yoga’s constant state of evolution

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Last year, I was telling a friend about a yoga workshop I had taken with an instructor from the west coast. He was a 40-year-old guy who had been practicing for 10 or so years, studied with somebody in Hawaii, and had gone on to create his own style of yoga (which includes, of course, international workshops, DVDs and teacher trainings). “What gives him the right?” she asked, not so much judgmental but inquisitive.

And she had a point. What did give him the right? Sure, he was passionate, enthusiastic and knew his yoga, but he was a 40-year-old Canadian guy with an indeterminate background and training, who after less than 10 years of teaching professionally, was offering trainings and instructing others in his method.

However, according to this Huffington Post article, he does have a right to be doing what he’s doing. In the article, “rising yoga star” Sadie Nardini breaks down the common misconception that yoga poses are ancient, sacred and should not be tampered with by modern yogis. Her argument is pretty good and factual, although it seems that the purpose of putting it forward is to explain why she thinks “it’s perfectly fine to do with [the postures] as I wish.”

This includes adding “dancelike, wavelike or martial-arts-based movements to (and between) poses” and teaching “poses and sequences that I created and named, ranging from Charlie’s Angel’s Mudra to Fists of Fire Lunges, Shakti Kicks to Fierce Lion.”

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Her other Huff Post pieces have an irreverence and creative spirit that intrigues me; but there’s also a pop-self-help (and self-promotional – check out her bio, which lists her numerous products and media appearances, then briefly mentions her vague yoga training and background) language that turns me off.

I think this reflects my conflicted view of yoga in general, in which I don’t believe there is such thing as a “pure” yoga, but I also resist modern yoga that doesn’t adhere to any kind of tradition (whatever that is). In my practice, I’m somewhere in between, as I’m trained in and teach a fairly classical basic hatha yoga, but am intensively studying Anusara.

While Sadie may consider herself a visionary, she’s not the first teacher to fuse a little dance or martial arts (or acrobatics or pilates or pole dancing or dogs) into her teaching. It’s happening here and here and here and here. It’s happening all over the place.

In the post, Sadie seems to be speaking to a tribe of “evangelical yogis” who “are strangling the life out of what should be a shared, and beloved practice,” and who are “under the illusion of an ‘ancient’ practice, they have forgotten to question, to re-create…” I think that these people are the minority, since it seems like everyone is recreating, innovating, fusing, branding, and then going on to teach their new method to others.

Like everything, yoga is in a constant state of evolution. And of course, yoga and its teachers are going to respond to the language of contemporary culture. This has to happen so the practice is relevant to our lives in the modern world. But this constant renaming, rebranding, repackaging ~ is it evolution or is it dissolution?

And I have to wonder if all this innovation is even necessary. Will it really push yoga forward? Does yoga even need to be pushed forward? Especially if the asanas system isn’t even that old. A recently released study indicated the benefits of yoga on back pain and depression. Participants in the study practiced Iyengar Yoga, which is known as a classical style, even though it’s hardly ancient having been developed less than 100 years ago. But still, it’s pretty old school, and it was enough to help people cope with ubiquitous problems of the modern world such as back pain and depression.

I know that this blog is called “it’s all yoga, baby,” but by this I mean that everything (knitting, hanging out with my cats, enjoying roller derby and burlesque and Beyonce) is part of my practice (and not the asana practice, but the yoga practice). And that everything has the potential for union with the divine, everything is animated with spirit. While I do believe that it’s all yoga, there’s a lot of stuff out there – most of it for sale on DVD – which I’m not sure is yoga. It’s more like yogasana-inspired-fitness, and it depresses me.

Anyway, I’m going to end here before I sound like more of a curmudgeon who should just crawl back under my rock. What do y’all think? Is yoga evolving or dissolving? Do we have the right to do whatever we want with the asanas because they aren’t that ancient or sacred? Do you trust a system of yoga created by someone after 5 or 10 years of practice?

Read some of Sadie Nardini’s other Huffington Post articles. And be sure to check out her upcoming meat vs vegetarianism debate with Sharon Gannon on October 8th at 12 noon (EDT) on the Huffington Post. The Huff Post generally has really fascinating and relevant yoga coverage, check it out.

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  1. sister, sister, sister….if we lived closer to each other we could have an awesome lunch or dinner discussing all this! I’ve written about this so many times, and I don’t want to write an entire book for my comment. but I will say this:

    1. what bugs me about the teachers who “invent” something — like “yoga trance dance”, ahem, by the yogini who shall remain nameless — they act like they are the first ones who thought of it. excuse me, but people came out of the caves dancing, OK? and I moved like that long before the phrase “yoga trance dance” was copyrighted, so don’t act like you invented it, honey. you didn’t.

