Yoga is the Ultimate 2015 Entrepreneurial Venture? Think Again HuffPost

I have a love-hate relationship with the fact that yoga has become a part of popular culture. On the one hand, I love that yoga is more widely known. More people getting to enjoy the benefits of yoga is always a plus. On the other hand, the fact that yoga is part of popular culture today means that we get a variety of completely unrealistic articles about the practice, including the recent (hilarious) claim by CNN that yogis make over $60,000 a year and the argument from Forbes that yoga and meditation could save us millions of dollars, which I’ve written about before.

The most recent article in this trend is a post by the Huffington Post and claims yoga is the “ultimate 2015 entrepreneurial venture.” The article gives four reasons to support this argument, including (1) “It’s relatively quick to qualify” as an instructor. So hey, if you are short on time, not sure what to do with your life, or have a few weeks off and some trust-fund money to throw down for an overpriced teacher training, don’t worry! “You can spread [the minimum hours for certification] out over a year, or you can opt for a ‘boot camp’ style certification course in just three weeks.” That’s just three weeks people! Trust the HuffPost; I’m sure you’ll be an expert yogi in no time, making it big as the new yoga-celebrity with just that minimal commitment. I mean, it’s a reputable institution, they must know what they are talking about, right? And once you go through that training, it’s on, baby! Think of what you could do with that newly achieved teacher certification! Apparently, “Yoga is a fantastic niche within the health industry because it focuses on relaxation, stress management, and is complementary to every other type of activity or sport out there. Yoga’s health benefits are legendary, as it has proven to help those with brain injury victims, PTSD, depression and eating disorders. Beyond this, people are desperate to carve out ‘me time’ and want to look better while also working on their spiritual, mental and emotional health.” So take that three-week crash course and go treat trauma victims! I’m sure that will end well for everyone involved…

The article goes on, giving three other reasons why it’s the best-kept entrepreneurial secret for 2015. Reason (2) argues that rural areas are in “desperate need” for yoga. Sure, you might encounter some “initial cultural resistance,” but don’t let that stop you! (Even if you are broke and just trying to survive; why don’t you have that trust fund to rely on? Don’t you know yogis make $62,400 a year according to CNN? If you aren’t that successful, it must be your fault; don’t you know it’s the hottest entrepreneurial trend? Just three weeks to get certified, people!) If the hypothetical yogi discussed in the article can eventually “grow her first, 15-person class into more popular lessons through the regional community college” in a small town in North Carolina, you should be able to as well, right? Reason (3) is that “karmic yoga makes giving back easy,” so you can offer “free yoga classes or yogic knowledge” (because that’s all karma yoga is, right?) and “perhaps lure in more paying customers, and test out new teachers” while you are doing quality service work. Reason (4) claims you set the fees, rules, pace, and everything else. These arguments seem pretty great, right? Right? Actually, no. But it’s important to get at why this is such a ridiculous article. Sure, some of these reasons are positives for teachers and yogis within the yoga industry. But there are some serious problems with these claims, including the fact that often these facts are excellent for the yoga industry, but often at the expense of individual teachers and yogis everywhere. Let’s take a deeper (dare I say more yogic?) look.

Problem #1: Certification programs don’t make expert teachers!

Joking aside, this is one of the most problematic assumptions this article makes. First, the assumption that it’s a good thing that getting a teacher certification program is easy and quick is a huge issue. The idea that a 200 hour teacher training actually qualifies people to teach yoga (especially yoga for trauma victims) has always disturbed me. This article completely misunderstands that a 200 hour teacher training course is barely enough to qualify anyone to teach yoga, especially for those who haven’t been practicing for years prior to receiving a certification, let alone qualify someone to teach to at-risk populations, including trauma survivors. Sure, I think it’s great people share their practice after only a 200 hour teacher training, and it can be done in positive ways if you teach only what you know and don’t assume you know everything because you are now certified. Everyone has something valuable to bring to the practice, and that’s awesome. But to assume a 200 hour certification program gives someone expert knowledge in yoga is, frankly, laughable.

