Are we teaching yoga?
The Times recently wrote an article about the 2012 yoga competition held in New York City.
Yoga competition? As in prizes? Seriously?
Founded by Rajashree Choudary, the wife of the famous Bikram Choudary, the competition is open to all asana practitioners but is primarily attended by those who practice the Bikram style. Competitions like this are apparently more common in India, where teachers drum up publicity for their yoga schools through exhibitions. However, in the States, it’s a rather new – and somewhat startling – activity, given that yoga here still bears the traces of its hippie, counter-culture origins, which eschews all things regulated and corporate.
However, yoga has now gained enough popularity here that it’s possible to hold competitions and evaluate someone’s prowess in this (spiritual?) practice. So now what separates yoga from, say, gymnastics or cirque de soleil? Rather ironic since these physical endeavors are renowned for injuring its adherents, while one of the goals of modern yoga is to promote health and wellness.
“I’m exhausted mentally and physically,” Jared McCann [competition winner] said, grinning. “My left toe is numb and I’ve got some kind of back spasm.” He paused before adding, “There’s always something.” (Times)
All this talk of injuries, scandals, and yoga competitions has me taking a pause. Not to disparage Jared McCann or Afton Carraway for winning the 2012 competition – good on ’em, it must have been years in the making – but what is the larger message that we are getting here?
Let’s face it: the umbrella of yoga is becoming laden with competition. As the next generation of teachers starts to jockey for position, everyone is looking for their special derivative niche: acro-yoga, ballet-yoga, spin yoga, tai chi yoga, aerobics yoga, runners’ yoga – not to mention all the individual name brands that have become popular. And of course we are diversifying. It’s one way to survive in an increasingly saturated marketplace.
As this happens, ways of evaluating good “yoga” could become increasingly external. After all, it’s easier – and perhaps more impressive – to measure how far someone can get their foot behind their head than how calm their mind is or how present they are. (Although who knows, maybe we’ll have meditation competitions soon that measure practitioners’ theta waves.) Realistically, teachers who can do complex asana may be taken more seriously than teachers who are passionate about pranayama and meditation. Classes that invite asana showmanship may be more popular than classes that seem quieter or more introspective.
While there’s nothing wrong with striving to advance one’s personal practice, the growing anxiety of competition has led to increasingly insecure teachers. We fret, “are my numbers good,” rather than asking if we’re actually teaching the yoga that we want to. We can get caught in the cycle of teaching what we think the students will want, rather than teaching from our hearts.
And while it’s true that good teachers will endure and their students will find them eventually, it is naive to think that teachers needn’t be concerned about how popular their classes are. Most students cultivate a love for the deeper practices of yoga after getting their asses kicked by asana for a couple years, so the majority of the students may not want to hear a long dharma talk or sit and meditate. Being real about this may save us the depression of having three students in class – and getting concerned looks from our bosses.
One of my favorite teachers, Mark Whitwell, once said, “Give them what they want, so you can give them what you want.” Mark is pretty darn smart and experienced, so I’m thinking that we will always be dancing between delivering yoga that is popular and yoga that reaches deeper. (And lord love those precious teachers who manage to do both at the same time, you do inspire me.)
So it’s not an either/or proposition. In the midst of yoga competitions, prolific branding, and career insecurity, we can still find some room to return to our source of inspiration. As Mark might say, we can still return to the “Heart of Yoga.” While we “give them what they want,” we can also remember why we started yoga in the first place and trust that our students will be similarly inspired by something as simple as connecting to their breath.
To all those teachers out there who have struggled with the insecurity of popularity (including myself), I’d like to offer the following hopeful reminders:
- Simple is not the same as boring.
- Yoga does not need to be entertaining or even unique to be transformational.
- Your students actually will find you.
- It’s not about you; it’s about the practice.
So while we dance this dance – while we navigate marketing, yoga competitions, and class numbers – we can also try the occasional experiment. Once in awhile, let’s see what happens if we teach the kind of yoga that we do in the living room when no one else is watching. The kind of yoga that may not win any awards or look impressive on our websites, but simply leaves us more connected to who we are.