    2. as for yoga and all it’s morphing and supposed “evolving”, I always say you can call a dog a cat all you want to, but it’s still a dog.

    3. I have also looked at Sadie’s site and she offers the “become a yoga teacher at home” training. need I say more?

  2. I agree with both you and Sadie… lol. I watched her “core surya namaskar” and was actually impressed- I’ve never heard those modifications or suggestions when it came to protecting the lower back during asana transitions. I also like her opinions on practicing a yoga that is right for you, not so much “traditional” per se.

    I also agree with your points that she does seem to be just another yogini selling “her” yoga and that perhaps a balance between tradition and growth is best.

    I do believe that evolution and growth is good. Restricting change just encourages stagnation. Aren’t we all trying to grow on our journey? 🙂

    great post!

  3. This is interesting.

    For me, lately, “yoga” has certainly naturally become a broader categorical thing — “mindful movement.”

    For example, YOGA doesn’t just improve depression — ANY exercise does. ANY mindful practice does. This is not yoga’s exclusive domain by any stretch of the imagination.

    And also, though yoga is “old,” shamanic dance is certainly much older.

    I think for any system to retain efficacy and viability it must change to meet current time’s needs.

    The Dalai Lama would say that Buddhism, for example, changes every culture it enters, but even more, it is changed by every culture.

  4. Yoga is evolving. The more people dedicate time and interest to the practice and philosophy, the more the information gets processed through different perspectives leading to inevitable changes. However, when someone comes at it with motives the result might be less than helpful for others. It depends…

    I think that people who practiced with Jois or Iyengar and want yoga to always be taught as they have… Well, to them the “pure teachings” must be dissolving. But I am suspicious of an impulse to keep anything the same. Things change. And any person can only experience and teach from their own perspective. So, I am also suspicious of teachers who believe themselves to be doing it like someone else because I believe that I can only teach as myself. Someone else taking my class might perceive teachings that have informed and developed my practice. So I am informed by lineage, but I am myself.

    The nature of the situation from my viewpoint puts some responsibility in the hands of yoga students. It’s important to evaluate what you are doing and to make choices that work for you. Don’t just do a practice because someone else says it is good for you. Do it because you care. Do it because you are learning. Do it because it takes you into deeper understanding, peace and joy.

  5. Very interesting post! But just to challenge you a little, I must say that Sandra and I first got into yoga because of a DVD, which then lead us to explore the origins of yoga and how much more it is than just asanas as you point out in your post. I find a lot of “arts” or practises coming from Asia are then pre-digested for us Westerners to make it easier or more digestible, mostly because this is what people ask.

    The same is true in taiko. In our group, we didn’t use to give classes and people who were interested to learn had to come and watch, sometimes for a few months before being able to touch a drum. The thing is, people had to learn by watching and do it by themselves, which is not easy for Westerners…

    In order to have new performing members, we had to start offering classes, which we did try to make them demanding (as you might recall). But even with that, only the people who were totally committed and came to observe and who were motivated enough to practise on their own eventually became a performing member. Out of about 35 or 40 new students every year, less than 10 or 15 would continue. But at least more people got to try taiko and they can then spread the word. It then becomes part of the karma of everything.

    It does not really matter how and where you start, it is the journey that is important. I do agree that knowing the roots before changing something is important, if not out of respect for its origins.

    One of the best lesson I learned from yoga is to do it without judgement, both of yourself and of others. And guess where I first learned it (don’t laugh): an old Brian Kest’s yoga DVD, which was my introduction to yoga 🙂

  6. By the way, I might have went a bit off topic with some of my comments but your post has been a great spark for a good reflection about tons of aspects! So thank you 🙂

  7. It’s unfortunate that articles like that one get such high profile play in places like the Huffington post. It makes their authors come across as more expert than they really are. As you say, it seems that the purpose of her putting it forward is to simply justify what she is doing with yoga.

    To claim that it is an “illusion ” to think that yoga is an ‘ancient’ practice only demonstrates how little she must really know about it. Unfortunately this ignorance is the principle reason why we have so many “new yogas” popping up all over the place today. I’m not saying that these folks aren’t nice people, but nice people do foolish things all the time because they have been over-enthusiastic and perhaps over ambitious, and forgot to do the necessary homework in order to really know what they are talking about.

