NEW DIRECTIONS FOR YOGA?

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“Yoga today is changing – and fast. Once-powerful gurus are falling. New alternatives are snowballing. Why are these changes happening? What do they matter?” To find out the answers to these and other burning, er, tapasic questions, last night I made my way to East Harlem for New Directions in North American Yoga, a road show put together by blogger Roseanne Harvey and author Carol Horton. The presentation actually occurred twice, Monday night at J. Brown’s Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, and last night at Tascbar, which turned out to serve not only a workspace and stage but also as the living space of Jennilyn Carson (a.k.a. Yogadork) and artist JT; together they were gracious, lovely  hosts. I was first to arrive so got to chat with Jennilyn (a self-confessed YTM fan!) and the participants, and that was real cool fun. And I sowed the seeds for inviting Carol and Roseanne to do some writing for YTM: yay.

Roseanne describes herself as “a writer, editor and geeky girl who lives and loves life in Montreal.” She is the former editor of ascent magazine and runs the blog It’s All Yoga, Baby (IAYB). Carol is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body; she’s a former political science professor and a Certified Forrest Yoga teacher. She’s taught yoga in several studios, as well as in a jail, homeless shelter, and residential foster care facility and serves as a volunteer teacher and Board member with Yoga for Recovery. Carol and Roseanne collaborated on 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, a compendium of essays on the current yoga scene (which I know I should’ve had in my library by now, okay ‒ but I did buy it after the talk!).

Although the first night was apparently very well-attended, this second night brought in just a couple handfuls, but I enjoyed the intimacy and the discussion was always energetic. Tascbar is a comfortable space, perfect for this kind of event. The speakers used the slides to march through the many issues that arise with the transformation of yoga in modern times, with general conversation always welcomed. First they presented some history for contextualizing, using elements of modern psychology and social science. In fact it seemed like just the right amount. Interestingly Carol identifies the modern era as loosely reaching from 1910 through 2010, when a paradigm shift into drift is noted ; the publication of Yoga Body by Mark Singleton (who will be interviewed in our next issue) is considered a watershed moment in this narrative. And of course there are the inevitable controversies as yoga has become a multibillion dollar industry; what’s been lost in this process, what are the gains? More people doing yoga is a positive outcome, but the inevitable crass commercialism can be dispiriting.

From there the discussion moved to the so-called yoga body. There is also necessarily a thicket of paradox here: on the one hand, yoga promises health and toning of the body, which of course can lead to an idealization of the perfect yoga body, which in our culture comes to be iconified in the young white buff female. So then who’s left out in the rain? To play with this Roseanne narrated her amusing project following the Sadie Nardini 21 day Yoga Body regime; if you missed this discussion, read her conclusions on her blog here.

Another topic is the questioning of the traditional guru/disciple relationship, at least here in the West, where relinquishing autonomy for obedience is not a natural fit, to say the least; recent scandals (e.g. Friend, Bikram) don’t help that cause. Carol pointed out that such eybrow-raisers are hardly new in the yoga/mindfulness world (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh becoming Osho in a bid to escape his scandalous reputation was a fascinating sidebar), but such Disturbances in The Force are more immediately publicized now. So there is a sense of loss of trust; Carol wondered if this can be superseded by a sort of networking of wisdom, in which we learn from various teachers according to their skill sets. There was also mention of a trend toward team teaching (e.g. Corn, Khouri and Sterling doing intensives together).

For the final run we moved along to a panorama of yoga service options, and a discussion of why yoga service makes sense. Yoga can be an introverted modality, but there is also obvious precedent for selfless service as the work of the karma yogi. Although some of the newer incarnations of yogic practice (hangover yoga, naked yoga, doga, etc.) may seem to some to be taking yoga in dicey directions, there can be little doubt that yoga can reach beyond the individual mat in isolation and that’s a good thing. Discussion emerged as to how much organization is desirable; when does coordination become bureaucracy, and how can we best use available resources without, even in a non-profit environment, becoming too corporate?

Both speakers were charming and responsive, and wow, what time management skills: the slideshow finished right on schedule, as Carol informed us with gleeful wonder. There was time for more easy conversation, and then, perhaps as a de facto answer to the slideshow’s final question, “Where do we go from here?” we broke to party mode. All in all, these are conversations which are more than just interesting; this can be a time of much worthwhile ferment, and one couldn’t ask for better facilitators. I am so glad I went.

 

Comments

Only reason we don't have proper guru/disciple relationships in America is: no real gurus, no real disciples. They do still exist in India where money does not get in the mix so much.

Ram Bhakt is correct. Bikram C. and John Friend do not qualify as "gurus". The West can't "transform" the guru-sisya sambandha, or usher out the "old mode" because it is not part of its culture. The guru-sisya sambandha concept has yet to reach occidental shores, my "friend".

The traditional model works. The problem is that the West is not exposed to the traditional model and is making up its own model as it goes along. Blind leading blind.

Not to say that Indians are any better. India has the traditional model and its still going strong. But beware. There are a lot of scam artists there. A real "guru" is humble and more often than not flies under the radar. She or he does not advertise his or herself and resists collecting "disciples". There is even shashtric injunction against taking on too many disciples. Its not good for the mentor or the ones being mentored.

Rather than making up their own stuff, Westerners would do better to try and find a genuine community of traditional Hindu practitioners of sadhana.

Don't be afraid of "cultural appropriation". You NEED to appropriate a culture in order to enter into it and understand it.

Hindu Civilization has always been open to everyone.

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