I heard recently from a friend in a European yoga alliance, asking about troubles they’re seeing in the American YA. In case it’s helpful, I’ll share a bit of our discussion with you all here. It begins with a question. What do you think we can ask of a yoga alliance? What’s possible here, and what’s not possible? And a couple answers have come up for me, thinking about YA, as well as companies and organizations in general.
1) Be clear about what you are, and what you can do.
Also be clear about what you’re not and can’t.
2) Don’t try to be big. Try to be good.
If that gets you big, fine. But aiming at good rather than big will always keep you doing what you love and know is right, no matter where the road takes you.
Ethics and Abuse
I’ve heard this before, that quality is declining as the American yoga alliance grows in numbers. And likely it comes up as any group gets bigger, not just in yoga. So maybe it’s very simple, to understand that as more and more people do something, it’s more and more difficult for quality to stay high.
At the same time, more people doing something means more chance of a few truly amazing people emerging. So we all get something good out of growth, even though it’s not always all perfect.
But, we don’t want to brush off bad things as simply unavoidable, a part of growth. We should always make things better. So much that needs change has come to light in the movie industry. But it’s not just a movie problem, it’s a human problem. And so it’s a yoga problem. The great big elephant in the yoga room, and an obvious enormous problem with the American YA, is that they’ve certified every founder, teacher, and yoga style involved in the sex crimes that have surfaced in the last years. Bikram, Iyengar, Astanga, Jivamukti, Anusara, Sivananda, just to get started. That’s a lot teachers, and a lot of yoga styles.
There’s something else important here. We can’t separate the style from the founder. So many systems were created by abusers, and reflect that abuse both in how they approach people, and in how they teach us to approach our selves. And this isn’t just in yoga. We can’t love the approach and hate the founder. The two are the same.
But it’s hard to see our selves sometimes. It’s hard to take an honest clear look at what exactly am I practicing. We’re all looking for connection, harmony, peace, maybe to have a positive impact on the world around us. But that’s not what we’re practicing in an abusive system. We’re more practicing disconnection, disharmony, aggression, even self-abuse, at the hands of manipulative teachers who assert superior knowledge as means of control. It’s easy to see when you get some distance from the practice, but really hard when you’re in the middle of it. I’ve been there, in all the yoga cults. So I know about this one a little too much.
Seeing all this, it’s the beginning of how we get better. We can stop following teachers who abuse people. And we can stop following the systems these teachers use to enable and justify that abuse. When we let go what doesn’t work, we can start practicing something better together.
This is one way of saying, I think it will take some time and substantial change before the YA can regain any credibility. And there is unlimited potential for other alliances to do better.
Quality: Hours and Experience, Science and Common Sense
Serious crimes aside, it has always been clear that the YA is a marketing organization, without ability to assure quality or give real support to teachers. Unlike a real union, it doesn’t provide quality standards, doesn’t find work for teachers, and doesn’t provide financial assistance when a teacher is out of work. So it’s not clear what the YA does, aside from convince teachers that they need to pay a fee in order to get a job. Which isn’t true. Especially as employers learn that quality assurance isn’t provided. That’s only a myth.
Establishing a number of training hours isn’t a quality standard. Two hundred hours eating at McDonalds isn’t the same as 200 hours eating from your own garden. Time spent learning nuclear energy from the scientists on Bill Gates’ TerraPower team isn’t the same as time spent hearing from someone who finds energy interesting this year.
Alliances aren’t able to board certify teachers and schools the way doctors and medical schools are certified. To do this they’d need a board of experts from many related fields – mind-body medicine, neurology, psychology, health, aging, genetics, spirituality, wellbeing. And for the best in each field, these experts would be from a global human community, not just a limited yoga or wellness community. Of course this isn’t how the YA operates. But for the most part, yoga teachers are also not performing surgery. The risk isn’t so high if someone goes to a not-so-good yoga teacher, compared to a not-so-good surgeon. It just begins to matter more if someone really needs to heal, or really wants to do more than they can do right now.
Another approach to quality is tied less to hours in training, and more to years of yoga teaching experience. But there’s a problem here, too. Just doing something for a long time, for example as a yoga teacher, doesn’t make you good. I’ve seen many relatively new teachers who are more positively impactful than longer-term practitioners. And there’s a simple reason. We give to each other what we have in our own lives. Much more than what we say, study, or memorize, people follow who and how we are. Someone might be new to teaching yoga but have truly substantial, meaningful experience and accomplishment in their life. So this person might also accomplish much more when they teach yoga, than a long-time yoga teacher who lacks this life-ability. It’s more than time that counts. What counts is what you do with that time.
