The Yoga craze - fad or tradition? Five reality checks to find out where your Yoga is really taking you
Is it just me or are Yoga studios becoming increasingly more cosmopolitan and um, well wanky? The modern, simplistic and almost clinical designer layout with abstract professional shots of lamps, blurred mats and contortionists on the website are becoming increasingly popular. Fridges stocked with organic coconut water and shelves filled with raw, vegan protein bars. The teachers and students uniformly dressed in the latest high profile leggings (of which I too am guilty) with mat and cover towel to match. Heated classes claiming to burn 500 plus calories . . . Is this the ancient tradition of Yoga or are we being sucked in to just another fitness fad? Here are five things to look for to ensure that you are on the Yoga path not the Yoga fad.
1. The culture of the studio is relaxed and embraces diversity. When I returned to Melbourne from QLD I tried a few different studios before I settled on 2 or 3 that are aligned with my values. They are in older style buildings with worn floors and aged wall paint. They have piles of used blankets, bolsters, mats, straps, eye pillows and even chairs that are all free to use. There's a sense of relaxed community and at times even family where students help each other and the teacher rather than transact mechanically. No one gets up tight if someone is five minutes late or has to use the bathroom during class and the teachers are attentive to individuals because they aren't swamped with huge classes, reception, admin' duties and cleaning responsibilities without assistance. Sometimes the class starts a little late and sometimes it runs a little over without any drama or chaos.
When I go to Yoga I don't want to be shackled with a whole bunch of strict rules. That's what I was trying to leave behind when I clocked off from work at 5pm. Studios that run under rigid conditions remind me of boot camp which definitely has its place but in my experience, Yoga class is the time to challenge the 'norms' and gather a new sense of the meaning of working towards something. The practice itself can be confronting enough so a nurturing, compassionate and friendly environment where diversity is accepted is the surest way to support and promote the journey ahead.
2. You are practice focused rather than pose focused. Recently two of my regular students (who are completely unrelated) came back to class after an absence and thanked me for moving their focus back to breath and movement rather than the victory of "achieving a pose." Both students had been practicing at home and participated in instagram Yoga competitions. I had never heard of these competitions but was told that each day they photographed themselves in the pose of the week and posted it on instagram for the other participants to see and that there were prizes for the best photo. I am unclear as to how they were judged but the people running the competitions weren't even Yoga teachers. This really shines the light on the glamourisation and capitalisation of Yoga. Now that it's popular or 'trendy' we are seeing all sorts of amalgamations of activities claiming to be Yoga but are perhaps not quite Yoga. The concept of competing in Yoga completely contradicts the philosophy of what the practice has been built upon. It's easy to feel competitive in a Yoga class and the challenge there is to refrain from responding to our competitive feelings which is difficult enough without any encouragement. One of the students ended up injuring herself and is now easing her way back into practice and both spoke about spending a lot of time obsessing over 'selfies' in their pose until they got the best shot.
There was very valuable insight to be gained from the students' experiences both for me and them. Sometimes when we venture away from our Yoga practice, in one way or another it helps us to progress and refine it a little more authentically which is integral to the journey down the Yogic path. Becoming practice focused - breathing and moving or even just sitting and breathing - leads us into a deeper, more enriching Yoga experience than if we are only focused on the physical expression of poses.
3. Do you chat or check your phone during Yoga? If you're chatting or on your phone, you're not aware of your breath or your movement and you're stimulating the mind rather than quietening it. Without awareness of the movement and breath you may as well be in the gym listen to music on your phone. We all catch ourselves day dreaming or wandering off during Yoga without the aid of a media device. The reason we restrict the amount of sensory information during Yoga is to limit the mind from being stimulated because there are already enough distractions coming from within. It also limits the likelihood of injuring ourselves. We need to be able to feel the effects of the movement to honour our body.
4. You use mirrors to your advantage not your detriment. I am not an advocate for practicing in front of mirrors but there are many people who do and are in favour of it. The philosophy behind practicing in front of mirrors is that you look yourself in the eye throughout practice and eventually you will see your authentic self. This sounds great in theory but if I'm honest, I'm definitely not looking myself in the eye the whole time. I'm assessing the size if my bum and how I look in the pose on a superficial level and if that's what I'm doing, chances are so is everyone else. I've practiced many classes in front of mirrors and although it is advantageous with self correction of alignment, I can't remember ever feeling a pose throughout the whole duration of a class with mirrors. Once we learn how the pose should feel when we are aligned correctly, we can practice more freely and really engage with the moving meditation.
5. You've discovered (or are on your way to discovering) a balanced lifestyle that's right for you. You don't have to become a strict vegan and abstain from alcohol for the rest of your life to cultivate a Yogic lifestyle. It's all about balance. Many Yogis find that the more they practice Yoga the more sensitive they become to what they ingest which then leads them to no longer being able to eat processed foods, animal products or drink alcohol. The cultivation of a suitable Yoga practice takes time and so do the changes that accompany it. Be mindful of gimmicks and products that claim to be required in order to uphold some sort of moral or health related code to prove your authenticity as a real Yogi. Fitting into a prescribed ímage' of a Yogi contradicts the philosophy of the practice which is based more around individuality and authenticity. A lot of the side products are superficial garbage found in all industries, embedded by corporations piggy backing off the latest fad. Everyone will engage the Yoga practice in a way that is unique to them and any product claiming to be a necessary accompaniment is already outside the simplistic nature of Yoga. You only need your breath to begin Yoga and remember that Yoga originated in the East under some of the poorest conditions in the world. Yoga is a practice that requires dedication, discipline, patience, compassion and a willingness to put in the work - all things that cannot be purchased.