Finding Balance In Westernized Yoga Culture

When somebody tells you that they practice yoga, what do you think? Do you think that they must be a healthy, well-balanced person that can bend in ways you’ve only ever seen in Cirque du Soleil? Do you imagine them as a crusty hippy, lighting incense to hide the smell of weed as they sit cross legged chanting for hours? Or maybe you consider them your bonafide basic bitch, hair tied up in an artfully messy bun, hauling a designer yoga mat to a swanky gym to stretch out and feel smug for a while?

Maybe you’ve never really given yoga much thought and the names of the different asanas aren’t in your vernacular. Or, you’re a yogi yourself and have your own connotations about your practice.

Whatever your stance on yoga, there is likely somebody out there that would heartily disagree. With the practice of yoga reaching dizzying new heights in the West, some fear it has become completely disconnected from its origins and that it has little or no valuable meaning in our society.

Several years ago, I had never really thought about yoga very much. I’d heard it referenced on “The OC,” as Sandy Cohen teased his wife about attending Yogalates. Around about the same time, Madonna and Gwyneth were in their super “well” phase and I began to think yoga was just some showy hobby of rich, WASPy types, the ladies that lunch, following a session with their “Guru.” However, when I began to struggle with an anxiety disorder, manifesting as severe and terrifying panic attacks, I sought help. Whilst the doctor immediately recommended medication, it wasn’t the route I wanted to take. Sensing my reluctance, she suggested cutting down on caffeine and giving yoga a whirl.

It began with some yoga DVDs purchased online. The stretching, bending and breathing was wonderful and as I felt bones click and muscles loosen, some of my fear started to melt away. Before long I was brave enough to actually attend classes and introduce friends to the practice that was rapidly ridding me of crippling anxiety. I was sleeping well, my posture was perfectly poised and I had renewed energy.

Whilst I was practicing vinyasa flow yoga, a type that involves lots of flowing movements, working through a series of poses, I was keen to try out more. There was Kundalini and Bikram and Hatha, oh my! I was particularly interested in Kundalini yoga. I’d heard about it after Russell Brand professed to be a fan. Introduced to the western world in the 1960s by a chap named Yogi Bhajan, it combines tantra, chanting and a combination of Hatha style poses. It is a highly spiritual form of yoga, focusing on releasing the energy at the base of your spine to cleanse your chakras.

During my first session, I felt extremely uncomfortable. The poses weren’t as elegant as I was used to. I refused to chant mainly because I was shy, but I haughtily told myself that I didn’t see the point. Once I got over feeling self-conscious, I learnt that chanting is a brilliant meditative technique, and can help you to set your intentions and sharpen your mind. Once I let go and fully embraced the practice, I gained so much more from it and now Kundalini is my preferred form of yoga.

Looking back, I feel quite embarrassed that I was so dismissive of the more traditional aspects of yoga, especially when practicing had changed my life so drastically. Whilst I cannot pretend to fully embrace the yogic lifestyle (I live for bacon, indulge frequently in a glass of wine and coffee is my very lifeblood), I’m pleased that I have been able to learn about its traditions and history as a way of improving my quality of life. Yoga teaches you to practice gratitude and I was grateful that yoga was a part of my world.

However, some yogis argue that the industry is dominated by ignorance, commodified to make money for Westerners and multi-billion dollar companies. Though cynical, it is easy to understand this viewpoint. We’ve got companies such as lululemon selling stretchy pants for the same price as a fortnight’s grocery shopping. Everybody is in on it, with Reebok, Nike and Adidas marketing yoga as a tool for fitness. Currently, it’s the incredibly bendy and lithe Tara Stiles that seems to be the latest yoga poster girl. Stiles has released several books and has an incredibly popular YouTube channel, DVDs and of course, she is the founder of Strala yoga, with more than 1,000 instructors teaching Strala classes in 15 countries.

Stiles chooses not to focus on the spiritual side of yoga, instead focusing on the movements, the weight loss and health benefits. She has a number of famous fans, including Deepak Chopra and Jane Fonda, yet she also receives heavy criticism from yoga purists. Stiles pays no attention to any of the sanskrit names for poses, but she does make a lot of money from touting yoga to the general public. Jennilyn Carson who writes for Yogadork claims that Stiles’ brand of yoga shows “disrespect to what the practice is.”

It is this “branding” of yoga that seems to have created modern perceptions of the practice. Much like a die-hard super fan feeling irked when somebody dons a band T-shirt despite knowing only one or two songs, it is easy to see why those that have dedicated their life to the practice of yoga may feel a little protective as the so-called Basics swoop in and take hold over yoga.

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In some ways, you could go as far as to claim that Western yoga is a form of cultural appropriation. Despite taking every care to educate myself on the history of yoga, I personally have a great deal of respect for modern yogis, such as Stiles, not only for her remarkable flexibility, but for her business savvy mind and for spreading the idea that yoga can be part of a busy lifestyle. Sure, her “branding” of yoga isn’t traditional, but as “consumers” we have the freedom to educate ourselves on what we’re buying into. If somebody takes a Strala yoga class to lose some weight, that’s their prerogative.

Whilst hardcore, traditional yoga lovers seem disdainful of the new way that yoga is being taught and practiced, is there really only one authoritative way to take part? Who are we supposed to ask for permission? Even if we were all to travel to an ashram in India and learn yoga at the source, somebody is profiting. How true can anybody stay to the ancient concept of what yoga really is?

The word yoga means “union,” so perhaps it is time to unite traditional yoga practices with the modern, Western interpretation? Some people may begin yoga as a way to tone up or stay in shape, but that’s not to say that through their practice they won’t develop a deeper understanding or go on to learn more about the history. And maybe some people attend yoga classes to show off their new yoga pants or to swing by the juice bar afterwards for something packed with kale and chia seeds, but at least they are focused on their health and wellness. As with all things, it’s only respectful to educate yourself on the heritage, roots and beginnings of anything, whether that be a band you like, a book that you’re reading, or in this case, yoga. However, the spirit of yoga is to yoke the connection between your mind and body, so yoga is a highly personal practice.

With a fascinating history and beautiful intentions, I’d urge everybody who rolls out their yoga mats to do a little reading about your preferred type of yoga. One of the best yoga classes I attended was at a Hindu temple in my city. It cost a pound, was taught by a man who had been practicing yoga for more than 60 years and we only did three poses in the whole class. It was a different practice altogether, but it was authentic to that teacher and to his teachers. Learn all you can and then figure out a way to practice that feels authentic to you. If that means a morning practice in your PJs following a YouTube video, that’s totally OK. If it means kitting yourself out in the finest Lole White attire and paying $30 for a heavily air-conditioned studio class, that’s fine, too. It is your practice and for you to enjoy.

Namaste, darlings.

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