Is "Intellectual" Yoga the New Trend ?  

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. 

10 responses to “Is "Intellectual" Yoga the New Trend ?  ”

  1. Zedess avatar

    Hello Jeanne ! Autant je partage avec toi la plupart de ces constats, de possibilités de dérives dans cette course à la «distinction » façon Bourdieu sur le yoga (qui peut complètement être paralysante pour tous, pratiquants et professeurs) autant je désapprouve l’emploi de woke pour qualifier cette tendance. « L’éveil » suggéré par le mot woke est celui lié aux différentes dominations et à la lutte contre elles, ce qui n’est pas à mon sens, le propos que tu as partagé aujourd’hui. Merci enfin pour ces éclairages toujours drôles et précieux !

  2. Claire avatar

    Hello Jeanne ! Un régal de te lire, et je reconnais tellement mon vécu de prof de yoga en 2023 bombardé d’injonctions au séquençage parfait… Je culpabilise de ne pas m’intéresser à l’anatomie et de ne retenir du sanskrit que les mantras et certaines postures mais pas la grammaire… C’est vrai que dans certains milieux, le yoga a ce côté bobo élitiste tant au niveau physique (minceur requise, dernier legging à la mode) qu’intello.

    Revenons à plus de simplicité ! Et comme tu dis, la pratique. Aussi, je comprends de mieux en mieux l’intérêt de ne pas transmettre tout ce que l’on sait. Quand on débute l’enseignement, on est tout content (c’était mon cas du moins) de découvrir des pans entiers qu’on ne savait pas liés au yoga, comme la philosophie. Alors, on a envie de partager cela avec nos élèves ! Mais comme tu le dis si bien, s’ils connaissent déjà pas besoin de le rappeler. Et puis je trouve que ça a vite un côté « leçon de morale » de parler des concepts.

  3. Isabelle Querton avatar
    Isabelle Querton

    Merci Jeanne 🙂

    J’adore te lire car je sais que ce sera intelligent, clair, drôle, percutant, tjs en plein dans le mille.

    Pour ma part, plus j’en apprends sur le Yoga, moins j’en sais!

  4. KaNou avatar

    Magistral, comme d’hab! (Allez les filles, fini de citta-vritter, on file sur le tapis! 🤣)

  5. Dorel avatar

    Merci pour cet article en plein dans le mille! Je reconnais bien tous ces phénomènes que tu décris et l’impression pour être un.e prof de devoir maîtriser toutes ces cordes de l’arc du neo-prof de yoga jusqu’à se perdre soi même! A chaque cours que je donne je me rappelle que je ne suis qu’une heure dans la semaine de mes élèves quand eux sont pour moi beaucoup plus, que pour la plupart ce sont des femmes (et qqes hommes quand même 🙂 ) avec des enfants, un job, une vie ultra remplie, … De ce fait ils n’ont pas les mêmes besoins ni interrogations que les miens et leur proposer un espace de respiration et de conscience du corps c’est déjà beaucoup! Simplifier encore et encore et revenir comme tu le proposes si bien à l’expérience avant les mots.
    Merci pour cette belle réflexion 🙏

  6. Gaëlle avatar

    Merci Jeanne pour ce super article qui sonne sacrément fort chez moi (et en lisant les commentaires précédents, je vois que c’est pareil). S’intéresser à plein de trucs, ok mais de là à tout exposer aux élèves en cours… pourquoi ?! J’ai parfois l’impression de ne pas être une « bonne » prof de yoga et puis après, je me rappelle pourquoi je me suis formée (et toutes les formations que j’ai suivi – ha ha) et je me dis que non, ça va, j’ai « juste » fait bouger les élèves pendant 1h et comme, a prior, iels étaient venu.e.s pour ça, c’est bon ^^

  7. Marion avatar

    Tout est dit !!!

