The Yoga Industrial Complex

On February 10, 2012, William Broad was interviewed on NPR  regarding his new book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Broad is a somewhat controversial figure in the yoga community, as discussed in my earlier entry “Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?” in response to his January 2012 article in The New York Times Magazine. He has upset a lot of people by saying that yoga can, in fact, be dangerous – like any tool when used improperly.

Broad uses the term “yoga industrial complex” to describe a mindset within the yoga community that includes a reluctance to acknowledge the risks of practicing yoga. He has received a great deal of negative feedback from teachers and practitioners. Now, there’s something ironic about hate mail coming from yogis, but spiritual growth is a process. Some of us are still in our adolescence, and most of us aren’t yet enlightened (or we wouldn’t still be here).

Yoga is a practice which has slowly found more social acceptance over the past few decades, but isn’t necessarily mainstream. One of the reasons it’s finding acceptance is because people are learning it can do great things for the body. If the culture at large starts to perceive yoga as potentially dangerous, what does that do to yoga’s popularity? The popularity of yoga of course means that there is more money to be made in this field. To that end, there are more and more yoga classes, and more and more teachers. While this can be a good thing, it’s also problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, yoga teaching is an unregulated profession. While training program are available (basic certifications start at 200 hours), completion of such a program is not required to teach yoga. This means that it’s important to ask questions when you sign up to take a yoga class, to find out what type of training and experience the instructor has, and what style of yoga will be practiced in the class (as well as what level of physical activity to expect). The Yoga Alliance works to maintain standards within the profession by requiring that Registered Yoga Teachers complete a minimum of 200 hours of training from a certified program. But it’s unwise to assume that every yoga class is taught by a yoga teacher who has completed this training – it’s simply not the case.

Second, the popularity of yoga means increased class sizes. Even a highly qualified instructor has difficulty maintaining a safe practice environment when there are more than 20-30 students in the room. The other thing that happens, as yoga becomes more popular and classes get larger, is that yoga becomes competitive. Now competition is the antithesis of everything the practice truly stands for, but believe me when I tell you I have observed this phenomenon in a number of venues. People are looking around, seeing what everyone else is doing, who can more “fully” go into certain postures, or stay in them longer, etc. Any competitive aspect in the practice carries with it an increased risk because an outward focus, rather than an inward focus, in yoga, means that you are less likely to pay attention to signals within the body that may indicate a threshold. In other words, if you’re focused on trying to keep up with everyone else, you are more likely to injure yourself.

One of the areas of focus in the interview was the claims that practitioners and teachers make about yoga, and that included discussion of research conducted on the matter of the science of yoga. It’s funny to me the focus on science. Maybe it shouldn’t be. We are a culture of reason. People don’t want to just hear that something works, they want the evidence trotted out, compiled, and annotated. They want to know that science can demonstrate – can quantify – what practitioners of yoga already know: Yoga makes you feel good. It also improves your sex life.

Yes, you read that right. One of the lesser known benefits of yoga (and one that will probably have people signing up for classes in droves) is that it improves your sex life. In our hyper-sexual culture, there’s a lot of talk about the mechanics of sex, about the physical aspects of sexual function, but not a lot of discussion of sexual satisfaction. Yoga practice can not only boost your sex drive, but can give you “increased arousal, better orgasm, [and] more overall satisfaction.” In other words, not only more sex, but better sex. How’s that for incentive?

More on this topic in my next post.

2 thoughts on “The Yoga Industrial Complex”

  1. Thanks for an interesting article. I’m not sure I understand or perhaps agree with a couple of the points made. For instance, if yoga rises in popularity, would this not mean the opposite of larger class sizes? i.e. More interest in yoga means greater numbers of instructors which means more availability for classes, and so on.
    Second, it seems to me that the point about applying one’s focus externally vs internally is a reproduction of one of the most common modes of being in western society. This argument doesn’t seem to consider the potential of yoga participants being encouraged to, and indeed focusing on, tuning in internally. the entire point of yoga seems, precisely, to tune-in inwardly. it seems that people who fail to even try to do this are missing the point of yoga entirely. perhaps a different argument might be who takes yoga, and whether those who take it solely for sport might engage in this kind of competitiveness, whereas those who take yoga for its spiritual and psychological impacts may indeed learn to practice a body-mind technique that supportsthem by encouraging inward attunement.
    What’s so interesting about yoga is that fits outside of the western framework to which many of us are used to. If we approach yoga practice from within that framework, and seek to reproduce it, then perhaps some of Broad’s arguments may apply. However, if we draw away from it, I wonder if Broad’s arguments become null and miss the point entirely, rendering him an out-of-touch scholar who seeks to analyze something he may not be looking at with sufficient perspective. I haven’t read his work, and I don’t know what the case is. These are some thoughts about what may be possible.

    1. Thanks for reading! Broad is actually a long-time yoga practitioner.

      As far as the impact on yoga class sizes, I think it depends on where you are taking classes. Many gyms, for example, strive to fill the room. Other smaller locations, such as private yoga studios, are a different story.

      You are right to point out that a true yoga practice encourages one to focus internally. Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that there are more and more yoga competitions – yes, you read that right. Competitions. Which seems to me to miss the point of the practice entirely.

      I do agree with you that something special will be lost if we try to fit yoga too much into our Western framework. Part of its value lies in its existing as a practice outside of that, which allows those who practice the opportunity to grow themselves in new ways.

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