A new breeze is blowing over the realm of yoga, where questioning, doubts, and exercises of critical thinking lead us to revisit our certainties and beliefs. For instance, repeating the same sequence of postures every day isn't always the key to progress. Not all alignments are universal and applicable to everyone. Modern yoga isn't a floating, ahistorical object, nor is it a stagnant, age-old spirituality.
The response "it's like that" is replaced by a "it depends." In the face of strictly codified methods, a field of possibilities opens up. After the clichés of post-colonial narratives and certain Indian gurus of the 20th century propagated ready-made thinking, we discover the complexity of nuance. An advancement I would consider commendable, as we are invited to reconsider what we thought we knew, to broaden our sometimes narrow and dogmatic perspectives.
In fact, these considerations have led us to modestly create this blog, as a space for reflection, exchange, and debate. However, I've been noticing the emergence of an "intellectual" yoga lately, somewhat elitist, to the point of being derogatorily labeled "conscious" in certain aspects. This makes me wonder if we unintentionally contributed to creating a "monster" that has surpassed us.
Anatomy and Philosophy as New "Conscious" Subjects
Nostalgia for the blessed times when yoga meant gathering in small groups in any old room on ugly mats to breathe and perform a few poses with the modest ambition (already significant) of finding inner calm. In short, emptying the mind. Yet, currently, I observe a trend to fill our minds with concepts to the point of saturation. Specifically, anatomy and philosophy, once peripheral to yoga, are now glorified as subjects to master and debate, a necessity for any respectable "yogi" to have an opinion on.
Of course, it's commendable to take an interest in the evolution of movement science or the history of yoga philosophies, democratizing access to knowledge previously reserved for specialists (physiotherapists, medical students, Sanskrit scholars, theologians, philosophers, etc.). Integrating this knowledge into our practice and sharing it in a modest and timely manner seems reasonable.
However, at times, I feel that these specialized domains – while certainly relevant to the evolution of modern postural yoga since they involve the body and mind – have become a new dogma, something one must embrace to be a credible teacher, and impose on students to provide them with a quasi-soteriological quality experience.
Physiology, functional anatomy, biomechanics, knowledge of the human body, mastery of intricate Sanskrit concepts, references to millennia-old schools of thought from the Indian subcontinent... How far should a so-called "good teacher" go to deliver the "perfect class," understood as a sophisticated blend of physical and intellectual knowledge? Is it desirable to offer these niche understandings for the sake of students having a good time? Is this trend of the new "intellectual" and hyper-specialized yoga teacher not a form of excluding elitism (and furthermore unnecessary to the experience)? Doesn't constant intellectual justification interfere with empirical body-based understanding?
"Intellectual" is the New Cool, Born on the Right Bank of Paris
Farewell to extreme physical culture; the new trendy ideal is the cult of critical thinking. The "Insta yoga" overflowing with flexible, slender, and contorted bodies in all directions has made us so nauseous that we've taken the opposite turn: yoga that is contemplated rather than practiced. It's no longer sufficient to be a mere soul performing physical feats; we must give meaning to why we do them (the logic of sequence, appropriate warm-up, and engaged muscles), analyze why we do them (understanding the energized state, a thorough examination of one's personal relationship with that posture over the years), and potentially know the origin of the posture, who transmitted it, and its etymology to place it in its historical and philosophical context (only slight exaggeration). Thus, the yogic path turns into a tedious and self-absorbed dissertation.
Rejecting sectarian movements and dogmatic directives? The emergence of a shared passion for anatomical geeking? A fad of a small segment of the Paris-centered population that feels on top of the world after skimming through Mark Singleton and having "The Yoga Encyclopedia" displayed on their coffee table? Practice must now be infused with precise theory to be delivered, endorsed, and sanctified with the seal of excellence. To caricature: flaunting a split in a thong on Insta is vulgar; true seriousness is posting a pincha while embellishing it with a dissertation on the true nature of the Self, supported by an excerpt from an Upanishad written in proper Vedic Sanskrit pronunciation, or a discourse on functional anatomy related to the humeroradial joint. To the perfection of the body, intellectual perfection is added. Thus, a new norm was born, that of the yoga class taught in a studio to cater to a segment of the "educated," "awakened," and "aware" population who are attuned to these trending themes.
The Recipe for This Ingenious "Blend Processed" =
- Developing a profound theme presented in an introduction that's almost academic,
- An ultra-coherent sequencing where "nothing is left to chance," built upon the latest functional anatomy theories,
- Multiple variations provided to fulfill inclusive ethics,
- But enough "advanced" postures (peak poses) for challenge,
- Systematic adjustments to make the student feel they're progressing (while encouraging detachment from ego),
- Usage of philosophical concepts delivered in Sanskrit (ahimsa, abhyasa, dharana, samadhi, etc.) to stimulate reflection "beyond asana" (because we're more than mere contortionist clowns!),
- A personal touch of choice: spirituality (references to chakras, bandhas, vayus), an inspiring playlist, humor, musical instruments/Indian chants, essential oils, profound quotes to elevate the mind ...
