. Keep reading it, because I just got a text that it’s time to go surf.

Posted by Steve

‘Yoga-based exercise’ comes to schools in South Carolina; ‘I’m very excited’

Representatives from the Sonima Foundation, including Eddie Stern, have been busy recently in South Carolina, prepping teachers there to provide yoga — or “yoga-based exercise,” as one news report puts it — to their students.

Here’s a video report, with Eddie interviewed about 35 second in:

There’s more info here, and you might get a kick out of how the guy introduces the segment in the video embedded there. (Spoiler: It involves how he says the word “yoga.)

Hundreds of students in Beaufort County will be doing yoga this year as a part of their physical education classes.

The new program is being introduced to teachers at the district’s yearly summer institute.

WTOC spoke with some educators to find out why they think the exercise will help students to better perform in the classroom.


“We have this program that we’re teaching; it consists of what we call best practices in health and wellness. We have an exercise component, which includes some stretches from yoga, some stretches from cardio, and some stretches from things you might find in physical therapy,” said Eddie Stern, Director of Curriculum.

One instructor says yoga influences positive change in classrooms.

“When included inside the school day at least two times a week, it has been reducing students’ stress levels, improving attendance in some circumstances, and readily reducing disciplinary actions suspension rates have been falling in the districts we’ve been teaching,” said Stern.

School starts for the kids on Aug. 17.

Posted by Steve

Blame the U.S. for reinventing ‘namaste’

It feels like there is a little mini focus on yoga as cultural appropriation going on lately. The latest sign is a piece from Sunday from NPR:

If you take a yoga class in the U.S., the teacher will most likely say “namaste” at the end of the practice. It’s a Sanskrit phrase that means “I bow to you.” You place hands together at the heart, close your eyes and bow.

That’s not the namaste I know.


In the past few years, namaste has reinvented itself. And the U.S. gets a lot of the credit (or blame). After moving to the United States, I went to a yoga class and heard the teacher say namaste. She had her hands joined in front of her, elbows sticking out. Her namaste sounded different than the one I knew. I say, “num-us-teh” vs. the Americanized “nahm-ahs-tay.”

After the class, I started paying attention to what Americans mean by namaste. I got the feeling that they didn’t think of it just as a greeting, but it had a spiritual connotation — a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation. Using namaste in India never made me feel spiritual in any way. Even in the yoga classes I took in India, the teachers never uttered a namaste.

I suppose someone might argue that the American “nahm-ahs-tay” has a deeper, richer meaning, if you agree with the assessment of the writer, Deepak Singh. Or it is another example of the West squeezing something into its own definition and for its own purpose.

Maybe that’s good, maybe it isn’t.

It’s an aspect of yoga practice that I struggle the most with — well, second to asana. OK, third to asana and quieting my mind. I’m uncomfortable with taking on the trappings of something that isn’t really “mine,” even if someone wants to argue that yoga’s for everyone. And I’ve taken those trappings on, including in some of India’s most holy places. Perhaps it is an uncomfortable fit. At best, I suppose, it is a pull of opposites for me, which I’m more or less OK balancing, as I do much or most of my yoga practice and mostly failed attempts to better myself this go around.

My experience has been there’s a lack of understanding among Western yoga practitioners (serious or less so) of how these trappings came to be part of yoga in the West — and I think that’s the basic point of Singh’s piece.

Posted by Steve

Would real yoga governance mean shutting down most teacher trainings?

One piece to this story about how England — like virtually everywhere else — lacks real oversight of yoga instruction and training caught my eye:

The BWY is the official governing body for England, appointed by Sports England, but this fancy title comes with no power, only recognition amongst those in the know.

If Paul had the power to go into training institutions around the county he said he would likely close 75% of them down.

That’s a pretty strong indictment, albeit from someone who’d stand to benefit from getting more power to approve or disapprove of teacher trainings.

Beyond that the story touches on mostly familiar territory.

On the opposite end of the yoga spectrum, the Washington Post has a series of pretty wonderful photos of Himalayan holy men in yoga poses. Click here.

Posted by Steve

A quick history of modern yoga

Tied to the International Day of Yoga, this piece runs through the modern history of yoga pretty succinctly. Maybe a not-so bad read for a holiday (here in America, at least). It includes what I might argue are our yoga lineages, both Pattabhi Jois and Vishnu-devananda:

The modern revival of yoga can be traced to T. Krishnamacharya, who started teaching it from Mysore in 1924. Among his students prominent in popularizing yoga in the West were B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) and K. Pattabhi Jois (Viniyasa Yoga). Another major stream of influence within India and and abroad has been Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and his equally formidable disciples including Swami Vishnu-devananda (Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers), Swami Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga) and Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga). In India lately, Baba Ramdev has taken his yoga-pranayama mix for curing ailments to every nook and corner of the country.

Yoga also received a fillip with the introduction of Indian spirituality to the West starting with Swami Vivekananda’s iconic address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 in Chicago. Followed meditation movements of Yogananda Paramahamsa (‘Autobiography of a Yogi’; fame), TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, Swami Muktananda, Osho Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, and more recently Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These too had a yoga component.

It gets to the question of whether yoga these days is just exercise.

Posted by Steve