Dogma and illusion: Lessons on training approach from the smoke and mirrors of the yoga industry
There was much about yoga that initially put me off. Many popular incarnations appeared notably shallow—the ideology viewed purely as a non-progressive practise of sensation-seeking meditation and bodywork. The concept of mind-body integration was rarely addressed directly or in full, usually only hinted at with encouragements to ‘feel into your movement’ and ‘be present’. At the same time, many layers and complications of dogmatic fluff were added to flesh-out and thus confuse, whether intentionally or not, the central simplicity of yoga’s ideology—its ultimate strength.
But (and after much confusion) I realised these were limitations of approach rather than yoga itself. I found that in some cases the methodology used could actually distract from the underlying values and principles, at least concerning my understanding. Below I lay out the five main issues I saw surrounding approach, intention and structure of training—perhaps controversial, but, from my analytical perspective, essential in navigating the confounding distractions that liberally decorate the bewildering and eccentric landscape of modern-day yoga.
In reality, these problems apply to all disciplines of mind and body development—not just yoga, but my own familiar running, swimming, freediving and the like. Perhaps the ostentatiousness of the yoga industry can shed light on the more subtle pitfalls of training more generally—I consider the discussions here to be in the context of this broader framework.
Note also that these issues pertain to my own approach to the disciplines and self-mastery, and do not necessarily apply to all intentions. Yet in the specific context of yoga, I hope that perhaps this discussion might help a sceptic similar to myself to discover the true value of yoga, and see through the confusing diversity of alternative and often curious interpretations.
This is part of a series of articles:
Dogma and illusion: Lessons on training from the smoke and mirrors of the yoga industry
There is a freedom in the pursuit of purity in mind and body performance
Mastery: The problem of shallowness
There are a couple of issues here:
1) Goal-oriented training
First, yoga is typically approached with little theoretical underpinning or progressive training structure. While many yogis will baulk at the very mention of performance and attainment goals, asserting yoga as a fundamentally process driven ideology, it cannot be denied that yoga itself is the seeking of betterment, even if that performance improvement is in the context of better control and mind-body connection rather than the development of more complex poses or skills. Indeed, there is an important distinction between approach and orientation.
As with freediving or solo climbing, mindfulness in practise is essential, with an in-activity focus on outcome damaging and indeed dangerous. This problem of goal-driven practise is well understood in yoga—it strips us of the mindfulness awareness central to the training. The training must be process-driven. Yet, if we allow process to orient our training also, we run into other issues. There is no drive or plan; the practise becomes focus-less and stagnant. The overall development of our capacity must be goal-oriented: progressive and targeted, else we stagnate or overreach. Indeed, I would question any teacher that claims they do not strive to better their proficiency, whether mental or physical, in the long run. Process-driven; goal-oriented.
2) Training versus experience
Second, how fully do we actually engage with our practice? Is it simply awareness of sensation, or actual analysis and practise of the skill? For engagement is not only quantity, but the quality and intention with which one approaches training: a mindful application of self-analysis and performance awareness. It is study, rather than simply an experience to be had. Take for example the development of climbing technique, requiring careful analysis of success and failure, constant study and concentration versus climbing and falling without thought—only the former will lead to significant improvement.
There is of course nothing wrong with the sporadic, less driven engagement in the disciplines for the vague maintenance of fitness and mobility, nor a quick fix of the pleasurable sensation that breath-led movement or physical exercise generates. This is the aim of involvement in yoga and other disciplines for many people. The issue is in approaching such, or worse, advertising such, as a route to genuine progression. Don’t kid yourself.
You cannot become proficient by simply repeating a twice weekly session without questioning, studying and committing to a higher level. The same goes for all disciplines. But modern yoga classes do have a tendency of being viewed in a such a way, without reference to the dedication and background research required that other disciplines more readily (or even enthusiastically) acknowledge. In reality, meaningful progression in yoga takes more. The commitment and drive to step onto a long pathway of far greater discipline, commitment and study across a range of practises and training methods, with a focus not on sensation seeking, but the constant awareness and focus on body and mental control: a continuous practise of flow state.
