The Myth of Modern Yoga: It Is Not a Feel-Good Practice.
Yoga is not what you think. It is not what the modern world has turned it into in the last 75 years or more.
No matter how much you believe that Yoga is what you do on your mat — the stretching, the playlists, the alignment, the posturing, the clothing, the sublime pursuit of light and love, the all-pervading peace — it’s just not true, at least not completely. What most people in the West today call yoga is at best a partial truth, a fraction of truth made into the whole.
I am interested in expanding the vision, so please bear with me as the information I offer and the questions I ask might make you feel uncomfortable.
Trigger warning: Just because you (or someone else) believe something, that doesn’t make it true. This article might challenge what you think you know or what other ‘authorities’ have told you.
What you do in a yoga class and a yoga studio is pseudo-spiritual physical fitness. No more, no less. The reason some yogis struggle to practice at home during a pandemic isn’t because you need your classes and your community to practice, it’s because classes or not, you might have never practiced yoga.
Now, I know this statement is harsh, and many will leap to defend all of the ways that classes and community make us feel more connected, more at peace, more calm, more healthy, more happy when we practice yoga, and my friends (who by now are probably my enemies), these reasons by their very nature are the proof that you might have never practiced Yoga.
I have spent many years trying to explain this. Even though none of the ancient texts of Yoga map anything remotely related to our modern definition, people still believe that this ideal of absolute peace, harmony and unity is Yoga.
Even though not a single text I have read about Yoga or its related mythology ever states implicitly or explicitly that Yoga makes the world better, more peaceful, more loving, people believe that is the goal.
Even though every yogic text I’ve ever read outlines challenge, extreme discomfort, difficulty, and often death and destruction, and provides instructions for working with and in these situations rather than subverting or transcending them, people truly believe that Yoga will make us feel better.
I lead Yoga trainings in which I attempt to explore the actual teachings of Yoga, and it often leads to extreme backlash, refusal, rejection, and even hatred. When students learn that we aren’t going to be covering everything in sticky sweet syrup of positivity, that there will be no scripted classes, curated playlists, and perfected postures, they are disappointed. Understandably so.
There isn’t a studio around that doesn’t value, if not require, these skills. When my students see the amount of time we spend on philosophy, processing, and self-study, they are frustrated and disappointed. When they are challenged to think critically, and not simply learn the rules to follow, they are unmoored. When they are called to question their beliefs, they are angered.
And, those who are excited about all of that often think that all of these pursuits will serve to shore up their love-and-light transcendent spiritual bypassing bullshit, and find themselves thoroughly annoyed when that pattern is laid bare.
Thanks to our dominant consumerist culture which teaches that the customer is always right, and acquiring makes you feel good, Yoga has become something else to consume. But, it’s just not true. Yoga is not, nor has it ever been, what most modern day yogis think it is, and no amount of argument to the contrary will change that.
No amount of validation of personal progress, transcendence, love or light will make Yoga what it is being sold to be. Consumers want to feel right, good, comfortable. If we buy a product that brings attention to our faults, our shortcomings, our imperfections, we will return it because it doesn’t work, it didn’t give us what we wanted, it didn’t make us feel good.
Yoga is not designed to make you feel good, to make you feel comfortable, to support your never-ending quest for success. It might not feel like the perfect fit, or make us look gorgeous, it might just make us feel like shit and make us feel horrible sometimes.
Yoga is often the opposite of a feel-good practice, it asks us to become acutely aware of all of ourselves. All of the pieces and parts that we try so hard not to see, all of the uncomfortable, ugly, and abhorrent qualities of ourselves. It gathers all the sins and crimes (true or unjustly labeled) to be seen, to be counted, to be included.
That is Yoga, the mess of self brought into the light of awareness, and our work is to join with it, to yoke to it as true, and then learn how to live with it, how to love not in spite of but because of it all. Yoga teaches us compassion, true compassion, first for ourselves, then for the world.
“Real compassion kicks butt and takes names, and it is not pleasant on certain days. If you are not ready for this fire, then find a new-age, sweetness-and-light, soft-speaking, perpetually smiling teacher, and learn to relabel your ego with spiritual-sounding terms. But stay away from those who practice real compassion, because they will fry your ass, my friend.” ~ Ken Wilber
So what is Yoga really if it’s not the poses, the flows, the music? Let’s start with some vocabulary. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to yoke or join. By the very nature of Yoga, we enter into and with that from which we feel separate or divided, we don’t escape or deny it.
The postures we perform in Yoga are actually called asana, a word which does not mean pose or posture, but actually means seat. In other words, to perform Yoga Asana, you take a seat in or with what you feel separated from.
Another familiar word in the Yoga world is vinyasa, a word which does not translate as flow or the joining of movement and breath, but actually means “to place with intention, purpose, or wisdom.”
