yoga

The changing face of yoga 

As yoga continues to evolve in the western world, we look to some well-known yogis for their reflections on the yoga of today, and their hopes for the future

My own yoga journey began 20 years ago when I was 14 years old. Over this time, I’ve watched as yoga has come out of the woodworks and into mainstream meccas around Australia and beyond. The practice has moved from community halls and into professionally designed sanctuaries, outdoor Balinese shalas and the homes of the rich and famous. 

Yoga instructors today rarely resemble my original teachers, with their long white hair, mala beads and the scent of patchouli enveloping their aura. These days, your teacher is most likely sporting the latest Lululemons and wowing you with impressive sequences, epic playlists and an anatomy vocabulary that would have impressed Iyengar himself. 

There’s no denying that yoga has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, and every day we’re stumbling upon absurd new hybrids like goat yoga, beer yoga and rage yoga, leaving traditionalists squirming. 

Yoga, as we know it today, is worlds away from the traditional practices that were created to unite with the divine; to understand that we are all one collective consciousness, and to honour something greater than the individual self (God, the Universe, or whatever your interpretation is). The practice has evolved since its introduction to the western world, and we, in turn, have influenced the way that yoga is practiced in the east. 

While there has almost always been a focus on the physical aspect of yoga, we seem to have moved away from the simple Hatha practices that were created to facilitate one in finding a comfortable seat for meditation, and towards something almost entirely exercise-inspired. Of course, even the most diluted classes often have an element of spirituality – time to be still and look within in Savasana, or a reminder to embrace the philosophies of ahimsa (non-violence) by being gentle with one’s body. And we can’t deny the often valuable spiritual lessons/metaphors available through asana. But, the times they are clearly a changing, leaving so many of us scratching our heads and wondering, for better or for worse? 

Meet the yogis 

Rachel Zinman

Rachel Zinman has been practicing since 1983, teaching since 1992 and teaching teachers since 2000. She’s studied with some of the most influential teachers in the west including Alan Finger and Mark Whitwell, as well as immersing herself in the study of Vedanta. She is the Author of Yoga for Diabetes, How to Manage your Health with Yoga and Ayurveda and writes for many online and in print magazines. 

Simon Borg-Olivier 

Simon Borg-Olivier studied and taught at Sydney University over a period of 20 years. In that time he completed a Bachelor of Science in human biology, a research based Master of Science in molecular biology and a Bachelor of Applied Science in Physiotherapy. Simon is the co-founder and owner of Yoga Synergy and has over 33 years experience teaching yoga, inspiring people all around the world. 

Ana Forrest & Jose Calarco

Ana Forrest is an internationally recognised pioneer in yoga and emotional healing, and the founder of Forrest Yoga – a powerfully physical, internally focused practice that emphasises how to integrate the transformative experiences from the mat into purposeful daily life. Forrest Yoga is now an exquisite collaboration between Ana and her husband Jose Calarco. Integrating their worlds of yoga, music, culture, philosophy, healing and Shamanism, they have transmuted Forrest Yoga into a sanctuary, where students learn to cultivate love and their own renewed sense of hope. 

Duncan Peak

Duncan is the Founder, Facilitator and CEO of Power Living – one of Australia’s largest and most successful yoga communities. With 14+ years of teaching experience behind him, he continues to share his modern-day yoga philosophy with the community. Duncan has an anatomy background in NeuroSpinology, has completed extensive traditional yoga studies with Georg Feuerstein and practiced Raja Yoga for nearly 20 years.  He is the author of Modern Yoga, creator of multiple yoga DVDs/CDs and launched Australia’s first virtual yoga platform, Yogaholics. 

Sol Ulbirch

Sol joined Power Living in 2007 and has been the Training & Development Manager since 2011. From a background as a professional dancer and choreographer, Sol has practiced Ashtanga, Hatha, Shadow, Vinyasa and Yin Yoga. He has trained with many leading yoga teachers including David and Simi Roche, Gary Cook, Baron Baptiste and Duncan Peak.

Gina Brescianini

Gina started practicing Kundalini yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan in 2001, perfect for supporting her busy life with The Australian ballet. Once she retired from ballet she opened a small yoga school teaching Kundalini Yoga and Pilates, then moved on to teach Vinyasa Yoga at Power Living. Gina has been teaching since 2010 and is now a lead facilitator at Power Living. 

