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  • Why She Left Yoga (& Why I Think She is Duping Herself)

    I’ve seen a lot of sharing of this article by a blogger named Irasna Rising; I am flummoxed, less because it is poorly written, offers no tangible recommendations, and is still getting so much attention, and more because so many people seem willing to blindly accept this brand of deeply personal criticism as salient cultural commentary deserving of some kind of action, as if the author’s subjective issues with yoga are universal and pressing. I suppose it’s not extremely surprising, especially in Canada where we are terrified ourselves of being called racists - it might force us to truly look at and acknowledge our real history (an ongoing saga of abuse towards First Nations people, abuse which is still being perpetuated four years after an official apology was made). 

     It's Universal, Silly

    The article is written by a self-proclaimed person "of Indian heritage" who lives in the West and who is “disillusioned and disgusted” with yoga. Yoga? How can yoga be taken so personally? Immediately I suspect she must not be doing it right if this is where it's led her. But I call off my dogs, remembering that there is no right and wrong, and delve back into the piece. Still, as I read further, what niggles my brain, tickling the forefront of consciousness, is the spiritual axiom that whenever I am disturbed, no matter what the reason, it means there is something fundamentally wrong with me. But before being so simplistic in a response, her points bear looking at, don't they? I read on - surely there is something here since I've seen so many people linking to this article. Surely.


    I have to stop reading for minute. "Honey," I say to the author, pretending she's beside me and actually wants my opinion, "Yoga is not sacred."

    Life is sacred, yes, and the expression of life is sacred. Yoga is a system, an ancient and refined technology of ecstasy; it is but one path to the reality which lies beyond mind and matter. Yoga, as system, is a tool. This tool can be wielded in as many ways as there are minds that pick it up. I like to think that most people employ the tool of yoga because they want inner peace. Intention governs everything -- even our author says this. But if I am less than enlightened, and I am only interested in yoga because I like how my ass looks in Lululemon man-shorts and that in my yoga community there are 90% females -- what am I really looking for? I am looking for connection. I am looking for communion. I am still looking for the same thing more enlightened beings are after, I’m just not as developed in my search and am blinded by my own ignorance of what will truly bring me awareness, equanimity, and ultimately peace. I just need to work through more ignorance. So if I treat yoga with an attitude of spiritual materialism, hedonism and hypocrisy, would I not be deserving of your compassion rather than your disdain?


    Irasna Rising’s complaints amount to, essentially, the following points: 1. yoga in the West is trendy and hedonistic, 2. yoga in the West seems to be only for rich white people, 3. a variation on the first point that can be summarized best by the fact that the author bristles at the sight of white women in saris, 4. another variation on point number three, namely that white people chanting in Sanskrit annoys the author, 5. “caucasians are inferior to Indians” and “Real Indians from India make fun of Westerners behind their back [sic] and make money off their ignorance”, 6. another variation on the first point, and finally 7. a re-hashing of the third point with different examples. 

    Too Many White People? 

     Too Many White People?

    The first point is absolutely true, but I don’t think it’s a cultural issue or problem that requires fixing. I certainly have enough indication from my own life that whenever I try and fix, manage or control something with ideas stemming from my judgemental mind, I tend to make matters worse. I have learned that as I proceed further on the path, with less judgement and less denial, more will be revealed and I will shed more layers of ignorance. This leads me deeper into a state of flow. 

    The second point is tricky because it speaks to a very Canadian deep-rooted fear of being labelled as a racist, but I’m not sure if we need to be concerned about achieving a higher quota of non-white people in yoga classes in the West. The question at root is whether or not yoga is accessible. Well, is it? I certainly think so - I did yoga on my own with the same $20 video for almost three years before attending classes. I was too full of anxiety to approach my own practice any other way. It’s the at-home sadhana (yes, I speak Sanskrit! which is actually - like Latin - a language that has an impact on brain activity, HRV and overall physical health - Dr. Richard Brown tells a fascinating story about what happened to a group of monks and priests who fell seriously ill after Vatican II when the mass was no longer said in Latin) where the magic happens for me. I attend classes for community, sangha, and also to observe where my ego is at. But I have so far failed to take a census on skin colour, though it appears to me that the classes I have attended in New Delhi, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Colombo, Ho Chi Minh City are pretty much made up of people who live in that city and are trying to bring more peace, happiness and harmony into their lives. Any yoga community can only be a substratum of the community it lives and breathes in. As Bryan Kest says, when we bring our shit into yoga, we make yoga shit. The author Irasna Rising seems to be, in my opinion, operating less out of love than out of fear here.  She (I am deducing that the author is a woman, but I could be mistaken) has penned more of a drawn-out complaint against the perceived inconsistencies with "the yoga scene" and yoga. The yoga “scene” is trendy and hedonistic. So what? All yoga really asks me to do is breathe, stretch, move, and pay close attention to refine my concentration and awareness. Then I need to let go and let nature take its own course. 


