Not long ago, I didn’t like when people used the term “real yoga.”
With so many different styles of yoga today, who has the right to claim that their yoga is any more “real,” than anyone else’s?That’s what I reasoned. If I enjoy it and it makes me feel better, it’s real yoga. Right?
Well, no. I enjoy riding my horse and stand-up paddle boarding. They make me feel better. But, that doesn’t make them yoga.
I’ve changed my tune in the last few years. There are a lot of activities (read: exercise classes) out there, that call themselves yoga, but in fact, are exercise classes. A few poses with Sanskrit names, the mention of bandhas (which most students don’t understand and most teachers don’t know how to teach); throw in a few “love and light”s and voila! It’s yoga. Except it’s not.
I felt similarly when I first got into the wine business. In my attempt to not be a wine snob, I’d tell people, “If you like it, it’s good wine.” And similarly, that is not true. You can like Two Buck Chuck (probably five bucks now), all you want, but that does not make it a good wine. Truth be told, it’s a crappy wine. The grapes, purchased on the open market, are of poor quality, mechanically harvested and processed, produced in a huge facility that more closely resembles a factory than a winery. Very little care or experience goes into the making of cheap, bulk, commodified wines.
Sadly, we are now faced with a glut of expensive, bulk, commodified yoga. The western world has transformed yoga from a spiritual practice to a fitness regimen. Yoga franchises are pumping out new batches of yoga teachers up to four times a year or more, bestowing on them the certification (and responsibility) of teaching to others, something that many of them had little to no experience with, just a few months prior.
So, what are we to do?
First of all, we need to determine if we even want real yoga. Do you want a spiritual transformation? Or, do you want a good workout and to de-stress with some feel-good words? There’s nothing wrong if your answer is the latter. Nobody has to be interested in real yoga. There is plenty of fitness-feel-good yoga around and it’s not going away anytime soon.
The western world (the US mostly) has appropriated yoga to the point that it barely resembles the spiritual practice in India. As the US tends to do, we decided to “own” yoga. I know someone who spent 18 months living and studying yoga in an ashram in India. When she returned to the US, she could not get Yoga Alliance certified, because she didn’t learn from a YA accredited school, in – you guessed it – the US.
We’ve decided that 200 hours is the magical amount of time to make someone a yoga teacher. That amount of time is completely arbitrary and often, some of those hours are done online. We see yoga teacher trainers in their early 30s or even their 20s. They may be serious practitioners. They may be practicing “real” yoga, but they simply have not had enough time on the planet to be teaching others what they need to learn in order to be yoga teachers. I don’t know about you, but when I choose a teacher with whom to study deeply, I want that teacher to have been teaching for at least 20 or 30 years! I often mentor teacher trainees in yoga teacher trainings and I always tell them, that after they are done with the training they will be beginner yoga teachers. One becomes a yoga teacher through experience; through years and years of teaching. I have been practicing yoga for 17 years, teaching for 13. I have over 1,000 hours of training and over 2,500 hours of teaching. I do not consider myself and advanced yoga teacher. I would not consider myself qualified to be a lead teacher-trainer. Malcolm Gladwell said in his book, Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I tend to agree.
So, if you have determined that you do want to practice “real” yoga, what should you do? Here are some suggestions:
  • Start a home practice. Classes are great – essential even. And so is a home practice. You can start with videos or livestreams, but the journey of yoga is largely an inner journey, and we need alone time for that. If you can do a sun salutation, you can do a home practice!
  • Read yoga texts. Read different translations and interpretations of the Yoga Sutras. Read the Bhagavad Gita. Over and over. Go deeper with the Shiva Sutras. Read Georg Feurstein’s book, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Pgilosophy and Practice. 
  • Know the difference between Classical and Tantric yoga and why the differences matter.
  • Learn and practice Ayurveda. Practice Dinacharya (Ayurvedic daily habits). You don’t have to become an Ayurvedic expert, but you need to know more than a dosha quiz will tell you, and you need to incorporate Ayurveda’s diet and lifestyle practices into your life.
  • Find a great teacher. Not just a great asana teacher. Someone who can teach you yoga philosophy and spirituality. Someone you can learn from for years. Someone who’s been practicing and teaching at least twice as long as you have.
  • Meditate. Meditate. Meditate. Did I say meditate? I can’t stress how important this is. There are many styles of meditation; find one you enjoy and can stick with. Learn from a teacher. I was recently initiated into the Neelakantha tradition of meditation and it has already shifted my practice in powerful ways.
  • Do your best to not appropriate yoga. This is a tough one. Westerners have appropriated yoga to the point that there is almost no going back. But try to remember that yoga is an Indian spiritual tradition. It has nothing to do with expensive yoga clothes, yoga tattoos (I really wanted that Ganesha tattoo, but opted not to, for this very reason), rock and roll playlists (which I love), yoga with dogs, goats, wine, weed, hula hoops etc. If you want to learn more about how not to appropriate yoga, a quick Google search will bring up lots of resources. Also, listen to the Yoga is Dead podcast. There are only six episodes. It’ll make you uncomfortable! But, listen anyway.
  • Don’t use yoga for Spiritual Bypassing. Real yogis get sad, mad and unhappy sometimes. Shitty things happen. Life throws curveballs. Everything is not love and some vibes are bad. Don’t discount your feelings or the feelings of others by saying something trite like, “Good Vibes only,” or saying that negative emotions aren’t yogic.
Sounds like a lot of work, huh? It is. Being a yogi, even a householder yogi (what we are – not ascetics), is hard work. That’s why I started this post saying that it’s not for everyone and that is ok. If you like going to a couple classes a week and that’s all you want, you can do that. But, if you really want to be a yogi, there’s a lot more to it. Luckily, there are a lot of great teachers out there teaching real yoga too, and lots of courses and immersions, both in person and online.
If you would like to be part of the conversation and learn more deeply, please reach out to me. I want to support anyone who wants to really deepen their practice of yoga. Maybe we can chat over a glass of good wine.