If you practice Hatha Yoga, so are you and every other person who gets on a Yoga mat regardless of what style of Yoga they are practicing. Hatha Yoga is simply a category of Yoga that delineates the physical practice from the rest of Yoga (which is not the physical practice of Asana). Hatha yoga includes any style of Yoga that engages in physical practice, meditation, and breathing.
One more definition for the purpose of modern Yoga: Pranayama does not mean breathing, it means the restraint of the life force energy, a.k.a. Prana. It is often misinterpreted and misunderstood like in the practices of Ujjayi and Kapalabhati, which aren’t pranayama practices at all, but rather they are prana shuddhi practices meant to cleanse and build prana rather than restrain it.
If our Yoga teachers, trainings, and/or studios aren’t teaching us this, then we might not be practicing Yoga. Feel free to disagree, but please have a foundation of disagreement based on something other than personal offense, or “but that’s what my teachers told me.”
The teachings and practices of Yoga teach us self-accountability, so if my words, my style, my provocations feel offensive, wrong, or too critical, then I encourage you to use Yoga to explore why rather than immediately judge or dismiss. Does your Yoga help you do that?
We are taught that to be right is the ultimate achievement, and if my explanations or opinions are challenging your ideas of rightness, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Breathe that in before you fire back opposing opinions as judgment (right vs. wrong) rather than critique.
Back to Yoga. Yoga as a practice is the exploration and inquisition of self. Here’s where it might start to feel vaguely familiar. Yes, that exploration can include but is not limited to the physical, exploring all of the ways our bodies are holding patterns of behavior, trauma, or emotion.
This physical exploration can also include the recognition of our disembodiment, the vacancy and disconnection we have with our form. Yoga relentlessly applies the skills of inquiry to the mind, including emotion, but is not psychology. On the contrary, it is a way to penetrate our identification with our identities. Psychologizing is not Yoga.
Yoga examines the subtleties of our existence as seen through multiple lenses, including energy, the elements, the mind, and mythology. Yoga is a practice of attunement, assimilation and integration, bringing together opposing forces into a coherent whole to be explored and dismantled all over again. It hones the tools of concentration and focus.
With practice, it helps us build the skills of staying present in every situation, even and especially the uncomfortable ones, and helps us to probe every experience for what is true rather than fall asleep in our beliefs, our morality, our judgments. Yoga, the practice and the experience of it, provides us the agency to be self-responsible and self-accountable in every situation in which we find ourselves.
It is an invitation to continually re-orient our attention, and to make discerning choices about how we respond. When lived, Yoga feels like trust, and when practiced, it feels like fire.
So, I ask you now, are you practicing Yoga? Are you relentlessly questioning yourself, your beliefs, your reactions and experiences (especially the ones in which you are ‘right’)? Are you willingly and courageously stepping into the discomfort, fear, and pain of the situations you encounter?
Are you committed to searching for beauty among the mess, jewels among the rubble, joy in the sadness, trust in the fear, expansion in the constriction, without avoiding or denying any of it? Are you taking responsibility for your contribution in every situation? If the answer is Yes, then you are a yogi, in the truest form.
However, if you find that your practice of Yoga looks more like a way to escape the discomfort of your life rather than meet it, if you find that you need the music to distract you, the heat and movement to “get you out of your mind,” if you need your Yoga to get back to “normal,” to shore up your rightness, to be better than everyone else, then you might not be practicing Yoga, and that’s okay. It’s a place to start.
Yoga invites us to start where we are. To bring the questions, the choices, and challenges into a space where we can become inquisitive. This is a place rife with opportunity to learn, to grow, to evolve. Yoga allows us to bring everything with us, and work with what we’ve got.
Just like all great myths, it’s the shiny story of heroes and demons that draw us in, but when we strip away the details, the phantasmagorical accounts, the epic battles, the defeats and the victories, we find, as scholar/practitioner Douglas Brooks says, that “we are every character in the story.” We are the multitudinous expression of the whole. The good and the bad coexist within us.
The comfort and the discomfort are both expressions of truth. Myths draw us in and give us an encoded map for exploring our inner terrain. So if the myth we have been committed to is the modern myth of Yoga as a way to escape, perfect, or transcend your life, this is the open invitation to re-evaluate the map.
To look more deeply, to be more curious, to think more critically, to question what you’ve been told, to interrogate ourselves — feelings, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, judgments — and finally practice Yoga.
Kelly Golden, E-RYT 500 and former Level 1 ParaYoga-certified teacher, is the founder and director of Vira Bhava Yoga, and a lifetime practitioner of Yoga. She began practicing Yoga in 1994 and teaching in 2002. She leads teacher trainings all over the United States that emphasize the power and capacity of each individual student to develop their own voice, trust their own path, and share Yoga as a power, rather than the perfection of asana (postures).