Saturday, January 22, 2011

Slim Calm Sexy Yoga Round II: What I’ve Learned & Where I Hope I’m Going

I know, I know. Most everyone who even caught a whiff of the acrid smoke generated by the fire that burst out over the launch of Tara Stiles' Slim Calm Sexy Yoga last summer doesn’t want to go anywhere near that topic again. Even if you weren’t singed by the sparks or upset by the flame throwing, you probably ended up feeling burned out by the experience. As a participant-observer in this strange new culture of contemporary yoga, I know that I certainly arrived at a feeling of: Let’s just give it a REST.

But as I’m wont to do, I kept on thinking about it. And today’s New York Times story about Ms. Stiles’ skyrocketing popularity has made me want to share a bit about where that’s taken me.

Because my perspective on the whole commercialization-of-yoga debate has been shifting. And since the SCS debacle was the most recent epicenter of it, it’s a good (if dicey) topic to revisit in the course of rethinking the whole thing.

So: At first, I found the sexified lolling-on-hotel-bed-yoga-videos and burn-bra-fat-and-become-a-size-00 marketing that I discovered in conjunction with the SCS launch horrifying. Yes, really. That’s not too strong a word. As an oldster babe in the new cultural woods that had been busily growing up around yoga while I was off practicing in my little subcultural bubble, I had really had no idea that such things were happening. So, it came as a bit of a shock.

And my gut reaction was pretty negative. This isn’t yoga! This is BAD! But then I started to realize that this is a new wave. And that maybe it’s counterproductive to fight the tide. And that maybe I should listen more closely to people who were saying that it was lifting them up and helping them. And that maybe I could learn something valuable by wading through the internal wave of discomfort and reactivity that the whole thing was generating in me.

Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that I now buy into the view that thinking critically about what’s happening in yoga culture is “judgmental” and “un-yogic.” I still see this as a good thing, at least for those of us who are so moved.

But at some point in the midst of the whole SCS tirade, I read a blog that kinda clicked on a new light bulb for me. Someone had written about how all of this controversy about yoga being too commercial had started making her feel bad about her practice. But then finally she decided that hell, she really loved doing her vinyasa flow to blasting pop music in her Lululemon outfit – and what’s wrong with that? 

And I had to stop and ask myself, really, given all of the shit going on in the world, given how many people are overweight and not exercising at all and stressed to the max, do I really want to put my energy into taking a stand against something that’s making people feel happier and healthier? It just doesn’t seem right: kinda churlish and ungenerous, really. 

But I don’t want to just “shut up and do my practice” as one friend suggested, either. Because I still think that there’s important issues at stake in this discussion. I still believe that there’s something compelling about the critiques that were made last summer (and in other iterations in the ongoing commercialization of yoga debate before then).

But I also feel that this needs to be better balanced with the equally compelling value of respecting other people’s experiences and examining the deeper nature of our own reactions.

For me, I think that a lot of my reactivity had to do with the fact that I felt like I had something personal to lose by yoga becoming a more and more shamelessly commercialized pursuit. I remember well that during the Bush II years – the politics of which I detested with heart-felt passion – I used to say that "yoga is one of the few things that I still like happening in America today.”

I felt heartsick that so much of what I loved about my country was being trashed and lost. And yoga was the one thing that I loved that was, in contrast, flourishing and growing.

So to see it seemingly swept up into the mainstream pop-cultural tide felt alarming. I wanted my subcultural refuge to remain protected, uncontaminated.

But what about all the other people out there who don’t share my alienated political-cultural views? Don’t I want yoga to be accessible to them too?

And what about the people who are just not for whatever reason ready to deal with the deeper dimensions of yoga – but who could really use some new sense of connection with their bodies, some stress relief, some physical health benefits – and maybe just some fun?

Like the lady asked, what’s so bad about that?

Milky Way over Owachomo Natural Rock Bridge in Utah
Wally Pacholka/

Well, nothing, I think – as long as bridges to the deeper experiences of yoga continue to be strong, visible, and accessible to as many people as possible as well.

It would, I believe, be a tragic loss if “yoga lite” eclipsed the other, deeper potentialities of the practice.

And I think that we we're fooling ourselves if we believe that these bridges will appear automatically, regardless of whatever we as contemporary practitioners may do to build, destroy, or obscure them.

But how to help keep them strong, visible, and accessible? It seems to me that past denunciations of “fitness yoga” have done more to build walls than bridges.

So now, I’m looking for ways to communicate about the deeper dimensions of yoga that feel more like invitations. Like opportunities. Like sightings of bridges to rich and exciting, if mysterious and often challenging places.

I know that passions run deep on questions of what yoga is, and what it could or should be. And I’m not naïve enough to think that there’s not always going to be a danger that if we discuss them, the fires they create may run out of control.

But I’m also hopeful that it’s possible to harness our passions in a way that creates a fire of collective inquiry that illuminates and maybe even warms us.

Either way though, as yoga practitioners, I don’t think that we should be afraid of playing with fire.


  1. Honoring your courage, Carol… I appreciate your willingness to continue to discover your perspective.

    I think that it's good that yoga can be offered differently in different places. To homogenize teaching methods just might kill something wonderful about yoga.

  2. Amen...Brooks covered it for me. :)

  3. "as long as bridges to the deeper experiences of yoga continue to be strong, visible, and accessible to as many people as possible as well."

