Is Yoga Dying in America?

There has been much turmoil in the yoga world as of late.  Of course, we all remember the New York Times artilce about “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. Just as that cacophony died down, there is a new raucous caused by the scandal surrounding John Friend and his Anusara yoga empire.

A few days ago the Huffington Post ran an articlediscussing whether the yoga industry as we know it to be can bounce back from these recent events, or has that landscape changed forever?

We think that, INDEED, yoga should be able go on and continue to thrive.  Why?  Because none of what we’re talking about in these recent scandals has anything to do with yoga, the philosophy or the actual spiritual practice.  To be clear, we do NOT morally support the accused actions of John Friend.  It is wrong to take advantage of any position of power in any organization!  It was wrong for him  to sleep with those women who were married! It was wrong to play with the money of his employees!  But that doesn’t mean that “yoga” should take the blow.  Don’t stop practicing because some people made mistakes.  To be fair, the HP article points out a trend of sexual seduction and even rape amongst some of the most well-known “yogis”. These actions, while completely atrocious, should not reflect upon the true values of yoga:

Some of the best-known modern yogis, everyone from Sri Ramakrishna to Swami Vivekenanda, the man who first introduced yoga to the West, were known to have a fondness for young boys or to be serial adulterers, according to published accounts. Amrit Desai, the head of the highly respected Kriplalu Yoga Center, who extolled the virtues of traditional marriage, resigned in 1994, after his extra-marital sexual escapades came to light.

The moral of the story is:  don’t judge an entire philosophy or religion by the action of its followers or leaders. For instance, let’s talk about religion in American culture.  Throughout history, there have been scandals surrounding various religious organizations, for example, Christianity.  Priests were found to have molested children, preachers have cheated on their wives, stolen money…whatever the transgression, it has happened and on more than one occasion for many religious institutions.  But you shouldn’t look to those people and their mistakes or hypocrisies as reasons to defame or devalue Christianity as a whole.  There are many people who go to church and who don’t go to church that have a profound spiritual connection with the the divine entity with which they identify.  These people are loving, compassionate, giving…in essence they try to embody the positive Christian values that the religion exalts.

Religious structure and the tenants that make up that structure can be useful, but will only take an individual so far.  Personal practice within any structure is what determines how well one is able to uphold those moral values. A true Christian, Yogini, Buddhist, or whatever one identifies as, should apply these lessons to every aspect of their lives. It’s about how well you are able to absorb, make use of and uphold the ideals within your chosen spiritual path that truly allow you to identify with it.  That is why we prefer to teach yoga in private settings, where we can help the individuals build a real practice. There is nothing inherently wrong with a group class, and it can be a great way to connect with others and share a common experience, but the real experience of yoga can’t be illuminated in a weekly 90 min stretch-a-thon.  Now, taking weekly classes, having the right teacher, and creating a constant dialogue of self-investigation in order to maintain an acute and heightened awareness of one’s actions and reactions is the way to create a healthy practice! If we lose sight of this, or forget to do the internal work, then not only are we losing our yoga practice, but we are putting ourselves at risk for injury or worse… scandal!

There will always be the potential for disappointment and failure when a human being is put in a position of power or treated as a guru.  We have been to yoga classes where students have kissed the feet of their yoga teachers.  We would never allow our students to do this! Our students are just as valuable to us as we are them. They are the ones who are doing the real work!  Good yoga teachers can help facilitate a student’s experience with yoga so that the practice cultivates the awareness necessary for deep introspection, while establishing boundaries of safety that should be respected.  That is what we try to do.  We are not gurus, or spiritual leaders.  But we are educators who can help you with your physical yoga practice and there are other teachers in NYC who do the same.  Amy Matthews and Leslie Kaminoff are all about nurturing the individual’s experience with yoga.  Their school, The Breathing Project, has a slogan that precisely expresses that sentiment, “We take yoga personally™.”

To help you better understand what all this means our next post will present a short history of yoga and compare that to what it looks like in America now.