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Is Yoga Overrated?

Apr 15, 2024

 I'm so tired of this.

Is yoga overrated? It might seem like a strange question coming from someone who encourages people to practice yoga as a profession. I love yoga. I love the movement. I love the breath. I love the call to seek more from my experience and look for spiritual truths lying beneath the mundane. I plan to continue practicing yoga and I hope you do too. But there is a dark side to yoga as well that isn’t immediately obvious.

I saw this comic on my feed again. It’s an old running joke where somebody comes in with an unspecified malaise and the doctor recommends lifestyle changes. I get the joke, as a society we’re over medicated and over stressed and would probably be happier if we took better care of ourselves. Hahaha. But it also points to a deeper sub-current in the yoga and wellness world that is, in fact, insidious, condescending and only serves to perpetuate social and economic inequality.

Yoga and the Neoliberal West

One of the reasons I think the West adapted so well to an esoteric Eastern practice is that yoga lends itself well to the Western values of individual freedom, responsibility and choice. In the western, neoliberal worldview everyone is an entrepreneur and a consumer responsible for bearing the consequences of their success or failure in life’s ‘free market’. Everyone manages their own affairs through prudent investment in themselves.

The yoga and wellness community feed directly into this neoliberal ideology, promoting the idea that health is just another measure of success. Your health is the result of your individual effort and personal moral fiber. In so many subtle ways yoga classes encourage radical individuality and egoism. You are encouraged to do YOUR work to achieve YOUR happiness and YOUR inner peace. How many times in class are you encouraged to thank YOURself for making the choice to practice, told that this is YOUR time to do something good for YOURself and praised for your effort when YOU achieve some health outcome? 

We are told that our health and happiness is our responsibility. And to a certain extent I agree with the sentiment. I believe that individual choices have a great impact on our health. I wouldn’t be in the business of encouraging people to practice yoga and engage in self-care if I didn’t. But I can’t support the unspoken subtext that if we are sick or unhappy then it is your fault. Social, economic and environmental pressures are real influences on our health and all too often are non-issues for the yoga and wellness community.

Which brings us back to why I hate this comic. Yes, it’s a joke. But this kind of condescending advice is all too real in the yoga and wellness industry. ‘You feel sick? Why don’t you take better care of yourself?’ What about the divorced single parent with minimum wage part-time job living in a food desert? Is there a meditation that will get her a full-time job with benefits? What pose should she do to find healthy food at a reasonable price? 

So is yoga overrated? I think yoga has the potential to be a positive force of change both in the lives of individuals and in communities. But we as consumers, teachers and practitioners of wellness need to take a look at ourselves and ask how we see one another. Are we members of a community or are we entrepreneurs and consumers pursuing our individual success?

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