Arguing that it’s “quick to qualify” to teach hardly makes yoga or yogis look great. It reflects the utter lack of oversight within the credential system for yoga and common misconceptions that “yoga is easy” or “yoga is simple;” in other words, that yoga is just asana, and a fitness fad at that. In fact, teachers who aren’t adequately trained are often a recipe for student injuries or the propagation of many (incorrect) myths about yoga to their students, some of which I’ve discussed before in my series on popular myths about the origins of yoga. But this includes more dangerous myths about, for example, the physical “benefits” of poses, or how best to cue alignment, or even what proper alignment is. Many times these myths are passed down from un-knowledgable teacher to un-knowledgable teacher, based on new age dogma, and never get questioned since the ideal of authenticity in yoga is often held up as law within yoga culture. Many times actual science of the body is ignored or misunderstood within yoga, overpowered by claims to “listen to the body” or that the “body is the ultimate teacher.” Listening to the body is important to prevent injury, but let’s face it folks: listening to your body won’t teach you the intricacies of the health sciences, including knowledge about nutrition, exercise science, biomechanics, or anatomy. Period. This is one reason why teachers who aren’t adequately trained can unintentionally cue students in ways that result in injury, a controversial topic being explored by Matthew Remski in his thesis research on What Are We Actually Doing In Yoga? (WAWADIA).

Teacher trainings have become the popular cash cow of yoga studios trying to make ends meet as well as a career goal of romantic (to the point of unrealistic idealism) young adults and yogis everywhere. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and the overflow of barely qualified teachers into the yoga industry has resulted in many problems, including worker exploitation, low pay for teachers across the board, and lack of job security for many yogis trying to earn a living solely through their practice and teaching.

Problem #2: Regulation of certification programs is practically nonexistent!

Oversight of certification programs is pretty much nonexistent in the USA. The article mistakenly assumes Yoga Alliance “certification” is legitimate, as if the accreditation “RYT” (Registered Yoga Teacher) or “RYS” (Registered Yoga School) actually came from a valid governing body. Just a heads up for those who don’t know, YA is a nonprofit organization (a classification that is, I would argue, debatable) that took it on themselves in the 1990s to monitor and register yoga teachers/programs that meet basic guidelines as laid out by YA. The goal was a good one; teacher training programs were beginning to crop up all over the place, often as a way for studios to meet their bottom line, and there was no regulatory system in place at the time. But YA has largely failed to meet this goal. Not many people know about the history of YA or of yoga teacher training programs, and it’s a history rooted in Westernization, Colonialization, and appropriation of yoga. I’m writing about the history of teacher trainings in my dissertation, and I guess now is as good a time as any to share some of what I’ve been working on.

Those who started YA were predominately (white, middle-class) actors from the (once upon a time) California Yoga Teacher Association and it’s satellite magazine, the well-known Yoga Journal. These were people who were often partly self-taught and/or yogis who were “certified” during the 1970s, primarily in Iyengar traditions (I’m using quotes here because certification was largely non-existent at this point in history, so claims to being a teacher were largely based on years of practice or teaching lineage, and were as a result a bit haphazard). The curriculum that ended up being required in teacher training programs was institutionalized during this time period, the 1970s, and is based on a knowledge of yoga dating back to that time that reflects romanticized, Colonial understandings of the practice. Teacher training guidelines were coming out of Westernized teaching practices, namely classroom format for learning, drill-style instruction, and “scientific” understandings of yoga popularized by BKS Iyengar and only minimally grounded in fact at this point in history. So program guidelines were in many ways arbitrarily assigned based on CYTA’s and YJ’s perspectives of yoga (read: white, western, appropriated, and colonial) and what these particular people felt should be required learning to “qualify” someone as an expert in yoga.