Are we able even to decide in yoga what is good quality? It’s not entirely easy. Maybe we could begin by cutting out everything that simply isn’t science. There are entire systems of yoga teaching that twists are detoxifying, as one of their primary reasons for doing what they do. So yoga provides some entertainment for the scientific world, at least until people get injured or run into serious health problems. Imagine if our organs actually worked this way, through mechanical manipulation. Where would all those toxins go? What a mess! Luckily, it’s not true.
I don’t know many yoga teachers who have studied health and healing outside the relatively narrow yoga or wellness community. Harvard, Stanford, so many top universities have such strong online education now. It just makes good sense to learn from the best people in every field, from wherever you are. As Neal deGrasse Tyson points out, science is how we keep from passing around things that aren’t true. Which gets pretty common in any community that sees itself as isolated, specially chosen, or above the rest of the world. It leads to a lot of pretending, and much less progress than our potential. We can do better together, than we ever can with this sort of separation.
Science aside, maybe an alliance could at least stop accrediting what simply doesn’t make sense. A favorite doctor friend of mine often says “We shouldn’t wait for science to prove what we already know is true by common sense.” So for one example, we could look at the field of “alignment-based” yoga. This yoga seeks to achieve alignment by disconnecting all our body parts from each other, then fixing and manipulating them one at a time, until an idea and visual of perfect alignment is achieved.
Of course unlike Eastern art forms, yoga doesn’t have much history of movement. And its pose history is just a small handful of forms to get ready for meditation. Nothing ancient or proven here. So understanding that alignment is important – it keeps us safe, and helps us to accomplish more – it’s useful to look East.
In every East Asian art form, from martial to healing to calligraphy, alignment is created by moving in harmony with your self as a whole connected being, not by isolation of separate parts, and not by external manipulation of a form. Alignment can not be achieved through isolating, disconnecting, and manipulating one static part at a time, although it’s a common recent practice in yoga schools. Try it on your own, you’ll immediately feel that this doesn’t work. It’s nearly impossible to get anywhere once you immobilize yourself with disconnection and tension. And when you do need to go somewhere, you’re much more open to injury. So it’s simple for the older art forms, that are grounded in human movement and connection. They all begin with moving into harmony and unity, as the foundation for alignment and the beginning of everything. It’s not just an abstract idea. It’s practical, and it works, for everything.
But science, common sense, or whatever your challenge to dogma might be, it’s not always what everyone wants. There are so many reasons why it’s sometimes easier to pretend about things, or hold onto something that’s not true, together in a group where we all hold the same belief. Even if it doesn’t get us where we want to go, it can still be comforting and meaningful in our lives. So this brings me to a last thought, about what a yoga alliance can be, and how it can be meaningful for all of us.
Alliances, Shared Values and Approaches
Maybe an alliance can simply be a collection of people who like each other, have similar aims and ideals, and who want a place to support and share and grow together. So each alliance could simply state that it’s members share these certain aims and ideals, and each alliance would be a smaller group than the whole of yoga teachers, because we have some differences. We’re all more alike than we are different, but here and there, we have a few differences.
If I think about what we’d want to share with our own group at Strala, it might include our vision, and our practice for making it real.
We can dramatically improve how we do everything we do, by using a few simple-always-everywhere practices that rewire us, replace the habits that don’t work, and uncover who we really are: the optimal expression of our selves.
Where we once believed we need only more strength and aggression to get what we want, we learn instead how to replace force as a strategy with harmony, peace, ease in how we do all we do. And we get much further this way.
We all know it’s true. We all believe that peace would be better than aggression, with our selves and with everyone else. Now there’s a practice that makes what we know into something real in our bodies, and our shared lives.
But even before this, we’d want to assure in any alliance that the abuse crimes can’t continue. The teachers involved in these crimes are not in our group. The systems created by these abusers, that enable and justify their abuse, are also not in our group. We can move away from this. Together we can create a much better way.
Of course everything we’ve talked about here, these aren’t all just yoga problems. They’re human problems. How we are in one place is how we are in every place. Yoga is just one place that we have a chance to look at how we are, what we’re creating in our lives, and make some change for the better. And alliances can be one place where we support each other, to find our way here.
About Strala Yoga Training
Strala combines the movement and healing wisdom of tai chi with the form vocabularies of yoga, tai chi, qigong, and Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine, to help people release stress, move easily through challenge, and live radiantly inspiring lives.
It begins with a mindset, that says our best way to get where we’re going is to feel good along the way. It also works miracles for whole health, helping us to find ease in our bodies and minds, and create the right conditions both for healing and optimal performance.
In our Strala Training Courses, you learn to shape your destiny on every level that counts, from your psychology, chemistry and neurology, to your chromosomes and even gene expression. The unique set of skills you develop – for connecting with yourself and others, unblocking your energy, healing what needs healing and accomplishing challenge with ease – uncovers your ability to create the life you want, and be an inspiring leader to the people around you.