Yoga-therapy is an up and coming fashion in the world of Yoga and even health-care. I have recently learned that both of my teachers (Ziva Kinrot in Israel, Paul Harvey in UK) are involved in questions around Yoga-therapy and a couple of days ago I listened to an interview with Gary Kraftsow, who represents the same school of teaching in the USA.
They are all interested in preserving quality Yoga teachings and making them accessible, effective and safe to use in general and specifically in therapeutic situations. They do so out of a commitment and responsibility to both Yoga and the societies in which they live.
I believe that an understanding and appreciation of the workings of the mechanism of degeneracy is key to understanding the illusion and misdirection that the so called discipline of Yoga therapy is taking.
Degeneracy is simply demonstrated in a popular game. The first person in a group of people whispers a message into the ear of another person, and that person whispers it into the ear of another … and the message moves from one person to another in whispers. By the time the message reaches the last person it has morphed into something else. The original message degenerated into another message. It isn’t good or bad – it’s a natural process of deterioration. If you learn to see it – it is everywhere.
The idea of degeneracy is accessible if you have any spiritual or even religious inclinations. If you have any notion of a “higher power” then you can easily see and experience that everything you are and know is less then that “higher power” – yours is a degenerate existence. You may dedicate your life to experiencing or connecting with it, but at best you may learn to be at peace with your degenerative state.
Degeneracy is also fairly easy to understand intellectually. Smart people know stuff that others don’t. Smart people live according to what they know. Some smart people make an effort to share their knowledge with others. Most smart people who share their knowledge experience, at one time or another, frustration when other people ignore it. Consider someone who works at the American Cancer Society and educates the public about health. This person constantly looks around him and sees smokers and fast-food eaters and has to wonder how come these people, knowing what he knows and has shared with them, continue their unhealthy habits. To him – these habits are degenerative habits (which lead to undeniable biological degeneracy in the form of cancer).
But intellect is also a form of degeneracy. Intellectuals may have a hard time seeing this. There are two reasons for this. One is lack of a better perspective – for lack of a better word I will call it a spiritual perspective – an appreciation and embracing of the unknown (that which exists beyond the intellect). The other is a social ego-pattern that takes offense from being described as a degenerate. This combination of lack of perspective and an ego creates a blind spot. That blind spot is a degeneracy.
A long long time ago the birth of social patterns was a great advancement. It provided a better quality of life – the tasks and chores of day-to-day life became a group effort. Some people were responsible for hunting & gathering food, others for protection, others for caring to the young, etc. I would wager that such social patterns also gave birth almost immediately to potential for self expression and self improvement – I am guessing that an individual who was better at hunting preferred to hunt and got even better at it, while a person who was better at caring for the young gravitated towards that and developed some new and specialized skills of his/her own.
Social patterns have come a long way – and over the years they gave birth to better patterns – intellectual patterns. The sharing of effort amongst individuals created more opportunity for thought and consideration. Some of that thought and consideration eventually turned on the same social patterns from which they were born. People had ideas about better social patterns. This struggle is still dominant in our lives. It is in the nature of social patterns to grant us freedom to challenge them. From an intellectual perspective, social patterns are almost always degenerative. From a social perspective intellectual patterns are threatening. It is an unrelenting battle of patterns to the death.
There is an ever-evolving residue of intellectual patterns in social patterns (smoking once used to symbolize high social status and is now evolving into a symbol of ignorance). Social patterns that deny intellect die out. Social patterns that absorb just the right amount of intellectual patterns survive. There is a good chance that the teachings of the American Cancer Society fall mostly on deaf ears – but that’s all it can do and what it needs to do. A small residue of it’s efforts eventually sinks in to degenerate social patterns.
Yoga has spiritual foundations which precede understanding. Yoga has philosophical foundations which are aligned with it’s spiritual foundations. Yoga also has intellectual & scientific foundations which are aligned with it’s philosophical and spiritual foundations. Yoga is a superbly comprehensive and tight system (especially when coupled with Ayurveda). But ultimately, Yoga exists within intellectual and social patterns of our times – including their natural tendency towards degeneracy.
