Style vs. Substance

Western Yoga—the union of body and soul, or a commercialized cash-grab?
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As the popularity of yoga increases, there’s a growing divergence between those who prize the spiritual origins of the practice and those following a fitness fad. With all the money being made from yoga, does a place remain for the spiritual side of an ancient practice?

Maya Chang, an enthusiastic hatha instructor, admits that when she first started yoga classes in her early twenties, it was simply to keep fit and stay flexible. She was aware of the physical benefits the practice presented, but had yet to incorporate more of the spiritual side into her life. From her career and participation in numerous workshops, conferences, and classes, Chang surmises that “in order to teach, you really need to explore and develop your own practice to help guide and inspire your students through theirs.”

Chang’s own development has shifted toward incorporating traditional yoga, but she understands how daunting it can be for a young instructor, explaining that “it requires a deeper understanding of the ancient texts along with disciplined guided practice with yoga masters.” Despite the importance of tradition, Chang still believes there are many positive attributes to practising modern, or western, yoga. “Fitness, flexibility and concentration are the most obvious benefits.”

Commercialization Of Yoga

Christopher Mennell, a local filmmaker, refuses to participate in yoga due to the dramatic impact the commercial world has had on the practice.

“I don’t think yoga, for most people, means anything,” he begins, boldly. For Mennell, Lululemon products, how-to videos, and popular yoga clothing demean the concept of enlightenment.” [Western-style yoga] is inherently linked to the culture surrounding that fashion, that style . . . it is an expression of our consumerism,” Mennell explains. He doesn’t think of himself as an anti-consumer crusader, but adds, “I just don’t particularly like the throw-away culture that comes along with modern yoga. We are capable of chewing up and spitting out culture, and [western-style yoga] is an abuse of that original idea or concept.”

“If you could take the original practitioners of yoga, and put them into a contemporary studio, what would they see?” asks Mennell. “Would they be shocked at how commercial, glamourous and superficial it is nowadays?”

Benefits Of Yoga: To Each Their Own

Brianna Smith*, an interior design student who participates regularly in yoga classes, objects to Mennell’s theory. Smith believes that yoga still presents many physical and mental benefits for the modern individual, despite having evolved from the traditional practice. She first started yoga in her early university years while looking for ways of increasing fitness, while balancing her full student schedule.

“I found that yoga was a good way to reconnect with my body during relatively stressful times, an excellent way to stretch out muscles that were cramped from computer use and reading. It was easy to fit into my schedule, given that it was a once-a-week class.”

Smith does not see the modernization of yoga as such a dramatic issue. “The commercialization of spirituality is everywhere in our society, but at least people are getting out there and stretching instead of sitting on their butts on the couch,” she notes. “I think that if you practice yoga, you are at least getting a small dose of spirituality, even if it’s only in the form of paying attention to your own body and how it feels.”

You can’t walk more than a couple of blocks down the streets of Kitsilano and Yaletown without strolling past yet another trendy, upscale yoga studio—a testament to the popularity of yoga in our society. Whether you believe that it is just another part of our daily consumerist culture, or you accept it as a beneficial activity which can lead to spiritual growth, yoga is certainly not a trend that will disappear any time soon.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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