I do believe that yoga as a discipline is exceptionally populated by sensation-seeking rather than genuine practise, study and efforts toward progression. Just because much of it can’t be measured does not mean we shouldn’t push and strive for mastery. It is also notable that this is not an issue of elitist obsession: in other disciplines many climb, run, swim and dive, knowingly enjoy a set level devoid of progression without any pretences as to what it constitutes, even despite a surrounding industry explicitly focused on improvement towards mastery.
Independence: The problem of reliance
The development of independence is also important: to learn to be able to learn by yourself. Whilst teachers and mentors will always play a central part of any progression, constant supervision should be transcended, since much, if not most, is learnt through personal practise, experimentation, failure and consequent insight. It is a commitment and training prerequisite to truly stepping onto the path of a discipline.
It is my understanding that this was a central component of the traditional yoga schools, but in a world of business, fast gratification and half commitment, it is rarely seen in the those who go to their weekly or biweekly classes. In running, climbing, strength training, swimming and other disciplines the vast majority of work is done outside of guidance, yet, in yoga, while many of the more dedicated do orchestrate their own practice—a far greater number participate only in teacher-led training (whether in person or over video) than in other disciplines.
One issue is that, particularly in yoga, teachers will focus on specific aspects that they consider most important or most interesting. This may not represent any evidence-based analysis of benefit ranking, and certainly will not match the specific training requirements of an individual, even when a class is variably tailored to a range of abilities. Only in a dedicated personal coach can one really be certain of optimality, assuming proficiency on their part—something that prohibitably expensive to most.
To a certain extent the same issue goes with the exclusive following of prescribed systems such as the Ashtanga sequence. These are incredibly useful frameworks and well-developed protocols by those far more knowledgeable and experienced, but to suggest they are complete systems is naive, and to follow them without thought or exploration is to run blind. There is a major difference between blind faith and a loyalty born of questioning and consequent deeper understanding—the latter reaps far greater insight and progress across all domains of life.
The journal of rants and confusion
Objective Truth: The problem of fluff and dogma
Yoga is a simplistic and physiologically-grounded ideology—that is what makes it so powerful. Yet it is often piled high with added baggage, overcomplicated methodologies and additional belief systems. At its worst, the absolute faith and blind acceptance of such perpetuates a helpless following of ‘gurus’ and prescription that verges on cult or religion.
The most obvious examples are those of ritual. For example, I was once told in answer to my questioning that a precise word must be chanted a precise number of times ‘since that was the number found to be most effective’—effective for what was never really explained in anything more than vagaries (and let us not even begin to wonder on the controls for such a ‘study’). Similarly, for a set number of breaths—21, for that matter—to be toted as more effective in a particular physiological practise than one less or one more is ridiculous. Although apparently in that example (notably from the same teacher) 14 was okay—I guess the sevens must be special… Yet there are many other less grating and more subtle examples. Besides ritual, in many other disciplines—the fitness and nutrition industries springs to mind—we see the marketing of a wide range of systems and tools, often founded on deeply flawed frameworks and twisted evidence, asserting ineffective or marginally useful mechanisms as centrally significant. Unable to be systematically disproved as such, such doctrine gains followers based on charm.
I suppose such dogma may originate for many reasons, the primary being its unquestioned inheritance from past teachers and schools of thought. In the case of some yoga traditions and individuals, I feel it may also be the desire to create something more: something promotable and teacher-dependant—an inevitable product of a capitalist, and content-led society. Alternatively, there are egoistic aspects: the desire to create a greater sense of self by following or personally creating, consciously or not, a practise (and surrounding belief framework) that has been whipped up into something more mysterious and less understandable than it need be. Sometimes I have noticed that this even extends to an offended rejection of logic in not wanting the reality to be as ‘simple’ as having a basis in the natural sciences. And then finally, frequently there seems to be confusion between a theistic interpretation of yoga, in which the goal is one of religious intent, as opposed to more objective interpretation concerned with self-actualisation of the body and mind. Both may be of importance to the individual, but they are not the same, nor critically is the latter dependent on or in any way influenced by the former.
