Reimagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, & Spiritual Revitalization (Part 1)

September 30, 2016    BY Carol Horton

Both yoga culture and the world at large have been changing at a dizzying rate. More often than not, this generates an exhausting, demoralizing stream of bad news. I’ve often felt anxious, disillusioned, and/or overwhelmed by the incessant barrage of negative headlines. In this, I know I’m not alone.

Sometimes, I want to disengage completely. On the political front: forget the election, the shootings, the terrorism, the hate. On the yoga front: forget the scandals, commercialism, controversies, and crusades. Sometimes I feel so sick of it all. To rephrase the famous ’60s tagline: I just want to tune out, turn inward, and drop out of everything that feels difficult (at least as much as I reasonably can).

Despite such feelings, I don’t actually believe that sticking my head in the sand is the best way to deal with what’s happening, either in yoga culture or more generally. That’s not to say I don’t believe that periods of retreat and renewal are necessary—most definitely, I do. Staying engaged with a world that all-too-often feels endlessly frustrating (if not crazy and frightening) requires taking time out for self-care and spiritual renewal—at least if you want to avoid cratering into damaging reactivity or burnout.

Which is where—for me, and I know for many others—yoga comes in. My practice is invaluable in helping me stay healthy, move tension out of my body, release negative emotions, quiet my mind, and connect to something bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than today’s headlines, anxieties, and stress. Ironically, I often need my practice to regenerate the energy needed to stay positively engaged even with the yoga world, as well as with this season of insane American politics.

Toward a New Paradigm

It’s true: Between the shallow commercialism on the one hand, and the mean-spirited “yoga policing” on the other, sometimes the yoga world just doesn’t seem worth the bother. While my own personal, at-home practice never disappoints, I find many aspects of the larger culture that’s grown up around yoga to be a huge turn-off.

And it doesn’t necessarily help that so many others also feel this way. On the contrary, as the volume of the cynical negativity surrounding yoga has turned up (and up and up—particularly on social media), my desire to tune the whole thing out has only intensified.

Happily, however, I know that this negativity isn’t the whole story. Quietly, under the radar, there are countless yoga teachers, students, and studio owners working with the practice in ways that have enormous integrity, intelligence, and heart. That doesn’t make headlines because they aren’t crusaders. And their small-scale businesses don’t have a big marketing budget—if any. This has long been true.

I know that this negativity isn’t the whole story. Quietly, under the radar, there are countless yoga teachers, students, and studio owners working with the practice in ways that have enormous integrity, intelligence, and heart.

There are also a lot of promising new developments in yoga culture. Within the North American orbit, with which I’m most familiar, these include

Some of these developments have attracted more attention than others. All, however, have gained a lot of traction in recent years.

When I consider this yoga-related work as an ensemble, I imagine a new paradigm emerging. To be sure, this isn’t something I foresee subsuming the popular forms of “workout yoga” that have also exploded recently. But I’m not concerned with that.

What interests me is the development of a small, yet powerful, movement within yoga culture that harnesses the power of the practice in ways that not only help us live better individual lives (insane scary politics, and all),  but also supports collective work dedicated to improving the quality of life on the planet.

Grassroots Change

I believe such a movement is beginning to take shape on a grassroots level, both in North America and internationally. This isn’t something you’ll see in glitzy, high-powered advertising campaigns or splashed across your social media feeds. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not there. It’s just harder to identify—and, at times, perhaps, to believe in.

But that can, and should, change.

Thanks to my work, particularly with the Yoga Service Council, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with people all over the U.S. (and to a lesser but still significant degree, the world) who are doing incredible work to make the everyday practice and teaching of yoga more healing, therapeutic, effective, accessible, inclusive, trauma-informed, culturally sensitive, and socially just.

When I see where this part of the yoga world is, and I imagine where it might go, I feel hopeful and excited about the possibilities of yoga as a popular mind-body integration practice in the world today. And the more I focus on the positive things that are happening, and do what I can to help develop them further, the less overwhelmed I feel by all of the negativity in the yoga world and beyond.

Reimagining Yoga

That said, it’s not always easy to maintain a broadly positive vision. Nor should it be: To hold unwaveringly to an easy, sunny optimism in light of what’s happening in the U.S. and the world today requires either extreme naivety or intense denial. Neither of these is healthy. But again—that’s where having a strong, committed personal yoga practice comes in for those of us who are drawn to the practice (although there are certainly other tools that can and do help people stay positive and live meaningful lives in this difficult world).

I believe, however, that more and more people within the broadly defined “yoga community” (which is really too fragmented to be referred to as such) are deeply interested in exploring how the practice might support synergistic processes of positive individual and social change. Although still a nascent movement that has generated some new problems of its own, it's in the process of not only growing quickly, but of exhibiting tremendous (if still largely unimagined) potential.

I find myself imagining what this potential might be and how best to realize it. At least for the moment, my conclusion is that it may be most helpful to focus on yoga’s capacity to support an integrative process of 1) building holistic wellness, 2) supporting positive social engagement, and 3) sparking a sense of spiritual revitalization that crosses culturally divisive lines of race, class, gender, politics, and religion.

Holistic Wellness I: Broken Promises

The claim that yoga is a “mind-body-spirit practice” that unfailingly makes one totally healthy has long since become a tired marketing cliché. As such, it’s not usually given much serious thought. Instead, it’s often a meaningless catchphrase slapped onto anything capable of being construed as “yoga”—provided, of course, that doing so helps sell yoga-related products to any targeted niche market. Such strategic over-promising naturally engenders cynicism or disregard.

