Being a good yoga student, and sometimes even becoming a teacher, used to be straightforward. You would show up for class once or twice a week with your teacher and in between supplement with their indications for your home practice. When your teacher, or your teacher’s teacher offered workshops, you showed up and learned more. You continued developing your practice like this for years. Over time you inquired deeper on your own, began (and hopefully were encouraged) to trust your insights, and answer your own questions. Perhaps, one day, the teacher went on vacation or got sick and couldn’t show up for class and asked you to step in for her. You could do this because you had an integrated base of knowledge and understanding simply from being a dedicated student. That’s how some teachers I know actually started teaching. I’m not saying it’s the ideal way to become a teacher, but it is certainly got many people started back in the day.
Then, sometime around the mid-90s the commercial yoga world took off. Practice spaces transformed into studios offering classes all day. As yoga became mainstream, teacher training programs, as a major income- generator for studios began graduating new teachers by the dozens. Home practice became downloadable, on demand and often free. The yogalebrity was born, and on and on.
As the popularity of yoga exploded we were presented with a multitude of choices on offer for when, where, how and with whom we practiced. New styles of yoga, creative adaptations of traditional practices, high-quality scientific research, and perhaps most importantly a new level of discourse about and inquiry into the efficacy and usefulness of traditional practices all contributed to the incredible array of what’s available to support us in practice. For better or worse, simply showing up, plugging away and sticking with one teacher has become ever more rare mode of practice in the Western mainstream yoga world.
In many ways, these shifts are tremendously freeing and empowering for practitioners. We are no longer obliged to always follow what someone else tells us in order to continue to develop as practitioners. We have the tools and information to explore, experiment on our own. We can take more responsibility for our practice, inquire into our own experience and make choices that serve us.
This more proactive approach to practice and the vast body of resources and options available, though, pose a problem for those who are purely in the business of selling yoga. Becoming a more inquiring, educated and engaged practitioner also invites us to co-participate in the experience of a class or practice and perhaps to expect more from our teachers. The market allows us to be more selective in our yoga as well. It makes us less dependent on any one teacher, and by extension any one practice venue or context. This kind of independence is not necessarily good for the commercial yoga industry.
The transactional nature of most yoga teaching makes it such that studios, gyms and spas now compete to provide the best yoga experience possible. The problem is that the ”best yoga experience possible” can mean different things to different people. For some, it might look like more experienced teachers, stimulating conversation in community, learning events geared toward experienced practitioners, questions that invite juicy inquiry, or opportunities for exploring the more subtle or esoteric aspects of practice. For others, it might mean being treated to a luxurious or even otherworldly experience led by a charismatic personality. For others, it might mean a kick-ass workout.
It seems that the response to this quandary in the mainstream yoga world is often to emphasize experiences over learning. By providing an experience that cannot be replicated on one’s own, whether it’s a lot of hands-on adjustments, spa-like amenities, an awesome playlist or an essential oil massage during savasana, studios might create dedicated customers but they also contribute to a culture of reliance. This, of course, is good for business. It can also be enjoyable, fun and stimulating. But it’s not necessarily good for yoga.
To add to this dynamic, being an independent practitioner can be a harder choice to make because it means that you are willing to take responsibility for your practice, to be accountable for your experience, and not simply receive a yoga class as you would a massage. It requires the effort of being an active, curious participant. This is what will be most transformative in the end, but it’s the more demanding path. It means choosing to challenge yourself, your beliefs and assumptions and your habitual ways of thinking and moving by inquiring into your experience. And, of course, in those challenges lie tremendous opportunities for positive change and growth. But it’s still harder.
It’s much easier and more enticing perhaps to show up and slide into a yoga bubble for an hour and receive an experience. It’s true that the escape can feel great, and provide the necessary space and time to gain perspective and recharge. All of that is certainly very valuable. The thing is, when you emerge from that bubble what have you gained that you can integrate into the other 23 hours of your day? Yoga has so much more to offer than just a respite from the busyness of our lives.
Creating a culture where practitioners depend on someone, or somewhere else, to provide them with the experience of yoga may seem good for business in the short run, but what about over the long run? According to the 2016 Yoga in American study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, of the 36 million people in the US that practice yoga, more than 15 million of them have been practicing for less than 5 years. How many of these newer practitioners will actually stick with yoga and how many will move on to other forms of movement or exercise whether due to injury, disenchantment or just boredom?
Ultimately, I believe that encouraging a more active and curious engagement with practice is what will help students to stay enthusiastic about yoga, be inspired to explore it more deeply, and begin to value it as an important part of one’s life. By helping practitioners become more responsible, empowered and independent in their practice we help to create a lasting dedication to yoga as a lifelong path of self-exploration, discovery and growth.