Yoga and meditation are literally changing our culture from the inside out. The undisputed health benefits, the fashionable yoga clothing, along with the allure of looking and feeling great make these practices attractive and exciting. Yet this spiritual revolution is imported and marketed into modern consumer culture in a way that can leave a person feeling less than empowered. In the quest to evolve it is easy to forget step one, which is that you need to accept yourself right now just the way you are.
Yoga classes can feel oppressive
Now that yoga and meditation are becoming more mainstream, I find myself in a trap. Firstly, I was raised to be competitive, especially in areas that I feel the least secure. Secondly, I can’t afford the nicest, latest yoga clothes, so I already show up to yoga feeling like I should take a seat on the back of the bus.
Like many of us, I grew up with team sports where competition is the name of the game, winning is the goal, and the mantra is “no pain no gain” when it came to stretching, or lifting weights. So, I’ve often felt a bit humiliated when the grandmother in front of me at yoga class can stretch way better than me. Then when the instructor moves through positions so quickly that I can’t sink into a pose or modify one to accommodate my knee injury, I start to feel like I am running full speed with all my bags to catch a train that is leaving the station. It often leaves me feeling dis-empowered and inadequate.
I have read and written extensively about how yoga reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, helps people lose weight, alleviates chronic pain, reduces fatigue, erases asthma, while making you look and feel more healthy. I know that it is true and I enjoy it immensely, but I have also had to grapple with how Yoga shows up in modern capitalist, consumer culture. Yoga and meditation have roots from different times in history, different cultures, and we need to be conscious of our process of integrating these worlds. If you would like to get a Indian women’s perspective on modern Yoga in the U.S and the issue of cultural appropriation, this is well worth reading: How to Decolonize your Yoga practice
If you believe that you are not good enough, you are more likely to work harder and buy more stuff
Does any of this sound familiar: ‘Being content with one’s self is so boring.’ ‘How will you ever evolve if you already like who you are?’ ‘What are you striving for in life?’ Being happy with what you have means that you will be the person in your neighborhood who is still driving a rusty, old VW Bug to the yoga studio and showing up (late) with patches over the holes in your jeans. Not cool!
Obviously I am being sarcastic, but none of us can deny that we are bombarded with a ‘self-improvement’ mentality which is socially enforced 24/7. What is good for profit or marketing is proving to be horrible for our self-worth and for our fragile eco-system. However, doing the actual practices of Yoga and meditation, as opposed to being marketed to by the Yoga ‘industry’ can help us to become more acquainted with aspects of ourselves and society that are horribly unhealthy and need improvement. This is the first phase in fixing the problem!
Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices target the main symptoms of substance abuse, including cravings, impulsivity, negative mood, and increased reactions to stress.
– Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga
Our cravings could be illegal drugs, or another rainforest dark chocolate candy bar. We could be abusing alcohol, our credit card, or television. We may have a negative mood and be stressed out because our house payment is too high. Meditation, yoga, and better choices can help us with all of these issues, but we need to be kind to ourselves and remember that self acceptance should always come before self improvement.
Karma Yoga is the opposite of the Protestant work ethic
Karma Yoga is a path of spiritual liberation through action or work. In Karma Yoga the reward is the work itself, rather than a dangling carrot of potential reward after a day, week, or lifetime of hard work. The carrot analogy is associated with the Protestant work ethic, which was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated emergence of modern capitalism according to Max Weber.
…To the work you own the right, but not to the results thereof.
– First Tenant of Karma Yoga, Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2 Verse 47
Off the Mat Into the World is a non-profit organization dedicated to bridging yoga and activism. Our mission is to use the tools of yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry to inspire leaders to create conscious, sustainable change. We define activism as an act of standing for solidarity, equality, social justice, and freedom for all.
How to get the best results from your practice
By doing meditation and yoga for the mere joy of these practices instead of for ‘improvement’, you will already be harvesting a substantial reward: improved self acceptance. Remember that we are engaged in a process of awakening. On that path, acceptance of where you are right now on your spiritual journey is actually the first step towards gaining better health, reducing stress, and transforming your life.
What is more important than doing that diifficult asana perfectly, or being as good as the other students in your Yoga class? Loving your life, accepting yourself, and being grateful for your imperfections as well as your strengths. Keep practicing! The nagging feeling that you just aren’t good enough, will slowly begin to recede.