Yes, believe me or not, yoga has a dark side.
It’s not all peace, love and cacao beans. To assume that, would not only defy the universal principle of yin/yang, but it would also be a completely unrealistic perspective to assume because there is absolutely no way that every mortal on the planet is always on their best behaviour, 24/7, 8 days a week, despite what they profess on Instagram.
Yoga has a dark side because WE have a dark side.
This truth is exactly why we are drawn to the practice – because it calls to those energies within us that are unconsciously desperate for healing and light.
There’s no denying it: the western yoga world is a big bikkies business nowadays and like the record numbers of stretchy leggings being sold in its honour, it continues to expand with each passing day. Yet despite how we see it being marketed, manipulated and funneled into various forms of take away packages like the ones offered on social media most of the time, it has still managed to remain relatively true to its roots.
There’s been a lot of glitter glue, but underneath (I believe) there’s still a lot of grit left.
Perhaps the ancient gurus might have something to say in opposition to that however, as I am sure there are many things out there barely passing as yoga in the modern world, practices that have been so diluted and strayed so far from the source that they may find too hard to process and accept, but personally, I like to hold hope that the majority of us are doing our collective best as custodians of the tradition and appreciating and upholding the traditional principles as they deserve. They were after all originally intended to support every man, woman and child in their individual quest for freedom, so there surely must be a certain level of intuitive indulgence around how it is executed nowadays, especially as societies grow and generations evolve.
I guess, like everything else in life, it all comes down to intention. Or for the sake of discussion, does it?
Can you imagine for instance, the man regarded as “the father of modern yoga”, Sri T. Krishnamcharya, tolerating ‘nude yoga’, ‘cannabis yoga’ or ‘yoga with your goat/dog/cat or pig’, even if executed with some well placed straps and a bija chant or two? I think not.
Or Tantrum yoga, where you are encouraged to lose your shit and scream like a banshee in Baddhakonasana and Yoga Raves that begin with yoga and meditation before progressing into a freedance-food-and-drink-fest – alcohol free (mostly) – before ending with another mediation to calm everyone the fcuk down. Seriously? I can see Yogananda’s stumped smile as I type this.
I love the description justifying smoking pot before hitting the mat given by one San Franciscan of late also. “The combination of weed and yoga helps to loosen your muscles and lower your inhibitions so you’re more likely to try different positions.” No shit Sherlock! Of course you’re going to be more receptive to suggestion once your brain lands in your ass and your body turns to mush. Apparently with this practice, you start with sampling a smorgasbord of different plant products, then pause in between stretches to have ‘a toke’. I suppose the gist is to continue on until you either can’t remember why you are on a yoga mat (and that supposedly then means you have reached a deep state of ‘transcendental relaxation’), or you find yourself entwined like a pretzel on one and sharing way more than you should with a complete (and equally stoned) stranger.
As amusing and explorative as these offerings may appear, and even speaking as an advocate for change and generational expansion, I’m not so sure that they invoke the same level of healing energies that the primary practices do.
More importantly, does the rise of such dubious styles as the above mentioned and such deliberate dilutions of the original body of work, put the entire industry at risk of scrutiny with intent to discredit by the ever-lurking big pharma and his eager cohorts? Do these kinds of novelty-type practices expose all those who are associated with yoga and hence threaten everybody’s credibility?
We know the global medical world has been champing at the bit to bring down yoga as a valid holistic offering because preventative medicine doesn’t rake in the big bucks like medication does. In recent years we’ve witnessed natural therapies being systematically plucked one by one off health fund rebates and now yoga is struggling to stay on those lists.
Fact is, you can’t control someone who is firmly in control of themselves and these organisations know this. So, they focus instead on planting insinuations and harping on about the inevitability of osteo-itis-this-and-that and any other disease they can link in to create fear, as a way of shaking the public’s faith in their natural ability and power to heal themselves.