Truth Robinson 

Truth’s journey began in 2001 when he embarked upon a worldwide tour through the many flavours of yoga; Ashtanga (UK), Agama (Tantric yoga, Thailand), Sivananda (India), Iyengar (India), and Satyananda (India). Truth is also a practicing and registered Doctor of Chinese Medicine (Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine), which has inspired him to delve into a deeper understanding of the energetic pathways (qi meridians), how movement influences them and their ultimate impact upon our mental and emotional well-being.

Troy Abraham

A much-loved member of the Power Living crew, Troy came to yoga as a way to gain flexibility for surfing and snowboarding. After falling in love with the practice, he went on to study with Power yoga guru Baron Baptiste. With nearly 10 years of teaching experience around the world, Troy has studied with some world-renowned teachers, and has assisted in graduating hundreds of students of his own. 

Thoughts on modern yoga

Duncan 

“I believe we have removed a lot of the mystique that scared people away from yoga practices and made it much more accessible to the everyday person…I think modern yoga is a natural evolution, similar to the original evolution of Tantra and subsequently Hatha yoga, to be able to be practiced by the masses and a doorway to so much more.”

Simon 

“There are some great things about yoga in the modern world for sure…But increasingly, many people who have been involved with yoga for more that just a few years believe that yoga has lost its essence…Real meditation was [once] considered to be very difficult and would take years to master. You would need to have the ability to be able to sit naked in the snow. Now it seems anyone can sit and meditate.”

Rachel

“So many people take the outer shapes to be the meaning of yoga. That if you can bend, stretch and push your body you’ve achieved the essence of yoga. If you sit for a few moments in a beautiful place and take a breath, that’s yoga. And sure all these things give you a glimpse of yoga, but yoga is not a practice! It’s the nature of yourself. Find out who that SELF is and you’ve found yoga. Everything else is just scratching the surface.”

On Instagram

Troy

“What I’ve seen is a flood of students/teachers posting well-produced pictures/videos of themselves looking “divine” and attaching some philosophy that is unrelated to the shot as well as the appropriate hashtags to fish for attention. My view isn’t the most positive, and every well-followed teacher I talk to says, “I don’t like to do it, but you just have to.” So I feel like it’s a few gems of value wrapped in a whole lot of marketing with little substance.” 

Simon

“Instagram photos and videos can show anatomy in terms of strength, flexibility and physical capabilities, but it does not show the physiological features such as the state of the nervous system or the internal organs, the state of mind or the philosophy behind the practice.” 

Duncan

“It’s taken over! But it gives a platform to connect with thousands of people that you couldn’t do if you were just a studio or solo travelling teacher. It’s made the industry very competitive and at times, quite shallow, but this isn’t just our industry, it’s common across any social media’s influence. As a studio owner, it would be silly to think you can survive in our market without being on social media, whatever your opinions, good or bad, it’s a reality.”

On modern yoga sequencing and music

Sol

“I get that it can be fun sometimes, but choreography is different to planning a class sequence that is balanced and informed and appropriate. Too often the desire for unique, new individual choreography with the latest tunes comes at the expense of anatomical foundations, balanced practice and ultimately an experience of yoga. Having to be guided through a complex routine makes it impossible to go within to a state of meditative awareness.”

Truth

“Yoga is yoga. It will meet people where they are at whether that be sweating it out in a New York City loft to a soundtrack of banging beats or in a Himalayan cave doing a Jain practice, it will always bring them back home to their being-ness. This is yoga. “

Gina

“I feel that music can be used in classes but it needs to be done in a way that is intelligent and harmonious to the outcome of the students actually getting to experience yoga…Of course you can do fun classes that are more celebratory in manner to more pumping tunes, but to always practice like that the mind is distracted and unfocused, which goes against the goal of finding concentration/focus and stilling the mind.”

Ana & Jose

“A lot of modern music and uneducated sequencing in yoga today borders on absolute nonsense and leads to injuries. With Forrest Yoga, we use music organically and live, including music from the first nations. Music has the power to get into places words cannot and helps us delve deeply into the subliminal parts of ourselves.”

On 200-hour yoga teacher trainings

Troy

“I did start teaching after 200 hours, but I also travelled and mentored with my teacher for three years, and am very grateful because I was able to observe and absorb a lot of subtle nuances that have helped me as a teacher today. This is where I learned to teach vs. instruct. These days, the allure of being a yoga teacher has outweighed the desire to share the practice, in my opinion, and people rush to market themselves before they invest in their ability to genuinely connect with fellow humans.”

Simon

“To do a 200-hour course is great, but no one should realistically be able to be a teacher after it. A good yoga teacher should have the combined abilities of a medical doctor, a physiotherapist, a psychologist, a master educator and a master yogi. Not even one of these traits can be learnt in one month.”

