“Sometimes we truthfully name a thing and call out and say no you may not do that, not on my fucking watch, and it is not due to emotional wounds or unresolved issues”
This blog has been on hiatus for a while. In the time since last I wrote, plants have budded, the trees are now in full leaf around me, my children have grown, and things have become even crazier in yoglalaland. I hope to be able to write more about the specific events I have witnessed, and in some cases become embroiled within, over the coming months, as my thoughts cohere and stabilise.
In the meantime, I want to say something about the nature of my work nowadays. I trained as a yoga teacher at the turning of the millennium, at a time when interest in yoga was rapidly increasing. In my first few years as a newbie teacher I had several popular classes in my then-hometown, and relatively little competition from other teachers for students. (To the point where I believed that students would simply come if the quality of my teaching was up to scratch, and I dismissed anxieties about even having to compete for students with other teachers as negativity and a lack of belief in myself. The very notion of “competition” seemed heretical.) I did not go into teaching yoga because I thought it would be a glittering career leading to fame and wealth, but I did envision being able to make a modest living out of it. At the time, that seemed like a reasonable, realistic goal.
My interest in teaching yoga came simply from my love of the practice. I was trained to teach this way – utilising my bodymind as a laboratory and extrapolating from my explorations in a measured, judicious manner – and it meant that I identified primarily, and still do, as a yoga practitioner first and foremost.
My personal practice has evolved in tandem with my life as a mother and as a partner. I deliberately stepped outside of the system that required me to work, pay taxes and be a functioning cog in the machine in order to have my first child and to commit to his care. When he, and subsequent children, slept during the day, I ignored the mountains of housework and got onto the mat. Frequently, when they were young, my babies would wake mid-practice to feed, and the edges of my formal practice would bleed into the practice of childcare as I soothed them back to sleep with my body. I view this chapter of my life as one enormous outbreath from the world, and a time of surrender to the demands and delights of the mother’s life. It has been a gift in which, yes, my social standing took hit after hit (try saying for years “I’m a housewife” when asked what you “do” and not, in the end, identifying with the looks of disdain and pity), my self-esteem and mental health certainly suffered from time to time, but a time during which my capacity for relationship, for intimacy, communication and connection, were awakened and re-wired. It has been a great honour to be able to focus on my children, and on my yoga practice; to be able to let these things become the guiding principles of my life.
My career as a “yoga teacher”, however, is another matter. In the time since I left the world of work, yoga has become a multi-billion pound industry. The ground has shifted confusingly, and I no longer really even recognise the teaching profession. I feel increasingly alienated from it, despite falling more in love with the practice with every month.
To some extent, this estrangement is a direct result of personal choices. I found it difficult to pick up my old classes after the birth of my first child, since they were half an hour’s travel away and generally in the evening, at a time when my husband did not need to be handed a screaming baby who only wanted me after a full day at work himself. So I didn’t pick up my teaching until my son was a year old, though I did then undertake a rigorous training and apprenticeship in pregnancy yoga (with the Active Birth Centre, who I still regard as the experts in their field along with Birthlight). I was not making much of a contribution to our household income by the time I had my second baby, but I had committed to returning to my classes at a busy studio, and I felt confident that my teaching would grow.
The teacher who was “looking after” my classes was also the studio owner and manager. When I contacted her to say I was ready to come back to teach (far earlier than my baby was ready for, but I felt a certain pressure), it became clear that she had no intention of allowing me back into her studio to teach my classes. She was making good money, thank you very much, and I expect pregnancy yoga felt like an easy gig, coming as she did from a rigorous vinyasa/Bikram-sequenced background and finding a receptive audience in pregnant women, whose need to believe in something that will help them navigate pregnancy, birth and parenthood easily is huge. Never mind that this teacher had no experience of the parallel universe a woman encounters once she is pregnant, or that she completed a short module on pregnancy only after she’d taken on my classes.
This was my first indication that something was deeply flawed with the yoga industry, and that women, who make up the majority of both teachers and students, were bearing the brunt. In the decade since this took place (and another child arrived), I have watched in increasing dismay as the wave of interest in yoga has gathered pace. This should be a good thing. But in fact, in many places, there are now at least as many yoga teachers as students, and it has become impossible for a teacher to make a living out of regular classes. New trainings pop up every month to bolster teachers’ precarious incomes. The Yoga Alliance (US and Canada) and the Yoga Alliance Professionals (UK) sell false credibility and have no interest in enforcing their own low standards. Instagram and Facebook have become more powerful methods of attracting students and building community than actual knowledge of yoga: witness the new phenomenon of minor social media stars garnering a following, and therefore a ready-made student base, before they even undertake teacher training. In short, the yoga teaching profession has morphed into a rapacious industry replicating all the biases of our sick culture and then selling it back to us in the guise of liberation.
