A friend of ours asked what we thought of a recent article on the future of yoga, written by Krishnamacharya’s grandson. He outlined five basic thoughts, I’ll share them below.
Desikachar’s thoughts on yoga today
1) Modern yoga lacks holism. It has become an external pose-focused practice, rather than an internal art.
2) Yoga can’t be understood through Western medicine, or the scientific method.
3) Standardized approaches – same shape, same way, for every person – don’t work.
4) It’s disappointing that the American Yoga Alliance doesn’t support yoga as therapy.
5) Yoga is spiritual – internal – first. If yoga is just exercise poses, you miss most of the benefits.
6) Yoga classes and trainings are led by many people with little practical experience, or success in their own lives and careers. We also miss many benefits in this way.
I’m not sure of the future, but I know we each create right now, and I think there are many useful things written here. I’ll share some thoughts below, and even more important, what do you think?
Holism. It’s probably true that a lot of modern yoga – especially the popular forms of hot, power, and vinyasa – lack roots. The fellow I practice tai chi with (in his mid-80s now) has seen the same development in tai chi. What we see is mostly not tai chi anymore. When practice originates with the form – the poses – it’s no longer an internal art. It’s just tai-chi-like exercises. So it loses effectiveness in this way. Same for yoga.
Western Medicine. I also agree on the topic of Western medicine. We shouldn’t wait for science to prove what we already know to be true. Eastern healing systems, in the hands of its best practitioners, have worked well for a very long time. Western medicine accomplishes miracles in the emergency room, and antibiotics are why many of us have survived past age 40. But it doesn’t work everywhere. Fortunately, where Western medicine falls down, Eastern practices can work very well – including chronic pain and illness, and the huge number of stress-related ailments, among them obesity and heart disease.
Standardized practice. Individuals must be approached individually. Both shiatsu and TCM went through a similar attempt at standardization in their recent history. Tired of being considered second-tier to Western medicine and science, they worked to document standard therapies, making them easier to study and test. The result: it stopped working. Effectiveness that was once high became occasional, and by accident. Standardization isn’t a good idea here. In most cases, life is simply too complex.
Yoga as therapy, and training. Yoga can be useful for therapy – both physical and psychological. This one is obvious. At the same time, it makes sense that the Yoga Alliance isn’t able to support this direction – because they offer uniformly generic trainings, led mostly by people with not so much practical experience, or success in their own lives and careers.
Of course there are wonderful exceptions – remarkable people who have learned from other remarkable people, and done the important work of gaining their own experience. But this doesn’t come from a generic training program.
Learning to heal requires a deep understanding of your own being and health, first. From here, we’re able to share something valuable with others. It takes something different than learning to make shapes of poses, memorizing names of bones and muscles, or studying old languages and myths. A strong education is important. Learning to be, move, and heal with grace and ease in your own life is important. Of course, you’re worth it.
Spirituality. Yoga, like tai chi and other old Eastern forms of being and healing, begins with the internal experience of yourself. I think this is what makes something spiritual – the direct experience and understanding of you. This understanding is also what creates something effective in our lives, and our ability to share with others.
There are many good things about yoga, and many people are benefiting from all kinds of yoga out there. This future belongs to each one of us, and it’s in our hands to keep progressing. We have the ability to make the benefits stronger and more predictable, for more people, more of the time. As with the rest of our being and healing practices, we also have the ability to drop the negative side-effects.
Alongside the good, there are of course areas where yoga can do better – where it can evolve and adapt to where we are now. Part of this comes from yoga being asked to do what it wasn’t designed to do. And part is grounded in elements of the philosophy that don’t translate well into modern practice.
In recent times, yoga has been asked to move. This is understandable – people need movement in their lives now. We spend too much time at desks just to sit some more. The problem is – unlike East Asian forms of movement and healing – yoga knows nothing about movement. It’s simply not integral to the system. At most it was just a few postures, stretch a bit, then sit. So when people start making yoga move – also unlike East Asian forms of movement – the movement is awkward and uncoordinated. It asks people to hold one part of the body still and tense, while moving another part. This disjointed movement isn’t particularly good for people. It builds tension and stress, and according to East Asian systems, blocks the free flow of energy. It also requires that we use much more effort, to accomplish much less. Which brings up the second part.
Yoga has looked at the truth of suffering, and sought to practice enduring discomfort, as a way to transcend that which suffers – the body. This is a nice idea. But put it into a moving yoga practice, and you get many people adding stress to their bodies and minds, rather than releasing it. The science of stress has progressed far enough that we know this is simply not a good idea. It’s not what we need.
This brings us back to movement. East Asian systems are very good here, and we can learn from them in our yoga. It’s important to move easily, with grace and coordination in your whole body – in everything you do. It brings you into harmony with your self. And you can make your yoga good practice for this. Slow down and breathe deep enough to feel. Believe that what you feel is worth responding to. And respond. Put it in how you move.
We learn something about ourselves in this way. We accomplish far more with far less effort in this way. And we’re able to heal in this way, releasing stress from our bodies and minds. This is important. It’s how we’re able to evolve yoga now, to make it work even better for who and where we are today. Life isn’t suffering.
Life is what we create, in how we move through each moment.