  8. Maeva avatar

    Merci pour cet article Jeanne, ça fait prendre du recul !
    Personnellement ce phénomène me fait énormément douter de moi, je me dis régulièrement que je ne suis pas « assez » pour me permettre d’enseigner, pourtant ça 5 ans que je le fais, 5 ans que je me le dis ! Petit syndrome de l’imposteur qui est sans cesse alimenter par de nouveaux sujets émergents !
    Mais quand je reviens à ce qui m’a séduit quand j’ai commencé le yoga, c’est le fait de revenir à moi, et de sentir des choses bouger à l’intérieur de moi, c’était presque plus « magique » de ne rien savoir ! Je pense en effet qu’il est bien d’évoquer certaines connaissances pour aider les élèves mais que c’est réellement secondaire ! Merci

  9. Tim avatar

    Mais justement le Yoga n’est pas que du yoga!
    Peut on accepter que le Yoga soit vaste comme l’art, comme apprendre le violon, le karaté, les mathématiques? Pourquoi ne pouvons nous pas accepter qu’il y a plusieurs niveaux de pratique, de maitrise, et de discipline…Pourquoi ne pouvons nous pas accepter qu’un/une prof qui a étudier le yoga pendant 20 ans amène le sujet plus rigoureusement qu’une personne qui a fait une soit disant formation de 20 jours (200h)? Il n’y a rien de pompeux d’arrogant de compétitif quand c’est authentique!

    La démocratisation de la pratique est encore tres tres récente en France, donc c’est normale d’y voir plusieurs phases.

    Ce que je constate c’est qu’il y avait une premiere phase ou le yoga voulais simplement dire postures. Et du coup, ce front a été pris d’assault par toutes les ex-danseuses ‘girly’ qui avait la facilité de réaliser des postures avancer sans connaitre grand chose sur le yoga. Aujourd’hui on voit simplement la même chose, où le mouvement vers plus de coherence se fait prendre d’assault par les intellos qui ont des facilite de par leurs études à lire beaucoup, synthétiser…mais encore une fois, sans suffisamment d’experience dans le Yoga. Donc au final c’est la meme chose, c’est une violence égotique. Car le Yoga c’est ni des prouesses posturales, ni une maitrise de la philosophie ou des sagesses qui ont découlés de vrai experiences.

    Le Yoga est dans l’experience. Et la personne ne peut tricher sur ce point. Par contre c’est beaucoup plus difficile a vendre car c’est plus singulier, et plus dure a propager. D’un coup, un TT de 200h ca ne suffit pas. De la meme façon que maitriser un art martial c’est dans l’experience, il n’existe pas de formation de prof de karate en 200h. On en vient peut être à la source du problème ici?

    PS : Dans certaines communautés aux US par exemple, qui avait le yoga et d’autres outils psycho-corporels plus accessible avant nous en France, ce qu’on pourrait appeler Woke de l’extérieur (point de vue Francais), c’est simplement une habitude normale et authentique de bienveillence, d’inclusivité, qui n’a rien de compétitif ou de démonstratif…Donc j’espère qu’on ne mettra pas tous ca a la poubelle par peur de passer pour trop Woke.

  10. Geneviéve Foglierini avatar
    Geneviéve Foglierini

    Bonjour Jeanne , Merci d’avoir mis en mots magnifiquement mes pensées , j’enseigne le Yoga depuis de nombreuses années , je suis affligée par les dérives ( formation 200h , retour d’un mois en Inde je suis prof , retraite certifiante dans des lieux paradisiaques 💵…studio yoga !! . etc ) même s’il il n’y a pas de vérité en la matière , de grâce n’abîmons pas ces quatre lettres que sont le mot YOGA.
    Respect de cet art de vivre , respect des pratiquantes , des pratiquants qui nous accordent leur confiance , et qui comme vous le relevez très justement ne sont pas des élèves en formation…

    Humilité Simplicité Gentillesse

    Je n’en peux plus de toutes ces injonctions de bien être , de méditation à tout va , de bienveillance à la « toque », de relaxations énervantes, de pranayama approximatifs , de recettes culinaires yoguiques , de postures et tenues instagramable … etc .

    BRAVO 💚

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