6 Critical Problems in Modern Yoga, and How to Work with Them
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How to study and define “yoga” with integrity, humility, and respect. (Sincerely engaging the cultural appropriation issue.)
There’s been a lot of excellent work done recently on the question of cultural appropriation. So much can be learned from the insights of Andrea Jain, Susanna Barkataki, Roopa Singh, and many other critical voices. But the pathway to cultural competency and integrity, especially for non-Indian practitioners, is in no way clear. Further: the question of who defines yoga and how has been increasingly politicized — at times aggressively — by opposing groups with contradictory agendas.
Unfortunately, bad actors in this realm can build entire call-out careers based on manipulating white guilt/shame responses. Or, they can use the premise of cultural authenticity to disguise the nature of the high-demand group to which they belong.
In this meeting, we’ll explore some basic ideas for how to orient yourself in relation to these often-fraught conversations. We’ll explore the value of personal vs. public definitions of yoga and the range of positions various groups occupy in response to the appropriation question, from “Hindu Nationalist Separatism” to what I call “Social Justice-Oriented Integrationism”.
We’ll also explore two tools for navigating this topic with eyes wide open. 1) a definition of yoga that can both honour its indigenous roots and acknowledge the variations brought about by globalization, and 2) a scope of practice for recognizing your blindspots and limitations in matters of “yoga humanities”, and 3) ideas for how to be a good ally in these conversations. This meeting will not end tensions over cultural appropriation, but it will give you resources to engage the issue with integrity, and to not increase polarization.
Cultural appropriation is real. But so is the manipulation of the issue. This meeting will help distinguish the two.
How to think about and what to do about the history of male violence in modern yoga education.
Misogyny, authoritarianism, and presumed consent with regard to touch in some modern yoga communities continue to endanger students. These patterns are at least a century old. They persist wherever they are unexamined.
The main evangelists of Modern Postural Yoga were men who report learning environments of somatic dominance and corporal punishment. The very basis for “adjusting” students today cannot be understood as historically separate from the physical abuse of these earlier years. This boundary-averse culture has flourished in an unregulated industry in which charisma — especially in the form of bodily mastery — is the primary currency of success. It is now clear that fear of violence lurks in the shadow of the charisma that emerged around people like Iyengar, Jois, and Choudhury… and subsequently around their non-Indian devotees.
In this meeting we’ll look at male violence at the root of modern yoga education, and learn that, at least in its group class manifestation, it has no roots within any “traditional” yoga. We’ll look at how medieval hatha yoga was actually adamant about the need for gentleness in practice, so that the pain and injury-free practitioner could enjoy the full experience of transformation. We’ll see how the modern add-ons of group class instruction and the demands of performance and demonstration changed all of that. This will set us up to understand how the crimes committed by someone like Pattabhi Jois is the overflow of a more basic law of domination.
How do we get out of this spiral? Why do its effects linger, even as the practice demographic is now 80% women?
This meeting will offer an explanation of how — beyond education in rape culture and toxic masculinity — we can use the trauma-informed principles of informed and affirmative consent to undermine and redirect this entire history.
How to think about and what to do about the history of photo-centric performance stress in modern yoga.
Yoga in the 20th century has seen three major interlocking changes that together have transformed the very meaning of the body in practice: group classes, gender inclusivity, and photography as a primary means of instruction, marketing, and branding.
This meeting will touch on the first two in order to concentrate on the third: looking at how the shift from oral to visual/performative pedagogy in the early 20th century disrupted a key component of “traditional” practice: the yogin’s ability to concentrate primarily on internal sensations.
Today, it’s common to fret over the influence of Instagram. But this is not a new problem. The freezing, isolation, medicalization, and exoticization of yoga postures into photography goes right back to the 1930s, and yoga practitioners have been grappling, often in the dark, against the implications ever since.
In this meeting we’ll look at how both trauma-sensitivity and yoga service orientations can dismantle the false power of the objectified body, and begin to help return focus to interoception. We’ll also consider the business implications — both positive and negative — of withdrawing from the Insta-economy.
How to understand and avoid cultic dynamics in yoga and spiritual groups.
It is now clear that cultic dynamics are a feature — not a bug — of yoga and Buddhist organizations in the modern global period. In this meeting, we’ll look how these dynamics can easily emerge in an unregulated industry through a combination of charismatic leadership, deception, spiritual bypassing, enabling, and bystanderism. We’ll also look at how the implicit hyperindividualism of the yoga world discourages structural analyses, encouraging us to blame victims or perpetrators instead of structures and institutions when things go wrong.
This meeting will offer clear definitions of cult dynamics and processes drawn from the evidence-based literature. It will also offer two tools for community protection and resilience outlined in PAAIC: the PRISM model for yoga teachers/trainers/supervisors, and “8 Best Practices” for identifying and resisting the cultic.
One important aspect of this work that will be expanded upon from previous presentations is the way in which cultic dynamics are not simply the domain of well-known groups, but also, in varying intensities, many smaller groups as well. The high demands and deception so obvious in the Jois tragedy, for example, can play out in subtler forms in your local yoga studio, retreat centre, or training venue. If we know that nurturance culture (Samaran) is key to our health, wellbeing, and even survival — it pays to understand clearly how it is disrupted.
This meeting will also look at how survivors of abuse in yoga communities can be better heard and understood, and how their stories can be placed at the forefront of reform.
How to resist the co-optation of yoga practice, teaching, and culture as a means of making privilege and consumer capitalism more “spiritual”.
It’s not a coincidence that the global yoga boom (c. 1990-present) has coincided with the rise and normalization of neoliberal politics, economics, and philosophy. Arguably, yoga has become a popular religion for an era marked by the disintegration of social contracts, worker’s rights, stable incomes, and the notion of the common good. Yoga encourages us to bend and flow with the times, lean in to our disappointments, study ourselves, correct our bodies, flaws and inefficiencies, accept challenges with grace, commit to not only non-violence but positivity, and consume more and more wellness products and ideologies when we suffer, because the problem is within.
Understanding yoga culture as being ripe for commercial appropriation — not just in cultural terms but through political and economic forces — is a key step in revisioning what it might be like to practice as a form of resistance to, rather than compliance with, the dominant culture.
How and why to practice in the shadow of climate crisis.
Well, what can we say here? This meeting will be less programmed than the rest, which will allow for more discussion and roundup of past meetings. But here are some thoughts on this topic and how it overlaps with topics #1-5:
- Impending climate crisis forces us to re-evaluate what it means to hope in something. The promise of eternal growth and self-improvement (#5) has to be seen as part of the distortion that got us here.
- Collapse is unevenly distributed. Those who will/are suffer(ing) most are those who have also been marginalized by colonial or imperialist powers. (#1)
- The aggression of achievement will not help us. (#2, 3)
- The more vulnerable our societies and institutions become, the more ripe our networks will be to cultic dynamics. (#4)
- Maybe the Bhagavad Gita has something very pertinent to say about why we should do our best in hopeless situations. (#1)
- It might help for us to reconnect with nature in order to self-regulate and address grief. Just maybe not in in the tropics. Unless you live there. (#5)