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Has Yoga Lost its Soul? Part III: Accessibility & Ownership

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From the Mountain to the Gym

Gone are the days of the lone yogi who teaches the secrets of the Universe from a secluded mountain ashram, unless said ashram is a gym located across from your local Starbucks, charges a monthly membership fee of up to $200, sells premium coconut water, eco-friendly yoga mats and other colorful goodies and services the busy working professional class who take 60 minutes to get a temporary breather from their jam-packed schedules -- and make sure to leave class a few minutes early to beat the post savasana rush.

So what happens next in a world where yoga is being used to sell everything from yogurt, air fresheners, pain killers, and cars? In other words, has yoga lost its soul?

Hardly. On the contrary, there is plenty of room for innovation and authenticity that can help retain and expand the art of the craft, even amidst the commercial reality yoga currently resides in. You just have to know where and how to look.

Rock Stars Oh My

The yoga industry is chock full of ironies. Among them is the fact that you don't actually need any special clothes, equipment or even a teacher to practice it.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, people recognize that they can do yoga for free, says David Nelson, an Iyengar teacher and owner of Yoga Garden of San Francisco. "You don't need a teacher to do it. And that's great, that means that people are yogis, they own their yoga practice. At the same time, those people will recognize that they need a teacher, they want someone to teach them as part of having a yoga practice. That's a different relationship from getting your yoga fix for the day. I've already seen the market change where it's become a more sophisticated advanced group.

Yoga's potential impact will be diluted over time if it becomes a service that is purely viewed as a commodity, dependent only on considerations of time, location and price. With this in mind, yoga needs to evolve to a stage where it is better understood and appreciated as a unique practice that can provide powerful benefits for mind and body. For this to happen, the industry needs leading teachers to step up and set the standard for what it means to be a successful yoga teacher in the modern era.

In other words, the yoga world needs its version of hip hop's Eminem or standup comedy's Dave Chapelle, who both excel at traversing social and cultural borders and elevating their respective crafts in an authentic manner on a mainstream platform. As a result, they create significant commercial opportunities that pave the way for future practitioners to follow. We see the emergence of these figures in the likes of Shiva Rea, Sean Corne, Sharon Gannon, and David Life, to name just a few.

But it's not only about the nurturing of so-called rock star teachers. "It is tempting to think that what I'm selling is somehow special or unique, but yoga has a way of humbling arrogant teachers," says Darren Main, a well-known teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I try to be ever mindful that while my unique personality and teaching style will speak to a certain group of students, the healing power of yoga is not mine. The more I can keep that at the forefront of my mind, the less I need to be slapped down to earth by a practice that seems to delight in watching its teachers and gurus fall off pedestals of arrogance."

The yoga industry also needs plenty of examples of everyday teachers who love sharing their gift with others, maybe teach full time but more often than not have a full time job or a family to care for. These are the busy professionals who cherish the two classes a week that they step into a studio to teach. These are the artists, mothers and entrepreneurs who make time to teach a class at work, at a park or at home to their colleagues, friends and loved ones.  These are the full time teachers who serve their local communities and manage to make ends meet while doing what they love.

The surge of this local, grassroots version of yoga led by your coworkers, friends and family, that can appear in any location whether home, park or office and is fueled by a passion to find a way to make sharing yoga with others fit into a busy life provides the quintessential yin to the rock star’s yang.

With rock stars and everyday teachers alike sharing their practice, whether you want the experience of the grand stage, the convenience of your office or the quiet of your home, there are plenty of ways for us to engage and find meaning in yoga and discover the great benefits it can provide, whatever it is we happen to be seeking from it.

One Room, Many Doors

Yoga in the West is indeed popular these days, but does an emphasis on physical postures, known as asanas, sacrifice other traditional parts of the practice such as meditation, diet and ethics and in the process undermine yoga's authenticity?

"I think most people walk into [yoga] to get fit, to get ripped, to sweat, to get a great workout," says Rusty Wells, a Bhakti Flow teacher and founder of Urban Flow Yoga in San Francisco. "No problem. I think of it like there are all these different doors to the same room, and that room leads to the vastness of yoga. And most of us take the same door which is physical yoga. Most of us enter that room. But once you're in it, you start seeing these other elements such as meditation, the study of the breath, using the intellect to find some peace of mind and paying attention to your diet."

In other words, the popularity of yoga provides increasingly accessible opportunities for people to get introduced to the practice whatever their initial intention, which then presents them with the option to go deeper if they choose to.

With so many new styles emerging from Broga to paddle board yoga, however, questions of authenticity are commonplace for this rapidly growing practice and as a result, yoga in the West has often shaken tradition and received criticism for it.

"But what defines authentic?" asks Tommy Rosen, an LA-based yoga teacher and co-founder of the Tadasana International Festival of Yoga & Music. "Who's deciding what real yoga is and isn't, it's not like there's a board of certification. We are already far along the transformation of yoga. The modern practice of yoga is very different in many ways than how it was practiced a long time ago in India. We're working with this ancient practice and it's evolving us and it's evolving with us."

Yoga as a practice is dynamic, fluid, adaptive. And with evolution comes unpredictability, which can be nothing short of unsettling for traditionalists and innovators alike. Similar to how practicing the same pose can evolve over time from difficult to easy and back to difficult, yoga has twisted and turned its way into our exercise routines, our lives and our economy, adjusting as needed until it finds that tension point, that place where we need to breathe into to let go and release. As with yoga, at times this process can be extremely uncomfortable, and my feeling is that's perfectly fine.

To the question of what makes yoga authentic, I say the more yoga the better, and if it takes unique versions and forms that people value and appreciate in some way then great. I may not always connect with the style or presentation of everything out there, but my opinion and what I like is but one of many and that's okay by me. I will practice how I like, you do what you like, we all get to practice some form of yoga and perhaps get a chance to access profound parts of ourselves and our lives if we like and either way, everyone goes home happy and at least stretched and relaxed.

I share my perspective recognizing that answering questions like authenticity and ownership of yoga is much like the koan of one hand clapping: simple to ask, challenging to answer.

What do you think? What makes yoga authentic? And does anyone own it?

Read Part I: Has Yoga Lost Its Soul? Selling Out & Innovating

Read Part II: Has Yoga Lost Its Soul? Capitalism & Opportunity

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