The End of an Era—Is Yoga at a Crossroad?

This body is only an instrument of the soul to reach what is within.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

BKS Iyengar was the last of the living Masters who brought yoga, meditation and yoga philosophy to the West. His passing marks the end of an era, and in more than one way.

In the West, we have developed a weary, love-hate relationship with the Indian concept of guru. Since the 1970s when the Indian guru phenomenon really took hold in the West, gurus purporting to be spiritual Masters have brought us great blessings, and just as equally, great disappointments and disillusion. And more often than not, all of these were embodied in the very same person. Most anyone following a so-called guru has been touched and inspired by his or her unparalleled greatness, and at the same time had their beliefs, dreams and aspirations shattered, when learning that the infallible Master was/is, after all, a very fallible and very human human being.

This conundrum was perfectly exemplified in B.K.S. Iyengar himself. He was a true Master, who developed yoga to the heights of what the human form is capable of, while never losing sight of the essential spiritual aspects of yoga. At the same time, while he notably never was trapped in the stereotypical scandals of the ‘fallen guru,’ he also was known to be demanding, harsh, controlling, and in some cases, even abusive. And, to his credit, he never made a pretense of being perfect.

The concept of the infallible guru has been rightly discredited. Still, what the Indian Masters brought us, which we may never see in quite the same way again, is a true Master Teacher, i.e. someone who dedicated his or her life to the perfection of one single thing, who forged new pathways into what it is possible for human beings to achieve physically, mentally, spiritually.

BKS Iyengar made yoga his art form, and his medium was the body. He spent six years, by his own account, learning how to use yoga postures and techniques to transform his body from a diseased frame that doctors had predicted wouldn’t live past the age of 20, to a strong, vital physiology, which was able to continue a daily yoga practice well into his 90s. And then he made it his mission to bring the knowledge he had gained to the world, to share what he had learned about how yoga asana can be used to heal and transform body, mind and spirit.

And for this reason, with the passing of BKS Iyengar, we face the end of an era. Symbolically speaking, his passing puts us face to face with the fact the yoga is at a crossroad. Yoga has been at a crossroad for many years, of course, but with the passing of one of yoga’s last great masters, the question of where yoga will go in the future becomes even more poignant.

What will shape the shape and form (no pun intended) of yoga going forward? On one hand, we see the growing commercialization of yoga, something that Mr. Iyengar himself viewed with concern. On the other hand, we have a profession whose very success has created immense challenges, which it has few structures in place to address. Let’s discuss each of these individually.

When Yoga Becomes Mainstream, Does Mainstream Become Yoga?

The growing commercialization of yoga, of course, is a trend that has been around ever since yoga became popular. The way yoga has been co-opted, often by people with little in-depth experience with the practice, concerned even BKS himself.

“It does disturb me, because yoga is a science,” he said in a 2007 CNN interview. “Yoga is a science, which makes one to associate the body to the mind, and the mind to the intelligence, and intelligence to the consciousness and consciousness to the Self. When such a noble subject, today, it has become a commercial presentation, it’s painful to me. But many people have taken the advantage, learning something and calling different names and attracting people. I don’t think that yoga is going to survive.”

That yoga has become mainstream is aptly symbolized by the new Yoga Journal—complete with pics and articles on Hilaria Baldwin and her mom-balance-it-all-techniques, blog posts on Celebrities Becoming Yoga Teachers, designer Trina Turk’s Essential Yoga Gear, and so on. Yoga Journal, of course, should not be singled out as the only media outlet driving this trend, but disappointingly, it is jumping on this YogaLite bandwagon more whole-heartedly than ever.

And of course, that begs the question, when yoga becomes mainstream, does mainstream become yoga? In other words, once what aspects of yoga are covered in  media outlets becomes driven by attention to, ultimately, what sells ads, does what we know about and perceive as yoga eventually become synonymous with the lowest common denominator of current mainstream status quo—including our voyeuristic interest in all things celeb?