All of this, I have watched from the sidelines, wondering what, if any, my place in it might be. I teach a tiny class in a barn next to my house, where I invite women to remember, through yoking the breath, the body, and the senses with awareness, that the female body can be a portal into the mystery of consciousness as much as it can be a site for hatred, mistrust and dominion. Through attending to this sensitive and defiantly non-commercial work, over the last year I have started to realise that there are other stories that need telling; and that there are, of course, many others watching in concern whose experiences, if voiced, challenge the monolith that modern-day yoga has become. Hence, this blog, where the over-arching theme is the quiet, untamable communications our bodies are always engaged in with other parts of us, and the conversations between bodies. And hence, also, an uncomfortable paradox. Yoga is an embodied practice, which is to say that right at its core is the fact that we have bodies. But my yoga community – where I feel understood, accepted, and healthily challenged – is spread all over the world. I don’t have relationships in the physical realm with most of the practitioners and teachers whose perspectives I am drawn to, and I’m unlikely to meet most of them. They are certainly helping me to refine my understanding of some of yoga’s other limbs, such as the yamas (ethical observances), but I am not engaging in asana or the other physical practices with these people.
I am increasingly drawn to practitioners and teachers who are forging a path and writing a narrative that runs counter to the all-encompassing, well-on-its-way–to-being-oppressive universal goodness of yoga. Fact is, yoga isn’t always good, for everyone, all the time. Injuries caused by practicing yoga are on the rise, though precious few are willing to speak about their prevalence or are free to do so. Every month brings news of another yoga scandal replete with exploitation, corruption and, often, actual abuse. We find power being misused and clumsily, ineptly wielded at all levels of yoga, both by ourselves on our mats because we become overly-dependent on external authority to guide us, and right up to the top of community pyramids.
And yet, there is a pervasive notion within yoga discourse that if we don’t have anything good to say about the state of things, or we cannot offer solutions to the problems we draw attention to, we are somehow doing yoga, its history and tradition, as well as its future, a grave disservice. In many circles yoga has meshed seamlessly with our culture’s prevailing ideologies, so that it is now used to actually bolster and reinforce those underlying belief systems and the social structures that perpetuate them. One of these is the new age “it’s all good create your own reality love and light” positivity movement, in which the intention to spread good vibes and generally ”raise vibrations” has created a toxic mix of fascistic adherence to seeing good in everything, and downgraded critical thinking to the level of heinous sin. (Never mind that viveka, discernment, is a historical part of the yogic path, whilst chasing positivity and bliss is a very recent addition). And new age ideology has meshed with our cherished adherence to neoliberalism , all of which has further muddled and obfuscated yoga.
Consequently, those working to critique and deconstruct the monolith that yoga has become have their motives questioned repeatedly, and various dubious tactics are employed to discredit them and to undermine their positions. I want to make the case that far from being anti-yoga, yoga dissidents act from a place of great love and respect for the tradition and the practice.
In stating this, I acknowledge that most people would rather not stick their heads above the parapet, and that questioning the status quo feels dangerous. I recognise that those who profit from the current structures, and those who hope to in the future, stand to potentially lose significant power (including monetarily) if the systems were to change. I understand also that it makes people feel personally and individually uncomfortable to be asked to question the current structure; and that modern yoga practice generally seems to ill prepare us for encountering this place of flux and groundlessness. I understand that modern yoga culture celebrates asana prowess, elevating it to such standing that it is seen by many as synonymous with yoga, and that ethics, if they are considered at all, are often viewed as an optional extra. So, I have sympathy with the fact that it may be difficult to see actions such as asking for community leaders to be transparent and accountable to their communities as a practice of yoga in and of itself.
