A shorter version of this article appeared in Guardian.
Is yoga a sport? A therapy? A religion?
If you’re not a yoga insider and you listened to British Wheel of Yoga Director Paul Fox and British Hindu monastic Swami Ambikananda joust over these questions on BBC this Monday (time cue 2:50), you’d be none the wiser. Their prickly duet sang of a subculture-turned-industry that not only can’t decide which of the three it is, but for decades has based its mystique on the tensions between them.
The question at hand is whether or not British yoga is ripe for regulatory intervention through alignment with a National Occupational Standard. Instigator Fox says yes, because he claims yoga is causing physical injury — but he can’t say how much — and that some teacher trainings are too short – but he won’t say which ones. Defender Swami says no, because she claims yoga is a religion, and regulation would constitute a neo-colonial intervention into an ancient tradition.
Obscured from most observers would be the fact that these are two power brokers wrestling within yoga’s confederacy of cults, in which charisma and zeal consistently outperform evidence.
When Fox asserts in science-y terms that yoga practice can deliver medical benefit through the guidance of expert instruction, but it can also injure people if the instruction is poor, he sounds reasonable. However, hard data on both the good and bad of yoga postures is very thin. Fox seems to be upselling and crying wolf at the same time, and as the director of an organization leveraging membership dues to lobby for regulations that would surely validate its own “expert” trainings, his motives cry out for a grain of salt. Especially when he punches down at less-moneyed guilds like the Independent Yoga Network, which recently gutted Fox’s proposal with a few curt bullets.
About the upselling. Research into yoga’s benefits is surging, but it faces definitional, methodological and conflict-of-interest obstacles. Whose yoga is being tested is the first question, followed by what that yoga consists of. (These are the same questions that Fox’s regulation project would have to dictate answers for.) Then there’s the fog of self-reporting, and the fact that yoga tests are impossible to control or double-blind. And from the beginnings of the modern yoga in 1930s India, researchers have been over-invested in positive outcomes. They’ve either been self-promoting teachers, propagandists, unwitting pseudoscientists, or a blend of the lot.
Research conflicts continue. An example: Fox’s own teacher, yoga anatomist David Keil, is currently undertaking a broad survey of yoga injuries. It looks like a noble effort, well-supported and designed. But will Keil really be able to objectively assess whether his and Fox’s particular slice of the yoga pie – the Ashtanga method, famous for its joint-punishing acrobatics – is more or less safe than any other?
But I can understand Fox’s alarmism about injuries. When I started publishing on yoga’s shadows two years ago, I too was outraged that people should be getting hurt when they were looking for healing and succour. I quickly realized, however, that my crusade was about something deeper than the torn hamstrings and shoulder dislocations that could more easily happen in Crossfit or tennis. I learned that what little hard data we have shows that injury rates in yoga are quite low. And in more than two hundred interviews with subjects injured doing yoga, I’ve found that “expert” teaching is as much a predictor of injury as a preventer.
Why? Because key experts at the forefront of yoga’s globalization in the 1970s had some ideas about the human body that mingled the medieval with the naive. In his bestseller Light on Yoga, Iyengar suggested that placing one’s full weight of the body onto the head in headstand was a great idea. Pattabhi Jois – Fox’s own root-guru – said that his repetitive Primary Series was “Therapy for the Body.” Along with the echoes of their abusive childhoods, they passed these axioms down through training programmes where elaborateness projected legitimacy, and students matched cash with devotion to make their tuition.
My research has led me to believe that if there are injuries to worry about, they’re not primarily from particular postures or inadequate training hours. They come from dysfunctional learning relationships in which the abusive attitudes and behaviours of top teachers are internalized by students. If I were Fox, I’d be less interested in micromanaging the resumés of workaday British teachers than in sussing out the lingering effects of Iyengar battering his students, or Jois sexually harassing his.
For her part, Swami Ambikananda seems keen on a different kind of micromanagement: that of the image of yoga itself, to protect it from business-oriented interlopers like Fox. But when she claims that she stewards a 5000 year-old tradition that’s religious in nature, and Hindu in essence, and that regulating it would continue the barbarity of the Raj, she stretches the ligaments of credulity in a posture that many right-wing Indian politicians would applaud. Her argument should make atheist, agnostic, and Buddhist yogis nervous, even as it dodges the possibility that public oversight might prevent yoga lineages from falling into the psychopathy that religions are so good at covering up.
In fact, certain yoga regulations could even protect Ambikananda’s own school from negative aspersions. Her “Traditional Yoga Association” claims its spiritual heritage through relationship to Swami Sivananda. Unfortunately, so does the Satyananda School of Yoga, whose worldwide organisation has been rocked by allegations in Australia of fraud and child rape. With both schools claiming the same spiritual lineage, wouldn’t the Swami’s students be comforted by knowing her school was independently approved as a psychologically safe space? Because traditionalism, devotion, and positive orientalism give no insurance of kindness, safety, or sanity, maybe some regulation really is in order. Not of postures, but of power and projection.
I think the British Wheel can stop spinning on this one. The invisible hand is never a satisfying answer, but simple market pressures are positively impacting physical safety standards in classes worldwide. Trainings that want to be competitive now hire bonafide physiotherapists or osteopaths to teach the anatomy and physiology segments of their programmes. “Biomechanics” and “functional movement” are the new buzzwords of Yogaland, and the language of trauma sensitivity is starting to make trainers aware of both therapeutic possibility and overreach.
If the shouting dies down, consensus may gradually develop around touchy issues like the safety of headstand, passive stretching, and whether yoga’s flexibility fetish is dangerous to the hypermobile, or needs to be supplemented with resistance training. If we’re really lucky, an organic discussion will also emerge about a yoga teacher’s scope of practice. This is sorely needed when the commodified vision of teaching is limited to physical skills, and the traditionalist vision is bloated by promises of salvation.
While it all shakes out, people who just want to feel the loveliness of yoga can remember a few simple pointers. If you move with the simplicity and curiosity of a small child, you’re unlikely to hurt yourself. If a teacher seems to have an agenda for your body you don’t understand or didn’t consent to, they need to go to therapy.
New practitioners should also know that yoga bureaucrats cannot guarantee yoga safety. Nor can yoga priests. And that yoga bureaucrats who want to regulate often stand to capitalize on controlling the conversation, while yoga priests who want to resist regulation often stand to benefit from an absence of scrutiny and critical thinking. But if you seek out independent, low-key teachers who don’t put on airs and don’t lay their trips on your body, you might find their expertise offers something neither regulations nor religions can guarantee: humble service.