The Reenchantment of Yoga

 

In the more than decade-long history of this blog, I have never experienced more blocks in my writing practice than I have in the last year. Inspiration has been in short supply. I question whether this meditation on words that once provoked fruitful inquiry in me and its readers has lost its relevance. The reason I started this was so I could say whatever I wanted about yoga without censor and, frankly, I am frightened by how inhibited I feel to stay true to that.

This coincides with what seems to me a crucial fork in the road for the future of yoga in western culture. Will the wisdom and tools of our ancestors that allow us to more readily hear the songs of nature, that harmonize our systems and environment, be completely lost to a reductionist materialism that repurposed them as fitness regimes? Or will we once again recognize the animistic context in which we live and embody the practices that are our birthright?

Commercialization was just a symptom.

Many times I have lamented and decried the rampant commercialization of yoga. A multi-billion dollar industry of yoga-related products, built on the allure of both a lithe body and enlightened mind, seemed like the primary obstacle to authentic yoga transmission. Myself and others have struggled to find ways of mitigating the economic realities and barriers to making a living through yoga with integrity. Yet, underlying the appropriation of yoga for capitalistic ends is a much deeper wound in the collective psyche.

Is there any object in your life that is so precious to you that there is no price you would part with it for? Perhaps it is an object that carries no particular monetary value but represents or signifies something so meaningful and important to you that no amount of money would ever be worth it? We sold yoga to the mainstream by making it about strength, flexibility and stress reduction. We altered the pedagogy to make it more convenient to consume. But, in doing so, we opened the door to a level of compromise that renders the teachings void of their power and roots.

Is Yoga sacred or not?

On a personal level, for many, yoga is akin to prayer. But not to the market. In fact, to a degree, the money-making potential of yoga is likely tied to its secularization. For those who found yoga before it became popular, self-empowered spirituality was a welcome relief from experiences of organized religion in our youth. However, in more recent years, what has inspired many to practice yoga was rooted in a coercive exploitation of rampant body dysmorphia more than any unfolding of spiritual purpose or direction.

Despite industry disregard for the spirituality of yoga, its ancient practices often have an unexplainable way of working in a human system. There are times when even the most cynical of reductionists can not deny what they feel in their hearts after breathing and moving or chanting in concert with others. Sometimes life itself presents us with ordeals that lead to profound epiphanies. Relinquishing conventional modes of thinking and being often leads to experiences that are unexplainable by scientific or quantitative means. For those not entirely entrenched in a materialist mindset, the magic of life, and therefore yoga, is not some superstition but a matter of observable fact.

We devalue spirit at our own peril.

Teaching people how to align their bodies into positions and tailoring practices to emphasize the potential for physical benefit may have proven to be better at generating wealth while offering some amount of help to people, but this has also essentially neutered the potential for yoga to expand our ideas of what is possible. By engaging yoga in the context of scientific materialism that rules modernity, rather than in the animism that our ancestors inhabited, we have undermined the invaluable gifts that yoga offers to humanity and the world.

One of the reasons why I have had such a hard time bringing myself to the ritual of this blog is that I have become disenchanted with the ability of written words to move people. For one, reading no longer seems to command the attention required to communicate nuance. Honest and sincere sentiments become grossly misinterpreted or manipulated to serve preconceived agendas that not only bely intent but are designed to disempower people. Anything that challenges predominant narratives is readily being demonized.

Attempting to talk about spirit, or anything that cannot be easily measured or named, feels risky when we are being so directly confronted by uncertainties. But it is now obvious that prevailing worldviews are failing us terribly and we can no longer rely upon institutions that have devolved into forces of oppression more than empowerment. If we truly believe that yoga has a role to play then our best chance for healing and change is to recognize it as a means of understanding consciousness and spirit rather than just another attempt to manipulate the material world.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.

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