A Profession at a Cross Roads

The other major trend unfolding in parallel in the world of yoga has to do with how we handle the growing challenges facing yoga teachers. As yoga becomes mainstream, yoga teachers are increasingly called upon to teach to mainstream bodies—and of course, that means ALL types of bodies, not the young, thin, beautiful and fit that grace magazine covers.

In one of Yoga Journal’s Yoga in America surveys, one out of two (!) respondents said they were interested in trying yoga. That includes the some 77 million baby boomers, who are fast and furiously entering their golden years determined to keep them golden. It includes football players, veterans of war, Wall Street stockbrokers, cancer survivors, victims of domestic violence or other form of trauma, athletes, people who are overweight, people who are too skinny, too out of shape, people who are too something, too anything.

And of course, with the widening audience and greater demand for yoga comes much, much greater teaching challenges. When the teaching of yoga was formalized as a profession, it was okay to ‘just’ be able to teach skinny, moderately fit 20-30+ somethings. But today, most any yoga teacher teaching mixed level classes has had the same experience: In a class of ten people, students do the postures with ten different kinds of improper alignment, and teachers do not have sufficient knowledge of biomechanics to offer effective, individualized suggestions. Because let’s face it, while the traditional modifications and props taught in yoga teacher trainings may work for the 20-30+ year olds fit and skinny somethings, they do not suffice to help the new type of mainstream students with mainstream bodies.

With this, of course, comes also the ongoing debate about yoga injuries. Surya Namaskar, for example, is standard fare in most Vinyasa classes, but the average American body is not really equipped to handle S.N. right from the get go. So something has to give: Either the person gives up trying yoga and concludes it’s not for him/her (as many do), or he or she persists, and unfortunately runs the risk of eventually incurring an injury.

One of the encouraging features of modern postural yoga is the increased focus on understanding and teaching the basics of biomechanics in postures and developing forms of yoga suitable to different types of groups—be they veterans of war, cancer survivors, people who are obese, people suffering from chronic pain. Yoga can be made accessible to everybody, but it requires a specialized level of knowledge and skill. And it’s not the same type of yoga that will work for every type of person.

And this is where yoga is at a crossroads. Few people are as passionate about their craft as full-time long-term yoga teachers, and there are many, many innovators out there doing great, brilliant work. They may not fit our image of the typical Indian guru, but they are in their own right Masters, who have dedicated their life to perfecting one way of teaching yoga to one type of body or one type of challenge.

The issue we are facing is that yoga as a profession does not have a medium for compiling this knowledge and making it more widely available. With the media increasingly chasing celebrity style yoga stories, the 6 Steps to Perfect Happiness and the 12 Minute Downward Dog, they have abdicated their role as a medium for the exploration of the finer points of yoga teaching and practice.

One encouraging trend, of course, is the work of the International Association of Yoga Therapy and the 1,000 hour standards they are developing for yoga therapy as a profession. But while developing the standards for offering yoga as therapy to those struggling with ailments is important, it still doesn’t fill the gap or address the challenges everyday yoga teachers face in teaching the wide range of bodies that come to classes.

And so, we remain at an important crossroad. The debate about yoga injuries is important because it is a reminder that the profession of teaching yoga is still in its infancy and much work needs to be done to bring the teaching of yoga to a level where teachers can serve the much wider range of needs of today’s typical yoga students. But we need to extend that debate to a discussion of how we, as a profession, can do the kind of things a profession does: Develop a shared and growing body of knowledge with effective channels for widely disseminating that knowledge.

This is why the passing of BKS Iyengar marks the end of an era. Yoga as a profession has grown past the point where it can be effectively be distributed via the traditional Master-student relationship. It is up to us to decide what comes next. And if we do not, in the long run, we run the risk of getting stuck with the celeb-gossip style lite yoga that feeds ad sales, and little more than that.

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