A friend of mine really loved his yoga teacher but couldn't figure out why she never let the class lie in Savasana,
or corpse pose, for more than what seemed to be a few seconds at the end of class. One day he finally asked her if she'd allow them a longer corpse pose so as to really release and relax fully into a more meditative state. She explained that, as a devout Mormon, she did not really feel comfortable doing or teaching Savasana (note that she never led the class in any chants or Oms either), as the a mind/body that relaxed was especially vulnerable to all kinds of "sinful influences and thoughts." I guess she took the saying "Idle hands are the devils tools" very seriously.
But she's certainly not alone in her quest to reconcile her religion with yoga. After all, isn't yoga, with all it's sacred sounds, stories,and gestures, not at all dissimilar to a religious practice or at least a philosophy? The yoga community itself is constantly debating
whether it's a deeply spiritual doctrine or a really great exercise (or both). Some folks avoid and religious discomfort by practicing sporty, non-spiritual types of yoga with teachers who never mention Krishna or Hanumanasa or any of the other Hindu dieties. Others simply refrain from seemingly sacred activities such as kirtan (chanting) or use their savasana or meditation time to pray to their own god(s).
But some folks deal with this debate in even more creative ways. Laurette Willis
, self-described evangelical Christian bible teacher, is so convinced that yoga is the "proselytizing
arm of Hinduism" that she created her own brand of Christian non-yoga called "Praise Moves
"...which is essentially a series of yoga-like postures that are rebranded, Jesus-style. We're talking "Cross pose" instead of Tree pose (Vrksasana
) and "Supplication-before-your-maker pose" instead of Child's pose (Balasana
). I'm just kidding about that last one...well, kind of. All the poses in the Praise Moves sequence are explicitly tied into various scriptures with the intent to make you contemplate Biblical teaching while you're working out
Now, I don't have a problem with her borrowing and revamping the yoga asanas in order to promote the physical worship of her own god. Hell, a great many of the yoga poses out there were designed to serve the exact same purpose of embodied devotion. And I totally support her mission to bring folks to fitness with the gentleness and accessibility of yoga-ish forms of exercise and stretching. What I do have a problem with is her declaration that yoga is a "sin" and that it represents a "destructive path that leads away from the one true god
." Ouch. Even Christian yoga isn't good enough for her - she calls this practice an oxymoron. Does she really think that everyone will be so seduced by yoga and what she calls "the New Age lifestyle" that they won't be able to resist converting to Hinduism? How fragile does she think Christians are? It seems rather extreme to me that she compares gym-goers who were upset about losing their local yoga classes to "meth addicts
." Yes, yoga makes you feel good. No, it's not at all like drug abuse. Have you ever heard of anyone out on the streets because of their yoga addition? Please.
I have wonder how much of this is all tied into her profit motives. PraiseMoves is heavily trademarked
and has it's own certification, branding; it even has a program for kids. It's a brilliant strategy, really. You freak all the good Christians out about the sinful devil-worship "true nature" of yoga and then offer your own non-yoga yoga as a safe alternative. Now that's good Christian capitalism.
Yoga for the Butt
2004 is the year I began
surfing and reading around the world of yoga media and occasionally paying indifferent
attention the associated advertising that paid for its publication. As far as I
can remember from these halcyon days, the ads that predominantly filled the
pages and popped up on the web browsers of yoga media were for wacky “alternative”
products. Think neti pots and Tibetan prayer bowls, meditation shawls hand-made
by priestesses in India, and fiber rugs interwoven with healing herbs. Then around
2008 businesses everywhere jumped on the green bandwagon and started heavily
marketing words like “organic,” “natural” and “eco,” stuffing environmentalism
into every sentence of ad copy. Yoga magazines, DVD’s and websites righteously
advertised consciousness, peddling yoga mats made of recycled tires and yoga
clothes of organic cotton. Unsurprisingly, this green-hued righteousness was
Today yoga media advertisers
appear to be embracing an era of the ass. As a feminist (and a human being) I object
to the common marketing methods of dissecting women’s bodies into objectified assemblages
of body parts which seems ever popular in female-focused advertising (see my
November blog comments about Toe Sox brand and their female model wearing
nothing but their socks). So to see this marketing tactic becoming ever more
common in the yoga clothes world is a bit irritating. More and more I am seeing
clothing companies highlight not the freedom of movement their stretch pants
allow, but how well their pants stretch across your butt. The brand Hard Tail
Forever has long been an ass advocate (their name says it all, doesn’t it?).
