Yoga Journal’s most recent Yoga in America study showed that nearly 40 million people in the U.S. practice yoga, a more than 50 percent increase in just 4 years. It feels to me that the yoga industry has begun the long process of exploring what such explosive growth might mean.
I appreciate that yoga teachers place a strong value on their own continuing education in terms of expanding both our knowledge base and our own self-study. There’s a thirst for knowledge in our field, which allows new information to percolate through and influence our teachings. To this end, it would be wonderful to see mindfulness and other forms of contemplative education be integrated even more by teachers, and become a required element of teacher training programs.
Yoga as Much More Than a Practice
It’s vitally important that we begin to see yoga as more than a tradition, a practice, a career, or even an industry, but as a sociological entity. Yoga is embedded in the connective tissue of our social structure; it is shaping our relationships, our behavior, and our economy. It is to our great benefit to seek out and participate in multi-disciplinary collaborations with other professions such as science, contemplative practice, sociology, anthropology, movement and bodily research, the humanities, and physical therapy, and also to consider social context. How can we be not unwitting participants in this evolutionary pattern, but what Margaret Mead called “participant observers,” to bring conscious intention and attention to the factors shaping the future of yoga?
The Questions We Should Be Asking About Yoga
Many yoga teacher trainings and foundations have made great strides in helping yoga reach underserved communities. And the yoga industry is beginning to recognize the importance of inclusivity and diversity in its representation of all bodies. We are beginning to recognize a deeper sense of community, and this is a great start. In the next decade, I hope that yoga engages in what we might affectionately call svadhyaya, or self-study.
As astonishing as the growth in the number of yoga practitioners has been, it is eclipsed by the growth of the industry itself. In 2016, over 62 billion dollars were spent by yoga practitioners. It may be tempting to celebrate that, to carve out our own niche in this capitalist structure.
And yet, this time in history calls upon us to ask difficult and generative questions. Among these: How has yoga—its language, practices, images, norms, behavioral patterns, and approach to the human body—become a dominant-culture enterprise that molds people in its own likeness and allocates resources to those who reflect that likeness? How are the tools of the practice (not just the practices themselves, but their social, technological, and artistic representations) shaping our minds, brains, and bodies? Can we ask this question and at the same time honor the tremendous value and benefits of the practice? Can we include this kind of inquiry in our formal and informal discourse, our teacher trainings, our collective inquiry?
I believe that the true meaning of neuroplasticity isn’t the hope of individual change, but collective change. We change and evolve together. We can use contemplative traditions not simply to reinforce the ways in which we are already aware, but to awaken that within us that which has been sleeping. This is the first step in understanding and reducing bias and privilege, of allowing resources to flow not simply to people who already have them, but to those who do not. Doing this kind of collective work, this examination, enables mindfulness, embodiment, yoga, and yoga therapy to be vehicles for compassion in action, for social justice, for equity. It allows us to have a conscious role in hydrating and reshaping the connective fabric of society.