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Are we complicating yoga?

When is yoga not, in fact, yoga? Kelly Doune investigates.

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Photo: Ida May

The practice of yoga, in all its traditional forms, is in many ways the grand dame of Eastern practices adopted by the West, in that it has maintained a certain status and reputation in a marketplace that is well-known for reducing century-old rituals into fleeting summer trends (yin and yang necklaces, anyone?).

And, we’re happy about that, because yoga is awesome: It can be done anywhere with minimal equipment and with little prior physical prowess; it has a mindfulness approach that promotes restorative rather than punishing exertion; and it’s a verifiable form of both emotional and physical therapy. The best part is that anyone can claim yoga for their own wellbeing. But can anyone claim it for public reinvention? And, should they?

I wondered about this a few months ago, sometime between reading a TIME article on ‘Doga’ (yes, that’s yoga with dogs) and seeing a video on Holy Water, a yoga-meets-stand-up-paddle-board hybrid developed by the owner of TMPL GYM in New York. I have a dancing background, so I spent a good decade learning the importance of technique — not just with regards to building muscle and flexibility correctly but to avoid injury. So immediately, I thought of all the many yoga instructors who are currently gritting their teeth with every new and expensive yoga variation that goes viral on YouTube, and asked two of them for their thoughts.

“Any yoga practice taken out of context and away from the traditional roots of yoga is not yoga but gymnastics, made to entertain and distract the practitioner from going inside and stilling the mind,” says Ulrike Lamprecht, the owner of Ashtanga Yoga Cape Town, based in South Africa. “I think those kinds of exercises could whet the appetite for people to go deeper into yoga, but really it’s mere aerobics. It just sells better these days if you call it ‘yoga’.”

And it does. Today, yoga is a $16-billion-industry in the US alone and, in the last four years, the number of self-proclaimed yogis has gone up by 80%, along with a steep rise in spin-off offerings like aerial yoga and boxing-yoga fusion. And it makes sense: there’s an enormous amount of pressure to offer something unique in order to keep bums on yoga mats, and specifically those in your studio.

“All these new styles and methods of yoga can become very gimmicky.”

Ida May, a Finnish yoga instructor and movement director based in London, agrees, but offers a more flexible approach to yoga new permutations.

“All these new styles and methods of yoga can become very gimmicky: why on earth would you do yoga with weights? How can your energy flow out through the fingertips when weights are dragging you down? I love working with weights, but not doing yoga at the same time. I love my black coffee, but wouldn’t blend it with my green juice.”

She adds: “That being said, every person is unique in the way they are, move, and do things. Every person has their own style of living life, so what resonates with you might not resonate with your friend, which is why I think it’s good that there are many styles. As long as the base is the same and we stay true to its roots.”

Knowing the importance of keeping the core of yoga consistent but allowing space for variety and mood, Ida created FitFlow, an “ever-evolving free flow class fusing the best elements of yoga and primal movement.” She even teamed up with Adidas Women to do a series of instructor videos for the brand’s YouTube channel. “I need variety. It bridges the gap of hardcore fitness and traditional yoga whilst maintaining authenticity and ethos of two starkly-contrasting approaches to movement.”

So, the verdict? Yoga is personal, and can be expressed in many different way so long as it is faithful to its core principles and techniques throughout, and taught from what Ida calls “an authentic, truthful place”. But take the time to study up and learn those essentials and, as a rule of thumb, always make sure there’s a mat — and not a weight — in sight.

Words by Kelly Doune

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