There are many assumptions made about yoga and the healing powers it offers, especially by those who would seek its downfall and I think this is mainly because it empowers people to take their health back into their own hands. When people start thinking for themselves and questioning the status quo, that threatens the hierachy. When we choose to rely less on the medications that have become the backbone of society thanks to centuries of scheming and conditioning, we are suddenly less easily manipulated and as a growing collective of like minds and strengthening hearts, we suddenly (and simultaneously) become a beacon of hope to others and a serious threat to the status quo.
Give someone a fish and they eat for a day; teach them to fish and they can feed themselves forever. Gee, wonder where we’ve heard that one before?
Back in its hey day, yoga was a complete and very capable therapy, one that when coupled with its sister science, the Vedic system of Ayurveda, was without rival. All aspects and elements of a person were diagnosed and treated, not just the outward and obvious presentations and the actual physical side of things and always with the primary intent to alleviate spiritual suffering and heal what all humans are working with in their own way – the false identification of self with one’s body and mind.
Rigorous and detailed health regimes included the use of healing herbs, kriyas, mantras, mudras and of course hours of intense meditation and asana practice, to achieve this goal and maintain balance. The subtle energy bodies were explored first because they understood this is where the origin of all dis-ease lay. The physical presentations were often the last things to arise and reveal themselves as intimately connected to the chronic deterioration of mind, heart and spirit. Traditional Chinese Medicine follows the same philosophy, just with a slightly different energetic dialogue; and of course, a different language.
The western world however, has always approached medicine from the other side of the fence, fixated on treating symptom ahead of cause and yet remaining perplexed and frustrated at why illness keeps recurring. I don’t even think there is a word for ‘remission’ in the Vedic or TCM systems because they instinctively knew how to search for the core wound and hence cure the whole person.
Healing also wasn’t seen as a money-making machine back then either. Morals and integrity still stood for something.
Hopefully most people understand that yoga has a lot to offer and is not just about bending and flexing and striking a dope pose on a rock ledge at sunrise somewhere. Hopefully the message that it’s about mending on all levels of our being and then some, is sinking in and that it helps us in learning how to recognise our patterns of pain and how they influence our well being so we can then use that information to set ourselves free from the past. Ultimately it’s about the individual quest for self knowledge and is therefore completely dependent on how devoted one is, to such a cathartic endeavour. If we are willing to show up and do the work required that is.
It’s also about authenticity and learning how to express our voice in a way that contributes to the greater good, not just one’s ego-driven agenda and when enough of us occupy that conscious space, we can literally shift the way of the current world.
It’s safe to say the yoga ‘cult’ has exploded globally in recent years and that the western world has definitely picked up the yogic ball and run with it, hard and fast and across multiple modalities. White culture was founded on the collective and obsessive principle of ‘conquer and compete’ after all. You just have to look at ancient Rome to get that one; give them bread and blood sports and they will blindly (and often lovingly) follow.
Yoga is quite literally, a gift from the gods and one that I think even the Roman ones of old would gladly welcome and support would they still breathe, because it symbolises what they were so often obsessed with and that is, ‘a greater good’. Well, they used to say ‘for the glory or greater good of Rome’, but you get my drift. And whilst it might seem a bit melodramatic to use the word ‘cult’ – which is literally translated as “a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society” – it is actually very appropriate here because we do see the meteoric rise of certain yogis to star status, every week. To the point where they are adored by millions and able to influence others with their personal philosophies, practice playlists and choices of eco-friendly bikinis. Holy mantra, some even have Hollywood stars to validate them!
Yes, our lives are our cred, but one has to have lived one first, in order to accrue any wisdom. You need to travel the lonely road into your wounds and weak spots and face the music in order to earn your spiritual stripes, to earn the right to speak about journeys and triumphs with authority and truth. Photographic collages on tropical islands are not appropriate substitutes for lessons gleaned through the liberating shedding of blood, sweat and tears and showing up in the face of shadow no matter what, day after day.
‘Yogic living’ is a thing now too, a worldwide trend, but unfortunately along with the health benefits of such social growth, the risks have also increased. To get from A to Z, you have to learn how to navigate the whole alphabet, not just a few randomly spaced letters and then piece them together however you see fit. There are protocols and rituals in place to ensure gradual and safe progression and when these are skipped, one risks not just looking like an idiot for not doing their due diligence, but more importantly, they place themselves at an energetic disadvantage because they are not properly prepared or matured.