Yoga teachings are transmitted from teacher to student. Like whispers from person to person they are prone to degeneracy. It takes a rare combination of qualities to minimize this degeneracy when it comes to the intricate and subtle teachings of Yoga. When Yoga was transmitted in small intimate circles the degenerative effects may have been residual. But once Yoga was exposed to larger audiences the degenerative effect changed in both quality (according to the social patterns it met) and quantity (proportionately increased).
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the degeneracy of Yoga occurred closer to its sources and that it had already been tainted when it arrived on the doorsteps of an industrialized and commercialized western world. I am confident that some of the Yoga streams that flowed from the east to the west carried good teachers, good teachings and good intentions. I am also confident that some of the streams were of lesser quality and exploitative intentions – that viewed the west as what the west itself would call an “emerging market”.
The overall flow from east to west has gifted the world with a rare few teachers who have (and continue) to build a bridge between traditional quality teachings and a modern revolutionary western mind-set (though I have a hunch that most of these teachers actually had to go to the east to carry knowledge over on their own shoulders rather then having that knowledge delivered to them by easterners who came to the west). But, inevitably that overall flow included some compromises that have grown into a mature, established and degenerated Yoga industry (the Yoga part has degenerated, the industry has been well kept).
That industry is backed by organizations who try to control the quality of Yoga teachings by regulating and qualifying levels of education. The common level of tuition, established by these “protectors of yoga”, is very low. The USA Yoga Alliance organization requires 200 hours of training to qualify as a Yoga Teacher. The British Wheel of Yoga requires 500 hours of training. The International Yoga Federation also sets the bar at 500 hour training. Neither mention a period of self practice as a requirement. You can have absolutely no experience in Yoga, train for 200 hours (probably over a period of one year, or at most two) and presto – you have the workings of a lucrative machine that manufactures (compromised) Yoga Teachers for a (compromised) lucrative industry.
If you consider the scope of knowledge embodied in the teachings of Yoga – then these numbers are ridiculous. But it isn’t about Yoga, it is about a degenerate (remember – it’s a fact not a judgement) form of social Yoga. It caters to what students want and to so called “Yoga teachers” who can make a living delivering what students want. It isn’t surprising that the core content of these teachings is dominated by the obvious aspects of Yoga – physical postures. Sure people talk about “oneness” and lots of pretty concepts – it’s part of the fashion – but the practice boils down to physicality – a spiritually-flavored gym class.
The irony of it all is that because the larger view of Yoga has been mostly eradicated – the physical aspect has also become shallow and compromised (and in some cases even unhealthy). The whole point of Yoga is not to move the body but to ask who is this me that moves the body? what is this body that moves? what is movement? The practices of Yoga are then seen as an elaborate system through which a teacher guides a student. Strength and flexibility are side-effects.
There is an additional, more subtle expression of deviation from Yoga – it’s harder to spot because it is intellectual. Recent years have seen a growth of research and teachers who specialize in incorporating western anatomical knowledge with Yoga. It’s fascinating to see that the ancient teachings of Yoga are aligned with modern medical knowledge. It’s also useful and important that Yoga Teachers can access this knowledge so that they can work alongside western medically-trained practitioners. But I fear it is becoming an obsessive indulgence – it is easier, more tempting and intellectually (and socially!) rewarding to get into the smart-sounding details of western medicine. But the magic of Yoga isn’t in muscles. tissues and ligaments. Yoga has it’s own advanced, elaborate and integrated view of body & mind. Western medical knowledge is useful but it cannot replace, and is secondary to a deeper knowledge of Yoga.
It is easy to be critical of things that are far from home and heart. My criticism happens to fall both near and far. My own teaching lineage traces back to Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar. Krishnamacharya is credited as a resurrector of Yoga in the 20th century, a teacher of the world’s leading teachers, and the adaption of Yoga to modern times. Desikachar diligently continued his fathers legacy and trained many teachers who have brought quality Yoga teachings to the west. My teacher, Paul Harvey, studied extensively (over 20 years) with TKV Desikachar.
I have never met or studied with TKV Desikachar but Paul’s respect for him has, over the years, established his presence in my consciousness. From what I have been able to gather, it seems that TKV Desikachar himself has allowed his teachings to fall into a degenerate social pattern. It is still common social practice in India that a son inherits his fathers legacy – not unlike the western “Father and Sons” business. Though Desikachar has gifted the world with numerous outstanding teachers – it seems that his son, Kausthub Desikachar has inherited a leading role in carrying forward Krishnamacharya’s teachings. I’ve never met Kausthub (and don’t expect to) but his presence has sent out waves of compromised quality and alienation.