This tarnish on yoga’s reputation as a genuine healing practice has been corroded further by the steady stream of reports the last few years on yoga-induced injuries. Kicked off in 2012 by William Broad’s infamous “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” article,  this once-taboo subject has grown into an in-depth and much-needed examination of the injurious effects of many common yoga practices. The wisdom of teaching, or even practicing, classically revered poses such as headstand—as well as long-established alignment instructions (tuck your tailbone, for example)—has been challenged forcefully and discussed widely.

The most devastating reports of yoga-related injuries, however, aren’t physical. They’re emotional and psychological—even, in a loosely defined sense, spiritual. I’m not going to recount the long list of yoga abuses, scandals, and even actionable crimes here, which are now part of the public record and easily researched by anyone with Internet access. I will, however, provide just one example of this tragic and sordid history by sharing the most recent comment posted on a blog that I wrote four and a half years ago—simply because it’s something that happened to cross my own personal radar screen, while being an obvious indicator of events much bigger than me.

This post was written way back in 2012 as a reflection on the parallels between the then red-hot Anusana scandal, and the much older one at the Kripalu ashram (since reorganized into the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health). Much to my surprise, the comments on that post turned into an ongoing message forum for former disciples of the founding Kripalu guru, yoga teacher Amrit Desai. This last one was posted just three months ago.

Thanks for this post. Helped me get some clarity. I was a resident and disciple and am still trying to figure out what happened to me. We treated Amrit like a God. How could we have been so foolish? I dropped out of graduate school to live in the ashram and have been poor ever since. If I had never heard of Kripalu I wonder if I would be in a better place now. No answer to that question. I learned a lot from this experience, but often wish I had never drunk the Kool-Aid. I'm still trying to get down from the illusion that someone from a different culture could give me something I didn't already have.

Given that the scandal at issue occurred way back in 1994, I found this comment to be a poignant reminder of just how deep and long-lasting such yoga-related wounds can be.

Holistic Wellness II: Creative Ferment

Precisely because there has been so much injury, a small but growing cadre of yoga teachers and serious practitioners has emerged that’s fiercely dedicated to exploring in new ways yoga’s capacities as a holistic wellness practice. In many cases, their yoga-based work is cross-fertilized with work in other disciplines: e.g., psychology, somatic therapy, neuroscience, integrative medicine, social work, education, writing. The resulting process of creative fermentation is changing not only how yoga is understood and practiced, but also the willingness of other fields and social institutions to engage with it.

To offer another personal example: I had the honor of being part of a yoga-driven, but also highly interdisciplinary collaborative process during the past year, when I served as editor of the Yoga Service Council’s forthcoming book, Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans. Like the rest of the works in the YSC’s annual “Yoga Service Best Practices” series, this book grew out of a facilitated collaborative process that involved over 30 people. In this case, the collective expertise of the book’s contributors, contributing editors, and peer reviewers spanned the fields of not only yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, but also veterans’ affairs, integrative medicine, clinical psychology, trauma therapy, social work, academic research, journalism, nonprofit management, and more.

As we worked together to winnow out a set of commonly agreed-upon “Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans,” it was evident to me how a shared commitment to yoga can enable the alignment of many diverse fields. For example: The trauma experts support the development of the new field of trauma-informed yoga. Yoga teachers develop trainings, and more teachers learn about it. Some teachers are civilians concerned with veterans, or even veterans themselves, seeking to offer classes in the VA—a diverse network of hospitals, community health clinics, and other facilities that comprise by far the largest public health system in the U.S.

Supportive administrators in VAs across the country find ways to hire yoga teachers and launch classes, despite the fact that the federal government has no official job category of “yoga teacher” (which creates logistical complications). Doctors, nurses, and therapists who interface with that system see the potential of yoga for supporting a wide variety of public health specialties. Working with dedicated yoga teachers, new expertise develops for teaching yoga to veterans with traumatic brain injuries, amputated limbs, and other health issues. Some veterans whose lives have been positively transformed by yoga go on to become social workers, college professors, and nonprofit leaders. They incorporate yoga into their work, giving birth to new resources, protocols, and organizational initiatives.

Social Connection I: Synergizing Individual and Social Change

Parallel developments are occurring in the fields of elementary and secondary education, higher education, criminal justice, addiction and recovery, disordered eating and body image, and more. In each case, the basic dynamics are the same: People involved in those fields find their lives improved by yoga, and then want to integrate yoga into their fields so that others may benefit as well. Integrating yoga into new social locations brings new issues, challenges, and opportunities, both to the organizations involved and to the practice itself. This creates new incentives to adapt yoga practices to fit particular environments, and to adapt the environments to accommodate the yoga.

To be continued . . . Because there’s so much to say on each of my three core topics—holistic wellness, social engagement, and spiritual revitalization—I’m breaking up what would otherwise be an excessively long post into two parts. So, stay tuned if you want to hear more. Meanwhile, I’m interested in learning what others see as the most positive developments, as well as promising potential, in yoga culture today. The intention here is not to negate critique, but rather to uplift work that deserves to be more widely visible, valued, and shared.

Carol Horton
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (2012), co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice (2012), and author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (2005). She is also the editor of two forthcoming books in the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and Omega Institute’s annual “Best Practices” series, Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans (forthcoming Fall 2016) and Best Practices for Yoga with... Read more>>