As new yoga styles continue to surface, in most western cities you can now find everything from hip hop yoga to goat yoga. The yoga-lebrity culture is on the rise, and bikini clad yoginis are abundant on social media, leaving many devotees feeling that modern yoga is disrespectful to the tradition.
According to Yoga Alliance, “One direct consequence of the yoga awakening across the world is that yoga has become synonymous with asanas or yoga poses,” which is only one of the many aspects of yoga practice. They say, “The true purpose of this 5,000+ year old practice…was never about contorting into the perfect pose, wearing cute yoga outfits of building followers.”
The traditional yogis’ practice was mostly focussed on knowledge, which, through meditation and contemplation, reunites one with their true self whose nature represents consciousness, truth and bliss (Sat Chit Ananda). The purpose of yoga is freedom, and liberation from all bondage, pain and suffering (Moksha). The practice is an act of devotion whose meaning seems to have been diluted through modern practices that focus on fitness, fun and self-esteem.
Recent research illustrates that one in 10 Australians now practice yoga – a figure that has doubled since 2008, making yoga Australia’s fastest growing fitness activity. But are today’s, western practices honouring the tradition of yoga, or are they so watered down that its essence is all but lost?
Modern Yoga: The good, the bad and the ugly
Rachel Zinman has been practicing yoga for 35 years and teaching for 26. When she first started, she recalls, “When you studied with someone you knew they had lineage and practice behind them…There was immense respect for the teachers and one felt lucky to study with them.”
Rachel says, “Now I feel the market is saturated with inexperienced teachers and studios that have no connection with tradition or lineage.” She notices that perfect postures and number of followers seems to be overtaking the search for yoga’s true meaning. She says, “Often to get students in the door studios niche themselves, confusing things that we do to entertain ourselves and relax with yoga. Get high and do yoga, drink wine and do yoga, get naked and do yoga.”
Mark Breadner is another highly respected teacher in Australia, with 35 years of experience, who has seen big shifts in the yoga industry. Mark was introduced to yoga through his mother, who started teaching in the late 1950s. He says, “When mum and I were teaching it was kind of an underground fringe activity, sitting on the edges of counter culture.” Mark remarks that these days teachers are placing more emphasis on creating a brand that caters to a modern audience with a short attention span. He says, “The use of music, gimmicks and trying to be entertaining has become more predominant. The practice has deviated from the science of human potential. Sequences are getting more creative and difficult and many times not appropriate to the level of the students. Where is the transcendence?”
For Mark, social media creates the wonderful possibility of sharing the deeper philosophiesof yoga with a global audience, but is often used to reinforce peoples’ identities. He says, “Yoga is about setting aside the identity, disentangling, and being less identified and more inclusive…There are a lot of sexy, difficult poses in sexy outfits in sexy locations and it’s very clear that if you do that you will get more likes and build a following. Now we can all appreciate a beautiful healthy body doing a difficult pose but –what is your message?”
Simon Borg Olivier has been teaching yoga for over 33 years and is a physiotherapist, research scientist and university lecturer. He stresses that modern practices focusing mostly on physical fitness tend to put students into their fight or flight, and, as a result of this over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system “the dominant emotions (at least on a subconscious level) tend to be fear, anger, aggression, competitiveness, and a sense of lack of safety. This does not sound at all to me like the yoga described in the Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras”, he says.
Despite the obvious deviations from traditional practices, some modifications are needed in introducing yoga to a modern, western demographic. After all, in early traditions of yoga the practice was only prescribed to male, religious ascetics who renounced society to find enlightenment in the isolation of nature.
Nicole Walsh has been teaching yoga for over 16 years as well as running a successful yoga business. She feels that most of the problems associated with modern yoga stem from attempts to blend business with the sacred practice. She says, “In order to commodity yoga, asana (which can be dressed up to look much more sexy than pranayama or meditation) has become separated from the more subtle and internal practices, and the general public are less exposed to the practices and philosophies that facilitate greater upliftment and transformation of the human spirit.”