    I completely agree! I also resonate with your concern that the practice won't necessarily "build bridges automatically" I also wonder: maybe those who are drawn to "fitness yoga" and uninterested in yoga (as in true union of body/mind) wouldn't cross that bridge even if it were clearly visible.

    I do think it is important for those of us who see yoga as something deeper than the physical asanas, to make sure that such truth is visible / audible. The rest is up to the student(s), no?

  4. I wonder what people were saying during the time of Krishnamacharya? "Look at what he is calling yoga! All these gym exercises!"
    I was talking to someone who has been teaching since the 70's. At that time people came to yoga for meditation. He noticed it change through the years as the culture became more physical that people came for different reasons. But they came. Reading the recent "Yogabody," we see a similar pattern. India was in the midst of a cultural change - started by the government - which brought a more physical yoga in to being. Yoga will find its own balance.

  5. I really appreciate your struggle with the issues that have arisen from this TS episode (or episodes). As someone who has many yoga community (teacher and student) friends who have eating disorders, I find the connection between yoga and skinniness very scary. However, I do appreciate what TS brings to the mainstream of America: a type of yoga that allows them to step on their mats without fear of the greater/spiritual aspects of the practice.

    It is my experience that many people are afraid yoga is a religion and a cult and an experience that they are not wanting that goes beyond physical movement. And while it may be true that many of us find something deeper in our practices than asana, mainstream American can be put off by this truth. One place I teach is VERY careful about letting their yoga teachers talk about any aspects of the practice that could be construed as religion as so many students come from different backgrounds.

    What teachers like TS offer is a gateway to people who might not otherwise be willing to try yoga. I'm not saying I'm happy she's a spokesperson, just that I am glad there are some folks out there to help spread the message that yoga is a positive thing. I can only hope that the widespread popularity of teachers like TS and publications like her book foster a national acceptance of our practice and lead some students to take it a step further. That's where teachers like you and I can come in and share what we bring to the mat.

    If she brings more people to yoga I can only say yes! But I do share in your frustration that it is the fluffy stuff that gets more press. And, I have to apologize for adding to that chatter, and thus the free publicity for TS.

  6. Thanks, Nancy, NO apology is in order - on the contrary, I really appreciate all of you who are willing to talk across the aisle, so to speak, on these issues . . . Brooks has also been super-helpful on this too. But thanks to everyone for your comments.

  7. When I think of defining yoga, it's the meaning of the word, union, which I keep returning to. That's the central component of the practice to me. Not its benefits. It's striving towards union - to oneself, to others, to the world, even to god.

    There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do yoga poses to gain better health and overall well being. But is it about union?

    I ask that because it seems to me that any sustained and consistent effort toward union *that is well integrated into daily life* cannot exist without an ethical or even spiritual or philosophical component - the experience of being human. I stress experience b/c a practice need not be couched in the language of religion or philosophy. Zen meditation is a good example of that.

    I agree that the focus should be to build pathways of access for who want a yoga practice that has ethical/existential (by this, I mean, experiencing being) components. In this regard, I feel that having a strong, but not necessarily centralized, infrastructure to support a network of studios, groups, practitioners, etc. that want to support this is the first step. People that meet regularly, that have rich ties, working together to deliver opportunities for learning, practice and sharing. Building relationships to other similar organizations that aren't necessarily yoga based would be another step.

  8. Great comment. I agree completely. I wonder if anyone knows of any such models for building community for a more comprehensive experience of yoga. If seems like Yoga Community Toronto is such an entity, but since I live in Chicago I don't have any access to it other than what I read online. Certainly, I don't know of anything like here. Practitioners are very fragmented by teacher, studio, and method. Not to mention time is always an issue; everyone is always over-busy, most certainly including yoga teachers, who I've found don't always even have time to keep up their own practice.

  9. I'm not an expert in community development but my thoughts on your situation:

    Yoga in TO has exploded along a business model, and that strikes me as the dominant framework where I am... but I can still think of some key people who are like nodes of gravity that attract other people and build up energy and momentum toward other approaches to yoga. I think any community requires these nodes of gravitational pull.

    In the summer, a group of teachers in TO organized a "yogahappening" where they would tweet some random location and random students would show up. Many studios participate in fundraising events - I imagine it's a great networking opportunity too. I see that teacher training in the city also develops a strong social network of people.

    There must be others in a large city like Chicago who share the same goals and are interested in devoting their time to seeing them materialize... Are there any teachers' groups? Very well established and well networked studios? A popular, heavily trafficked local yoga website/discussion board, etc.?...

    Time is not what I see as the main challenge. To me, the challenges are firstly, in building up energy and trying to maintain a certain level of activity in the early years so that you can attract more dedicated people, and secondly having social/information infrastructures/networks to support that activity level (doesn't have to be online).

    Perhaps some more experienced readers can comment!

  10. Thanks, those are all great ideas and suggestions. It makes sense; you need some people to act as catalysts. There has to be a vision that inspires others along with concrete steps to get people together and make something valuable happen.

    It would be great to see yoga broaden out beyond the studio and individual teacher model to include more collective, collaborative happenings that represent a holistic understanding of yoga.

  11. I just finished working on a blunt awareness campaign on childhood obesity []
    The state of Georgia was ranked 2nd in the Nation for childhood obesity. However, as seen on a recent CNN newscast [] obesity is quickly becoming a global issue. We need to make some major changes and I feel yoga can play a key role in transforming the health of a fat nation.