When I began my application to the Kripalu School of Yoga, I came to the question: “What form of yoga do you study?”
I went to my teacher in New Haven, (at the time I was studying at Yale Divinity School), and I asked her: “What kind of yoga do we do here?” She said to me, “Oh, you know. We do triangle pose and tree pose. That kind of thing.” Then she smiled and laughed.
At the time, yoga was not at all what it is now. While there were several schools of yoga, there were not hundreds. There was no Instagram. There were no social media yoga gurus—although of course there were yoga gurus. The fact that I didn’t belong to some school of yoga disappointed me. I had nothing to fill in on the form and was quite aware, once I began my training, that I lacked something.
But I also understood, on some level, that I had been spared.
I’ve enjoyed tremendously Amanda Montell’s brilliant book, Cultish, in which you will find her writing about not a few cultish yoga “brands,” including Bikram yoga and CorePower Yoga, which, apparently was a big deal at some point. (I can say, honestly, that until I read the book I had never heard of CorePower Yoga.)
Montell writes about such yoga “cults” alongside SoulCycle and other fitness “crazes,” that have that same kind of “cultish” feel to them (and she explains what she means by “cultish” in depth, so I recommend reading). The fundamental truth is that such “programs” are actually PRODUCTS. They are something you buy. Something you consume—much more so than something you belong to.
Because I have side-stepped yoga brands my entire yoga life, which began at age 9, I have also been saved from certain dangers of yoga in the modern world. And these dangers are many, from sexual abuse (in too many yoga schools to count, but yes Bikram, yes Kundalini, yes Kripalu—not Swami Kripalu, though, but his disciple—yes Anusara and so on), to profiteering on the longing of so many to belong.
But the number one danger produced by these yoga companies/gurus, is the belief that the good of your practice, it’s magic, it’s power, it’s life-giving properties belong to that class/program/brand/form of practice/teacher.
The number one danger is that you can’t do yoga in a box.
It’s a box if you can buy it. It’s a box if it’s “the only way.” It’s a box if no one else has it. It’s a box if you can only do it in a certain place with certain accessories. It’s a box if it has to have someone’s name on it.
What does it feel like to do yoga in a box? It’s small, restricting, limiting and…impossible.
I don’t doubt that it feels nice to be part of something. We all deeply long for and need community. The shared language that all of these yoga brands offer (Anusara is a great example of this as it had its very own vocabulary), create a feeling of connection that we all hunger for. But when that feeling of connection is tied to the brand, can only happen with that brand and belongs to the brand—which you have, in fact, paid for—we lose yoga altogether.
It is always dangerous to teach that God/Yoga/Connection/Life can be found inside a box that you can buy somewhere for some price from some enthusiastic, charismatic person. And maybe yoga/God/Universe IS in that box. But it’s also outside the box. And it does not belong to anyone.
It does not belong to anyone.
The good feeling generated during and after your yoga class belongs to YOU. It cannot be branded. It does not have a trademark. It is not created by your teacher, no matter how wonderful that teacher may be. In fact, you don’t need your teacher to get that feeling. If your teacher creates a sense of dependency in you—as in “you can only feel this way here”—then you know you are in a box.
Eventually those boxes tip over and we spill out and we feel lost.
Yoga—that is union with self and Divine—belongs to the “pathless path.” Sometimes that can be hard…I mean, I’d love to make money and have adoring followers and be important because I know the RIGHT way. But I never have been able to jump on the branding train or to follow someone else’s; the understanding of the wrongness of that approach is as solid inside of me as it is in my work as a minister.
You cannot sell this stuff. You cannot buy it. You cannot box it in—though Lord knows they are trying. We don’t awaken because a franchise has our answers. The Divine is not a marketing professional. Your human teacher is probably a pretty human mess and maybe we ought to expect them to screw stuff up. And it WILL NOT MATTER, in the ultimate sense. It will not take anything away, in the ultimate sense—because the good of the practice is not generated by a human person. We find it because it is from within us and responds to the all-ness around us.
Yoga, then, is a dangerous practice in our rabidly capitalistic, social-media-obsessed, money-hungry culture. But only when it gets served up in that form.
Because you can also find it without such fancy clothes on. You can find it humbly waiting for you in the next breath you take. You can find it while stretching out on your needing-to-be-vacuumed living room rug while the dog steps on your thigh.
The absolute heart of the practice does in fact restore us to belonging and connection—with something we can never lose no matter the trends, fashions or products that come and go. This is one gift I am truly grateful for, that my teacher gave to me all those years ago, by identifying with nothing in particular, by giving me nothing to write on that line in my application.
Instead of a box, she gave me a world.