Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Writing Yoga: The Blogosphere as Collective Practice


I’m quite new to the world of yoga blogging, having overcome what in retrospect seems like a ridiculous amount of fear and trepidation to make my first post only last spring. Once online, however, I quickly discovered a fascinating new world of information, ideas, personalities, debate, and discussion. I was thrilled to find people talking about issues that I’ve been interested in for years, but hadn’t previously had a forum to discuss them in: that is, how yoga is changing, and being changed by its evolving relationship with North American culture.

Lately, however, I’ve been disturbed by my sense that this forum that I’ve only so recently discovered has been spiraling in some negative directions. Particularly in the ongoing “commercialization of yoga” debate, I’ve noticed more and more comments indicating a sense of division and even animosity. Private conversations have confirmed my sense that feelings have been hurt and relationships damaged.


I don’t think that this is where anyone wants to be. But collective dynamics can take on a life of their own. There may be a group energy that many individuals contribute to, but that no one controls or even necessarily wants.

So I wanted to step back and assess what’s been going on. I wonder:
  • If you’ve been involved in the yoga blogosphere – whether actively or simply as a reader – have you sensed negative dynamics building?
  •  If so, then what do you think are the root causes of this – and how can they best be addressed?
Since I’ve already answered my first question “yes,” what follows is my take on the second, offered simply as food for thought.

It’s Not a Blame Game

First, however, I want to emphasize that by wondering, “what are the roots of this problem?,” I’m NOT asking “who’s to blame?”

Trying to pin blame on individuals will only generate MORE division and bad feeling. So, if we can’t talk about this other terms other, then it’s best not to talk about it (at least publicly) at all.

I think, however, that it’s possible to talk about negative dynamics in the yoga blogosphere without playing the “blame game.” This may be naïve on my part – but I’m going to give it a shot and see what happens . . .

Working with Fire

My best guess is that the recent sense of division and bad feeling stems from the confluence of two very new developments: 1) the growth of the yoga blogosphere, and 2) the emergence of a new generation of celebrity yoga teachers. Together, this has proven to be a combustible mix. And, when you stop to think about it, it makes complete sense that this would be the case.

I’ll explain why in a minute. But first, let me just note that this sort of fiery mix is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it can be very good – provided that it’s handled skillfully.


Fire in Yellowstone National Park

Think of our forests: a raging, out of control fire may be a tragedy, hurting or even destroying a precious natural resource and habitat. At the same time, however, our greatest national parks, like Yellowstone in Wyoming, use controlled burns for revitalization and renewal. Allowing the forest to burn periodically is nature’s way of clearing old growth, releasing new seeds, creating richer soil, and regenerating the cycle of life. Suppressing all fires completely would paradoxically produce only stagnation, disease, and decay.

In other words, those of us who want to continue discussing yoga and culture shouldn’t seek to avoid controversy and debate. Instead, we should practice working with it skillfully, both for our own benefit and that of the larger community.

In Search of the Cyber Sangha

The blogosphere is a peculiar beast. As my former mentor Cass Sunstein argues in Republic 2.0, while the Internet provides unprecedented opportunities to connect with different people, it also tends to propel us into more and more polarized camps, where we only talk to those who share our views. Perversely, then, what might ideally be a means of encountering a wide variety of perspectives in order to learn something new all-too-often becomes a means of reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices.


Now, the yoga blogosphere is a bit different from the political discussion forums that Sunstein had in mind. People who are interested enough in yoga to read and possibly write about it online already belong to a sizable and diverse, but still niche community. And certainly, in the "real-life" yoga world, it’s easy to find strong connections despite our differences: if I practice Forrest and you’re dedicated to Iyengar, for example, we still feel that we're part of the same community (at least in my experience).

The blogosphere, however, has a very different dynamic than face-to-face interaction. Whatever we say online may be read by many, many others, each of whom may have very, very different views about yoga’s real and ideal connection to our larger society and culture.

We can’t immediately see how our interlocutors are reacting to what we’re saying and respond accordingly, the way can in “real life.” We may spout off and hit the “send” button, saying things that we’d never say face-to-face.