For example, the reason Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the iconic and required text for every yoga teacher training in existence today is because it was one of the few classical yogic texts translated into English by the 1970s, which was in large part due to Colonial British academics who had considered it important and translated, studied, and interpreted it to excess, rather than because it actually was pivotal to classical yoga traditions in India. There’s a bunch of research and writing on this already, so if you’re curious about it, check out this great article or this book by David Gordon White on the appropriation of yoga by British Colonialism (which was subsequently disseminated to the West, including America, as part of modern postural yoga traditions). Basically, “the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status—and translated into more than forty languages—only in the course of the past forty years.” Western yogis involved in the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 1970s took the Yoga Sutras out of historical context and put it on a pedestal, sacralizing it within Western yoga, and when these same actors left CYTA and the YJ in the late 1990s to create the Yoga Alliance, they institutionalized and canonized such texts as “essential” yogic reading.

Sure there are some good things in those guidelines the YA has for yoga teacher certification programs. But the requirements are based on ideas of what teacher training should entail that date back to the 1970s and haven’t been updated since despite a great deal more research on the actual history of ancient and modern yoga, the science of yoga, and biomechanics since that time. Not to mention the fact that oversight by YA is pretty much non-existent because of lack of funds/employees to actually regulate those registered. There is widespread controversy on whether their accreditation system is valid, or if it’s simply accreditation for a fee (in other words, a way for organizations to pay for “legitimation”). As the last article I linked to explains, “Instead of telling trainings what should be taught, Yoga Alliance simply requires that a certain number of hours be spent covering each of five areas of study, with no specificity given on how to fill those hours. As listed on their website, registered 200-hour trainings (the level that 85% of their registered yoga teachers hold) must include 100 hours of practice, 25 hours of teaching methodology, 20 hours of anatomy, 30 hours of philosophy and ethics, and 10 hours of practice teaching. But, the content of each area of study is left up to the school.” In other words, the “accreditation” YA provides is based on literally no oversight of the actual content covered in the teacher training, and the content itself is based on outdated and in many ways arbitrary ideas of what it means to “know” yoga. You’ll notice there is no requirement to teach any biomechanics, despite this area of study being particularly relevant for yoga teachers; with that in mind, good luck understanding anything about anatomy in a 20 hour crash course, let alone how that anatomy relates to the actual asana practice. The fact that ethics is lumped into philosophy rather than being it’s own category addressing things like sexual harassment or diversity training is also a glaring problem given recent controversies about the prevalence of sexual assault in yoga and (accurate) claims that yoga is often exclusive and supportive of inequality.

YA has (not surprisingly) been vocally resisting attempts by state governments to provide more stringent guidelines on teacher trainings, claiming that most people don’t go on to teach full-time from such programs. While that’s true, recent efforts by state agencies to regulate teacher trainings are partly driven by increasing rates of injuries among yoga practitioners and concerns about student safety that are attributed to teachers not having adequate training. (I’m sure it is also that they want to begin cashing in on the multibillion yoga industry, as well, but the safety concerns are real.) The resistance of YA to these trends is in part because having states regulating yoga teacher trainings would severely cut into YA’s profits, which are made almost entirely through fees charged to teachers and studios to register with the organization as part of their “regulatory” system. This registration, no surprise, has to be renewed periodically, so it’s not just a one-time registration but a constant cash cow for YA. (YA’s profits, incidentally, have been skyrocketing in the last five years with the increasing popularity of yoga: “According to the IRS Form 990’s that they provide on their website, their total revenue increased over 500% from 2005 – 2012 while their net assets increased nearly 1000% in the same time frame.”) If state governments started regulating teacher trainings like other certification programs, YA would no longer have a monopoly on the accreditation process and would no longer be such an important and powerful institution in the yoga industry. (There is, in fact, and easy solution to this dilemma: yoga studios could separate trainings to “deepen ones practice” from those that are actual teacher trainings which qualify for state regulation, but this hasn’t caught on yet.)

Problem #3: Assuming karma yoga is only offering yoga!

