Yoga

Are Americans Ruining Yoga?

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Check out this article from yesterday’s Boston Globe by Linda Matchan- very interesting!

What Happened to Yoga?

Teachers wonder where it’s heading, while they try to steer it away from commercialism and other distractions

A few months ago, Boston yoga teacher Natasha Rizopoulos conducted a weekend workshop to teach experienced yoga students how to be instructors. She led them through three rigorous hours of postures and a long meditation, and discussed the philosophy of yoga, explaining the transformative power of physical practice that helps train the mind to be fully present.

But as she expounded on the benefits of yogic principles, two students in the class didn’t quite grasp the idea of spiritual enlightenment. Sitting cross-legged, they were busy firing off text messages.

“It was astonishing,’’ said Rizopoulos. “And this was a self-selecting, serious group.’’

For this reason, among others, Rizopoulos is aligning herself with some of the country’s foremost yoga teachers who are trying to take back yoga from the masses who they believe are running afoul of the traditions of a 5,000-year-old spiritual, intellectual, and physical discipline.

“Everyone is afraid to talk about the white elephant in the yoga room,’’ said Justine Wiltshire Cohen, founder of Down Under Yoga in Newton. She has invited Rizopoulos and three other nationally-known Boston-based yoga teachers — Barbara Benagh, Patricia Walden, and Peentz Dubble — to teach at her new studio. Some of them will participate in a “summit’’ on Sunday to discuss the future of yoga in America. Yoga, she said, is supposed to be “an art passed down from teacher to student.’’ It’s meant to calm the fluctuations of the mind. It advocates ahimsa, which means “do no harm;’’ and aparigraha or non-possessiveness.

“Humility is the whole point,’’ said Wiltshire Cohen, a lawyer-turned-yoga teacher whose training included Sanskrit, anatomy, yoga philosophy, and yoga history and who said that studying yoga was harder than law: “I didn’t cry in law school.’’

But humility, they say, is becoming less and less the point these days. “My worry is that . . . what we do in the yoga room is becoming the same as what we do outside the yoga room,’’ said Rizopoulos, a former ballet dancer who studied yoga in India. “Which is behaving like lunatics.’’

Patricia Walden, who has taught yoga in Boston since the 1970s and considers yoga a spiritual calling, remembers when it was different. She’s one of only two North Americans to hold a senior advanced certificate in the Iyengar method of yoga. (The founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, is her guru; she travels to India to study with him.) Her DVDs, including “Yoga for Beginners’’ helped popularize yoga worldwide, and she still teaches internationally as well as in Cambridge and the Down Under studio.

The yoga she recalls from the 1960s and ’70s grew out of the counter-culture movement’s infatuation with Eastern philosophies. It was a time when Indian swamis who embraced yoga as a full spiritual practice were opening ashrams in the United States, and yoga was embraced by seekers, intellectuals, Woodstock attendees, and a wide variety of Om-chanters. “It was deeply wedded to psychedelics,’’ said Stefanie Syman, author of a new yoga history called “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.’’

Yoga classes were no-frill; there were no special yoga clothes or yoga mats. “We just used the floor,’’ said Walden. “It was what I’d call “flow and glow’’ yoga: You’d turn the lights down really low and the students were in a circle and we gave them instructions with their eyes closed. We never got up to adjust anybody or tell anybody what to do.’’

Yoga was so exotic back then, she said, most people had never heard of it. Once, a man sitting next to her on an airplane asked her what she did for a living and he thought she was talking about yogurt. When she explained, he smirked and dared her to put her leg around her head.’’ “I’m sure I rose to the occasion,’’ said the lithe Walden, doing an effortless encore in her living room.

What happened to yoga in the last 30 years?

“It’s recombined with dominant forms of the culture; it’s very malleable that way,’’ said Syman. There is yoga for every taste, energy level, and aspirant — hip-hop yoga, hot yoga, rock pop yoga, weight loss yoga, Christian yoga, even “Yoga Booty Ballet,’’ which bills itself as a dynamic fusion of yoga, booty sculpting, and cardio-dance. If there is any doubt that yoga has left the ashram and joined the mainstream, consider that yoga was part of this year’s Easter Egg Roll festivities on the White House lawn.

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