I do think Yoga belongs to everyone, and that it should be shared accordingly. And therein lies the problem with commercializing it the way just about everything else in the West is. Yoga to me is all about falling in love with the questions rather than the answers. The process of self-inquiry, or Svadhyaya, is a key component of Kriya Yoga, along with self-discipline (Tapas) and surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana). It’s really all about the internal journey, which rails against everything we’re told by the marketers at every turn. Whatever ails you, if you’ve got the dough, they’ve got the fix. And what ails us, they say, is that our desires are not being met. So Yoga in the West has naturally followed this same commercialization, whether it be the accessories or the philosophy. Several “schools” of Yoga have sprung up here where the 6,000 years of tradition have been packaged in a way that makes it appear as if it’s all shiny and new, and that particular “Guru” has all the answers. Those answers have of course been trademarked and copyrighted, and the instructors wishing to access those answers and share them must swear an oath not to incorporate any knowledge they have gained in other schools of Yoga into their teachings if they wish to use the name. As absurd as it is to anyone who knows anything about the tradition, it’s happening all too frequently and indeed being celebrated by many, particularly those who are making piles of money off it.
I worry about the simplification of Yoga in this way. Anything that reduces the tradition to a trademarked or copyrighted form makes for a tidy little package that anyone with money can buy into, but it’s not Yoga.
The problem lies in the distinction between needs and desires. In the capitalist view of the world, unhappiness stems from having unmet desires, and the ultimate goal of the successful capitalist is the accumulation of material wealth through profit. In the Yogic view, happiness is our true nature, which we achieve through a contentment with our own circumstances, and an active participation in the well-being of others. Ultimately, as quantum physics confirms, the seen world is impermanent and everything we see around us is merely a temporary concentration of energy or vibration manifesting as gross physical reality. And that impermanence is the only constant. So clinging to anything at that level is by definition delusional, and leads to suffering. The ultimate goal of Yoga is nothing short of enlightenment, or liberation from suffering through the practice of skillful means, namely deliberate mindfulness and the lessening of desires. And that mindfulness takes three main forms, with a focus on body (asana) breath (pranayama) and mind (meditation). All three require the practitioner to go inside. You can’t do asana in anyone else’s body, you can’t breathe through other people’s lungs, and you can only truly be aware of what happens in your own mind. And so all the tools you need to do Yoga, you already have. Anybody trying to sell you any kind of add-on is not selling Yoga. At most, what we all need is a User’s Manual to remind us of how things work. And in that sense a good teacher (or if you’re lucky, a true Guru) is an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration. And I think the primary source of that inspiration is simply a new way of thinking, whether those thoughts come from within or without. Thoughts become energized though action of the body, breath and mind and manifest outwards in ripples that literally go on forever. And the pattern of our thoughts act like streams though the landscape of our minds and bodies. The flow will follow the path of least resistance, and if we’re not mindful, rivers deep and wide may begin to form where we don’t want them to. Next thing we know the mainstream turns into a Grand Canyon of fear, anger or delusion down the middle of our skulls.
And you don’t have to look very far to see evidence of those deep scars on the physical and mental landscapes all around us. The degradation is reaching critical levels. I’ve often wondered what kind of incident it’s going to take to make us wake up to the foolishness of the environmental disaster that seems to be held as a birthright here in the West, and that unfortunately is our greatest export. The idea that we can consume more than our Earth produces is a fundamental cornerstone of capitalist thinking, and yet has nothing to do with reality unless you’re talking about cancer cells. But here we are in our modern society, applying this same flawed logic across the board to the detriment of our environmental, social, educational, and health networks.
Yoga is by design a practice that puts us in touch with the reality of our existence, which is one of interdependence and interpenetration. Through Yoga, we discover that we are indeed not separate from each other, and that we all ultimately belong to a wholeness that is Mother Earth, and she in turn is part of the wholeness of the Universe. What we do individually matters because it feeds into the whole. The pattern of our thinking is informed by the world around us, and what we do with those thoughts returns to the whole, infecting the quantum field with our energy, if you will. And if you believe that what you see around you needs changing, it’s probably because you are in need of change. And for better or for worse, those changes fly in the face of the accepted paradigms of our capitalist societies.