Online, we’re limited to the written word, which is a powerful tool that can cut in unanticipated ways.



This means that once controversial topics get introduced, working through them in cyberspace is inherently tricky. The medium itself has polarizing tendencies. While the real-world commonalities of the yoga community counteract that to some degree, a general commitment to ahimsa (or whatever) is not necessarily sufficient to allow skillful handling of a heated argument if the fire starts raging out of control.

Plus, the yoga blogosphere is relatively new: I’ve only been at it a few months, and even the most prominent bloggers haven’t been at it more than a few years. So there’s no tradition to fall back on. We’re all making this up as we go along.

American Yoga: The Next Generation

Until quite recently, the most influential American-born yoga teachers (e.g., Patrica Walden, Lilias Folan, Richard Freeman, Beryl Bender Birch, and many others) were students of the great 20th century Indian yoga masters (e.g., B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattahbi Jois), either permanently or for some extended period of time.



These teachers also committed to yoga during a time when it wasn’t popular. During the aerobics-crazed 1980s, when most were honing their practice, there was extremely little, if any money or glamor associated with yoga. For quite awhile, in fact, yoga seemed like a quaint, if not embarrassing relic of the now passé hippies-in-search-of-natural-highs or housewives-looking-for-a-little-stretching scenes of the 1960s-70s.

But they preserved. And eventually, a number of them became our well known “celebrity yogis”: Shiva, Baron, Seane, etc. (While these references may be baffling to newbies, believe me, they’re household names if you’ve spent much time in the yoga world.)

Now, however, a new generation of “celebrity” teachers is emerging. Most are quite young, highly attractive, and super-athletic – as well as media-savvy, brand conscious, and corporate-friendly. (Here, I’m thinking of teachers like Tara Stiles, Rainbeau Mars, and Kathryn Budig, all of whom have prominently figured in the recent “commercialization of yoga” debates.) This new generation of teachers is coming into its own in a very different time in the evolution of American yoga – as well as a very different time in American society more broadly.


Today, yoga is much less connected to India, completely disconnected from any sort of counter-culture, and infinitely more popular, glamorous and potentially profitable. Consequently, it’s not surprising that some (although of course, not all) of the leading teachers of this generation have a very different sensibility regarding the how best to negotiate the relationship between yoga and American culture.

The Nissan endorsements, yoga talent agencies, corporate alliances, sexy marketing campaigns, and weight-loss ads that have generated so much controversy are, I think, all bound up with this generational shift. By pointing out that it’s occurring, I’m not (at least in this post) trying to assess its pros and cons. (And please, let's try to avoid jumping into another "us" versus "them" dynamic, at least for the moment.) Instead, I'm simply noting that it’s happening, and that it’s an important development in the North American yoga community.

“Conflict is Inevitable, Violence is Not”

Put together a new online discussion forum that’s prone to polarization, and a new generation of celebrity yoga teachers representing a different cultural sensibility, and what do you get? Well, for one, fertile ground for conflict.

However, as the Third Side method of non-violent communication teaches us, “conflict, in itself, is not a bad thing”:
Conflict is a natural and healthy process, necessary for making progress . . . The world may actually need more conflict, not less, if the appropriate skills are known and conflict can be managed productively.


Constructive ways of dealing with conflict involve “debate, dialogue, negotiation, and democracy.” Channeling the energy of controversy and conflict into a productive force requires “a strong container for creative contention”: that is, a collective space that supports “a peaceful, nonviolent process for engaging deep differences, (and) an inclusive outcome that addresses the essential needs of all.”

In the case of the yoga blogosphere, I believe that the outcome that we need is NOT resolution of our substantive differences: I don’t think that we can or will come to agreement about the core issues at stake in the “commercialization of yoga” debates. Rather, we need to turn the yoga blogosphere into a resource that can support everyone in their practice by providing a space to connect with different people and viewpoints – some of which we won't agree with or may even find upsetting – and grow, both individually and collectively, in the process.