    This article is clearly not the product of a discriminating, balanced mind. Again, if I am ever disturbed, no matter what the reason, that means there is something amiss with me. This openly racist writer clearly has an axe to grind, and has totally given her own power away by believing her issues lie outside of herself. Take, for instance, the laundry list of dislikes on her profile: "Hip hop, country western music, Nickelback, New Agers, Canadian winters, Stephen King, sheeple, suburban mediocrities, Mexican food, Mondays, jocks, himbos and bimbos, people who ride their bicycle on the foot path and pedestrians on the bike path especially when the two paths are next to each other, people who stand at the front of the bus and block the entrance when there are tons of open seats in the back. You get the idea." 

    Yes, I get the idea. The very act of itemizing things that get under my skin demonstrate my own ignorance of the reality that what I resist persists. What a torture for my own mind, as if its job isn’t difficult enough already! I am lacking humility in this case, and humility is only the ability to see things as they really are, not as I wish them to be nor as I fear them to be. The antidote to my lack of humility, I have found, is gratitude. 

    Here is where I vacillate. Maybe yoga IS sacred. I am so grateful for my practice. All of this life is sacred, even the mundane; I remember what I knew once and learned I know not where: there are no ordinary moments. Yoga is not just the practice, it is the fruit of practice; it is both the journey and the destination, the union of small mind with cosmic consciousness, the dissolution of the illusion of separateness, of "I." 

    If I am striving for the destination so fiercely that I am hating the journey for being what it is, then my compass is busted and I am likely headed in the wrong direction.

    I make up that the author just ‘blew up’ here, and really needed to let something big go. As within, so without. Mirror, mirror. There is another spiritual axiom which states that when a reaction to an event is disproportionate to the event, the reaction is always about the past. This article was penned by someone who is suffering, who has evidently been hurt, and whose pain and anger towards yoga is likely a symptom of some underlying pain and - who knows? - maybe even trauma. I can identify with suffering. I am suffering, too -- suffering and riddled with character defects. We all are--if we weren't, we wouldn't need yoga. If I could meet her I would ask her what she needs - an ear? to be held? some love? acceptance of herself just as she is in this very moment? Whatever she needs, I hope she finds it, whether it be through yoga or another path. I hope she can, as Ghandi envisioned, "be the change" she wants to see in the world. I hope we all can.



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    Loren Crawford says (3-Aug-2012):

    I disagree with your assessment of this piece and that the author has an axe to grind. In fact her observations about the current state of yoga are shared by many who: don't have an axe to grind; are not overtly racist; are not necessarily "suffering", although in yoga-land that can mean many things; and who may not have the writing acumen that you do ;-) What I find interesting is the defensiveness - and outright hostility in some cases - to those of us who continue to question the current hyper-commercialized approach to yoga and the orthodoxy that imposes. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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    JJ says (3-Aug-2012):

    You're welcome! "Practice and all is coming." Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

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    joa Keur says (4-Aug-2012):

    If only people could just simply except what is and stop complaining and criticizing other peoples choices. Yoga is about a union-ship with the cosmos the earth and the self, and thats that. How any one or group chooses to interprate that is there choice in there freedom to choose. Taking other peoples perspective and trying to figure it out, make sense of it or criticizes it, only means there is attitude over altitude, an attachment to thinking what they know is of better quality and understanding. Yoga snobery is so petty. Let go of the analysis and the breath will flow better and continue to live love.

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    Jennifer Young says (4-Aug-2012):

    I read the original article and chose not to spread it. I agreed with so many of your points when reading. My thought was to avoid giving power to the original article by not sharing it or commenting. I am glad that you are brave enough to do the opposite. I agreed with your assessment. Thanks John!

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    David Wegenast says (4-Aug-2012):

    Thank you John for taking the time to work through this detailed reaction to Irasna's gripe. I agree that her piece does not take us higher and reveals the author's strange fixations and prejudices. So what? Are you going to stop practising? Love your phrase, "what I resist persists". I think that media articles like this and like the one in NY Times by William J. Broad, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body", provide a great opportunity for us to reflect on our practice and the nature of right thinking. As someone who survived the pleasure-focused 1970s, I celebrate the fact that Yoga is now widely practised and a topical subject. We are evolving, but it's not always a straight path.

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    Lacey says (16-Aug-2012):

    Sometimes when we are disturbed, it is because there is actually something disturbing going on. Sometimes it's wrong NOT to be disturbed. (War crimes anyone?) And while that which we resist persists, that which we ignore persists too. I think she makes a lot of valid points, and I think it's a shame to come out swinging and call her a poor writer, to attack the balance of her mind. Ouch. (Better be careful, if you resister her too much, she'll persist.) She communicated her ideas well enough, and I suspect people have paid attention to her criticism (of course it's personal, she's a person) because it does point to pressing issues. I've certainly felt these issues. The solution she seems to offer is personal for her - personal practice. That's fine, she doesn't need to tell everyone what to do. That's the route I've been increasingly headed down lately, because I can't stomach much of what I experience in yoga studios in the city. I don't feel bad about that. I can call a spade a spade, or in this case - a shitty yoga class a shitty yoga class. Since I can't afford the studio I like, or to travel to the retreat centres I like, I practice solo for the time being. Ce la vie.