Another big problem in this article is the idea that “karma yoga” is solely “offering free yoga classes or yogic knowledge” to others, particularly at-risk populations. The idea that this is all karma yoga entails is a very popular, but I think equally disturbing trend in the yoga world today. It’s been championed by numerous organizations like Off the Mat and Into the World or the Africa Yoga Project that do some awesome work, but ultimately do little to actually change the systemic variables causing inequality and trauma among the populations they serve. The idea that yoga service is only offering free yoga classes or disseminating yoga knowledge contributes to “yoga savior” projects that often serve to prop up the yoga teacher giving their time or teachings rather than actually helping the communities they serve in real, tangible ways.

Karma yoga is translated as “selfless, altruistic, service” not “let’s go teach some yoga for free to people in need.” It involves abandoning self-interest and utilizing reason to achieve perfection in action. I’m not an expert in Hinduism, so I’m not going to attempt to teach this concept. If you’re interested and want to learn more please find a qualified instructor who has studied these topics deeply. But I think it’s clear when we start to describe “karma yoga” in popular culture as (per the HuffPost article) a way to “perhaps lure in more paying customers, and test out new teachers” while you are doing quality service work, this isn’t really selfless service, and isn’t really karma yoga. This popular manifestation of “karma yoga” is ultimately about building a personal brand; it’s about utilizing free classes to market yourself and create a (paying) following, a means to give the teacher greater exposure. This is what I’m talking about when I say such “service” is largely self-aggrandizing and narcissistic.

The real goal of this type of service work isn’t to actually serve people in need or help communities suffering from huge and growing inequality, or structural problems like the loss of the permanent employment model, mass inequality, or growing poverty. The goal is in many ways imperialistic, a “white woman’s burden” that portrays the yoga teacher as the “yoga savior” bringing yoga to the “uneducated, uncivilized, or heathen” masses, helping that teacher claim they are “authentic” because look, they are doing service work! They are a “real” yogi! And such interpretations of karma yoga ultimately fail to actually solve the real problems those populations are dealing with, which are structural. Yoga (as it is practiced in the West today) can be a great way to treat the symptoms of larger problems like poverty, but it can’t ever solve them. Real selfless service, real karma yoga, is about taking our yoga off the mat (literally off the mat, so Off the Mat and Into the World, it’s not just bringing your mat with you to other parts of the world and then staying on it). It’s about doing truly selfless service work to end larger social problems, to use our privileges to help those who are disadvantaged, all of which won’t happen just by teaching some karma postural yoga classes on a donation basis at a local studio as a way to gain more (dare I say selfish?) exposure. Those types of classes can be great but it’s not karma yoga unless there isn’t a self-serving component, and either way it does little to actually help the populations we are teaching asana to.

Problem #4: Yoga Teachers Don’t Exist in a Social Vaccuum!

The last reason the article gives for why yoga is the ultimate 2015 entrepreneurial venture is one that actually does benefit yoga teachers: the ability to set the fees, rules, pace, and everything else (though arguably this benefit comes with any self-employment model, not necessarily yoga). This ability allows teachers to create a flexible schedule around other commitments and to have control over their own employment, which can be a plus. But the article fails to consider how yoga teaching doesn’t take place in a vacuum; teachers can’t just set fees artificially high to make ends meet because they live in social worlds and are constrained in particular ways. If you are teaching at local studios, you could be constrained to when they have available classes for you to teach. If you want to charge for private classes, you’ll have to consider what is a reasonable amount given the area you live in and what others are charging, all of which involves marketing research and a sound business strategy. You’ll have to stay on top of everything for your private business, including things many teachers don’t usually consider when they first think of getting into the industry: things like insurance or liability, managing time, marketing yourself on top of your other responsibilities, creating boundaries with your students, and so on, and so on. So to say the ability to control your own work is a positive to the business is true, but it is simultaneously a negative because it takes a ton of constant, daily work to be successful (and many, many yoga teachers aren’t successful even if they do put in the epic amount of work required, meaning they are still unable to make a decent living on just their yoga business).

I think to conclude, it’s important to be realistic about our yoga practice(s), and be especially critical of popular culture claims about yoga. Part of the practice of yoga is developing our ability of discernment, to accurately, truthfully, and deeply understand our world and our selves so that we can take reasonable and effective actions for meeting our goals. Yoga, science, and business can be a powerful combination, but unless we remain true to the heart of yoga and connect yoga with accurate scientific knowledge (both STEM and also social) we can lose sight of the important parts of the practice and inadvertently yoke yoga to capitalist business enterprises, rather than use yoga to make systems like the capitalistic business enterprise better.