Yoga dissidents are those who dare to put their heads above the parapets, and who are prepared to risk the wrath and potential excommunication from the communities that have nurtured them. They are those who reach a fork in the road and cannot or will not tolerate the quiet knowledge that something is very wrong with modern day yoga culture. They are those who see the links between what is happening “out there” in yogalalaland and how their local communities function. They are those who are willing to risk going out on a limb, naming what they see as truthfully and accurately as they are able, knowing this is a work in progress, knowing they may have people cheering quietly from the sidelines but precious few willing to stand alongside them. They are those for whom teaching practice has evolved alongside the knowledge that we are all in this together (union!), and that as teachers and practitioners we therefore have responsibility towards the wider world. We are those who claim as our birthright the ability to name our experiences of the world, and who value that freedom more than we do a sense of belonging.
To help shed some light on the phenomenon of yoga dissidents, I propose for the purposes of this piece that we might consider a yoga community as a family. Families are more than just collections of related people. They are groups of interconnecting individuals who all affect each other, often in largely invisible but far-reaching ways. This complex network contains the full range of human emotions, but also certain beliefs, both spoken and covert, which dictate what emotions, feelings, behavior and actions are acceptable and therefore voiced.
In a healthy family dynamic, adults hold their power lightly but authoritatively. They recognise that although other family members might hold different views and opinions, and have different – even challenging – ways of behaving and communicating, this is their right as individuals. An adult within a healthy family holds a sense of themselves as relatively solid, coherent and stable, and is therefore unthreatened by difference. Healthy family dynamics are orientated towards encouraging individuality, personal responsibility and independence, all within a framework of acceptance and safety.
In other families, ideas of healthy functioning are skewed. When the adult’s sense of self is threatened by the inevitable different opinions, beliefs, or behaviours of other family members, any burgeoning challenge to that is met with aggression and/or violence of one kind or another in order to re-route the power back to them. All kinds of techniques might be employed here, from subtle psychological manipulation and gaslighting, minimising, belittling, undermining and coercion, right through to physical abuse. Frequently, violence is enacted along gender lines.
It is important to recognise here, and I want to state it clearly, that healthy/unhealthy is of course a false dichotomy and I am simply using it as a structure within which we might explore group dynamics. In real life, all families are on the spectrum of health. I want to acknowledge that less healthy families do not necessarily lack love for each other. And I also want to say that I am well aware that less healthy family dynamics are almost always behaviours that are observed and navigated as children within our own families of origin, and played out later as unconscious beliefs about ourselves when we have families of our own.
As in families, we see all the techniques of routing power to the top of the pyramid used regularly by those who hold power in yoga communities. Dissidents are exhorted to keep quiet about their opinions, no matter how well-informed or based in direct personal experience they might be. As in an unhealthy family dynamic, those who profit from the status quo employ all manner of techniques in order to avoid confronting their own unresolved issues, or their fragmented or partial understanding of what they might actually know at some level to be truthful, and of value. Even if community leaders recognise intellectually that a disproportionate amount of power is almost inevitably damaging, and a detriment to their practice, it is a very rare person that has disentangled him or herself from the sicknesses of our time, and put into place structures of accountability and transparency that deliberately denude them of power and status as individuals. Almost all seem to default to the structures that they might rail against, as though they are woven into us at a cellular level. Why else would local communities, and the yoga community as a whole, be structured along sexist, racist, sizeist, ableist, settler-colonial (etc!) lines? Hence yoga communities becoming pyramid structures, rather than co-operatives explicitly arranged to nurture peer-to-peer relationships.
The yoga truth-speakers are those voicing their concerns about yoga injury, about the quiet take-over of yoga by big business, about competitiveness in the guise of community, about the co-option of yoga by neoliberalism and capitalism, and about the rampant misogyny, racism, ableism and religious bigotry within our communities. They are often scapegoated, defamed, mocked and vilified in order to ensure that their voices are not listened to. As in families, all kinds of tactics are employed in order to pull us back into line, and to get us to read from the script we have been handed. We’re mad, negative, cold, hard, uncaring. We need to tone it down and then, maybe, we’re advised, people might want to listen. We need to be better caretakers of others’ feelings. Appeals might be made to our vulnerabilities – our need to belong, to be accepted, to be seen as “yogic”, to have a tribe. And a recent phenomenon I’m witnessing is that of people who have previously been willing to undertake this work, and who have developed reputations based on their critical abilities, now working within the industry. Perhaps their needs were appealed to – to pay mortgages, to provide for children. Whatever the reasons, being financially rewarded by the yoga industry effectively means that activists’ voices are silenced, and become part of the establishment that they started off critiquing. A disturbing spin-off is the trend to demean and belittle new, fresh, or still-angry voices as irrelevant, or too negative. See a pattern here?