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    Irasna says (22-Aug-2012):

    I'm apologize if my poor writing doesn't live up to your exacting standards, John. Unlike yourself, I am not a professional writer and did not work on multiple drafts before posting it on my blog. I wrote literally in one go for my tiny audience of 67. That EJ decided to pick it up was a complete surprise to me. I did not advertising and did not approach anyone and the fact that it has as many views and shares as it has means it must have resonated with some people, even if you disagree with them. And as for attacking the balance of my mind, for someone who is working in the diplomatic corps, this was an extremely undiplomatic rebuttal, when in essence, you don't know me from Adam but instead decided to made a series of sweeping assumptions of me based on article of less than 2000 words which you very clearly did not like. I worked in a Level V trauma unit for years in the States including Walter Reed Medical with returning Iraq and Afghan war vets, in spiritual caregiving and what used to be called pastoral care. I can see projection when it's in front of me particularly when I did nothing to a person, and in this case someone who I have never met nor encountered. Not once did I imply that Caucasians are inferior to Indians. If you read my article properly AND watched the video I included of Bikram Choudhury who insinuated as much, you would have seen that it was him who made the implication, not I. I just tried pointing it out. I might be more than a little ticked off at the more vapid elements of the yoga scene these days, but being indirectly called a bigot is definitely a new low. Have a look at these links, it might help you to see that anger doesn't mean hate, and cultural appropriation is a very real issue which angers and hurts many people, Indians and non-Indians alike. <a href=''></a> <a href=''></a>

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    John-James says (23-Aug-2012):

    Hi Irasna: thanks for your feedback. I agree with you that your article resonated with a lot of people. What I was trying to address, as compassionately as possible, was the anger surrounding these complaints about the 'yoga scene' and how they don't seem to matter, fundamentally, to one's personal practice of yoga, which is sacred to me because of the healing it has allowed. I don't think I am alone in feeling that your article comes off as racist, but allow that that might not have been your intent. For my own part, I acknowledge that the slight on your 'writing' was a cheap shot, an utterance that came from a place of fear, not from a place of compassion. And I certainly agree that I, as 'writer' probably polished my words a lot longer (both to try and get my point across and to satisfy my own ego) than you. I hope you can see, ultimately, that my intent was not malicious or designed as an attack, but a plea for awareness of just what is it we are complaining about when we complain about yoga? What I am saying, in so many words, is that yoga is not the problem. I appreciate that you took the time to write, and will check out your links. I also mean to acknowledge on EJ that my comment on the quality of your writing is cheap and undermines the rest of what I am trying to get across. Peace to you.

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    Deborah says (23-Aug-2012):

    Wow, what a honest gentleman you are. What a lovely, non judgmental response. Thank-you for reminding all of us to look within.

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    karen says (27-Aug-2012):

    I loved your piece on this.. so incompasing, caring....

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    Samyukta says (27-Aug-2012):

    I think that both of these articles have brought up salient points. As an academic (YES! I am one of those fabled INDOLOGISTS!) and serious practitioner of Yoga & Ayurveda, I'd like to point out, this phenomena is nothing new. For centuries so-called Master Yogis were taking advantage of the local population, while the authentic Masters were not so easily found. We see the same phenomena but in different cultural wrappers. (Think Swami Ram Dev who is so 'of the moment' right now in India or John Friend from the Anusara business) Wherever there are people, there are politics, it is a fact we all must accept. There is always authenticity, and it is more readily found when we are willing to accept the plethora of opposites and tensions inherent in the tradition. A wise teacher once told me, "A sign of maturity is when you can fully accept the paradox and keep your balance in the middle"

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    John-James says (27-Aug-2012):

    Thanks Deborah, Karen and Samyukta. I appreciate your feedback - and Samyukta I think you've wrapped it up eloquently with a bow in a lot fewer words and with less ego than I needed for my attempt...Namaste.

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    John-James says (27-Aug-2012):

    Thank you Joa, Jennifer, David and Lacey for your comments and for making me reflect a bit more.

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    anonymous says (10-Dec-2012):

    samykta. i am thirsty for a teacher, real one. would you have recommendations, and i am not trying to be ironic, purely honest. namaste

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    Samyukta says (10-Dec-2012):

    anonymous: If you are serious, put out a sincere and focused request to the universe. There are good teachers out there, and if you allow it, you will be led right to the one who is right for you. I don't know what you are looking for so I can't direct you more than that. Just know that a good authentic teacher will never ask you to give up your true authority, play the hero or the be-all-end-all of teachers. There will be such humility, they will command respect while giving it, and some part of you will recognize that light in them which will ignite your own.

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