We no longer practice yoga as it was practiced when it was originally created. When yoga appeared in Vedic times, social drop-outs hid in caves and experimented on the dirt floor by the fire. A yoga studio with a nice floor, windows, and climate control works better for most practitioners today. We've invented the yoga mat in a thousand varieties and colors and replaced the loin cloth with yoga pants. Not only are women allowed to practice today, but they also outnumber men 3:1.
Perhaps these are improvements. Unfortunately, we have also substituted the discipline of personal development and spiritual liberation with pride of achieving ever more strenuous postures and attachment to a "yoga image." Most practitioners today enjoy the physical workout of yoga and further develop their ego muscles by posing for the camera and anyone who would applaud their presentation.
Twenty years ago, when my yoga journey started, I was a youngster learning from the elders who by then had decades of experience and practice and took the yogic teachings philosophically. Today, the elders in the community are taking yoga from the youngsters who started doing yoga relatively recently, have no wisdom that comes with life experience, and only superficially are informed about yoga philosophy. The yoga elders are passing away, or leaving the scene because they can't bring themselves to compromise the practice just to gain popularity. Youth seeks action not wisdom. Today's practitioners seek escape from reality instead of understanding of reality. They seek yoga high not yoga insight. They grasp after deep back bends and ignore the opportunities for deep inward searching.
Sadly, the quality of today's yoga teachers will determine the experience of today's yoga practitioners and how their personal journey will unfold. When I first opened the yoga studio in 2002, the usual question from interested individuals went along the lines of "What is yoga? I've never tried it, do you think I can do it?" Today, the usual conversation goes something like this: "I've tried yoga and it's not for me. I've tried yoga and I got hurt. I've tried yoga and it was too fast. I've tried yoga and I didn't like it." I spend years educating people of the benefits of yoga through my newspaper column and TV program, just to see these people going to random yoga classes with random yoga teachers and never getting the benefits I, and scientific research, promised them. Instead they find themselves discouraged and possibly hurt.
Once I had a conversation with a hotel staff in Vegas who saw me doing yoga outside by the pool early in the morning.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Yoga," I responded.
"That's not yoga," she looked surprised.
"What do you mean," I inquired.
"I've taken yoga and it was totally different. You move very slowly and you stay in the same shape for a while and you make a sound when you breath. You are not sweating."
"Oh, that's just my style. You should try another class where people do what I do," I encouraged her.
"I've been to 5 yoga classes at 5 different studios here and it's always the same. I am not trying it anymore,"
This conversation broke my heart.
There is another version of the story too, where the yoga teachers, as uneducated about yoga as they are, but enthusiastic and full of confidence, lead their classes and give people the wrong information, usually a variation of some diluted yoga philosophy interpretation they read somewhere. Sometimes, things that they misunderstand or misinterpret. My favorite one is that moving fast will cleanse the nadis (the energetic channels of the human body.) First of all the energy system of the body as described in yoga philosophy is articulated very poorly. Most of the modern day interpretation of the nadi system comes from cross-referencing from Chinese medicine where things are more detailed. There is absolutely no mention anywhere in the yogic texts that moving fast from pose to pose will cleanse, or open, or in any other way improve the energy flow through the nadis. However, there are ample amounts of mention that regular yoga practice keeps your body energetically in balance. There is also plenty in a way of suggesting mindful movement, learning to stay present and connected to one's experience, witnessing one's experience dispassionately with discernment, and remaining non-attached to the results of one's labor. To encourage people to move fast is to take away the opportunity to practice mindfulness while moving because there's no time for mindfulness. The next pose is upon you before this pose has ended. To encourage people to keep trying harder and harder and up the ante on the level of difficulty for the sake of "getting better" is actually a spiritual disservice. It goes directly against the intention of the practice. It builds ego muscles.
Yoga was not practiced so one can get better at yoga. Yoga was a vehicle for one to become a better human. A good yoga practice should not leave you proud of your yoga practice. It should leave you soft on the inside, compassionate towards self and others, open to whatever comes, grounded, and spacious. Back bends don't make better humans. Mindful back bends make room for bad things to be released so the good inside can shine. Yoga poses in general help us find where we are stuck and give us the opportunity to let go of what we are holding on to. Not so, if we go fast. Not so if we do poses to get better at poses. That's gymnastics. That's acrobatics. That's contortion. All of those are awesome in their own way, but they are not yoga. They are performance and entertainment intended. Yoga is a mental attitude, an approach to practicing life in general. The postures are just a training ground for a mindful living through whatever comes. Your yoga should be a private affair and you, the only one witnessing it.
If yoga is not making a difference in your life and attitude, you are not practicing yoga. You can get a better work out at the gym, more fun at zumba, and more sweat in a body combat class. It will be cheaper too. If you want to practice yoga, practice with a teacher whose life is a testimony of their yoga practice, not with a teacher who tells you they are awesome, or seem nice. If your teacher doesn't have it together, they can't put it together for you either.
Find a real yoga teacher and change your life forever.