20 comments:

  1. excellent post, Carol!

    but I'm still looking for that cave in India...;)

    somehow the old phrase of "tune in, turn on, and drop out" is really resonating with me lately. i.e., since last week.

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  2. I think, as a Brit yoga blogger I'm far more on the outside of all of this. Whilst recent controversies have p***ed me off they don't directly affect the British yoga community at all as we just don't buy into consumerism here in quite the same way (oh we buy into consumerism, it's just different!)

    The Brit yoga scene I think is looked on as a little more quirky and old fashioned, certainly outside of London. Most people I have spoken to have never heard of Tara Stiles for example and laughed when I told them about the book. I like that. And I have never been more thankful for being British (even though our government sucks and it rains all the time)!

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  3. As one who will always veer to the fiery side (thanks, pitta/vira nature!) I can only concur.

    If everyone is agreeing with everyone else for the sake of being friends and not wanting to look like you think the other person is loopy, in the end no one is really agreeing on anything of value.

    While of course, non-violence (words, thoughts or deeds) is important, so is the right to say what you need to say regardless of how it might appear to others.

    The whole online/email-isn't-the-same-as-being-in-person thing has been going on for years. It's a well known fact that digital communications have so much potential for misunderstanding. And YET, we all fall into that trap from time to time of being offended and/or misunderstanding someone else.

    I don't know if there's a real solution to that, because as long as we've each got our own cultural and personal filters going on, it's easy to forget. Especially when there's a good chance you'll never get to meet some/many of the people you're communicating with.

    While I'm not American, I have a vested interest in what's going on in the US yoga scene. Two reasons: First, I have hundreds of US yogi friends; Second, Australia (for better or worse) often mirrors what's going on in the US. Both culturally and in consumer behaviour. What's going on in the US is often an early-warning for what will happen over here.

    Although we don't super-size our meals here by default! ;)

    Re: the blogosphere, I agree we won't ever all agree. But calling those of us who are anti-the new wave of commercialised yoga, "fundamentalists" or "radical feminists" is definitely not helpful to any sort of meaningful dialog.

    "Fundamentalist" is such a distasteful word to use in the current climate for those who aren't y'know, planning a terrorist act...

    A last thought - opinion doesn't necessarily = wisdom or facts. But unfortunately in the online space, they are often used interchangeably.

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  4. Hi Carol,

    I certainly am sort of on the sidelines of the yoga culture, as someone who just practices it at home and takes a weekly class, without, I must admit, buying (sorry for the word) into the more spiritual discourse that comes with it. I'm not saying that I think there is no meaningful spiritual dimension to yoga, this would be stupid, but I have yet to find it expressed in a language that suits my own "culture" as, let's say, a western modern liberal agnostic. I found a couple of authors, such as FJ Boccio or Michael Stone, who do have an approach that partly speaks to me, but I'm also an economist, can you believe that, and I have a very different view of "consumerism", "free markets" or "corporate capitalism", from that which seems to elicit a consensus among those who discuss things spiritual. (By the way, I thought your forest fire metaphor sounded a lot like the now classic defence of capitalist economic cycles as waves of creative destruction).

    All this to say that I have watched this recent debate with some interest, in good part because in a way, this was quite a classic political discussion, yet the fact that it happened within "the yoga community", seemed to mean that there had to be a higher moral ground to be conquered, and that the significance of yoga within the larger culture depended on the resolution of this kind of disagreement. But why should yogis be any different, when they discuss matters of political ideology, or religious beliefs for that matter? I understand that you're saying they should agree to disagree in a non-violent way, but this is the ideal of all public discussion, isn't it?

    If such discussions don't occur as peacefully as we'd like in the political blogosphere, we know that it's because these questions are literally defining our personal identities, and we may feel that if we're wrong - or worse even, if "truth" is simply not a meaningful category in these matters - then it is our very sense of self-worth that is under attack. So the really interesting question, I think, is why should it be different for yoga practitionners/bloggers/teachers? I agree completely with you that substantive agreement is less important than a process of discussing different views that is as respectful and non-violent as possible. But what else can we do, in order to get there, apart from applying our own best interpretation of the yamas in our individual practice of conversation, whether off- or online? Is there any other way?