With love, light, and… yoga ❤

Why Practice? Yoga, the Apocalypse, and Dynamic Love

“If you really love something, you never try to keep it the way it is forever. You have to let it be free to change.”
Cassandra Clare, City of Ashes

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about my personal insights on yoga and my practice, but it’s been a difficult process to get started. First, because there are so many things I want to write about so it’s hard to decide which to start with. Second, I’ve been putting off writing about my personal experiences with yoga in part because like many yogis I’m an introvert in a yoga world that rewards extroverts, and am not usually one to share my personal beliefs. (While I would argue yoga is a process, I also recognize that just because something is a process doesn’t rule out that it also reflects a belief systemfor example about which process is best.) Third, because many of the things yoga has taught me are personal or reflect my personal experience and worldview, I recognize that many of the insights I have about my practice might not be relevant to others. Yoga is many things to many people, and each person comes to yoga for different reasons and takes from yoga different lessons and uses. It is polyvocal and multivalent, and whether we like it or not it has become part of popular culture in America and throughout the world. So I don’t want to deny another person’s various and unique experiences of yoga in the process of sharing my own.

With that said, here goes. This post will explore the idea of yoga as dynamic love, as well as one reason I practice yoga that has resonated deeply with me in the last year or two (particularly since I began regularly teaching the introductory sociology course Social Problems). I argue that one of the reasons yoga has become so physically-focused and oriented towards acrobatic self-mastery of the body has to do with increasing feelings of a loss of control within the broader social and economic worlds we move within. Similarly, one of the main reasons we’ve been seeing the obsession with other “apocalyptic,” extreme exercise regimes in the Western world, including extreme contortionist, aerobic yoga forms, is the increasing powerlessness we feel in broader social systems.

Why Practice? Yoga as Dynamic Love

As I said, people come to yoga for many reasons, and though we can identify clusters of common reasons there is really no way to completely capture the various and multiple causes why people turn to the practice. For example, the most recent data commissioned by Yoga Journal indicates that as of 2012 the top five commonly cited reasons people give for starting yoga are “flexibility (78.3 percent), general conditioning (62.2 percent), stress relief (59.6 percent), improve overall health (58.5 percent) and physical fitness (55.1 percent).” Some also come to yoga to treat specific health conditions, such as back pain, neck pain, arthritis, and anxiety. But there are important limitations to these studies of common motivations that should discourage anyone from reading too much into the statistics–first, because people have multiple, concurrent motivations for coming to yoga (as those percents show, the question must have been a “check all that apply” not “check one”). Second, because our motivations for starting yoga are often very different than motivations for continuing it. Inevitably, the nature of the practice (and the culture) means that there is a self-selection process where only certain types of yogis continue, becoming dedicated, lifelong practitioners, while people with other motivations for doing yoga eventually leave the practice entirely or diversify their physical fitness repertoires to only do yoga “on occasion,” often for the common reasons listed above. As a result, we often find that those who become lifelong yogis tend to use the practice to access deeper (dare I say more spiritual?) meaning than just the physical/mental health reasons cited by those starting yoga.

The reason that we practice yoga changes over time, at least for those who stay with it for years (or a lifetime). It has to. This is because we have a relationship to our practice, and to commit in our yoga practice is similar to commitment in a relationship. A while ago I read a random article as I was sifting through my facebook feed. The piece was about love and relationships, and things you have to realize and learn when you are with someone for life (in order to remain with someone for life). Contrary to popular epitaphs that “love is forever,” “love never changes,” or “love stays the same” this article dropped some hard truths in opposition to those popular, romanticized Disney versions of “love.” The fact is, in any long, loving, and lasting relationship you have to learn to love the person you are with over and over again. Love isn’t static, but dynamic, and it has to change over time as both of the people in the partnership evolve and learn and grow and age. So we have to learn to love not just the person we met at “that place,” at “that time,” and “in that moment,” but also the person they become the next day, the next month, the next year, or two, or ten. We have to learn to fall in love with the people they become, and do so as the people we become (because we change in the same ways too, and similarly are not the same person the next day, next month, next year, or two, or ten). So if love is to last it must never stay the same; the only way love can survive is through evolution, through adaptation, through the conscious and deliberate development of dynamic love rather than an (inaccurate) ideal of static love. We have to learn to love the process of growth just as much as the moment of stasis.