My view is that while many dogmatic and ritualistic additions may serve a purpose—useful crutches, teachers or placebos toward progression and understanding, or simply enjoyable components of a practice—their non-fundamental nature should be acknowledged, in the capacity of both teacher and practitioner. If taught instead as an essential component of the system, or worse, as an end goal, then it is misinformation or even deceit. For example, the use of twenty breaths to ensure a sufficient time under tension during a stretch makes sense, but to suggest that there is a critical line between twenty and nineteen does not. Nature just doesn’t work that way.
Similarly, it should be acknowledged if a practise has become ritualistic, and its methodologies agents of a theistic interpretation of yoga, rather than possessing actual significance in the furtherment of mind-body union and progression, as they are often advocated. This is an important distinction of purpose, without a requirement of judgement on either path. From such a position one may then add in dogma as fits their purpose, from an educated standpoint on how it works and for what purpose, rather than in the blind following of a prescription.
Indeed, as with all aspects of belief, science and spirituality, I firmly believe one should pull apart, dissect and ascertain the objective truth and inherent laws of the system: mechanism from ritual; spirituality from religion. From this Popperian analysis one can rebuild their interpretation and systems in order to remain streamlined and most efficient in achieving their purpose of engagement with the entity—whether yoga or otherwise.
Holism | The problem of the closed-mindedness
I would tote narrowness as a major criticism of mainstream western yoga. Yoga asana is often implied as a ‘total system’, and in some way separate to the other physical disciplines. There is the belief—or perhaps wilful self-delusion—that a few yoga sessions a week can take the place of more focussed cardiovascular and strength development. Similarly, many practice the meditative forms of yoga alone, with almost total disregard for the more physically taxing components. Ironically, considering the advocation of holistic virtue from modern yoga schools, I would go so far as to argue that parallel commercial industries such as CrossFit, gymnastics or even obstacle course racing, actually have a far more holistic spectrum of development, both physically and mentally.
As an example, it would be naive to suggest that yoga asana is discontinuous from the strength-based ‘asanas’ of calisthenics or gymnastics, and to practise only the typical low-strength asanas of mainstream yoga teaching (notably the far more approachable, if no less important) is to curb potential understanding and progress before you even begin. Similarly, a study of meditation and mental performance is significantly crippled without the awareness of mind that is gleaned from absolute physical exertion and complex skills of body control, or the fostering of mental resilience through more aggressive physical challenge and discomfort.
It is my understanding that the many aspects of cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, strength, mental resilience, balance, body awareness, concentration and mindfulness, among others, must be developed in concert to fulfil the philosophy of yoga in full—the proficient integration of mind and body—and it is foolish to suggest that conventional asana and/or meditation (i.e. mainstream yoga) can develop many of these capacities anywhere close to as well as other disciplines.
Indeed, pursuit of yoga asana and/or meditation alone inevitably leads to underdevelopment of other aspects of physical and mental potential, for whilst these disciplines are central components of mind-body development (particularly in the teaching of form with which to approach training as a whole, and of course as a superior methodology of flexibility and body control), they are still only a part of the greater spectrum—and it is important to always acknowledge this. The same goes for all disciplines, with cross-training providing training perspective, skill and capacity cross-pollination that single-avenue training cannot.
In my own humble opinion, it is a dishonour to the incredible mental and physical machine we have been gifted to neglect to develop its potential across the spectrum—not just in flexibility and mental concentration, but in cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and power, mental resilience and many other areas. Under my own definition, that is a central principle of yoga, and certainly a tenet of optimal mind-body development.
‘No citizen has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training… what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.’
— Socrates —
Foundations: The problem of overstretching
This issue is obvious in other disciplines: you wouldn’t try to run a mountain Skyrunning event without first having experience and training in both ultra-distance running and scrambling/climbing; you wouldn’t try to solo grade E3 without first dedicating hundreds of hours to technique development and finger strength.
