With Spinoffs like Goat Yoga and Beer Yoga, What Has Yoga Become?
There is no doubt that yoga has been re-invented to fit the needs of those it serves; yoga today is far different from the yoga taught traditionally by gurus in India. In fact, the yoga we practice is actually quite new. The Vinyasa format was developed in the 20th century, the yoga mat was invented in the 1990s, and yoga pants only became popular in the last 10 years.
With the evolution of yoga, we have seen two distinct reactions from the South Asian population. On one side, we see some people, such as those who are part of the Hindu American Foundation, upset over the cultural appropriation of yoga and blame teachers of new-age yoga for straying far from the cultural and traditional principles of the practice. HAF even ran a “Take Back Yoga” campaign a few years ago. The organization writes:
As the multi-billion-dollar yoga industry continues to grow with studios becoming as prevalent as Starbucks and $120 yoga pants, the mass commercialization of this ancient practice, rooted in Hindu thought, has become concerning. With proliferation of new forms of "yoga," the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost. Take Back Yoga aims to bring to light yoga as a life-long practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.
The other side of the South Asian population seems to be a bit more forgiving. I know many Indian-American yoga teachers who feel that these enhancements and additions to yoga have improved yoga by making it accessible to more people. Is innovation necessarily bad if it leads so many individuals onto the path of mindfulness and spirituality?
This debate leads us to the true question we should be asking: are Americans practicing a form of yoga that is going to lead them on a path of spirituality and mindfulness? Or is their practice taking them down a completely different road?
In the United States alone, over 15 million people practice some form of yoga. Yoga is an umbrella term that encompasses everything from beer yoga, Acro yoga, power yoga, Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga...the list goes on. A traditional yogi will have a hard time putting goat yoga, for example, in the same category as meditational yoga based on Vedic teachings.
Goat yoga is just what it sounds like. (Photo credit: Lainey Morse)
Sachi Doctor, a South Asian yoga teacher and Ayurvedic practitioner, tells us we should see yoga as a philosophy and way of life as the core. From there, we can extend one branch to focus purely on asanas, the postures like downward dog and warrior pose that most people associate with the practice. Then we expand into different variations such as Asthanga, Hatha and Iyengar. If we take Asthanga as its own concentration, we expand into Vinyasa; from Vinyasa we develop Power yoga, and we keep on going until the new forms become so distant from the core, they create their own island. Then formats such as Acro yoga and beer yoga are operating in their own isolated school of thought, detached from the core philosophy.
Speaking of beer yoga, a couple of years ago, Lululemon created the tagline “Beer, it’s the new yoga pant” to attract more men to their yoga-centric brand. But any well-intentioned yogi would know that beer with yoga does not bring you into a meditative state, it simply leaves you inebriated. To what extent can we critique Lululemon for polluting the philosophy of yoga? Is it the responsibility of a multinational, multi-million-dollar company to preserve the purity of yoga? It's difficult to say.
So where does the blame lie? Do we critique the student for not being critical and self-aware enough to seek yoga that does justice to the core philosophy of the practice? No, the student is simply trying to find ways to make wellness more fun and approachable.
That leaves us with the teacher. Yoga teachers have the power to teach and educate students in the right manner. They also hold the responsibility of doing justice to yoga. If teachers are chanting about Ram and Sita but have not heard about the Indian epic Ramayana, I would question their teachings. I would hesitate to follow teachers who are quick with the oms and namastes, but refuse to take an extra few minutes to learn the cultural significance of these terms. Finally, it would be hard to respect teachers who insist on using incense, Buddha and Sanskrit mantras in class, but fail to acknowledge the origin of these symbols.
A yoga teacher’s responsibility goes way past instructing students through the flow of a class. They are the ones we should keep accountable to bring mindfulness and spirituality into their students’ lives. I’ll admit it is not an easy task. We need more teachers who can truly understand the teachings of the East and then aptly apply them to the West.