Any relationship we have with something we love needs to change over time as a result, so in lasting relationships we must fall in love over and over and over again, every day. It’s like the movie 50 First Dates, but less comedic and without the Hollywood ending or inappropriate jokes. The practice of dynamic love takes courage, dedication, and deep self-reflection to accomplish, and is something we have to actively do with the mind, body, and heart. But it is also incredibly rewarding. As Lao Tzu said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” I think those who initially come to the practice fall in love with it at “that place” at “that time” and for “that reason,” whatever that might have been. But for those who stay with the practice, who become lifelong, devoted, and dedicated practitioners we have to fall in love with it continuously, and the way in which we love it changes depending on who we are and what our practice is at that time. This act of dynamic love is itself part of the practice, because learning to cultivate our ability to love in dynamic ways is part of what yoga teaches us. Yoga is a process, and an art, and ultimately about cultivating stability and commitment in dynamic, changing worlds and bodies. And I would argue it makes us better people in all areas of our lives as a result. Movement is life; when we stop moving, we stagnate, become brittle, and die.

Why Practice? Apocalypse and Work on the Body as a Strategy of Control

Like many people, I came to yoga haphazardly and without really knowing much about it. The first yoga class I attended was a hot yoga class. My mom took me on a weekend while I was still in high school, I think because she thought it would be a fun mother-daughter bonding experience (she was right, and it was) but probably also because at that time in my life I wasn’t as active and she wanted to encourage me to be physically healthier. I didn’t know what to expect, but I recall I loved sweating a ridiculous amount and the jello-limbed feeling following the class. At the time we lived in Humboldt county, a place of constant fog and 50 degree damp ocean weather, so it was a marvelous experience being hot and warm and sweaty for a whole hour. The reasons why I practice yoga have shifted since then and multiplied. It was a mutual shift; I changed, my needs and desires changed, so why I did yoga had to change too, and my practice evolved alongside my own evolution.

People practice yoga for many reasons, and all of them are valid. However, I think people who tend to stick with yoga for a lifetime come to develop very deep and meaningful reasons for their practice, beyond just basic health and wellness. It takes deep motivation to commit to practicing yoga for years, or decades, or life. So while I do still practice yoga as a means to stay physically healthy and strong, I also practice for other reasons, including those that are more spiritual, mental, and emotional. With that said, I think one reason that has been particularly relevant to me lately (and that also makes yoga such a powerful vehicle for healing addiction or trauma) is that yoga enables me to feel a sense of power and control in my own life. By yoking the mind and body, yoga enables a degree of self-mastery that we often lack in our social, economic, and political worlds. So yoga for me has become a means of finding peace and a small, unmovable, unshakable sense of stability in a world that is increasingly out of balance and beyond our control.

The sense of control I gain through yogic work on the body (and mind) is a way for me (and I expect many others) to regain a sense of self-efficacy, or what social psychologists refer to as perceptions and assessments of the self with regard to competence, effectiveness, and causal agency. In other words, self-efficacy is how much we feel we control our own destiny and have the ability to complete tasks and achieve our goals in life. And research has shown that having greater self-efficacy and an internal locus of control matters. Those who see themselves as internally controlled (a skill yoga definitely teaches us on and off our mats) do better in school systems, are more successful in stopping unhealthy habits like smoking, are more likely to wear seat belts, often deal with relationship problems directly, earn greater incomes, and are better able to delay instant gratification to achieve long-term goals which makes them more successful and happy. This is one of the reasons that yoga and mindfulness movements have been co-opted by capitalist systems through McMindfulness programs; yoga can make us more effective and productive workers, in large part because yoga helps us develop greater self-efficacy and self-mastery. (However, that doesn’t mean that’s what yoga should be used for, and as I’ve discussed before this type of application of yoga and mindfulness practices can actually serve to prop up unsustainable capitalist systems rather than solving larger social problems.)