They feature their models from the back more often than the front, but they are
based in Santa Monica, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. MeSheeky brand features
skirted pants with a little gather sewed right along your butt crack. Other
brands are made of such thin fabric that panty lines are inevitable and camel
toe highly likely. Like Victoria’s Secret, for example, which sells such
low-cut “yoga pants” that your vag might be in danger of exposure with one
upward dog pose. The worst offender, however, is Athleta. Their recent ad
campaign in Yoga Journal magazine for their “Kickbooty” pants is hardly subtle. In their ad copy they proclaim these pants
have “a style designed to turn your backside into your best side.” What the
hell? When did yoga pants become little more than lingerie? Are butt-enhancing
pants really necessary to anyone’s practice? Since most yoga studios tend to be
completely dominated by women, why does it seem like most yoga clothes are
designed by horny teenage boys?
Please don’t get me wrong, I
don’t think ladies should wear a burqua to yoga classes or cover their spandexed
bottoms. Whatever, flaunt away; I can’t deny we are a visually-oriented species.
But the fact that yoga clothing companies now seem to think they can’t sell
clothing without objectifying women’s body parts with promises of augmentation is
a bit offensive. Do yogis really need to care about what shape their derriere
is in? Can’t we just enjoy our bodies without being overly concerned about what
they’re packaged in? If looking hot makes you more likely to do yoga then
great, wear your sexy pants. But I want my students to be more concerned with what
their ass is doing than how their butt is looking in any given asana.
I’m a yoga sampler. One of my goals is to try every single type of yoga that’s been invented thus far, on the entire spectrum from freakishly funky to the nicely normal. Except for naked yoga. Yep, soooo not going there.
Last Friday I decided to go with Bikram, aka “hot yoga.” Frankly, my biggest motivation to try Bikram was the opportunity to walk around not enfolded in 7 layers of clothes like a frozen human taco I have been in our frigid, heater-less house for most of this winter. Bring on the artificial summertime! I’d heard some people say the heat made them nauseous, but I figured if I could do yoga in 98% humidity in Ghana for a year of my life, no faux-tropical heat could faze me.
How wrong I was. However, it wasn’t really the heat that bothered me. It was the aroma said heat invokes. The name of the studio, Funky Door Yoga, was appropriately descriptive. That place reeked like a moldy old jockstrap wrapped around a dirty sneaker used to wipe the dripping armpit of a body-builder on a high-protein diet. I don’t know if it was the fact that it’s located in Haight Ashbury, home of unwashed hippies, or the disturbingly moist old carpeting all squishy underfoot, but doing deep ujayii breathing through my nose lost all its appeal in this place.
Ironically deep, concentrated breathing was the only reason I made it through the class. I stared my sweaty self down in the mirror with an intensity of focus I’ve not had in yoga for a long while. But it’s not because the poses were difficult or I had reached some meditative state. I was actually working very hard to keep from passing out. Bikram (as practiced at this studio, anyway) is a spectacular recipe for fainting. The smell of bodily odors burned into my nostrils along with the saturating heat, the studio was basically an airtight greenhouse minus fresh oxygen, and it featured fluorescent lights with hanging fans, thus creating a strobe light effect. That and the teachers’ constant exhortations to, “Lock your knees! Lock your knees harder!” made it very evident as to why so many people feel dizzy or queasy during their first Bikram yoga class.
Really though it’s fine to do yoga in 105 degrees, and let’s be honest: most people stink when they sweat a lot. My main bone of contention with Bikram is their practice of encouraging people to “stretch beyond their natural flexibility.” Essentially, heat cheats: it creates an artificial limberness in the body that enables people to push their joints and tendons open. Forcing the body to stretch beyond its normal capacity is a dangerous game to play. Heat certainly makes the body more pliable but it is also like applying an anesthetic to your muscles. Can you really feel how much is too far? How many times can you hyperextend before tearing or pulling something? In my yoga world, stretching should feel good and be safe. I believe in encouraging people to challenge themselves, but not to force themselves beyond their edge simply because the thermostat is turned up. And for that reason, I don’t think that I’ll try Bikram again. I’ll just go to a sauna next time.
Is Yoga Classist?
Having practiced yoga for nearly 10 years now, I can’t help but notice that yoga could very well be featured on the website “Stuff White People Like.” Yoga in the U.S. is a disproportionately vanilla-flavored world, or so you’d think when you look at the faces of those dominating the covers of yoga magazines, instructional DVD’s, yoga websites, and ads for yoga conferences and retreats. I find the whiteness of yoga a touch ironic, considering the practice originated in India. However, this post isn’t to take issue with white folks doing yoga. After all, I myself am among the paler yoga practitioners.
Rather, I am intrigued and perturbed by how classist yoga media seems to be. One only needs to pick up the latest copy of Yoga Journal to witness the “upper-middle classing” of yoga. Once the scene of beatnick hippie drop-outs, the modern American yoga world according to Yoga Journal consists of Prius-driving, Whole Foods shopping, island-hopping vegetarians. The editors of Yoga Journal clearly write for an audience of privileged people with a surplus of time and income.