In order to keep up in this competitive and saturated yoga market, many businesses look for ways to stand out from the crowd. “Teachers are teaching tricky sequences with thumping playlists to get more bums on mats – obviously essential to the bottom line of a business,” says Nicole. Although she is skeptical of many of the modern day practices, she is sympathetic to their introduction to the yoga market. She says, “Teachers are looking for ways to connect yoga with people of this age. I can’t say I agree with all of the methods, but it certainly is introducing a lot of people to yoga who maybe wouldn’t try it.”
For Mandy Scotney, yoga teacher and General Manager at Sydney’s long running and successful studio BodyMindLife, it’s about finding balance between authenticity and modernity. She says, “We will never sacrifice the fundamental elements of the practice for gimmicks…But we need to make sure we’re accessible to students of different levels and backgrounds…Everything evolves over time and yoga isn’t immune to that.” Mandy believes that it’s the responsibility of yogis in the industry to allow that evolution to unfold in a way that still honours tradition.
The silver lining of the fads and increased awareness of yoga is that the practice is no longer restricted to a select few. Yoga Alliance agrees, “It is crossing demographic barriers and finding increased adoption among young children and senior citizens…Yoga is gaining increased acceptance in schools as many academics see it as a way to increase concentration and curb negative behaviour…Corporate leaders are now encouraging their employees to practice yoga.”
Sammy Veal, owner and founder of Melbourne’s Yoga 213, a Hip Hop Yoga studio combining music with vinyasa and yin, started her studio with a goal to make yoga joyful and accessible for everyone, particularly those who feel intimidated by more traditional practices. Although her teachings aren’t strictly traditional, for Sammy they still honour yoga’s roots. She says, “We are still practicing the same poses, learning the same meditation techniques and anatomy. We are living the true nature of what yoga is all about…We tell our students that we are not creating happiness – you are using your yoga practice to reveal your natural state which IS happiness.”
Maintaining the traditions in a modern landscape
For Rachel, respectfully upholding the traditions of yoga is about education and inspiration. She says, “Educate people about the true meaning of yoga – about tradition, heritage and where yoga has come from. We need to inspire people to seek out authentic and learned teachers with a proven track record.”
Mark notes that social media can certainly be used positively to promote traditional yogic philosophies. He says, “Before it was not possible to access those high teachings without going to India. Now you can just sit on the bus and take it in and send love heart emoji’s to show your gratitude.” For Mark, teachers must continue to practice and develop their understanding of yoga’s deeper philosophies to maintain respect for the tradition. He says, “Lets show our gratitude to the rishis, sages and gurus that went before us and through great austerities got to the highest human possibility and then mapped a path out for us to live a more fulfilling, satisfying life. It’s our responsibility to honour their legacy.”
Yoga’s traditional philosophies and practices have undoubtedly been diluted in the modern, western world, but introducing practices that appeal to the masses may inevitably lead to more students, who ultimately seek to understand the deeper roots of yoga.
Mindfulness for the masses or marketing madness?
The practice involves partnering with your pooch for a session of dog training, asana, meditation and gentle massage, and is said to create positive attachment and greater harmony between humans and their fur babies.
Teachers who advocate drunk yoga claim that students are more flexible and confident after a beverage or two (or three). These classes, often held in pubs, are said to entice beginners to the practice, helping them lose the inhibitions often associated with trying a class for the first time.
Nude Yoga first appeared in the 1960s and re-emerged in the early 2000s. A clear metaphor for self-acceptance and embracing vulnerability, the practice is inspired by traditional yogis who considered nudity a way of rejecting material values.
Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga
SUP classes are held on water while using a paddleboard in place of a mat. The practice is said to help students become aware of even the subtlest movement and therefore facilitate balance.
Stoned or Ganja Yoga has become a huge hit in the states, where cannabis laws are allowing widespread use of the plant. In Hindu mythology, Law Shiva is said to have consumed cannabis before entering into deep meditation, and modern yogis are now attempting to follow suit.
Goat Yoga has quickly become the latest trend, even making its way to rural Australia. Advocates say it’s a practice that allows people to tap into the positive effects of bonding with animals.
Words by Jessica Humphries for Australian Yoga Journal.