As a sociologist, I study society and our broader social world using scientific research methods. Sociology teaches us to understand our world in deeper ways than the average person does, because as a sociologist we are trained to uncover the true nature of complex social interactions between individuals and larger social structures, see the interconnections of all areas of our society, as well as the ways our society influences and constrains our actions as individuals (often without our conscious awareness). So on the one hand, learning sociology can be incredibly freeing because it helps us understand how to be ourselves in a world with numerous outside pressures trying to force us to conform; in other words, it teaches us how to resist outside social pressures.

On the other hand, sociology is also incredibly depressing because it teaches us about the various, overwhelming, and interconnected problems there are in our world and how horribly difficult it is to solve any of them. Sociology teaches us how futile our efforts to make a difference can be, and this is often an unpleasant and, in some ways, traumatic realization. This is especially true for those who are romantics (as sociologists and yogis tend to be) or those who experience a great deal of privilege in other areas of their lives (for example, those with higher education or those who are white, like myself). Those who come from privileged positions often like to imagine anything is possible if they just put their mind to it, and that subsequently all the awesome things that happen to them are a result of effort rather than circumstance. Thinking that we earned what we get in life gives the illusion that we deserve what we get, which is appealing. However, social psychology research has shown that we often overestimate our strengths, abilities, and skills. This is called the “above average effect” or illusory superiority. For example, when comparing our driving skills to other people, 93% of people put themselves in the top 50%, something that obviously doesn’t add up. So sociology gives us a disturbing reality check: it’s likely those awesome accomplishments are mostly due to circumstances beyond our immediate control (combined with some individual effort to take advantage of privileged opportunities).

In the past several decades sociologists (along with many others) have been drawing attention to numerous social problems within our modern (postmodern?) global society. We currently live in a world in turmoil, a world in crisis. The problems facing us today are on a scale and level beyond those facing us throughout most of human history. Increasingly, we have very little personal power or control over our own lives and the course of our civilization and planet. Corporations have gained immense power in the last century, particularly during the last decade and even more so since the controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010; they now have immense influence over our culture, politics, and economy. We’ve been seeing the negative effects of an unsustainable capitalist consumer society both in terms of our own lives (decreased job satisfaction, decreased job security in a world where the permanent employment model has weakened in favor of temporary employment, increased stress and anxiety, stagnating wages, and the middle-class squeeze, just to name a few) but also in our world more broadly (such as global wars like the never-ending War on Terror or apocalyptic predictions of climate change and it’s contributing causes, including widespread global overpopulation, desertification of fertile lands, deforestation, extreme drought, sea level rise, and ongoing and widespread pollution). And hey, if all this isn’t overwhelming enough just think about this terrifying statistic: “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” In other words, within 10 years nearly two-thirds of the world will be without clean, drinking water.

As Ulrich Beck noted, we increasingly live in a high-risk society where we can never be sure if we are really safe, and where the technological advances that would enable us to gauge the risks we face are not widely available or widely understood. (What’s really in your shampoo? What’s really in your food? How do you ever really know?) Many of these risks are felt worldwide and require global solutions and global coalition building, a project that will likely not be realized in time to prevent widespread social changes (e.g., climate change). Or the risks we face are complex and interconnected with other social problems (e.g., income inequality is deeply interconnected with our cultural, political, and economic systems), or risks are invisible (e.g., chemicals or toxins), or risks are dispersed so much across our lifetimes (e.g., multiple chemical sensitivity caused by ingesting small, “safe” amounts of numerous chemicals regularly over decades) that it can be hard to avoid risks or fully understand them (e.g., regulations on chemicals are nearly non-existent in the USA).