Similarly, many concepts and techniques in yoga would have traditionally been taught over the period of many years of intense study and practise. In today’s world of hour-long weekly yoga lessons and instant gratification, the practise of progressive development is often bypassed. A far more experienced individual drew my attention to this issue, explaining how it led to ineffective, if not dangerous, results when the underlying capacity to process and learn does not match the training stimuli presented.
This is particularly relevant since the nature and necessity of progression is less clear in yoga: mental focus and body awareness are not so obvious in their limitations. You couldn’t run a hundred miles without first putting in hours of aerobic base building; but you could sit for an hour hyperventilating or diaphragm stretching without first developing the physical and mental foundations to handle and understand such training. Equally, there are many weird and wonderful poses you can explore without first developing the base concentration, flexibility or muscular strength to properly engage them. Whilst such an activity may well be enjoyable and self-gratifying, the lack of control (requiring hours of far more ‘mundane’ positions and base strength work) means that no real gain in body awareness or otherwise is achieved. Freediving illustrates this point far more dramatically: diving deeper than current ability may well be possible, but can result in significant backwards progress through mental blocks (or even lung injury) if one doesn’t possess the psychological relaxation and emotional control to perform the dive without panic.
The problem is that the striking nature of many of these techniques make them attractive to both those selling yoga, and individuals searching for something more. Some are simply none the wiser (myself often included), without significant experience to evaluate the systems being taught. Nor can yoga schools approach the discipline in the way a monastery or such may have previously, where practitioners may have trained basal techniques each day for years before progression. As a result, many contemporary institutions may well be teaching valuable techniques inherited from a long tradition, but without employing the long-term development process necessary to properly exploit them. Nowadays that process is on an individual’s own time.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for personal understanding and independence on the path of progression, then you need to start from the bottom, with a thorough grounding in body awareness and psychology—found in repetition, basic asana, meditation, anatomy and neuroscientific theory. Unfortunately, few are willing to do so, and it doesn’t sell well, requiring far more commitment and mundanity.
‘…man’s higher nature rests upon man’s lower nature, needing it as a foundation and collapsing without this foundation…’
— Uriel Abulof —
When it comes down to it, how you engage with a discipline depends on what you want from it. I remember once discussing with a friend their own following of a, to my mind, particularly non-evidenced and faith-based school of yoga—one that, despite genuinely trying, I simply could not find enough logical foundation for it make sense to me in any area of the mind-body development framework.
When we finally got to the root of it, she freely admitted that it was simply a belief system that she enjoyed for the experience of the idealogy. There was no deeper thought or questioning: she believed in it and that was enough. She went so far as to say that she maintains that believe through avoiding questioning: thus, and only partly subconsciously, maintaining the magic and receiving the (what is arguably placebo) effect in full. Now that makes sense to me. The key point? That she was at least partly aware of her decisions. It was not done blindly—but with the semi-conscious acknowledgement and dismissal of potentially contradictory truths.
Whilst it’s admittedly beyond the capacity of my conscience, many do not wish to question, and are satisfied to accept without scepticism. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this—it provides community, purpose and respect in many forms—so long as it is not founded in a fear of being disproven, or complicit in constructing an exclusive collective with a belief of superiority of understanding.
Mainstream yoga, as in many disciplines, is filled with individuals who seek only for a fix of sensation in their practice, rather than a wish to delve further, question constantly and commit to the long-term struggle of progression and deeper understanding. Not a judgement but an observation: yoga, like running feels good and affords basic physical and mental wellbeing, and to many that is enough.
To my mind, what is important is the acknowledgement and understanding of the nature, and critically limitations, of such an approach, whether one feels the need to address it or not. The issue is a lack of transparency: intentional rejection of sound logical foundations, and the institutionalised deceit of teaching ritual, religion and cheap sensation as fundamentally relevant or central to the progression of mind and body. It is a dynamic that leads to a perpetuation of dependence on ‘gurus’ and schools in what is, on a fundamental level, an exploration and ascendance—note not transcendence—of self.
Photo by Natasha Fedorova of Melissa Plasencia