    Namaste.

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  5. Hi Yvan: Thanks for a great comment. You raise a lot of really interesting and important points.

    I think yoga practitioners have a particular set of resources that we could ideally draw on as we engage in online debate, e.g., an asana practice that helps us become more centered, compassionate, and discerning. Otherwise, my goals for debate in the yoga blogosphere are completely consonant with what I'd like to see in the political realm - you are quite right.

    The problem, of course, is that particularly here in the U.S., we don't currently have good models for intelligent, civil, productive political discourse. (Obama tried, but didn't get far.) So if anything, I'd hope that the more protected world of yoga would allow people to start developing those skills, which would then ideally translate over to and/or influence other arenas as well. (Idealistic, I know, but. One can dream.)

    Your point about how our sense of personal identity and self-worth gets triggered in debate is right on. I think, however, that most people are quite unaware of this, and that's a huge problem. Again, yoga offers tremendous resources in this regard. As you get deeper into it, issues of identity arise naturally, as practice helps develop a deeper level of awareness, letting us see and work with our habitual patterns more consciously.

    As someone who also comes from a very rationalist mindset, I'd suggest ditching the search for language that speaks to you about yoga and spirituality for the time being. Instead, look for teachers that can help open up a deeper experience of the practice for you. I did not get interested in the spiritual dimensions of yoga due to anything that I read - in fact, like you, I still find most of the written work unsatisfying. Instead, I got interested in it because of the mind-blowing experiences that I was having "on the mat": intense emotional flashbacks, memories resurfacing, feeling my body as a field of energy, etc. My brain then wanted to figure out what I was experiencing and why. But ultimately those explanations are provisional - worthwhile and important, yes, but once spiritual experience gets boxed into words, it necessarily changes into something different.

    Final point on capitalism and fire: yes, but I'd say that U.S. neo-liberalism is the raging destruction, while a more social democratic approach (like Canada!) aims more for the controlled burn :)

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  6. P.S. Fascinating (and humorous) that on a post that in part analyzes a new wave in US culture, 3 out of 4 commentators are not US citizens, and the one who is wants to decamp to a cave in India!

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  7. "I'd hope that the more protected world of yoga would allow people to start developing those skills"

    the longer I teach, the more I realize that yoga teachers/students have the same foibles as anyone else. human nature.

    in fact, I have found that those foibles -- ego, jealousy, negative competitiveness, whatever -- actually become enhanced in a yoga atmosphere, instead of lessened. who knows why? I stopped trying to figure it out. I found that wishing for things to be different in the "yoga world" only led to my own suffering -- AS IF somehow things would be different among so-called like-minded people. bull.

    I no longer teach in studios because of the politics, egos, and neuroses in such an atmosphere. as I told my private students last night, I am grateful and happy to teach to those with little dust in their eyes.

    ultimately, yoga and the experiences it gives rise to, are just something else to let go of.

    given the recent brouhaha, I think some people have become enamoured with their 15 minutes of fame. we all know people who love to hear themselves talk whether anyone is listening to them or not, same in the yoga world.

    think of the yoga teachers who one rarely reads or hears about: Donna Farhi, Angela Farmer, Patricia Walden, Jill Satterfield, and my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, among others. I think it's truly all about the quieter practices, so to speak.

    Just because someone is out there making a bunch of noise with a book or flashy ad doesn't make it right or even good. Just like the deers at night, we're caught in the headlights.

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  8. Hi Linda: While I totally agree that "yoga teachers/students have the same foibles as anyone else" and that some weird negative dynamics can arise in studios, I retain my more hopeful view based on two different, but both really positive experiences that I've had with yoga/spirituality communities.

    Both at Lake Street Church of Evanston and within the Forrest Yoga community I've experienced that strong container that I referenced in this post. We have many differences, and shit arises, but the common practice and what we each get out of it, collectively and individually, is transformative.