Ana & Jose

“On the whole, 200 hours is not enough for the majority, as a yoga teacher has the added responsibilities of also being a spiritual teacher and guide these days. The 200 hour course should be just the beginning of their education!”

On yoga online

Duncan

“Well we have our own Yogaholics website, so I see it as something that supports our community and provides a modern day platform to connect with people. Like any online course, it’s limited in what it can teach, as it lacks the ‘classroom feedback’ environment…If I’m honest, there’s a part of me that wishes online yoga had never begun, but I’m old school in that way. Yet I am smart enough to know it’s a reality in our future and my best personal alignment to it is to let it evolve, not resist it.”

Sol

“Like all modern evolutions there are benefits for accessibility, reach and communication of knowledge that may otherwise be inaccessible. It can be very helpful for more academic study areas in particular such as anatomy and philosophy. However, it is not a replacement for quality direct connection and transmission of knowledge under supervision from a skilled teacher.”

On philosophy

Truth

“If you want to just teach the Scandinavian gymnastics that have been assimilated by the Indians and then exported back to the west, then it’s not very important. But if you want to delve into the philosophy for yourself and then to add complexity to your classes, to offer moments of reflection to your students to help them help themselves in their daily life, then it is really important.”

Gina

“Applying and understanding the ancient teachings and how to live them in our modern day world is where personal transformation is possible. Really, at the heart of the practice it is about how to transcend unnecessary suffering, be more mindful, present and aware. As yoga teachers we can bring the richness of philosophical tradition and make it relevant to our current world for our students in class.” 

Ana & Jose

“The more a yoga teacher knows, the better. Be it nutrition, anatomy, world affairs, philosophy etc. These days a yoga teacher needs to play many roles.”

The commerciality of yoga/yoga hybrids like Beer yoga and Goat yoga 

Rachel

“On the one hand I am inspired to see yoga available everywhere, but on the other hand there are so many iterations of yoga that it’s hard to recognise that it’s actually yoga anymore. I am referring to CBD yoga, Beer yoga, Goat yoga, Whatever yoga! I wish everyone could just chill out and recognise that yoga is actually what’s happening in every second. We are the yoga itself. The expression of that is in the diversity of creation.”

Duncan

“I remember over 15 years ago I sat at the feet of a well know enlightened man in India. He knew I was a ‘Power yoga’ teacher back then and had very little understanding of the great practice.  Somewhat embarrassed I was sure, in his eyes, I was the epitome of ’too commercial.’ Yet, rather than judge me, he loved me and was genuinely interested in how yoga was working through me. He was/is simply an example of where the path can lead us. After that experience, I never judged someone for being too this or that, I started to accept that everyone has their own ideas, beliefs and paths.”

Troy

“Personally, my favourite students are the ones who get dragged in by a partner and have already decided to have a bad class. If I can turn them onto what yoga can be, as opposed to what it should be, I have done my job, and they can implement some of the practice into their lives. In the same way, if someone needs a goat to get started, rock on! We all started with some for of training wheels.”

Gina

“There is nothing wrong with a bit of fun and having a laugh. If it introduces the student to yoga and they actually attend a full yoga class after that then great – it did its job. We each have a different journey to begin the practice. Whatever encourages more people to practice yoga I’m all for.”

On the future of yoga

Simon 

“I believe that if yoga keeps going as it has been going over the last few decades it will become even more watered down. Gradually I think it will also become less popular due to this phenomenon.”

Truth 

“I see the Australian yoga movement really growing in its desire for mindfulness. Yin and meditation is really growing in popularity and all the styles and practices that I learnt in the ashrams of India are starting to become more mainstream, which is great to see. People are learning that they are a two-part being, both mind and body. When the mind is out of balance and then the body will be too.”

Rachel

“I am hopeful that there will be a swing back to simplicity. That people will want more depth and they will come to realise that yoga has answers to questions we haven’t even thought of yet. Finding the right teachers and a tradition is key to that. I think over time teachers of the tradition will shine like diamonds amongst the dross. Eventually there is only so much you can do with your body. The big questions like why am I here and what is this creation all about will still burn regardless of how great your handstand is.”

Duncan 

“I hope functional movement continues to influence yogasana and I hope that meditation becomes a thriving industry too so it touches more lives.

I think before we judge yoga’s evolution as ‘bad’ we need to remember, it’s all good for the world, so the more people are involved in even yoga’s most basic message ‘we are all one, thus I have no judgment of you and can find compassion for your suffering’, then it’s a positive thing.”

Words by Jessica Humphries for Australian Yoga Journal.

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