    Here’s a great article that goes further along these points, giving a nice perspective on why there are so many new yoga styles out there today:

    Why are there so many yoga styles today?

  8. Wheee, what a discussion! Thanks, everyone! You’ve all made wonderful points and I admire your thoughtfulness. I have lots to say about this, so I’ll just make a few comments here.

    Linda: can you please please move to Montreal so we can discuss yoga over bagels and go to roller derby? You are awesome.

    Ecoyogini: no worries about walking the middle way! I love your balanced perspective. I actually spent hours yesterday morning practicing Sadie’s YouTube videos (which all seemed to named after some variation on “yoga for weightloss”) and they were grand fun. I felt strong and powerful afterwards. However, I also gag when I’m instructed to do “Shakti Kicks.”

    Blisschick: yeah, I agree that change and growth are necessary… I’m just questioning how much change is necessary, and if growth is always a move forward.

    Brooks: I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s so true that ultimately, our yoga practice is our responsibility, and it’s up to us to research and *question* our teachers. Yes!

    J-F: thanks for your perspective, and for the parallel between yoga and other practices from Asia, such as taiko (Japanese drumming). It’s true, we need to make yoga accessible to people so that they can be introduced to the practice. This can include products such as DVDs, which is a fine way to discover yoga. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just questioning people who produce DVDs maybe a little prematurely, or to make money.

    “International”: you are exactly the kind of “evangelical yogi” that Sadie is talking about in her article. It’s really easy to dismiss all “new yoga” as the result of ignorance. However, it’s clear that in this article that Sadie knows her stuff. She doesn’t argue that “yoga” isn’t 5000 years old, but that the so-called ancient poses that we learn in yoga class aren’t that old.

    • Ouch! I’m a bit dismayed that you have labeled me an “evangelical yogi” based on the few sentences I offered here. None of my students or any of my multitudes of readers and visitors have ever called me that! :O)

      Yes, you are correct, the author is pointing out in her article that the asanas are not that old (they are, however, several hundred years old, and weren’t just made up according to the whims and fancies of anybody with some other form of sports or dance background). But the distinction in her article that is missed is the all-too common lack of understanding of just what place those practices have in the overall science of yoga. When you don’t have that understanding, then of course it’s going to seem perfectly logical and fine to just take it and run with it in any way you see fit.

      My point is that in placing the physical practices, such as asanas front and center in yoga, that so much more of the science of yoga gets missed. It’s in the depths of yoga that it’s real fruits are to be found. Of course, it is always easier to dig a wide hole than it is to dig deeper… and this is all too evident in modern yoga.

      Simply having a great respect for yoga and a strong desire that people gain all of the immense benefits of having a deeper understanding of it doesn’t make someone evangelical. It just means that they care.

      • Hey “International” ~ actually, I labeled you based on your comment, your recommended blog post and the “about” page on your blog 😉 Anyway, I see what you’re saying here. While I disagree that new yoga styles keep popping up because of ignorance and lack of understanding (I’d say that it has to do with people’s innovative spirit and need for distinction, a crowded yoga marketplace and, at times, straight-up ego), I also get your point. I like what you say about digging a wide hole being easier than a deep one.

        Keep up caring and having respect!

  9. We’ve had many heated debates about this topic on the Yoga Journal Community. Generally, I embrace diversity and even a certain amount of creative chaos in exchange for the incredibly rich variety of experiences that are Yoga in America.

    Luckily, diversity encompasses and embraces those who want to practice purely and traditionally, too. There are plenty of traditional Yoga teachers out there, and even traditional ashram experiences, for those who want them, like this beautiful Sanskrit Studies site I just ran across ( http://www.sanskritstudies.org ) and the Ananda Ashram of the New York Yoga Society ( http://anandaashram.org/ ).

    I personally belieive the Yoga pie is infinitely expandable. So it can accomodate whatever diversity the world throws at it.

    There is infinite room in the Yoga world for both the deeply spiritual and traditional approach and the newer varieties of Yoga workout programs. People will find and embrace what they need. One doesn’t really compete with the other in any way I can see.

    Some people are surprised to learn that diversity is nothing new in Yoga. Many scholars believe that the Yoga Sutra was Patanjali’s attempt to rationalize the already wide variety of things call “Yoga” in his time. That’s why it contains everything from meditation to positive thinking to hallucingenics to magical powers to acseticism to metaphysics to religion. He was trying to be inclusive and make everyone happy.

    Patanjali was faced with the same problem back then as we are now–wild diversity of practice and philosophy. And this was before the coming of hatha yoga and tantra!