So, we arrive at what I call the "perfect class theory," resembling the presentation of a master's thesis. Everything is coherent, just, clear, and well-delivered, akin to an appreciable academic dissertation. If I were a university examiner, I'd give this impressive presentation a perfect score. However, in practice, I question the benefits of this achievement. As a student without the references, I'm either impressed by the profusion of knowledge (an ego boost for the teacher) or overwhelmed by an excess of information (counterproductive). As a student who understands the references perfectly, I don't see the point of being presented with theory I already know and didn't come to revise. It's a sort of "2023 package" that's actually another form of formatting tailored to satisfy an ultra-specific market segment: the same educated, upper-middle-class people who appreciate the new formula of "sirsasana and sutra with a France Culture (a French radio program) twist, served with collagen-infused matcha latte."
Furthermore, this raises questions about the sacred legitimacy of the "good yoga teacher," who now needs to be a bit of a physiotherapist, musician, Sanskrit scholar, comedian, contortionist, and theologian to be accomplished and recognized. More generally, I find it interesting to observe the emergence of a yoga "beyond postures" that adds intellectual knowledge to physical performance while simultaneously claiming (probably sincerely) to distance itself from that and advocate for simplicity, even while encouraging a Fear of Missing Out (Fomo) on yogic knowledge.
Critical Thinking Can't Replace Experience
On the students' side, I'm observing an increasingly widespread tendency to exercise their critical thinking even before setting foot on the path of experience. For instance, spending more time questioning the nature of movement before even experiencing a posture in their bodies over time. What responsibility do we, as teachers, have in emphasizing the theoretical dimension to the point where it overshadows the practice? In striving to do well, I see the counterproductive aspect of exercising critical thinking. It's the part where we end up spending more time analyzing, reflecting, and fruitlessly theorizing about adapting methods or postures to each individual's body, rather than allowing time and experience to naturally bring forth conclusions when the time is right.
In my view, (highly specialized) theory doesn't precede practice, but comes (much) later. This is how we learn to walk as babies, for example. A newborn doesn't ponder the action of the muscles to engage when they try, fall, try again, and so on. (Those who've seen the film Les Randonneurs by Philippe Harel with Benoît Poelvoorde might recall the scene where, after being instructed on how to walk, a character ends up falling.)
By overthinking, thoughts can sometimes become convoluted and hazy, even an excuse to justify a lack of discipline or assert one's unique traits. For instance, "I prefer not to do this posture because (insert here an anatomical theory involving a potential bodily limitation like skeletal variation)," or "I think this method isn't suitable because (insert here a theory about inclusivity)," "I find this sequencing inaccurate insofar as (insert here an explanation of ultra-specific mobility)," "ethically, this is incorrect because (insert here a yogic philosophical concept)," etc.
By cramming methods, concepts, and notions into students' minds, the idea emerges within them that a good practitioner must master all these subjects to be legitimate. Paradoxically, behind the desire to break free from old dogmas (unconditional alignment, ultimate historical reality, accepted philosophical currents), and to cultivate critical thinking, we find ourselves yearning for categorical answers we were actually trying to escape.
The vast realm of possibilities turns into a source of anxiety instead of an exciting horizon of new and endless perspectives. I sometimes hear questions that don't even make sense to themselves. Examples (barely exaggerated): "Should my radius be perpendicular to the square root of the hypotenuse of my rectum when doing visvamitrasana?" "Can we propose a cooling pranayama to a student who has detached their pleura?" "Is Krishna's Purusha the same as the Brahman of the Indus Valley?" "Would a quote from 'Being and Nothingness' be suitable as an introduction to a class on vishuddhi chakra?" In such moments, I have reactionary surges, a desire to tattoo "practice and all is coming" on my buttocks, and a longing for Bikram's adjustments that involve hopping over students in supta kurmasana.
Returning to the Body... and Silence!
In a Beigbeder-like (a controversial French author) manner, I feel "slightly overwhelmed" by the occasionally exaggerated prominence that philosophy, history, or anatomy can assume as the crucible of new dogmas from which they were meant to emancipate us. Simultaneously, there's an emergence of a generation of slightly control-freakish spiritual practitioners, where everything must be rationalized, explained, proven, organized, and justified like a university thesis. By repeatedly asserting that anatomy and philosophy are important in yoga understanding (and I continue to affirm that they are), we've spawned new fields of stress, competition, specialization, identity assertion, and even self-promotion. In my view, this knowledge isn't meant to create knots in practitioners' brains but to occasionally serve as support or tools on a path of personal learning, not to replace it.
As yoga arrived in the West, its uniqueness was in inviting the body into metaphysical reflection. Now, we're subjecting it once again to a Cartesian, scientific mindset, the same one we scorned during the counterculture era. If critical thinking infiltrates every corner of practice, letting go becomes impossible, and yoga is reduced to a superimposition of arid concepts through which we will vainly attempt to find answers to hollow questions. We should individually redefine our expectations for what we seek in a simple yoga class. Personally, a bit of silence wouldn't hurt me. I don't expect my teacher to be a philosopher or an osteopath. For everything else, there are excellent online lectures, specialized workshops, and insightful books that will do a much better job. The best yogis don't have an opinion on everything; they're at peace on their path. Can we accept that yoga is just yoga? And that's already quite something. Over-theorizing ends up taking away a bit of the magic.