The Yoga Class: Is it Good For Yoga?

What’s the difference between a yoga class, and yoga? If you’ve studied yoga to any real depth, then the answer to that question should be pretty obvious. But for the majority who “do yoga” today, that question may not even make any sense. For many, yoga IS that class that they go to a few times a week …


I’m not merely juggling semantics here. I’m just wondering if you’re curious how the yoga class has, for so many, become synonymous with yoga itself.

… and if that’s a good thing or not? With tens of thousands of folks gathering in cities and towns around the world every day to bend and stretch and breathe like a yogi, one would think that this ritual has been around for centuries.

But it hasn’t.

The concept of a yoga class, at least the typical idea of it that dominates the yoga landscape today, is actually barely even a few decades old.

So where did it come from?

Over a relatively short period of time, yoga has gone from a reverential science for profound, personal transformation, to a slick and polished item to be packaged for consumption by an ever-growing yoga market (go easy on the hate mail, please :O)).

Yes, it’s still more than that today to some, I know, but unless your yogic noggin has been stuck in the sand for a couple decades, then you simply cannot deny the reality of the commercialization of yoga today. But that’s a topic for another day …

What I really want to talk about right now is “how yoga got to this point … the point where it is seen as little more than a type of exercise by the bulk of people who do it. More importantly, has this modern yoga class movement been good or bad for yoga?”

The Journey of Yoga From East to West

Tracing the evolution of yoga from ancient to modern times is a complex affair. I sure can’t do it in this one little article. Suffice to say that yoga has undergone numerous changes and alterations over the course of its lengthy history to arrive where it is today, none perhaps so impacting as the massive changes it has gone through in the most recent decade or two alone.

From her book, “The History of Yoga From Ancient to Modern Times,” Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani points out what most of us already know … that,

“The recent Masters of Yoga have put more emphasis on the practices of Asana and Pranayama, sometimes even neglecting the higher spiritual and morally based aims of the ancient science.”

But the question is, how, or more importantly, why did this happen? She explains that it all started early on in the 21st century, when the first significant wave of Indian Gurus began to touch upon Western shores.

“Rising modern problems in dealing with physical, emotional and mental health; and the vastly increased leisure time and global communication network cultivated a fertile garden for the thousands of ‘New Age Gurus’, eager to take the ‘Spiritual Message of the East’ to the West. …

[Yet] Some of the Indian Gurus did not originally realize the full nature of the Western culture and life style. Values such as a regulated life style, karma, moksha (liberation), reincarnation, devotion to Guru, allegiance to one path of spiritual endeavour, which are the spiritual bedrock of Hindu/yogic culture were foreign concepts to the Western mind [at that time].”

It didn’t take long for those Gurus to realize that their new students were much different from those they left behind in India, and what would or wouldn’t “fly” with their new breed of disciples became all to apparent soon enough … as Meenakshi Devi illustrates:

“[As a result] gone was the ascetic ethos. Gone were the simple living and the humble manner. Gone were the mastery of desires and the discipline of body, mind and emotions. Gone were the moral and ethical restraints. …

In an effort to woo followers, most Gurus did not interfere at all in the personal lives of their students. The students were now customers, and the customers are always right.”

One thing that we’ve always identified strongly with here in the West is our body and the whole range of sensations associated with it … and it didn’t take long for some yoga teachers to start to tap into the wants and desires of their growing market of yoga students.

Yoga, which is a science designed to help us to gain control over our unruly desires and cravings, now often seems to be catering to them instead.

So much so, that the majority (not all, but yes, definitely the majority!) of people who “do yoga” today see it as little more than an exotic form of physical fitness, a great way to decrease stress, flatten those abs and tone up that sagging backside! I hear the phrase “great yoga workout” way too much.

Yes, something is definitely wrong with this picture.

Yoga is Quickly Fading From the Modern Yoga Scene.

Ironically, recent gurus and yoga masters realized that the less yoga they taught, the more students the got! That ethos seems to now been etched deeply into the psyche of the modern yoga movement.

Now you might be quick to raise the question of how such enlightened, sincere beings got so easily steered off course? Honestly, I don’t know. I do suppose, however, that it wasn’t as cut and dry as gurus getting simply caught up with something so base as greed. These past several decades were times of huge shifts in human relations and social values and, well, yogis are still people too.

But it is disconcerting to observe that this wayward course of yoga that they initiated has become the direction that most follow today.

Voices of reason, though they are there, can often only faintly be heard behind the noisy foreground of a huge number of well-meaning, but under-educated yoga enthusiasts … eager teachers who are merely following suite and steaming forward into the multi-million dollar yoga marketplace, blending yoga with a hodgepodge of new-age ideas that may not fit so closely with the philosophy and practice of yoga as they might seem on the surface.

Do we blame the “yoga class” itself for wreaking this havoc on yoga, or did the demise of the traditional system of yoga in its early days here in the West merely pave the way for the development of the modern, watered-down, anything goes body-conscious yoga class?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

About the Author:

Yogacharya is the director of International Yogalayam, and Editor of The Yoga News

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