In the yogic world, experience counts for absolutely everything.
At it’s core, the Sanskrit translation of ‘yoke’ is ‘to unite’, meaning its main intention is to assist us floundering humans in finding meaning, purpose and cohesion to our lives. It is all about self inquiry, self reflection, self ownership, self responsibility and self love; and these aren’t always things people are willing to explore or devote regular time to. Most are way too busy achieving and doing thank you very much, yet they still complain about why they’re not happy, not married yet or sick all the time (even after having their flu shot!) Despite all their visionary efforts and plaques on the wall, they can’t see the (Zen) forest for the trees. Most people are too preoccupied with achieving to see that stopping and resting is all one need do in order to start the natural process of inquiry that is accessible to every body.
And this is where I say that I believe meditation is the highest form of self care.
If we value ourselves enough to factor in some down time when we need it, that instantly shifts your body, heart and mind set. No chanting required and despite the myriad of fancy (and useful) downloads and podcasts available, meditation is actually free and accessible to all of us. No computer or payment plan necessary. You don’t even need a special mat, just your bum and your breath.
Despite all conscious conveniences however, it’s still easier to whack on some fresh tights and head to the gym or yoga shala and pretend we are working through a catharsis because hey, we are sweating like a pig and aum’ing at the end of class like a boss – we must be ascending! Sure you may have stretched your physical body beyond some previous limits, but if you haven’t been able to tap into your heart, feel your emotions and shut your monkey mind up, then all you have done are some funky movements to music – or with your pig – and possibly also gifted yourself some g-string burn in the process.
Yoga takes work. It is work. Some of the deepest and darkest work you will ever do in fact and yet when you go there, you see that those spaces actually hold more light than you ever imagined.
It can be challenging, confronting, puzzling and freaking full on and it will take us to our edge and back, multiple times. On the flipside, it can take us to incredibly blissful spaces we never thought existed inside us, burst our hearts with joy, make us laugh, cry, burp and fart on the spot and sometimes all at once depending on the level of toxins we embody – but it will always hold us to our truth, ready or not.
It will even place us at the doorway of death with the intention of revealing the very fears that have controlled and confused us for too long and in doing so, shows us that our soul can never die.
Yoga invites us to dig through the surface of our daily grind and unconscious minds to look at who we are and what we are doing to ourselves and others.
It provides countless opportunities to join the subtle energetic dots and make sense of things like how our diet affects our mood, how our belief systems keep us small, and whether we’re truly happy in our relationship, our job or even our own skin!
It demands our attention – if we are practicing mindfully – and will hold up that magic mirror we all try and avoid looking into, without judgment or sarcasm, when we really do need to get over ourselves and make a change.
Good luck making a pill or a potion that can do all that!
Yoga calls us to action and demands we stand with full integrity in our truth and in our hearts, reminding us of the responsibilities we signed up for when we first chose to embrace the yogic path. Often that requires self sacrifice or abstaining from certain worldly pleasures. Sometimes it means going without, or making do with less and it always demands that we set the highest example so that others may follow.
Saying that, we are all still human and naturally, we stuff up, so we have to maintain a healthy attitude and perspective about life and be willing to forgive ourselves as we, like everyone else, journey through our stories seeking to edit the particular chapters that are no longer of benefit.
I’ve been a healing practitioner for two decades now and I have seen people do some pretty incorrigible as well as some incredibly inspiring things over that time and because I have also done some weird and self destructive shite myself, I always remain the compassionate and neutral witness. We’re all only doing the best with what we have access to in each moment after all. My own soul triumphs are the reasons why I can now usher others through similar portals safely and powerfully – both on and off the mat – because I have moved through so much shadowy strife myself.
My dark side has been – and continues to be – my greatest teacher.
I wholeheartedly invite you to embrace your lightness and your darkness – with or without a fur-baby accessory – because at the end of the day, it really is, each soul to its own.