    My wife does Yoga every everyday just for exercise. She really doesn’t care if it’s called Yoga or not. Yoga for me is almost entirely spiritual and philosophical. Yoga works great for both of us.

    I would no more want to talk her into Yoga as religion than she would want to talk me out of reading ancient Yoga texts over and over again.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://yogademystified.com

  10. In four years of college I can teach public school. What’s wrong with offering a service after 10 years of training?

    Rick

  11. There is nothing inherently wrong with Western yoga evolving and morphing. Everything changes — we change, our bodies change. After all, Krishnamacharya taught yoga differently to his son Desikachar and to Iyengar and to P. Jois – that is the beauty of yoga, you teach to the individual and that is the way I am taught at the Krishnamarcharya Yoga Mandiram in India (Desikachar’s school.) Krishnamacharya just taught YOGA — he did not name it a certain style. The people that came after him did.

    But for yoga to be “yoga”, I believe there has to be certain criteria: 100% attention to the breath, first and foremost; steadiness; and ease (to name a few.) At KYM, I have heard Desikachar say that if those three aren’t there, then you’re merely doing acrobatics. And children can do acrobatics.

    Frankly, I don’t care if someone does yoga only for “exercise.” But if it doesn’t have the characteristics that make it “yoga”, then don’t call it yoga. Like I said, you can call a dog a cat all you want to but that doesn’t make it a cat. The shapes we put ourselves into do not make it yoga. They are just shapes. Yoga is much more than that.

    • I agree, Linda-Sama. At it’s heart, this is a question of terminology, not substance. No one objects to others doing asana just for the exercise. It’s just at some point (it seems a different point for everyone) they object to it being called “Yoga”.

      I think this a much more accurate way to look at it–a matter of definition, rather than as some sort of threat or insult to Yoga.

      Like I said, my wife doesn’t care if it’s called Yoga or not. She just likes what it does for her body and mind. As for many Yogasizers, her spiritual needs are met in other ways. She doesn’t look to Yoga for that.

  12. wow what a discussion!
    I love what Bob had to say and agree wholeheartedly. For me, there is always room for diversification. The trick is to assure that there isn’t any harm being done in the name of ‘yoga’ (for example I read about the ‘dahn’ yoga cult… which seems scary as I don’t know what!).

    I guess this discussion is also timely with all the certification-regulation drama that’s been happening in the States…

    I also took a bit of ‘hardcore’ yoga from ‘International’s’ statement re: ‘foolish actions’. I hardly believe that my changes with my practice that divert from the ‘traditional’ practices of yoga should be considered ‘foolish’… and I think that was Sadie’s point.

  13. It is ironic that I find this today, after having a debate this morning about labeling. Why do we feel the need to “call” it something? Why not just be? That is my major question. Do I really need to fit into a label to be a good teacher? The last year and a half in St.Thomas doing yoga on my porch looking out over the Caribbean, I learned so much more, and became so much better of a yogi, than in any classroom or any workshop. It was all free, and it was all generated from inside. This is what I want to bring to my students…Not trendy clothes, or fancy names.
    On the flip side, I am not judgemental, if someone can make a living doing what they love…so be it. And, if someone can afford to pay thousands of dollars to follow the yoga teacher du jour…good for them, but I just can’t do it anymore. Don’t want to be a cookie cutter teacher, Om Namah Shivaya Gurave…means listen to your inner light, for it IS your best teacher!

    You, by the way, won the gRAWnola treats on my blog…so email me at
    mandywoz@gmail.com

    Namaste,
    Mandy

  14. Sighing.

    What tires me about this “debate?”

    The assumptions we make about other people’s intentions and what they are “getting from” or even “giving to” yoga.

    WE HAVE NO IDEA what is going on or not going on with another person’s heart or spirit and we should stop with the guessing.

    If anything, these assumptions just alert me to the fact that WE aren’t getting it AT ALL.

    • I think I see what you are saying Christine.

      But I wonder if it’s possible to have a meaningful debate or even a mild-mannered discussion about anything without taking some inferences from people’s words and actions as a starting point.

      It seems to me that this is the fundamental basis for all polite discourse, and the highest purpose of polite discourse is to move toward greater clarity about everyone’s intentions and thoughts.

      In my mind, the purpose of a really great discussion, like the one here, is precisely to try to overcome the problem you cite, that “WE HAVE NO IDEA what is going on or not going on with another person’s heart or spirit…”.

      How else do we go about getting beyond the surface without an wide-ranging, multi-point-of-view discussion like the one right here? What I see here is an effort to get beyond “the assumptions we make about other people’s intentions” to something closer to the truth.

