Modern Western postural yoga is wrestling, very quietly, with big questions about authenticity: what is yoga, really, and who has the authority to teach it?
The stakes are really high. Heritage, culture, religion, identity, and lots of brands and lots of money. Every so-called “yoga” teacher and “yoga” studio owner has a lot to lose if their particular interpretation of “yoga” is deemed inauthentic. But instead of this being a fiery debate, it’s a very quiet, almost taboo conversation. But it is a conversation people are having. All I can hope to do here is to open this conversation up a little bit.
Let me start with a story.
I started trying to get yoga people interested in Sanskrit more than ten years ago. Telling people they should learn some Sanskrit is like telling people they needed to drink less coffee. At least it was back then. I only ever had a handful of people get excited about the idea.
Then, two years ago, I took a drop-in asana class with Patsy Springer at Black Swan Yoga in Austin. Patsy used a lot of Sanskrit asana names and after class, asked me “How was my Sanskrit?” I was really delighted! Most yoga teachers don’t even try with the Sanskrit. And if they do, it’s so very rare that they ask me for feedback.
Patsy and I rested on a bench outside the studio and chatted about Sanskrit and teaching and that conversation resulted in an invitation to teach a three-hour session on Sanskrit pronunciation at Black Swan a few months later. More than fifty teachers and teachers-in-training attended the event!
I was flabbergasted. I had been trying to teach Sanskrit pronunciation for years in Austin. Where did all these people come from?
In the past two years, I have taught several Sanskrit workshops at yoga teacher trainings–five, I think. I ask people about their interest in Sanskrit and they say the same thing: there’s a real concern about authenticity in modern Western yoga. People want to put in the time to learn more about the Indian tradition. They want to show respect by pronouncing the Sanskrit correctly–or at least they want to try
Lots of people seem to recognize there is some sort of authenticity crisis in yoga. What is the nature of this crisis? How did it arise?
“Yoga’s gotten so far from its roots.” I recall one workshop participant saying that. I can see that. I studied yoga with a lead teacher who was a certified Iyengar teacher. Through her, I had a connection to Iyengar (who was still alive and teaching at the time) and, through him, Krishnamacharya. There are usually many more degrees of separation between today’s trainees and Krishnamacharya.
That’s not the whole reason though.
There’s all the rebranding. Every time yoga is rebranded (Baptiste, Bikram, Anusara, Core Power, and others) this signals it has been modified, and any modification might raise the question of authenticity.
Of course, Iyengar, Jois, Desikachar and other students of Krishnamacharya developed their own brands. This was the continuation of lineage; this wasn’t a crisis of authenticity.
What has happened in the West is unfettered modification, rebranding, and appropriation of yoga so extensive that it has resulted in the word “yoga” itself being stripped of almost all specificity.
There is an astonishing array of yogas in the marketplace. Some bear more resemblance to the yogas of Iyengar and other direct students of Krishnamacharya. Others bear less: aerial yoga, metal yoga, yoga trance dance, kinky yoga, Yoga Rave, stand-up paddleboard yoga, Yoga Shred, goat yoga, Harry Potter yoga, Holy Yoga, beer yoga, and I’ll include Orgasmic Meditation too because meditation is the original yoga.
There are more but this is enough. Think about that list, click on some of the links, and now let me ask you a question: what does the word “yoga” mean? What does it mean to us in the West today?
Sadly, I don’t think it means anything.
Consider an analogy. Mugs, like yoga, come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and there are a lot of things we call “mugs.” We call something a mug because it has certain features: it holds hot liquid, it’s insulated, it’s a good size and shape to be held in the human hand. The word “mug” has meaning, but the word “yoga” does not because we cannot identify a set of defining features that all yogas (all Western yogas) have.
Some of these yoga include asanas and some don’t. Some include meditation, some don’t. Some include awareness of the breath, some don’t. And the same goes for any other features that could be seen as definitive.
The rule for using the word “yoga” seems to be: if it bears some resemblance, any resemblance, to something else called “yoga,” you can call it “yoga” too.
But take any two things; they are alike in at least one way. They both are things, at least.
So, resembling some form of yoga in some way is a very weak criterion for calling something “yoga.” It means anything can be called “yoga,” and that’s almost where we are in the Western scene.
I don’t think “yoga” means anything in the West. People use it however they want. It’s more of a marketing strategy than anything else. This doesn’t mean there is no authentic yoga out there–as long as we’re understanding “yoga” in the traditional Sanskrit sense.
This doesn’t mean Western yoga can’t be authentic. What I’m saying is that the word itself has been so abused that it is no longer useful. This is a hardship for yoga teachers who are teaching something real because they can no longer use the word “yoga” to communicate what they are doing. “You say you’re teaching a ‘yoga’ weekend, but how do I know if I go I won’t end up half naked, covered with paint, and twerking to Beyonce?” Really! That reminds me, I forgot to add Buti Yoga to my list of yogas, above. If you don’t know what it is, check it out.
“Yoga” doesn’t indicate a type or practice anymore. It indicates an audience: “Hey, you, you’re the kind of person who likes yoga, right?” This audience tends to be young, White, trendy, fit, tattooed, liberal, adventuresome, middle-class, hetero, cis. Usually.
This is how deep the authenticity crisis goes.
People don’t know where to look for authenticity. Everybody claims to be offering something authentic. If it’s non-traditional, they will claim it’s authentic at heart or in essence. There are a lot of people making claims about the essence of yoga. That’s especially troubling because claims like that are going to be especially confusing to people. How can we assess them? What’s the essence of yoga? It’s troubling to me that Western yoga teachers of all stripes, from those teaching Iyengar yoga to those teaching something like metal yoga or Orgasmic Meditation, seem confident that they have their finger on the essence of yoga.
There is a lot of confidence in the yoga marketplace. (As we consider this issue, I don’t want us to ever forget that most Western yoga is taught and practiced in a commercial setting, so I keep using words like “brand” and “marketplace.”)
There is also a lot of confusion and concern. That gives me hope, though. People should be confused and they should be concerned. Those responses are rational.
We should wonder if what we were taught and what we are teaching has any integrity to it, not just because there’s kinky yoga and beer yoga. There are additional and very serious reasons for concern which I will address in my next post, Yoga’s Authenticity Crisis, Part 2. I’ll write about how trusted, national-level teachers spread modified/corrupted teachings without making students aware. I’ll also write about abusive gurus. Unfortunately, even those of us who studied at a reputable yoga school or are a member of a traditional Indian lineage probably have reason to worry about authenticity.
The crisis runs deep.