Imagine a time when classes were harder to find, but were also less likely to suck. When everyone wasn’t a teacher and people were happy to be students.
Imagine a time before yoga became an “industry.” When there was a genuine sense of community and collaboration, rather than competition.
The time you’re imagining is the late 1990s in America.
Since I moved back to Europe recently, people at home often ask the same question; “what’s the yoga like over there?” My answer is always the same; it’s the way yoga was in America 10-15 years ago, before we allowed greed and narcissism to fuck it up.
And no, I’m not the kid who just got back from a semester abroad boring their friends with all the reasons its “better over there.” I’ve lived in Europe on and off for over 15 years and while its far from perfect, what I experience in yoga over here is exactly what I saw and lived back home 10-15 years ago.
I currently teach in Stuttgart and Heidelberg in southern Germany and I’ve lived and practiced in France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and other parts of Germany. I love teaching where the students come early and sit to drink tea and talk together, or stay after class and share because they have a true sense of community. Part of the difference here is that while Americans (even very liberal ones) tend to value individualism, most Europeans have an innate sense of community – it’s the water they swim in every day.
Like so many of my students back home, my German students are fearless and will try just about anything I throw at them. Sure, they are a bit more fussy about getting into savasana (with every blanket, prop, and eye cover imaginable coming out) but they have few issues giving their most sincere offering to their practice in each class. They are not just there to work on their bodies but to transform their lives and their souls. And this is what makes teaching yoga such a joy in the first place.
The biggest difference I see in the yoga community in Germany is that it is far more innocent. The practice has not yet exploded and been exploited by marketers, greedy peddlers of narcissism, and people trying to clamp the word yoga onto things that are clearly not yoga.
Yoga in Germany has not yet been taken over by yoga factories or “McDonald’s Yoga” franchises. There isn’t yet a yoga studio on every corner.
It’s free of the nepotism and doublespeak of the big corporate yoga entity which is part owner of the country’s main yoga publication which manages to primarily feature teachers who are trained and employed by that same corporate entity. And you know exactly who I mean.
It’s free of the proliferation of yoga teacher training programs (or teacher training puppy mills as I like to call them) which are designed primarily to make money and not to train high quality teachers. As Maya Devi Georg puts it “Teacher trainings generate revenue and keep the doors open and the lights on, but they create the competition. It's just not in the best interest of studios to produce quality teachers.”
The few training programs that do exist here are not fudging the hours of instruction – you won’t find a one-week 200 hour training over here, but you will back home.
But the biggest impact you don’t see over here, since there has not yet been an explosion of teacher training programs, is that there isn’t a new studio being opened (around the corner from an existing one) by freshly minted teachers who have been practicing for less than two years but who think it is appropriate for them to teach “master classes” and delve into subtle anatomy and other advanced practices they know little about. People in Germany are content to be students to learn and grow in their practice and they would not dream of becoming a teacher without a solid foundation of many years in the practice.
Its free of the proliferation of things called yoga which are not actually part of the spiritual path of yoga; bondage yoga, acro yoga, antigravity yoga, etc. Its still largely free of the trademark buck-seeking franchises like Bikram, and any other “branded” styles of yoga.
They don’t yet have scores of attention-hogging yogalebrities jumping in front of every camera or microphone they can find.
We’ve allowed yoga in America to be turned into a giant energetic pyramid scheme and its like we’re living in the aftermath of the Yogamageddon, when money and glamor hold sway and substance must struggle to survive.
When I think of what we’ve allowed yoga in America to become, it seems that instead of holding steady in our practice to consciously navigate our way through the Kali Yuga, we’ve doubled down on its worst aspects. With every new yoga fad, gimmick, or distraction from the practice, we’re moving farther from the divine and speeding our own degeneration.
And I point this all out not to say that the Germans are better than the Americans or any such thing. But rather, to make two points:
One is a cautionary tale to my German friends to hold onto what they have in their yoga communities and not follow the path we’ve taken. I’ve been speaking with some of my German students about this as we all see that yoga here may be poised to take a turn in that direction, with yoga franchises and “factories” trying to set up shop. Lately at the end of class I’ve felt like a man telling people to prepare for a hurricane; urging them to hold onto the purest form of the practice they can and strengthen the bonds of your communities …asking them to realize that what they have is special and worth preserving.
And secondly, its to let people back home know that it doesn’t need to be this way. You have the power to bring yoga in America back to a place where the practice and its teachings are truly honored…where making a sincere offering to the transformation of your soul still counts more than getting your foot behind your head…where building and growing loving and supporting communities is needed more than ever.
Last May I had the privilege of having some great discussions with my friend Roger Wolsey, a Methodist preacher and yoga practitioner in Boulder, Colorado. One day we took a walk in the mountains west of Boulder in what we called “A Preacher and a Yoga Teacher Take A Walk In The Mountains.” During our walk, Roger offered that maybe what yoga needs is to go through a Reformation (like Christianity did) to get itself back on track and make it more relevant to today’s world.
While I pondered this idea for some time, its clear to me that what yoga in America needs is not a reformation but a return to its source, a stripping away of all the junk we’ve clamped onto it and a return of the discipline and tapas that we’ve taken out of it. What we need is yoga in its most original and timeless form – a loving, disciplined, and determined spiritual path to God, the divine energy of the universe.
We should not settle for or accept anything less.