Challenging the Exclusivity of Yoga

The truth is, for “yoga progressives,” what would give us the bigger kick is the elusive crossover opportunity.

Yoga and iRest instructor, and Marine wife Cheryl LeClair of North Carolina’s Second Wind Eco Tours shared an interesting article that appears on  The Society Pages, Sociological Images Blog. Contributing writer Christie Barcelos takes a critical look at the yoga population, and also the images being touted sell an idealized image by Yoga Journal.  Barcelos points out that by appealing to a seemingly homogenous group, yoga becomes exclusive rather than inclusive. This is a recommended and thought provoking piece.  What follows are my thoughts about the article.

Black Leg Acres --Totally Cool, Let's Go.

Yoga (as a phenomenon) is commercial as Barcelos points out. The cost of a class, or even a pass can be beyond the means for those who have to choose between yoga and groceries.  Compounding the financial demand is what’s touted commercially. But searches for “the right” mat, clothing, blocks, retreats and workshops can be costly, and isn’t what really matters. This being said, intentional exercise is exclusive whenever it involves cost. In other times people would get their work out by walking, plowing the fields, or doing chores. Now we spend money to buy the equipment or pay to “work out.” Either we do yoga or buy forty acres and a mule.

The "truthiness" of yoga exclusivity

But for all the “truthiness” of exclusivity, people who do yoga aren’t necessarily exclusive to yoga. The average American participates in many sports –from T-ball to football, volleyball, walking, bicycling, hiking, and skiing. Yoga is one of many things they have tried in their lifetime, often doing yoga one day, something else the next.

Before anyone gets upset about missing the transformational side, one must never assume everyone who walks in the door seeks something spiritual, or even knowledge about the 8 limbs of yoga. If they live better by feeling better, we can accept and be grateful for that. But it is worth remembering that in the United States, yoga is often combined with beliefs redolent with both subtle and overt political undertones. This is something we are acutely aware of here at the War Retreat. Our experience has shown it can be distancing and even destructive when trying to build a relationship of trust.

Barcelos examined 186 covers of Yoga Journal and found a consistent image based largely on an idealized version beauty and fitness. Tiresome, yes, but Yoga Journal is not a spiritual guide. They are writing it to inform and make money by targeting a specific image of health and wellness that is proven to be profitable. In this regard, Yoga Journal is like other magazines touting lifestyle. It doesn’t make it right, and arguments over western standards of beauty, body image, and gender influencing just makes the editorial decisions at Yoga Journal disappointing and dated. But the truth is, for “yoga progressives,” what would give us the bigger kick is the elusive crossover opportunity.  Dave Emerson leading a yoga nidra session for top drivers at NASCAR; Cheryl LeClair leading a workshop at a conference of military bloggers;  the yogalebrity Rodney Yee taking the track in an episode of Top Gear. Yee, the son of an Air Force Colonel, no doubt burned rubber while growing up on airbases. (Rodney, come back to us).

Give Back Yoga Foundation

What Barcelos’ survey on imagery didn’t factor in was the scope of yoga –where it’s practiced, efforts to expand its reach and reasons why.  Many people come up with a variety of movements, practice at home and that is their yoga. (Watch Kevin Kline dance in The Extra Man). As more online programs develop, people have more options.  Yogis Anonymous offers free online classes 24/7. In studios,  Paul Zipes’ Yoga For Vets, is soliciting yoga teachers nationwide to offer 4 free classes to veterans, and the Give Back Yoga Foundation works steadily to bring yoga to forgotten populations. Both efforts add ballast. For those without  online access –books and DVDs can be found in almost any store or library.

The path clearing through the vines of popularity to scientifically affirm yogas’ therapeutic validity is underway. Studies have been funded by the NIH, the Samueli Foundation, and also  by the US Military to gauge the effects of yoga on patients with complex, chronic PTSD. The results of the newest long-term study, utilizing brain imaging comparisons by Bessel van der Kolk’s team at the Trauma Center at JRI, is due out this Fall. Lastly, despite the narrow statistics Barcelos shares from a 2008 demographic study of the yoga community,  the number of reasons people try yoga ranges from wanting to look good, to treatment for full-blown chronic, complex PTSD. We can never make assumptions about why people try yoga.

Paul Zipes former Navy Diver, Founder, Yoga For Vets

Last year Jillian and I, along with Sue Lynch who is the founder of the non profit yoga organization There And Back… Again, agreed that we need to take the “whooshiness” out of yoga and in its place settle on a more common language. After all, what we want is nothing more than people understand how stress manifests itself in their body, releasing of tension from muscles and mind, finding their breath, and feeling better. Or as Paul Zipes once said, “I just want veterans to get a good night’s sleep.”

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