Why there are no quality standards in yoga
Do you know what yoga is?
If you’re only a beginner in this practice, you may be in a sort of fortunate situation, because for you, yoga is clear as a day. You probably started classes with some teacher, and as you keep practicing, you imagine that yoga is a well-rounded practice that combines physical exercises, some breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques. The physical exercises may be more static (asanas), or more dynamic (sequences of asanas and vinyasas) and sometimes contain kriyas - a combination of breath and physical movement practiced repetitively. And that is what you might think yoga is.
Yoga might be not (entirely) what be you think it is
What if I told you that it’s only a small part of practices that can be called yoga. A person performing asanas may be doing yoga. As well as a person cleaning his room or peeling potatoes may be doing a type of yoga which is called karma yoga, the yoga of action. A person reading a book may be practicing a kind of yoga which is called jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge. A person chanting a prayer, a mantra or cooking food and thinking about Krishna may be performing bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. In fact, you might be doing yoga while lying, sitting, walking, running, while studying, while taking tests, talking to your relatives, working, traveling, taking a shower. And also, you might be not doing yoga while practicing asanas and vinyasas.
If any particular action is yoga or not yoga depends on your state of mind. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most ancient and revered texts in the discipline of yoga, defines yoga as “chitta vritti nirodha”. This might be translated as restraining the fluctuations of the mind. All the techniques that we do in yoga class and in our own yoga practice are directed towards this goal of restraining mental fluctuations. To attain this goal, a yogi should practice a stability and serenity of mind. Sutras 34 and further describe methods of attaining this serenity through concentration on objects or holy figures, through control of breath, through developing of equanimity, or through practicing meditative techniques of the practitioner’s choice.
Thus any action, if it is performed with the purpose of attaining peace and stability of mind, or performed with a peaceful and stable mind, concentrated attention and impeccable focus, is a practice of yoga. Likewise, each action which is not performed with a peaceful mind or focus on what one is doing, is not yoga. Even if the practice is asana, or vinyasa, or pranayama.
Whether one is performing yoga or not depends entirely on once’s state of mind. And there is no way for an outside observer to evaluate once’s progress. Perfect flexibility or impeccable form cannot be a sign of progress in yoga per se, only as long as they are accompanied by a concentrated and peaceful mind.
From this broadness of physical practices that might be called yoga as long as a person has a peaceful mind, comes a big confusion in a discipline of yoga per se.
Yoga is a dynamic and developing discipline, and practitioners both from India and other countries are in the process of reinventing yoga. Most of the physical practices we know today are not more than 100 years old - I mean systems of asanas developed by Krishnamacharya and then his students Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Practitioners are continuously coming up with new styles, new approaches, new asanas and variations of asanas, based on their own experience and their belief of what is better for one’s body and mind. We have new styles that combine classical yoga poses with tai chi or chi gong, or aerobics, or structural alignment, or physiotherapy, or strength building, or dance moves. Each modification is a yoga style as long as it serves the purpose of calming one’s mind and switching off internal dialogues.
But we must admit that in yoga class, we’re not working solely with a mind - most often we’re working with a mind through a body. And a body is a complex thing that can be fragile and subject to injuries. Today, one does not have to be expert in body work (physical education, therapist, doctor) to come up and teach his own yoga style. One does not need to be a qualified expert in injury avoidance, anatomy and biomechanics to teach yoga. And here we have situations where in one yoga class, you will be practicing triangle and tadasana for months before proceeding to something more adventurous, and in another class, a teacher will put you in a head stand and keep you there for 10 minutes without even explaining properly what to do. In one class, you will be encouraged to go slowly and never reach the point of pain, while another teacher will sit on your back in forward bend until your bones crack, and tell you to disregard the body pain as the body is just a vessel for our eternal soul (I did not make up this last one, a teacher actually said that).
Some organizations try to come up with standards of what yogic education should comprise of. They make guidelines for yoga schools. These guidelines include, for instance, that a teacher training course should contain, say, 30 hours of anatomy and 20 hours of philosophy, but nobody actually checks what these schools are teaching on their TTC. Not only nobody comes to check their adherence to the standards, nobody event talks to them by phone or skype to find out if these teachers know anything about anatomy. Thus, a lot of trainees end up with a special training in anatomy that goes something like this” this is a head and this is a leg”. The accrediting organizations do not even have the manual where they explain in detail what a trainee should learn on a course. How can one make such a manual if yoga ranges from acrobatics to peeling potatoes?
Does anything go in yoga?
Does this tremendous ambiguity of yogic discipline mean that anything goes in yoga? I don’t think it should be like that. A few years ago we have met an old yogi who lived in his ashram in one of the most beautiful places of Rishikesh. He was telling us stories of how he was hanging out with the Beatles and traveled abroad to spread the science of yoga. He offered us to stay in his ashram and learn from his special system that the Beatles themselves appreciated. The guy seemed strange to us so we decided to google him. It turns out, he was indeed quite famous in the 70s and had quite a lot of students in his ashram. We found a book written by his former student, who described what “yoga” they practiced. In particular, this yogi helped all his students to awaken their kundalini, basically by having sex with them - all of them, men and women included. He called it yogic practice and still considered himself brahmacharya. The idyllic stay in the ashram was interrupted by the pregnancy of that woman (author of the book - find the book online), who was forced by the yogi to make abortion and keep silence on the entire affair. The gates of this yogi’s ashram are still open to all naive souls seeking enlightenment and ready to entrust their minds to a kundalini specialist.
In my opinion, this lack of discrimination and huge trust that accompanies the status of yogi corrodes reputation and trustworthiness of yoga.
What can we do with it?
It is unlikely that there will emerge a final authority - be it an organization or a teacher - who will define yoga for everyone. This goes against a spirit of free exploration of entire philosophy. For example, how an organization might tell all the yogis, that from now on, yoga will comprise only these physical exercises, pranayamas and cleanses, and no more peeling potatoes or reading books? And that there is only one, “safe and proper” way to do these exercises. In the situation or almost chaos-like freedom of today, this organization will be perceived as a policeman, and very few schools will be inspired to follow.
I think we must just come to the realization that yoga is a very, very broad concept. And because of that, we must be careful with it. When choosing our teacher, choosing our school or retreat, we must check what kind of yoga they teach. What type of philosophy they follow. What type of practices are included. Because what is good for one person may hurt the other. One may seek acrobatic workouts, and another will look for chanting and bhajans. And beyond the style, it’s very important to check what other people say about a particular teacher or school. Does this place have any reviews? If there are negative reviews, do they have to do merely with a mismatch of somebody’s approaches to yoga, or it is about teacher’s incompetence or other personal traits?
That’s why we have created this site, TopYogis, for you. It’s your ultimate instrument to find your yoga. Here, you will read reviews from fellow practitioners on yoga practices and personality of yoga teachers and owners of yoga schools and ashrams. You are able to share your experience and help many people find their unique path in yoga.
Welcome to your yoga community!