Despite the increasing danger and instability of the worlds we live in, we have very little power to change things or control the conditions of our society and world. As a recent study by Princeton notes, the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy where the wealthy have increasing power and influence and our single voices are drowned in the vast sea of elite money. Even collectively, our powers are limited. Social movements often struggle to create larger social changes, as the recent demise of the Occupy movement demonstrates. Many times research on methods of resistance and collective action becomes used by those in power to further control and manage possible rebellion, so attempts to band together to make a difference are often thwarted as methods of control only become more insidious and powerful (e.g., recent trends to ban the filming of police in response to the #blacklivesmatter movement).

Besides being horribly depressing and at times terrifying (how could it not be?), what all of this means is that as individuals, we live in a world where we have very little power over the larger social conditions that structure our choices, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. There is very little we can do to influence our work environments or work opportunities, to influence our economy, to influence our politics, or to influence mainstream media culture (which, by the way, is controlled by only six megacorporations). So of course we are left feeling powerless in a world that is indeed largely beyond our control. And this feeling of powerlessness is often exacerbated for those who are on the front lines of this type of research, especially sociologists but also groups like climate change scientists. For example, a recent article by Dahr Jamail (one of my all time favorite reporters, do yourself a favor and check out his work) discussed how climate scientists have been experiencing depression, anger, and fear; in other words, the five stages of grief and/or symptoms of PTSD. Personally, I know many sociologists (including myself) that have experienced similar effects from the work that we do. Our mental and physical health is not independent of the systems we are embedded within.

Which brings it all back to yoga. Because for me (and I think for other yogis who are on the front lines of these social battles, or really anyone who is living in this world and dealing with these social trends in their personal lives) yoga is a means to regain a sense of control. While our ability to affect larger structures and social systems is extremely limited (though I do think there still may be hope, a topic I am exploring in my dissertation), we can at least cultivate control of our bodies, minds, and emotions. Through yoga, we can regain a sense of self-efficacy and power, largely by work on the body to regain strength, confidence, and self-mastery which we can then take off our mats and into the social worlds we move within.

Many extreme exercise forms use work on the body as a way to regain control of ones life in a life increasingly out of control world. Some recent research suggests, and I would completely agree, that the increasing loss of control in our lives is actually the reason why we are seeing the rise in popularity of forms of extreme fitness in America, including the trend within modern postural yoga towards the more flashy, acrobatic, and intense asana practices like Ashtanga, hot yoga, power yoga, or power vinyasa styles (a trend that has ultimately resulted in, no surprise, higher rates of injuries). In these extreme fitness trends, work on the body becomes a metaphor, symbolic of anxieties about the social body, or the body politic, and through work on the body we are able to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress we are unable to solve in other, macro-level arenas in our lives. So work on our bodies takes on a ritual symbolism of larger social issues in our social structures. In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas investigates how “the body is a model which can stand for any bounded system” (114). The body, how we ascribe meaning to bodies, and what we do with bodies all become symbolic of larger social structures, and our own anxieties, attitudes, and beliefs about those systems. So “the ‘microcosm’–the physical body–may symbolically reproduce vulnerabilities and anxieties of the ‘macrocosm’–the social body” (Bordo in Unbearable Weight: 186). And as Douglas notes, body rituals like those practiced in yoga or extreme exercise regimes “enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society. The rituals work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body” (129). Our fears of impeding social, cultural, economic, and/or political crises of potentially apocalyptic proportions become manifested through the turn towards intense fitness activities, which also serve as a means to manage the embodied effects of such crises (like stress, anxiety, or trauma held in the body that is ultimately caused by larger social insecurities, dangers, or risks).

And while I’d love to offer some positive, hopeful, or upbeat ending to all of this I don’t really have one, and that’s the whole point. In a world falling apart at the seams, yoga has become a stopgap measure to hold ourselves together, a symbolic representation of the desire we feel for more control over our lives and a reflection of anxieties about our lack of influence in broader social systems. (I do realize yoga is more than just this, though, but that’s another blog post.) There is no easy solution.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