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Fighting the woo – on being a non-spiritual yoga teacher

I’m in a yoga studio in East London, with 25 fellow trainee teachers, and we’re ‘flowing like water around the room’. The lights are off, our eyes are shut, and we’re moving with all the fluidity we can muster. This isn’t an easy task when you keep accidentally elbowing people in the face.

Of course, when you’re water, you’re supposed to take such obstacles in your stride. You shouldn’t let another trainee’s nose stand in the way of your liquid motion. I’m not very good at being water – I keep apologising for all the bodily contact, and can’t stop thinking about that Peep Show episode where Mark and Jez visit ‘Rainbow Rhythms’.

However, as the lights switch on and we return to a solid state, I concede I could use a bit more fluidity in my life. There’s nothing like an interpretative dance in the dark – still less one designed to ‘open your sacral chakra’ – to prove you have a pretty rigid mindset.

I’m on weekend 3 of a 200hr yoga teacher training course. Eventually, I’ll get to weekend 9, pass my exam, and be unleashed onto the world as an ashtanga vinyasa and rocket yoga instructor.

I’m also a science journalist and sceptic who finds the woo stuff hard to reconcile. My approach is basically: yes to asanas, but no to energy fields. Yes to focusing on your breathing, but no to claiming a yoga pose cleanses your internal organs, releases the emotions stored in your hips, or unites you with the divine.

For much of this course, I will question whether my doggedly empirical approach to yoga disqualifies me from teaching it at all. Can I even claim to be doing yoga if I’m not, for want of a better word, spiritual? Or would it show more integrity to roll up my mat and take up Crossfit instead?

In November 2015, a Canadian yoga teacher found her classes cancelled out of concern for cultural appropriation. When she suggested changing the name to ‘mindful stretching’, her compromise was rejected: as far as the University of Ottawa was concerned, yoga was a religious practice that westerners had no rights getting their mitts on.

Earlier that year, two Russian yoga studios received letters from the local authorities, requesting that they stop hosting classes to “prevent the spread of new religious cults and movements.” And a church in Bristol evicted a yoga class from its church hall, claiming that yoga is “definitely a spiritual act whose roots are not Christ-centred”.

As yoga becomes more commonplace, this backlash might feasibly continue. According to the Yoga Alliance’s 2016 report, some 36 million Americans now practice regularly, up from 20.4 million in 2012. A further 80 million people (34% of Americans) say they’ll probably try it for the first time in the next 12 months.

Statistics for the UK are harder to find, but it’s clear that the practice has hit the mainstream. With a new studio opening seemingly every other day, gyms now offer everything from ‘hatha flow’ to ‘hot rocket’ to the fragile masculinity inspired ‘broga’.

What it’s actually all about, however, remains a question in point. Is it just another gym class, complete with a trip-hop soundtrack and a token “Namaste” at the end? Or a Hindu tradition we’re desecrating with our snazzy £80 yoga pants and Instagrammed forearm stands?

Like many a frazzled Londoner, I was initially drawn to yoga for its mental health benefits. Having invested in one of those ‘10 classes for £35’ Groupon deals, I turned up at my local hot yoga studio to discover I had minimal flexibility, no upper body strength, barely knew my left from right, and was prone to collapsing in giggles at mention of the phrase ‘downward dog’.

All that said, it did a great job of dialing down my mental cacophony. Over the next few years, when times got hard, yoga helped me heal a damaged relationship with my body and better handle the vicissitudes of my mind.

After all, we live in a time of meditation apps and corporate mindfulness classes, allowing you to get your zen on without needing to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Following on from the positive psychology movement of the early 2000s, these have been vaunted as a way to reduce anxiety, improve emotional regulation, increase wellbeing and (if your boss has anything to do with it) turn you into a productive worker-bot.

For many people today, yoga is much the same. Whatever the belief systems it stemmed from, it comes to us filtered through contemporary fixations and is given a secular spin. You might be hoping to get stronger, for example, or deal with life stressors. But you probably haven’t popped to Virgin Active hoping for a more profound insight into the cosmos.

In this regard, embarking on a teacher training course felt a bit like discovering the True Meaning of Christmas, and subsequently not being sure whether you’re entitled to celebrate Christmas at all. Do I get to have the turkey and the sleigh bells if I don’t believe in baby Jesus? Or is the feelgood stuff reserved for the faithful few?

On the basis of this course, The True Meaning of Yoga was a bit of this, a bit of that – a bricolage of Hindu, Buddhist and New Age thought. The teachers even wrote on the back of our coursebook: “No theory is complete. All theories are valid. Explore”.

But this didn’t seem to leave much room for a science-based view of the world, in which theories are rendered more or less valid depending on what the evidence tells you. As far as I could tell, the existence of chakras, kundalini energy, or astral and causal bodies required a leap of faith I wasn’t willing to make. I could accept chakras as a metaphor for the mind, but not as literal energy nodes that occupy a specific part of the ‘subtle anatomy’.

It was only towards the end of the course – ironically, during a talk about the ‘third eye chakra’ – that the pieces began to fall into place for me. The chakra in question, associated with seeing and intuition, is supposed to lend itself to ‘spiritual, physical and mental wellbeing’ when it’s balanced. However, according to our coursebook, when it’s too open, you’ll be ‘the intellectual – conceptualising your experiences, dogmatic, emotionally stilted, unable to trust in your intuition’.

Now without spending too much time mourning the failings of my purported third eye chakra, I did ultimately decide that all this frantic cogitation wasn’t helping my yoga much. While intellectual argument might be useful in an everyday context, when you’re trying to do something geared around stilling the ‘monkey mind’, it’s probably worthwhile trying to cool it. You can resume all the theorising the second you’re off the mat, but when you’re there, it’s about you, the pose, and the breathing.

Having completed the course, I now feel comfortable teaching classes that link movement with breath, without invoking a spiritual element. What’s more, I would encourage my fellow sceptics to give yoga a try. Who cares whether or not you believe in energy nodes?

Failing that, of course, there’s always Crossfit.

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Categories: Spirituality Yoga

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Abi Millar

Journalist and caffeine fiend. I blog about fitness, media fails, London life, and whatever unrelated fixations have piqued my curiosity that day.

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