Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga. – Yoga Sutras 1:2
Yoga means union. Maybe.
In the west, most of us are introduced to Yoga by practicing asanas, or yoga postures. It often surprises us when we learn how little Yoga actually has to do with whether or not we are able to balance in vrksasana (tree pose) or touch our toes in uttanasana (standing forward bend). Yoga is the state one achieves when one experientially realizes one’s own true nature, which is absolute union. Technically, a yogi or yogini may realize Yoga without ever setting foot in a yoga studio!
There are many practices to help us realize Yoga. Hatha yoga is focused on physical practices such as the postures and breathing techniques. Karma yoga concentrates on service. Bhakti yoga incorporates devotional practices such as chanting mantra. There really is something for everyone, and that is what many people love about yoga practices. Yoga does not exclude anyone.
Or does it?
Yoga and a culture of exclusion.
A term that is increasingly being used is yoga culture. Many of us are even more shocked to realize that our beloved inclusive practice has a rather exclusive culture than we were when we realized how little adho mukha svanasana had to do with Yoga! However, all one really has to do is peruse popular yoga blogs and magazines to see that they seem to project a similar image.
The image of the modern American yoga practitioner is specific and, sadly, intentional. She-and, yes, she is almost always CIS female- tends to be slim, young, Caucasian, and with no physical challenges. She is often selling a product: yoga mats, expensive athletic clothing, and some sort of name-brand green juice that probably costs more than everything I eat in one day. Given the fact that she can afford these luxuries, one can easily extrapolate that she is economically privileged. She is also selling a lifestyle: a particular way of showing up in the world. These advertisements suggest her mat is yoga. Her clothes are yoga. Indeed her body itself is yoga. If only we had what she had, acquired what she has acquired, we would be as “yogic” as she.
But advertising doesn’t work on us, does it?
We chose that yoga mat because it was pretty. That name-brand green juice is good for us. And those leggings practically give us a nip and tuck! Seeing the images of these yoginis don’t affect the choices we make at all.
Hey, not judging! We have all been there. The problem with the projection of this image is not that it influences us to buy pricey yoga accessories. We can make responsible decisions regarding how we choose to spend our money. It is the exclusion of everyone who does not fit this image that is so sinister.
The problem with our practice….
Many spiritual traditions share a culture. Naturally, a particular culture may develop around Yoga. As yoga practitioners have strayed from the spiritual components of the practice in favor of only the physical, we have allowed Yoga culture to be defined by images that are orchestrated by the media (that usually does not practice nor understand Yoga) through advertising (which expresses an agenda all its own).
In essence, we yogis got lazy. We became complacent and dropped the ball. We didn’t have the stomach to define who we were from the inside out, so we have been defined and stereotyped from the outside in. This has had consequences on those of us who have been accepted into the current Yoga culture, but not nearly as devastating as those consequences experienced by those who have been subtly (or not so subtly) excluded due to race, class, gender, body shape, sexual orientation, and level of physical ability.
The good news is we can change.
In fact, the solution to our dilemma is inherent in our practice!
Applying Yoga to yoga culture.
We must go back to our roots: the eight limbs of Yoga. Let’s examine what it means to lead a life of ahimsa, non-violence. For example, we must ask ourselves who is being hurt by advertisement that portray almost exclusively young white women? Who is being left out, what, and what can we do about it so that it doesn’t happen again? Ahimsa is also examining who is being affected by where we choose to use the power of our dollars. Ahimsa is even considering the impact of what we choose to eat.
Does that mean every yogi or yogini should be a Prius-driving vegan? Certainly not. What it does mean is that we must be willing to ask very deep and sometimes uncomfortable questions, individually and collectively. We must actually do our practice, study the texts and traditions it comes from, and cultivate conversations about what living Yoga means.
We do not have to subscribe to a dogma in order to be able to say as a community, “This is who we are and what we stand for.” We simply must be mindful and intentional in our actions. Yoga culture will be defined one way or the other. The question is whether yoga practitioners will be the ones to define it.