Yoga, Like Anything, Can Be Bad or Good

I’ve actively avoided reading a lot of the recent news articles and blog posts about the spate of controversies, both trumped-up and real, that have lately befallen the yoga industry. By actively I mean: people send me links to these and I refuse to read them. This is part of a self-awareness practice rooted in Sutra 2.16, which is usually translated along these lines: “The suffering which is yet to come may be avoided.” Of all 196 this is probably the Sutra I think about most often. Are you getting the sense yet that, when it comes to yoga, I’m not exactly an unbiased outside observer?

But maybe my semi-insider status is a good thing? (I have taught yoga on and off since completing a teacher training in 2008 and wouldn’t consider myself part of the “yoga world” or “scene” at all because “scenes” of any nature freak me out, especially ones that might involve kirtans, but I love yoga and am grateful every day for how my teachers have helped me change my brain and body). Maybe it’s actually helpful to have this background, though, when attempting to discern how much of the recent run of bad news is relevant to casual yoga practitioners? In that hope, I steeled myself and dove down into the murk, hoping to emerge from it with some lotus … blossoms … of … wisdom (oy.)

1. Seriously, who at the Times hates yoga? It is a conspiracy.

Yoga Didn’t Get Me Thin Enough For My Wedding, So I Hired A Personal Trainer Instead [Styles, 11/22/11]
Yoga Can Hurt People (Who Practice It Irresponsibly) (NO DUH) [Magazine, 1/5/11]
Yoga Increases Blood Flow To The Genitals (And Everywhere Else) And Started As A Sex Cult [Science, 2/27/12](those two are by the same guy)

oh and

Some People, Obviously An Outlying Minority, Think Yoga Should Be A Competitive Sport [Sports, 3/1/12]

Okay, okay, it’s not a conspiracy. I’m thinking … the Times has trouble with yoga because the Times basically embodies Western linear thought which is based on binaries and absolutes. It needs yoga to be either a spiritual discipline, a workout, a billion-dollar industry, or a sport. But yoga’s sort of all those things, and it’s different things to different people. Far be it from me to say what it “should” be. What it should not be: a profiteering enterprise that injures people by encouraging them to compete with themselves and each other. Luckily, that’s something it rarely is, though an irresponsible student can make even the safest class dangerous for himself by lying to his teacher and himself about his experience and his abilities. But that’s too boring and reasonable to be the focus of an article. (Even … this one!)

Oh and the weight loss thing is just … well, whatever. Styles! We don’t read it to become enlightened.

2. But, okay, that sex scandal thing.

“Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?” asked William J. Broad in that Science article. How completely silly. I’d be stunned to learn that there are more “philanderers” “produced” by yoga than by any other workplace or community. People like to have sex, and power differentials (teacher/student, priest/parishoner, boss/employee) are super hot. Yoga’s spiritual focus makes the bad behavior of its handsy gurus distressing, but do you really have to ask why?! No one asks why the uproars over abuse by priests leave so many Catholics shocked and distraught. That’s just sloppy reasoning.

But … but. We expect better from our teachers and leaders, of course we do. It’ll be interesting for anyone who enjoys thinking about human nature to learn the ultimate result of the John Friend story. Short version: a respected teacher and founder of a very popular form of alignment-based yoga, which is also a business (Anusara Inc.) had his sexy Internet dealings leaked by a disgruntled IT staffer. (Don’t disgruntle the IT staffers!) The facts of the situation aren’t yet clear, and so far Friend’s apologies have been tainted by a distressing tendency to devolve into a kind of Newagey doublespeak that makes politicians’ post-damaging-revelation press conferences seem downright straightforward. I’ve been interested to read the perspective of Elena Brower, a Friend acolyte who has cut ties with Anusara. She points out that all humans are fallible, even exalted teachers. This is an obvious-seeming fact that everyone has a weird tendency to forget in the lulls between scandals.

So, to sum up: I’m not sad for yoga. Class attendance seems not to be down. This stuff is worrisome but not as worrisome to New York yogis as the constant threat that state licensing rules will change in ways that will put smaller studios and less rockstarish teachers out of business. It would be cool if the Times would focus on that, but I guess it’s just not sexy.

Photo by istolethetv, via Flickr