“Yoga is for everyone!”
Certainly you’ve heard this phrase uttered before; I’ve said it, and meant it. But 6 years of teaching yoga full-time, now owning a yoga studio and directing a teacher training has been informative, and a little disappointing in this regard. The fact is, this phrase which seems to be so inclusive is misleading and misguided despite our very sincere intentions. Yoga, as it has developed in our Western culture is decidedly not for everyone. In my yoga studio in Omaha I’m thrilled to see new clients walk through the door, especially new students who don’t necessarily fit the yoga type. Often they come with their friend or spouse to a favorite class or teacher. Many times I look on helpless as this poor individual is seemingly led to the slaughter in a class that they are little suited for and likely never to attend again. I worry that my clients, especially my male clients understand that yoga = pain. I see the grimace, the concern, the quiet acceptance and try to catch them before they leave. I worry that these individuals walk away thinking that they are the problem. That they are just too weak, too inflexible, too old. The simple fact, the one that I as a yoga studio owner can’t seem to overcome, is that we serve a much smaller portion of the population than well “everyone”. It doesn’t help that we as teachers seem to be, with good intentions, perpetuating this myth that asana is ancient and inherently good; therefore if you cannot perform these positions then you as the the student are the problem. It’s true that we try very hard to accommodate all students in our classes. We offer props, modifications… we tell them to take childs pose and rest if the breath is compromised, we scrap lesson plans and make up new ones off the top of our head when a certain individual walks in just to keep them safe and we try to lead students to the right class before they ever walk into the studio. Still, so many students walk out thinking “I can’t do yoga” or worse never show up at all. This phrase “Yoga is for Everyone” rings false and it’s result is harmful . I think we are dealing with a dual issue here; #1 Misperceptions abound as to where yoga asana actually comes from and #2 Capitalism has reared is beautiful yet blunt and unfeeling head even here in our sacred yoga practice.
Though a few asanas are very old, ancient in fact, most are very modern and were originally developed during a worldwide physical culture movement in early 20th century. I could go way back here and explain how European Gymnastics melded with an Indian culture striving to reclaim itself after British occupancy for hundreds of years but that is another blog. I will say that the father of modern flow yoga and likely yogaasana’s most well-known influence Krishnamacharya originally taught and developed the postures we do now to and with the young boys of a Palace school in Mysore, the Yogasala. He borrowed heavily if not in many cases entirely from Indian school gymnastics programs created by both Indian and European individuals and organizations. Krishnamacharya’s Ashtanga series was designed primarily as a demonstration for the boys to show fellow Indians just how fantastic India’s own Physical Culture was for young patriotic bodies. Much about the Ashtanga Primary series is reflective of its roots as a travelling demo by a group of young men and boys. Easier poses at the beginning for the younger kids, harder poses toward the end for the older students, five breaths in the pose for informative narration. These are the roots of modern posture practice. Sure, other teachers like Pattabi Jois and Iyengar (just a couple of Krishnamacharya’s students back in the 1930’s) have taken these ideas and made them their own, even transformed them for use by adults worldwide . But there is nothing ancient about it, nothing inherently safe or even necessarily beneficial (despite common rhetoric espoused as absolute truth). A typical client at my studio is a woman in her 40s, premenopausal, busy, stressed. I can say that knowing that the asanas that make up a typical Western flow class were originally developed for pre-pubescent boys with loads of energy tends to change one’s perspective on what her practice should look like. Even Krishnamacharya changed his teaching greatly after his time in Mysore to a therapeutic emphasis. So does that mean we should throw it all out since it’s not ancient? Of course not. For many students of Hatha Yoga it works. Myself included. We in the West need posture practice! We need to move our bodies and re-aquaint ourselves with our own selves in our very fractured, distracted, pathology centered lives. We have to get back to being whole and listening to our own needs and I’ve found no other way to do this as well as yogaasana.