When we demand that yoga activists display what we consider to be the correct manifestations of love and compassion, rather than speaking out about what they find unacceptable, we might be overlaying the unconscious ideas and beliefs about love, relationships and belonging we learned in our families of origin. Perhaps this is why it might be seen as an act of love to forgive more than to demand accountability from community leaders. It might explain why people who potentially have the ability to “translate” activists’ righteous rage and disappointment about some of the more egregious abuses and misapplications of power call, in the end, for us all to simply listen to each other better. We might also miss an opportunity for insight – to realise that frequently (at least in my experience), yoga activists are driven by a profound and abiding love for the practice, and not by meanness of spirit, negativity or nastiness at all. Compassion, a behaviour yoga dissidents are regularly accused of lacking, can be fierce, demanding, and fiery. We understand only part of compassion’s power when we equate it with tolerance and leniency, and we cheapen its beauty when we invoke it to ignore coddling and enabling of oppressive behaviours.
You see, yoga dissidents might be the healers. As anyone who engages in a process of personal recovery knows, healing from a great sickness is not a peaceful, pleasant process. Healing is frequently disruptive and deeply uncomfortable, and requires a radical reassessment of boundaries. Let’s make no mistake, the mental structures which govern, underpin and perpetuate the systems we operate within are all collective sicknesses. Misogyny is a sickness. Capitalism is a sickness. Islamophobia is a sickness. The paradigm shifters are desperately needed, in yoga as in so many other areas of society. Since what cannot be voiced is sometimes exactly what an individual or a culture needs in order to grow, perhaps, rather than exhorting them to keep quiet, we should be celebrating those who dare to say what is not allowed. Sometimes breaking down is exactly what is needed to break through to the next phase of growth. As in an unhealthy family, sometimes the one labeled crazy or bad is the one who sees the dynamics most clearly. The one who refuses to read from the script they are handed, whose responses are the most true and honest, shines a light on the hidden patterns, and therefore offers an opportunity for broader perspectives. The rupture in the apparently seamless reality is a gift.
In my personal asana practice, my emphasis has for many years been upon slow, gentle, subtle ways of moving and breathing that are focused, laser-like, on removing tensions, hardnesses and habits. Then I can experience what feels more like the true nature of body – fluid, adaptable, infinitely sensitive. Practice is essentially a process of removal, of breaking down and dismantling accumulated habits and patterns, with which I inevitably identify in daily life. I see no disconnect between my very personal practice and the act of challenging oppressive systems and structures in the wider world.
In the end, it is not that the “negative” voices are right, or wrong: that is for each individual and community to determine for themselves. Yoga activists’ most valuable contribution is to place the act of questioning right at the heart of the practice. Through their awkward, troublesome probing, we’re asked to remember that yoga is first and foremost a process of enquiry.
This is a love letter to those who will not shut up, sit down, be cowed; who will not simply fit in or read from a script someone else has handed them in the name of “practicing yoga”. I write with love and respect for those who will not sell their teaching or personal practice for a life of material ease; who refuse to be bought and are not for sale. Love for those who will not make themselves acceptable or palatable, who cherish self-direction and self-sovereignty and freedom more than belonging. Love for those who act according to their moral compasses and who use the practice to hone that tool, knowing full well they will not be materially compensated. Love for those who do not look to yoga to fulfill material needs. Love for those who use their voices to amplify the quieter voices in full knowledge that that means taking a hit to their personal power. Love for those who have not swallowed the myths of our times and are not simply replicating the existing systems within their own communities. Love for those who recognise that yoga is not yoga if some get left behind, love for those who know that getting free is a collective effort. Love for those who are ready and willing to pick up the baton when you drop it because the demands are too great and the work is exhausting and unending. Love, also, for those who know when it’s time to pass the baton and do so with grace and honesty. Love for the marginalised and oppressed, and, in fact, love for the parts of us that marginalise and oppress. Love for our tortuous, winding pathways; and most particularly for those who know that there is no path and who determinedly walk their own.
May all beings be free from their ancient and twisted patterns
May all beings be free from every kind of suffering
Buddhist metta prayer
*Carl Jung reportedly said “I’d rather be whole than good”.