I recently encountered this article by Kausthub explaining the concept of viniyoga. I was dismayed to find that the spirit of Krishnamacharya degenerated from a sharing of knowledge to a prohibition on sharing of knowledge. The article (as I suspect all articles on the website) begins with a legal disclaimer:
With a sense of much irony I invite you to read this article by Kausthub – because in it he describes his fathers brave and clear decision to stop using the word viniyoga as a brand of Yoga – an act that demonstrates his belief that there is only one Yoga and that the world of Yoga is better served by finding a shared common ground rather then developing isolated brands.
When I first learned about the commercialized direction Kausthub had chosen I experienced doubt and disappointment. It seemed to taint and question the quality of the teachings that were handed down to me. I have since come to understand and believe that Yoga has no self inherent existence or value and that I am, as were all of my teachers, free and responsible to let it manifest through me in my own way. Observing the degeneracy of Yoga at home has been a sobering lesson.
Social Regulation is not a Substitute for Personal Regulation
This may seem slightly deviating from the main theme – but I do feel it is important to recognize the limitations of social regulation. Social regulation can, at best, set minimum standards. Law, for example, sets the lowest possible standard of social behavior – anything less is punishable. There is also a limit to how much social regulation can actually be enforced – punishment is only possible if a behavior that is illegal is noticed, brought to justice and found guilty. Ultimately it is up to the individuals in a society to make their own choices and shoulder the responsibilities for the consequences of their actions. Some people strive for high moral standards, some challenge the lower limits of the law (only some of those get caught and punished) and some are content floating somewhere in the middle. With all that society has on it’s plate, I doubt Yoga can/will receive serious regulation. I don’t think it should.
I also feel that some qualities missing from modern day society are “shamanic” qualities – qualities that care for and provide direction for the individual spirit within a social setting. Yoga, like many other “alternative sciences” has a spiritual quality to it – Yoga teachers also fill a shamanic role (if you’ve experienced inspiration in the presence of a teacher then you know what I’m talking about, if not, then you probably haven’t experienced a teacher). If you recall that social patterns don’t particularly like change and tend to fight it off, then you may notice that social regulation not only encourages a minimal mediocrity, but it may also try to restrain that which it does not understand. As a result it may try to outlaw some of the highest quality teachers – those that simply do not pass through the filter of official social standards.
One of the most challenging tasks facing an aspiring Yoga practitioner is finding a teacher. It is a process of discovery – often by trial and error. The best teacher for an individual is the best teacher an individual can find. It is rare to start off with a good teacher – how can you tell who is a good teacher? It takes motivation and perseverance to keep looking for a teacher. It takes openness, honesty and confidence to assess a quality of teacher and teachings. It takes discipline and commitment to practice, refine and pursue good and better (in all aspects of life, Yoga included). You have to experience and identify the charlatans on your way to good teachers. Minimal social standards cannot keep the charlatans away and cannot lead you to quality teachers – that is your own personal responsibility.
Yoga Therapy is Misapprehension
I come from a tradition in which Yoga is taught thoroughly, in which physical postures are a small part of a rich canvas, in which science meets art. I come from a tradition in which the application of Yoga is tailored to an individual practitioner (even in group class settings) – there are no set formulas (such as this posture is good for this symptom). I come from a tradition in which caring observation is used by both teacher and student as a preparation for proper action. I come from a tradition that teaches consistent practice and gradual development. I come from a tradition in which teachings and teachers are required to evolve and continually find relevancy and context.
Yoga, as I was taught, is a rich and adaptable system for well-being. Therapy is one specific application of this system to situations in which disease is prevailing. Therapy isn’t a speciality – it is just an application of Yoga. A properly trained Yoga teacher is fully equipped to handle therapeutic situations. If there were such a thing as a “Yoga Therapist for <choose your illness>” it would be a subset of the skills of being a Yoga Teacher. Healing is just one mode of practice in Yoga.