The second part of the problem in my view is the McAttitude that passes for the norm in every service industry in our culture of which yoga studios are a part. McDonalds may have begun the trend of cheap and fast; get em’ in, serve a homogenized, pre-fab low-cost product and get em on their way with a smile on their face and they were really on to something. This is how we like to do things in the US for better or for worse. For many students yoga classes work. They really work. It’s efficient for their schedule, they like the community, the support, the accountability and the price. For the record, I like yoga classes. As a student of yoga I prefer to be on my own but as a teacher of yoga I get a real high from teaching in a room of focused, mindful individuals who are treating themselves and their fellow classmates with utmost compassion. It’s something we’ve manufactured here in the West, this group exercise thing and it works really well for both businesses and consumers. But consider the population that yoga studios are and should, but maybe aren’t, serving. The average class is for students in good to excellent health. In general yoga classes tend to work best for women… as William Broad has recently so controversially pointed out. Yet much of our country’s population is aging (baby boomers… alot of them), most of our population is overweight or obese, knee and back problems are leading causes of disability, two things that can be exacerbated by inadequate yoga instruction. We can’t possibly serve let alone help these individuals to heal within the current paradigm. No Way! I’ve tried, believe me. Modern class structure and the current image that yoga has is eliminating or hurting the majority of people who need yoga the most.
For the record I do believe that yoga is for everyone. But to meet our students where they are we will need to take an honest look at ourselves AND at the people who need us. We’ll have to utilize the full spectrum of what yoga can offer and we’ll have to be much more skilled as a profession. As a devoted practitioner of yoga, a professional teacher, studio owner and teacher of teachers I believe that nothing short of a complete shift in thinking will truly make yoga/yoga posture practice available and safe for “everyone”.
Firstly, we need to consider the many modalities of yoga. We are pretty focused on asanas right now but many of the breathing techniques can be enormously helpful to those who can’t perform asana safely. In my experience with sick clients the breath is incredibly dysfunctional. Most yoga teachers are trained to teach breathing but it seems that breathing is still widely misunderstood and poorly taught. Of course meditation is invaluable as a tool for healing and living a more happy life in general, this has been widely discussed for decades. Chanting is a tool that is overlooked in the West. It’s therapeutic use was widely explored during Krishnamacharya’s later career. Often chant takes on a very devotional character that makes students uncomfortable but in a therapeutic context students can chant anything that is meaningful to them. In this way it becomes both a breathing exercise and a meditation. These modalities can be introduced in a specific class context or one on one with transformative results.
What about just being more honest with ourselves about who we can best serve with our talents. I think we need to become better as a profession about referring students who we can’t help or shouldn’t help to a teacher who can. All to often we get into the numbers game as teachers. Which makes sense because mostly our pay is tied to our attendance. Realistically though no teacher can be the “right” teacher for every student. To make yoga for “everyone” we’ll need to work better together, as a community of service.
Education. Duh. For most of us a high quality 200 hour RYT training is exactly what we need to teach group classes to relatively healthy individuals. It gets tricky though when we start to branch out into the realm of Yoga Therapy and also into making yoga more accessible to a broader segment of the population. Here’s the problem though, these specialized trainings are just incredibly expensive and nearly impossible to work into the schedule of the average teacher of yoga, especially since nearly all of them require extensive travel. I think we need to be more realistic about tuition costs if we are serious about helping yoga professionals the best they can be. Integrating yoga training into higher learning is an encouraging start. Distance learning should also be a viable and respected alternative. Which could result in lower costs for professionals seeking credentials and respectable profit for institutions offering these opportunities.
There is another side to the education component as well. We need to do a better job of educating the non-yoga professional community about what yoga is and what it does. Yoga is NOT medicine, medicine is medicine. We are not trained to diagnose illness or to give treatments. Medicine is pathology centered, Yoga is perfection centered. We approach from the perspective that each of us is and has always been whole and that our job is to help illuminate that wholeness. This should be our mantra, then maybe someday we can convince our prospective clients and give them a realistic understanding of what yoga has to offer.
Educating the medical establishment as well will be key. Clients come to my studio often telling us that their doctor has recommended yoga for some issue. This is wonderful, I’m so thankful that the word is out about how good yoga is for you but the problem is that they show up to a Power Class to help with their bad back. This class puts them at a high risk for making their injury much worse, but how could they know that? Until the medical establishment understands that not all yoga is the same we need to get better as a profession at saying “NO”. I will not take your money but I will refer you to the right class/right teacher for your needs.
Thankfully we as a yoga community are insightful and intelligent. It is not beyond us to look for a better way and to put others before ourselves. We can create a Yoga that really is for everyone. I don’t want to give the impression that I am critical of our current establishment, only that we can do better with some mindfulness and some soul searching about who we serve best as individuals. As a community we need to support each other, even our competitor! When more students are led to a truly healthy practice of yoga we all thrive.