    Like you, I cherish my own, small community of students. But I've also found that participating in these larger communities has been a deeply healing experience for me.

    From what you've said, it sounds like you've experienced something similar in India . . . ?

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  9. I think the power and potential of yoga practice both offer opportunities for awareness, expansion of view, and development of kindness towards self and others - but also to enhance/exaggerate the destructive aspects in the same people. Hence, Linda's observations about foibles make sense to me, although I also think the opposite is happening to others within the same space.

    As for the internet community, perhaps it might be useful to ask "how do we approach situations where the lines of decency are crossed, and where comments turn violent or nasty?"

    if more of us can come from a place of being willing to work with difficulties that are also present in "real life," then maybe the outbursts that occur will be handled better, and something beneficial might come forth in the process.

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  10. I think the sad thing -- and it really is sad -- that good teachers stop teaching because of the problems in the yoga biz world. I've known more than few teachers who have thrown up their hands and say the hell with it, they get so tired of dealing with, as I said, the politics and the neuroses that are amplified (as Nathan said) in this environment. Frankly, I've thought about it many times myself.

    It's good that you've had positive experiences, Carol, but mine in the larger yoga community (in my area, your mileage obviously varies) have been downright scary crazy. So much so it affected me physically.

    Right now I've been chasing a studio owner for an $84 check for two weeks. $84. that's ridiculous. there is absolutely no reason in the world why I should have to do that. another reason I hate dealing with studio owners, but what are ya gonna do if you want to do workshops, eh?

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  11. When I first started writing my blog, I thought people in the on-line yoga world were, if anything, too nice--ignoring what were obviously strong disagreements, sitting in a circle and singing kumbaya (or chanting it, kirtan style...or something). I'd look at the internet Buddhists arguing about traditions, beliefs, and practices and think "if only yogis could be so open with their conflicts."

    That kirtan-style kumbaya is sounding better all the time...

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  12. Hi Carol! It was so fun to meet with you on Friday!

    Comment on the post:
    I just think that all of the parts are included in our shared world: celebrity yogis, private practitioners, bloggers, and more, and to raise awareness about any part of the scenario can be helpful. I don't think that any one person is "right", and certainly, not everybody needs (or wants) to study under celebrity teachers. But it can only be helpful to take a look at what is actually happening under the name "yoga" right now. What yoga is in our culture is a multifaceted entity. Each person reading this has some sense of what yoga might be. And every person is naturally affected by certain preferences, as well as conscious and unconscious biases. And guess what? We all matter. I hope to be able to continue to read and offer multiple viewpoints on the subject that interests me so much: YOGA!

    I send blessings to all readers of these words, and wish you well. I am grateful for your eyes and perception, as well as mine.

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  13. I agree that there are problems - but I also see that these problems can, and are being resolved in the blogosphere:-

    http://yoga-eu.net/bin/view/English/YogaAndTheNoughties

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  14. hey Carol! Thank you for this post! I cannot agree more that we should make use of the yoga blogosphere as a resource that can support everyone in their practice by providing a space to connect with different people and viewpoints.

    I see writing as yoga. for me personally, it is a way to process my own journey: yoga and writing feed each other – writing allows me to process what came up for me on/off the mat. yoga (teaching or practicing) is one of the sources where my inspiration to write comes from. To others it could be something else, whatever it is, writing is a way to express their views, feelings, thoughts, opinions around a variety of topics, sparked by experiences in their own journeys. Debates around certain controversial topics is healthy – if it’s either that or nothing; I choose debate. Fire is passion – if people weren’t passionate about their journeys, trying to mobilize a discussion may be too ambitious.

    That said, there is something to be said about the way we put things. As you said, online we’re limited to the written word, which is a powerful tool that can cut in unanticipated ways. Personally, I had fears around saying things online precisely because I was afraid that I may have to clarify intentions to ensure that the message wasn’t misinterpreted. However, if I had to edit and re-edit every piece I was writing until it was politically correct, I would probably never have made my way to hitting that send button. On reflection, it’s more important to me to be speaking (read: writing) what felt true to me at the time than not speak at all.