Of course a 200 hour Yoga teachers training course isn’t enough to encompass Yoga. From that perspective a Yoga Therapist would seem like an advanced title. It is also good for business and social standing – a 200 hours “Yoga Teacher” can now add an additional title of “Yoga Therapist”. But two wrongs don’t make a right. You can’t build a sturdy building on rotten foundations.
Ironically enough – the greatest obstacle to an effective therapeutic application of Yoga isn’t a teacher or teachings (therapeutic situations tend to limit the tools you can use and usually call upon the simpler and more basic tools in the Yoga repertoire). The greatest obstacle to any application of Yoga is the practitioner. Western health-care has created an entrenched mind-set in which a patient expects a doctor to provide an immediate solution to a symptom. Therapeutic application of Yoga places a huge demand of time and faith on people who usually have neither. Therapeutic application of Yoga requires consistent long term practice (my teacher offers a rule of thumb – one month of continuous practice for every year of illness) often with no immediate results – which means you have to have faith in it. This is very different from a mentality of “take a pill to make the illness go away”.
“Yoga Therapy” like the “Yoga Teacher” from which it was born is a superficial fashion statement. It fails to acknowledge the realities of the western-individual and western life-habits, the circumstances of western illness and the true potential of Yoga. It is a degenerated whisper about to degenerate even further.
Take Away the Illusion
Whenever I feel critical of the world I try to remember that the world is doing just fine. It is me that isn’t seeing clearly. I would apply that to the state of Yoga. Everything is as it should be and there is always room for improvement.
The work of “200 hour teachers” has brought Yoga to the attention of many people – more then ever before. These teachers have been excellent at “giving people what they want”. Now it’s time for a little “Giving them what you want”. The illusion of Yoga has served it’s purpose. It’s now time to replace misapprehension of Yoga with a better perception of Yoga.
If I were a regulating body seeking to advance the state of Yoga I would kill the Yoga Therapy debate and revisit the foundations of Yoga qualifications:
- I would reset the scales of Yoga Teacher from 200/500 hours to 1000 hours of training and 10 years of personal, guided (by a qualified teacher) practice. This would (provisionally?) revoke “Teacher” status from many (most?) of the teachers operating under the guise of Yoga and would also leave their students wondering. They may become “Teachers in Training”. There is no middle ground – no Yoga Instructors, no Senior Yoga Teachers – just Yoga Teachers – or the term my teachers uses: Yoga Practitioners.
- I would also reset the scales of Yoga Teachers who are qualified to train other Yoga Teachers. For the sake of simplicity and clarity I would add another 1000 hours of training and 10 additional years of personal practice and teaching experience (for a total of 2000 hours and 20 years of experience). This may also revoke “Teacher Training” status from many (most?) of the teacher training programs. That’s fine. Some new “Teachers in Training” may need to seek new teaching homes to continue their education.
- I would also suggest that official organizations remove any brand related markings from their official documents. There is only one Yoga and accreditation should acknowledge that and nothing else. But I don’t think the organizations will be bold enough to follow through with and defend this position against the attacks it is sure to draw.
It’s not going to be “good for business” but it will be “good for Yoga” and most importantly “good for Yoga students”. There needs to be something towards which progress is possible for there to be progress. Maybe taking away the satisfaction of “achievement” will lead to further study, new questions and deeper teachings?
Yoga Therapy is a misperception built upon an already misconceived notion of Yoga. Poorer expressions of Yoga have their role and place in society. There probably isn’t much that can be done to stop it – and in the spirit of embracing the world, it isn’t necessary. Effort should be placed on facilitating more meetings between quality Yoga teachers and teachings and students. The current state of Yoga may explain why it once faded out of awareness. That can and should be prevented.
Some months ago I was conversing with a friend who was attempting to offer me guidance as we were discussing my sense of purpose. She suggested that what I do is more then Yoga and that I should consider presenting myself differently. It may be that she was seeing something that I am still not seeing – and I could definitely feel a momentary boost in both my confidence and ego when she suggested this. But my feeling was and remains that I am a indeed a Yoga teacher.
Given the degenerated perception of Yoga in the public eye – I may be taking a hit by labeling myself as a Yoga teacher. But I can’t find any comfort (besides an inflated ego) in compromising my understanding and respect for the teachings of Yoga as I have received them. My work as a Yoga teacher is in many ways about restoring clear perception – I couldn’t do that by first twisting my own perception for the sake of a better social standing.