What makes yoga yoga? Many people claim to know real yoga when they see it. In fact, the act of calling people out for not doing “real yoga” is becoming more and more common these days. If you follow my work at all or the work of my yoga teacher colleagues in my online class library, you’ve likely seen this happen with respect to what we offer as well.
After seeing enough yogis accused of doing something that “shouldn’t be called yoga” in social media videos and posts, I thought we could take a moment to pause, quiet our minds, and think this issue through a bit together.
What are the boundaries around the category of “yoga”, and what does it mean for a yoga practice to be authentic?
Before diving specifically into the subject of yoga, I thought it would be helpful to look at the concept of authenticity in a broader context, because debates about authenticity are not limited to the yoga world alone. In fact, almost everywhere you look with regard to culture and tradition, there are active arguments about what makes something authentic. From Mexican food to African art to bourbon (“it’s not authentic if it wasn’t made in Kentucky!”) to country western music, fierce debates abound.
As one compelling example, back in April of this year, the musician Lil Nas X had a country song that was on its way to the coveted number one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but it was pulled from the category just before that happened because the powers that be decided that the song wasn’t “country enough”. Lil Nas X happens to be black and his song included some rap. The whole incident was quite controversial and was shrouded in accusations of racism and bigotry. (And in support of those allegations, it’s interesting to note that white country stars in the past have included raps in their songs and they were still allowed to stay on the country songs chart.)
In any case, I mention these examples simply to point out that arguments about authenticity are nothing new, and they are often quite tricky to navigate because the standards by which something is considered “authentic” are generally subjective, arbitrary, and a matter of opinion. The reality is that no tradition - whether it be traditional yoga, traditional wine making, traditional religious celebrations, or traditional country music (did you know that the banjo is an African instrument, for example?) - developed in a bubble. All traditions have always been exposed to a myriad of outside influences, and have continually evolved and changed throughout the entirety of their existence.
There are often people who are considered the “gatekeepers” of authenticity of certain kinds of categories, cultures, and practices. These gatekeepers are usually self-appointed, and their motivation typically includes enhancing their own reputation and power within the culture or tradition in which they operate based on their proclaimed connection to what is “authentic”.
With this broader perspective on culture and authenticity in mind, let’s turn our attention to our shared tradition of yoga.
WHAT IS YOGA?
At its core, the definition of yoga is encapsulated in Yoga Sutra 1.2: “Yoga chitta vrtti nirodha”. The English translation of this classic Sanskrit line is “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”.
When it comes to a movement practice, yoga consists of a focus on connecting with the breath and calming the mind in the midst of any movements that are being done.
Less than 100 years ago, the “grandfather” of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, blended the practices of Hatha Yoga, Western gymnastics, and wrestling exercises to create the practice that we recognize as modern postural yoga today. We therefore know that yoga, as with all traditions, developed within a sea of influences from varying cultures and practices, both from within its native country and without. The notion of what makes something “authentically” yoga is therefore flawed from the very outset because yoga was never a “pure” tradition to begin with.
Additionally, Krishnamacharya’s teaching style itself changed significantly over the years that he taught. Three of his most influential students all learned from him at different times, and each went on to establish their own branch of modern yoga that is completely distinct from the others. Ashtanga Yoga is a vigorous, fast-paced practice; Iyengar Yoga focuses on long-held asanas utilizing many props; and Viniyoga focuses on individually-tailored practices. This is further testament to the fact that modern postural yoga evolved over the years since its inception - just as it continues to evolve today.
In fact, if Krishnamacharya were alive and creating postural yoga today, we can be assured that it would not look the same as the yoga he invented back in the 1920s. Today he would have a very different set of influences to inspire him, from the modern fitness industry to popular sports to the countless branded “movement systems” that exist such as Pilates, Gyrotonic, FRC, MovNat, Animal Flow, and so many more. (Not to mention the huge advances that have been made in our understanding of the science of the human body as compared to early 20th century India!)
However, while it is true that what yoga looks like has naturally changed and evolved over time, this fact is actually quite arbitrary, because the physical postures themselves are not the yoga. As we established earlier, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The familiar shapes that we refer to as “yoga” today are simply the postures that Krishnamacharya chose as vehicles to this goal of stilling the mind.
These physical postures have certainly demonstrated themselves to be effective vehicles for the mental discipline that is yoga, but they are not the only physical movements that can be used for this goal. Ultimately, any practice done with the intention of quieting our thoughts and paying attention to our body while it moves fits the definition of yoga.
It is therefore literally impossible for someone to look at a person doing a movement on social media and declare whether what they are doing is yoga or not. Anyone who claims to have the authority to make such decisions has very little understanding of what the core of yoga truly is. Yoga is not a prescribed set of physical postures that we can see externally and it never has been; yoga is a mental discipline that resides in the awareness of the practitioner within their shapes and movements.
Think about it: if specific physical shapes and postures were actually what defined yoga, then these social media “gatekeepers” of yoga authenticity would have to believe that someone who is paraplegic or otherwise unable to move their body into these shapes could not possibly practice yoga. And I highly doubt that any of these self-appointed gatekeepers truly believe this. This means that their logic is flawed and inconsistent, which leads me to my next point…
“IF *THAT’S* YOGA, THEN ANYTHING CAN BE YOGA”: THE SLIPPERY SLOPE FALLACY
Whenever I see a social media debate about what is and isn’t yoga, I inevitably see someone state “Well if you’re going to call that yoga, then anything can be yoga.”
Now just to be clear, the argument I’m making in this blog post is that it is impossible to look at someone doing a movement on social media and determine whether what they are doing is yoga. In other words, we can’t judge whether something is yoga based on the way it looks. However, this is not the same as saying that “everything can be yoga”, or suggesting that all physical activities will eventually be lumped into the category of yoga if we don’t hold firm to the current set of traditional postures.
Additionally, I think it’s important to point out that the “If that’s yoga, anything can be yoga” argument is not actually an argument at all. It is, in fact, a perfect example of something called the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope fallacy takes place when someone states “If Y happens, then Z will eventually happen too, so Y should not happen.”
This is the same fallacy that is made when people claim that if gay people are given the right to marry each other, “the next thing we know, people will start marrying animals”. Or the fallacious claim that marijuana is a “gateway” drug that will eventually lead people to start using heroin and other much harder drugs.
Using the slippery slope fallacy is a means of avoiding the actual issue at hand (i.e. can yoga look different from the prescribed set of postures generally called yoga?) and shifting the focus to an extreme hypothetical (“therefore everything will eventually be yoga and yoga will lose all its meaning”) without providing any proof that said hypothetical will occur.
I would encourage our yoga community to avoid making illogical non-arguments like these when discussing the topic of yoga and authenticity.
The boundary around what makes yoga yoga is something that is continually being negotiated and will always be open to influence from new ideas. Experimenting with different approaches, unique props, or innovative sequencing in yoga classes is not somehow a threat to the institution of yoga as we know it.
Additionally, calling people out on social media for doing something that “shouldn’t be called yoga” is fruitless and only demonstrates a lack of understanding of what yoga is all about. If anything, this type of behavior tends to create more fluctuations of the mind, not less. The passion and vitriol I’ve seen behind many of these attacks suggest to me that most of these critics’ time would be better spent doing some actual yoga - however they might want to do that with their physical body, of course. :)