    “speaking what is true for you” is a form of art, that encompasses (i) graciousness and (ii) the giving of space to the receiver to react in any way he/she wants, not only but definitely particularly where the topic is controversial. If, as a writer, you decide to hit the send button, you must give the reader the (cyber)space to react in any way he/she wants. the reader will pick up on whatever rings true for him/her at the time, or not which is fine too. (NOTE: “writer” refers not only to the writer of the initial post but includes every contributor to the post).

    I believe that in holding the space for different people to connect to share their viewpoints, graciousness and giving space to each other to react are essential elements to foster effective dialogues - online, offline, in writing, in speech, in any form of communication.

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  15. Another great one, Carol, and I couldn't agree more. We all come to - and internalize our practices differently. Yoga for me is about acceptance, of myself and of others. I may not like or agree with others but it isn't my place to judge. Easier said than done, but I go back to it over and over again. Namaste . . .

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  16. I think some of the tension and negativity comes from the feeling that yoga needs to be "protected," that it's getting messed up by some of the other factors you mention.
    I reject this notion. The yoga now is very different from the yoga of the 70's or the yoga of the 1890's and a world away from the yoga of Patanjali. Yoga will endure in all it's forms, with no need for protection, with no need for condemnation. Just as the yoga sutra has survived, so will yoga for weight loss. Neither is more perfect than the other.
    When we are not careful we begin to mirror the right wing Christians telling the rest of the worlds religions that they are not "doing it right."

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  17. Dear Carol,

    No matter what, Yoga should be protected or not.

    Yoga belongs to the India and their great sage's discovery thousands of years ago. BUT they never limited yoga to India only but spreaded all over the world. If not so then Yoga could not become such a popular discussing matter any more.

    Blogosphere or what so ever we the Yoga addict should not confind ourselvs into the debate but it would be better to teach people what yoga is acyually about.

    Master it first and then teach my dear friend Carol and others. Forget the debate now.

    Also please do not hesitate to give the credit to those great Sages of the past.

    Thanks

    Kindest to you,

    Manidip

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  18. Loving that last post. The analyst, debater and critic in me just shuts up.

    It seems to me that as yoga asana can exacerbate or heal a physical problem, the yoga business can bring out the worst or best in people. I have met more insincere people in this new yoga world than when I worked in advertising.

    Still, I've been threatening to bolt from it for over a decade and I'm still here devoted to it like a woman to the lover she can't leave though he's left her crying a thousand nights. I think it's a form of denial, believing it will go back to the way it was which it probably won't. It became a business instead of a lifestyle and we're all part of that. We have to deal with what we've created and learn how to manage it.

    When the atmosphere is right for breeding fear, the worst comes out. When the atmosphere is right for breeding love, the best will come. It will not be one or the other but the balance will lean toward one or the other at different times and in both small and big ways.Good to remember we're all responsible for that.

    Best to tune oneself to love.

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  19. Dear Carol,
    thank you for this post. I can not speak for the US Blogosphere but I have not noticed much negative feelings in the German one. For years I only have been practicing Sivananda Yoga and this still feels for me to be "the" or "my" real Yoga. No other Yoga style has yet managed to make me feel so balanced. When I see all those fancy Yoga Teachers that are teaching in the US (but also in Germany), then I dont feel very "yogic" and comfortable. Is all such a show off and pretend-to-be so spiritual. Some manage to transmit a feeling of spirituality and relaxation even in a Power Yoga lesson, but some just cant, and then I feel bad about it and somehow as if I just have been to an exhausting aerobic class. Honestly i dont want to judge other Yoga Styles so much, I have not tried out every single one but this fancy Yoga Scene is just not for me. It really became a lifestyle and somehow your are cool when you are doing Yoga in your nice Yogapants. But this is really not what Yoga is about. On the one hand I appreciate that Yoga became so popular, but on the otherhand I am sometimes annoyed by this big marketing machine.
    All the best for you... :)

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    Replies
    1. I relate to your ambivalence - glad that yoga is expanded, irritated by the mass marketing it involves. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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