      Am I making any sense here? I’m trying to say is that I agree with the danger you cite, but to me this discussion seems like part of the solution, not part of the problem.

      Bob Weisenberg
      yogademystified.com

      • Well put, Bob! I agree that debate and discussion are part of the solution. I also see them as essential to the process of yoga. What I’m seeing in this discussion is an amazing tolerance and respect. It’s clear that yoga matters to everyone who has participated here. We’re all passionate about it, we’re willing to explore and question what it is and where it fits in our lives.

        It’s true, we don’t know why people practice and what their motivations or intentions are. I only know my own intention, which is to live my practice and be an authentic person. Because I am a cultural nerd at heart, I am fascinated by how yoga is represented in the media and culture. I love thinking and criticizing and questioning. It fuels my practice.

        My hope is that healthy debate about the future of yoga isn’t divisive ~ it can be a first step towards understanding others. And we’re lucky to have so many intelligent, articulate practitioners who are willing to speak their minds, and their hearts.

  15. I think it’s so great to have change and evolution in yoga, and to throw in new ideas and merge different types of workouts together. However…I also think we should never leave the classics behind, or let them become watered down. I think it’s good to embrace both, as suits us. The part that is really annoying, though, is the marketing aspect of the evolution of yoga. I think that’s probably what bugs most yogis/yoginis.

  16. Read these two books for an anthropological perspective: Positioning Yoga, Sarah Strauss; and Yoga in Modern India, Joseph Alter.

  17. Hi all,

    Sadie here–I thought I should weigh in, since it seems some of these comments and opinions have centered on me.

    My original intention for writing the article was to highlight what I felt was a judgmental attitude among some people that if you’re not only doing the classical yoga poses, then “it’s not yoga”. It’s the attitude I take issue with, not what kind of style you wish to practice.

    I then gave some history to broaden the perspective on what’s ancient about our practice, and what’s more modern.

    I used my style, which, if you’ll dive into my website, tells you that I use it less as a “Style”–I’m not trying to be Iyengar here–and more as a perspective on yoga, on the poses and as a way to healthfully re-integrate the asanas. When I do trainings, like my public or at-home training (which one commenter seemed not to like, but let me tell you, it’s pretty awesome when you live somewhere like Afghanistan or Iraq and don’t have our American luck to be able to get to a lot, or any teachers), I only train people with their 200 hour RYT or equivalent. So I’m not certifying new people at home.

    I help teachers of ANY style bring in a new paradigm, and new alignment information to re-focus on center and building poses in a more structurally sound way–from the Core. That’s my thing, others have theirs. It’s all good.

    I do like to move outside the box, but really, when I write my articles, I have to use my own experience. So that’s why all the mention of my poses, etc. I just tend to get really frustrated when these old-school yogis tell anyone they aren’t as spiritual because they are doing a trance dance or Fierce Pose instead of Eka Pada Koundinyasana.

    I think it’s brilliant to stick with your classical style, or, conversely, to do something else. It’s all what you resonate with. I’m just sorry if I sounded flippant, like anyone can run out and create their own poses. Only those with proper training and years of experience, in my opinion, can fully understand all the various levels these “new” movements are affecting.

    BTW, since you asked, I’m an E-RYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher) with over 1000 hours of teaching experience. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. I was certified personally by an amazing Ashtanga teacher whom I trained with for 3 years and who prefers not to be published, hence, my reasoning behind leaving her out.

    And I give everything I have to my study and teaching of yoga. I may offer some things for sale so I may support myself to not have to work a 9-5 job and instead can be free to offer more yoga to the world…but if you look on my site and on my YouTube page (148 free videos and counting)…you’ll see that I give away far more than I ask.

    I hope I’ve clarified myself a bit for you all…and I wish you so much yogi love.

    Cheers,
    Sadie

    • Hey Sadie ~ Thanks for jumping in! It’s great to get your point of view and your clarity on some points. I hope you see that the intention in this discussion is not to attack your or your practice; rather, your article served as a catalyst for conversation about the positioning of yoga.

      I think your approach is interesting and fresh, and I did enjoy what I experienced on your YouTube videos. Though I have to admit that I would have given you more credibility as a teacher if I had known more about your background and training, rather than your media appearances (this was just based on the bio on your website and what I’d read in a couple of magazine articles).

      What happened to the great meat debate on the HuffPost?!? Will there be a rematch?

      Rock on,
      girlwarrior (aka Roseanne)

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