What's Wrong With How We Talk About Yoga

People often find people who talk about yoga annoying. I get it, partly because the way people write about yoga elicits a very un-yogic reaction in me. As does how it occasionally plays out in real life. I'll explain.

Here is what articles about yoga are usually like:

  • Yoga + sex = sexy. There are sweaty, limber people having sex! There are erections! Did we mention sex? (The whole people-in-exercise-classes-have-sex thing is so old. Hasn't anyone seen Perfect? John Travolta already did this trend story.)
  • Skinny people, some of whom are ex-models or famous, do yoga. And are pretty. (The current most-emailed Times article right now, entitled "Rebel Yoga," includes the phrases "skyscraper limbs," "cheerleader looks," "sexy cover-girl look," and "beanpole thin" to describe its subject. Yoga: It's like every other Styles trend story about a woman, except with a better rationale for talking about her body!)
  • Some of these pretty and often skinny yoginis have gone on journeys of self-discovery. And you can go with them if you buy their book(s).
  • Yoga is a big fraud! It's not spiritual, it's commercial! Lululemon yoga pants are expensive. (This part is really true. I mean, what kind of stretch pants are worth $98?). And they aren't really made out of seaweed, either. Plus, Bikram wears a million dollar, ruby-and-diamond-encrusted watch. See, fraud.

I have my own set of dislikes about yoga classes at studios and gyms that I don't go back to. Teachers who stand at the front of the class and perform their own lovely poses rather than engaging with students. Teachers that spend long interludes musing about themselves (an instructive anecdote is fine; a soliloquy means you're in the wrong industry). An excessive focus on deep stretching or swift vinyasa without awareness of alignment or integration of muscles, and as a result, the distracting specter of watching people who look like they're about to injure themselves or aren't getting the full effect because they want to jump back or touch the floor. And, as a general effect at some of these same studios, a competitive vibe among students that entirely misses the point.

The sad thing is that anyone encountering any of the above could easily get totally uninterested in yoga and all the majority-white, narcissistic American Apparel models that allegedly dominate it. And they would be missing out.

Everyone brings their own challenges and desires to their practice. Mine have to do with trying to undo the damage done by my chosen work and lifestyle (what one of my teachers calls schlumpasana before a computer at least ten hours daily; professionally necessary and personality-inherent mega-multitasking) and trying to correct imbalances in the body I was given. I know others who want the sweaty rush of the dozen sun-salutations or see it as an extension of their tween gymnastics practice or whatever. Not for me.

And I'm incredibly lucky to live within a twenty-minute walk of at least a dozen yoga studios (I lost count) and a twenty-minute subway ride from hundreds. I'm even luckier to have found, after a couple of years of trying everything from Bikram to core fusion to Iyengar to classical, spiritually-focused yoga, a studio that focuses on what I care about. That would be a thoughtful examination of anatomy, alignment, strength and flexibility, and so much personal attention that I'm hesitant to recommend it to others who might be nearby. (But I will anyway. Because yoga is unselfish that way!)

It's depressing to hear people say they're not good at yoga, or that they're too out of shape or inflexible to do it, or to implicitly deem yoga just for limber ex-dancers. It's not, but you would be forgiven for getting that impression from the Most Emailed List. Although it can be a humbling and at times frustrating process, in the right environment, with caring and knowledgeable teachers, it's an inherently body-positive exercise. Sure, it's not a fast-track to weight loss (or perhaps any path at all to it) and you won't see overnight changes. You realize your body is like the beeswax lumps they used to give us to play with at the Waldorf School I went to, requiring the patience to warm slowly and then shape, and even then you think it doesn't look as cool as Play-Doh. But then you have a moment where it all falls into place, the energy of the room and the pure focus and letting go of the stress and the world outside, and that's it.

To the health and wellness trend story writers and editors of the world, an unsolicited list of the aspects of yoga that I personally find fascinating:

  • The process of intuiting and articulating how your body is distinct from other bodies, how it changes over time, how your practice should work with it and how it can try to overcome imbalances. Can a couple of hours a week overcome structural and functional challenges?
  • How successful is the larger yoga community in bringing its positive aspects beyond the mostly female, white, upper-middle-class crew that is the majority of every class I've been to, everywhere? (We're not talking expensive equipment or facilities here.)
  • Understanding how the different styles and schools bring radically different things to the table; figuring out what type of practice is right for you.
  • Does being flexible matter for your overall health, or is it just a bonus? What are the tradeoffs between flexibility and strength?
  • Exhale.

    Related: The Overheated, Oversexed Cult Of Bikram Choudhury [Details]
    Rebel Yoga [NYT]
    Earlier: Why Are Yoga Memoirs So Damn Popular?

    Photo by Dana J. Cohen