I once heard Yoga described as a beautiful 6,000-year-old bicycle brought over from India, and once it landed here, people took one look at it and said, “wow look at those handlebars!” If those handlebars represent the asana component of Yoga, they are indeed beautiful, they fit in nicely with our image-conscious consumer society, and taken on its own, asana is arguably the world’s most perfect form of exercise. And although in the overall scheme of things, the materials needed to practice are minimal (comfortable clothes that allow movement, and maybe a mat) those do lend themselves to being packaged and sold quite neatly and profitably. So far, nothing really wrong here. But the rest of the vehicle is not so easily packaged, and requires no commodities other than knowledge. So how is this knowledge to be shared?
Any means of sharing the knowledge within the same framework as has become deeply entrenched in our modern consumer-based society is in danger of following the same path as any other consumer good. Namely, the profit motive may threaten to take over with its own ideology of creating scarcity through accumulation, superseding that which is the true nature of Yoga, one of uniting and sharing the wholeness of our abundance. How can anyone sell you something that already belongs to you? That idea isn’t new. Just look at the recent global financial crisis for a prime example of how the thieves continue to sell us what they’ve only just stolen.
If Yoga is to truly succeed in providing a vehicle for liberation, it will need to find a context globally that is literally outside the mainstream. We need to develop new ways of thinking, new ways of sharing so the landscape begins to take on a different look, with streams and rivers flowing away from the deep canyons, feeding previously barren fields where seeds await the life-giving nourishment. That will undoubtedly require digging some trenches, and putting up some dams to redirect the flow where it’s needed. And that will not be an easy task. But the very nature of Yoga makes me hopeful that it’s possible.
Yoga is all about observing habituated patterns of thoughts that have written themselves into our body, breath and mind, and creating the conditions where energy can begin to follow different paths. And the more we work on sending that energy through pathways that originate in the Divine Attitudes of Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity, the deeper the grooves become that lead us back towards our true nature, which is Divine. That work is decidedly difficult and uncomfortable at times, but that only serves to tell us we’re on the right track. Breaking apart old pathways is never easy, but it’s the only way change can happen. Asana practice teaches us this in very real terms, not only on an intellectual level, but at a level we can literally feel with every fiber of our being.
I won’t pretend to have the answers, and as a person struggling to make any kind of living in the fields of guitarmaking and Yoga for the last several years, I can tell you it hasn’t been easy to survive in the mainstream. But that discomfort tells me I’m on the right track, and I’m digging the right trenches. I would hate to feel comfortable in a world that routinely celebrates the rich and privileged at the expense of those who suffer.
There are encouraging alternative ways of thinking springing up all around. A prime example are my friends at Charity Focus. Please visit their website and see the many incredible things they are doing through the powerful act of giving. I think that Yoga is far better suited to propagation through the Gift Economy, much like Karma Kitchen, where volunteers and patrons alike are encouraged to “move from transaction to trust, from self-oriented isolation to shared commitment, and from fear of scarcity to celebration of abundance.” In the Yoga world at this point, that would be a real change, requiring an evolution in our thinking, individually at first with the recognition the the individual is ultimately not separate from the whole, and so can have a profound and far-reaching effect. If a butterfly can alter the path of a hurricane there’s no reason to believe you and I can’t dig a trench to supply the seeds of change with a little water.
And perhaps that trench begins with simply pointing out that those “asana handlebars” have a mysterious stem on them with the sincere marks of having been attached to something else. Something not so shiny and polished perhaps, but extremely useful to the point of being world-changing.
Getting back to Lululemon, perhaps it’s just a door. And an imperfect door, like an imperfect teacher, might be a good enough door. And if it’s the only door that people in the West can access, then I say hang that sign proudly in the window that reads “OPEN, please come in.” And if I were in charge, on the back of every sales receipt would be printed a quote from Paul Van Slambrouk: "Life's learnings come from the periphery, from the edges of our intentions, outside our agendas, and beyond even our aspirations. You go into a room through one door, eyes fixed on something and if you are open, what sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder ever so lightly is why you are there."