Consider their advertising. Most mags partner with advertisers they think their readers might actually buy from. Men’s Health advertises bulging biceps, Cosmo advertises Botox. Yoga Journal advertises a variety of health and wellness products, none of which are affordable to your average human being. $20 dollars for specially formulated probiotic juice containing the same bacteria that lives in my expired milk? Please.
Their clothing ads are the worst offenders, however. In addition to an inappropriate ad campaign featuring a female yogi posed in nothing but socks, many of their ads feature designer ensembles costing upwards of $100 bucks per item. As a person who teaches 5 days a week, I need durable clothes, and if possible, a cute variety of them. However, I do not need to spend $250 on a pair of chintzy silky yoga pants designed specifically to enhance my butt.
It’s not just the ads; Yoga Journal’s content also screams trust fund baby. Take for example the November 2009 issue’s cover story, “Retreat Ideas for Every Budget.” I have never actually been on a yoga retreat in part because they are cost prohibitive. So I paged over to the article hoping there would be some super cheap, super close place I could quite literally camp at for less than a Benjamin. Alas, the piece seemed to consist primarily of journalistic advice on how already well-off folks can continue to afford luxury in financially stressful times.
Option one is the “home retreat,” creating a tranquil and conveniently cheap environment in one’s own abode. “So-and-so spent two hours in silent meditation, then swam in her pool and took long walks,” is the example they provide. “Take a bath, turn off the phone, and cook nutritious organic meals.” While undoubtedly cheaper to retreat into one’s home, not all of us have a home that is retreat-worthy. Their assumption is that all yogis live alone (and/or can send their partners, children and roommates away for a weekend), own spacious and well-furnished homes, have to access to a pool or a quiet neighborhood to walk through, and possess both cooking talent and the cash to spend on organic produce.
Second, they advise students to take their favorite teacher to Hawaii for a DIY retreat. Not everyone has the planning skills and a relationship with their yoga teacher to construct a trip like that. And much as I would love it if a group of yoga students invited me on a tropical vacation, the three other jobs I work for the privilege of being a yoga instructor prohibits me from such an arrangement. A plane ticket to Hawaii or the Bahamas or some other paradise is not necessarily feasible for most yoga teachers, much less their students.
And finally, the last option offered is the “classic retreat,” which at least Yoga Journal openly admits is a luxury that few can afford. Unsurprisingly, the participants in this story are all software developers and CEO’s of their own companies, making it ever clearer that hours of massage and yoga and facials on the beach in Mexico is not something for the everywoman. But one quote really bothered me: “the toughest part about going on a retreat is choosing which of the many fabulous options to choose from.” Sorry Yoga Journal, but the toughest thing about going on a retreat for most people is finding the money and time to afford it.
On Yoga in San Francisco:
Yoga Studios in San Francisco are as multitudinous as Starbucks. There’s practically one on every corner. In fact, at one of the places I teach is another yoga studio quite literally across the street. And just like Starbucks, many of them are rather pricey. But very unlike the ubiquitous coffee chain, yoga studios in this city offer more types and teachings than you could possibly ever sample. There’s a brand of yoga for everyone from the devoutly spiritual to the anti-chanters. It makes sense that the yoga market would be massive in San Francisco, being one of the epicenters of all things “Eastern philosophy” in the 1960’s.
But do the hundreds of yoga studios that come up on a San Francisco Google search represent oversaturation or a fabulous wealth of yogic opportunities? For example, the Integral Yoga Institute (and no, no-one is paying me to advertise for them) offers seriously spiritual teachings for the philosophically minded. There’s uber-masculine handstand-heavy Ashtanga yoga at It’s Yoga and form-obsessed Iyengar at Yoga Garden. For the happily sweaty, there’s plenty of Bikram at Funky Door Yoga and other studios that can foot the massive heating bill. But choice in San Francisco goes way beyond asana style. You can ditch yoga philosophy with reckless abandon at pretty much any gym, but particularly at Crunch Fitness, where classes like “anti-gravity yoga” or “yoga bootcamp,” promise an ass-kicking. If you always wanted to join the circus but couldn’t quite commit, there’s the partner-based balancing act of Acro yoga. Or you can just take an all-male class completely naked and experience a whole new level of “non-sexual intimacy and vulnerability.”
Yoga purists occasionally decry the hybridization of yoga as a watering down of what should be a beautiful mind/body practice. While it is true that what many people practice in this city would hardly be recognized as yoga by Patanjali, does this really matter? I’m just glad there are so many people out there breathing and stretching all the time, regardless of whether they’re doing it to practice ahimsa or doing it to get a six-pack. I know people tend to develop tenacious yoga preferences, but what choices like these, it’s sort of like eating the same meal every day. An Ashtanga yogi by choice, I would totally try all-female naked anti-gravity circus yoga class. Now, if only I could afford it.