Yoga had its moment. Sometime after the Madonna years when it was elevated from its Maharishi, bearded beginnings. Today, in the years of social media and big business, The Beatles are all its got left.
Some teachers aren’t very yogic in nature. Take the yoga teacher contestant on that intellectually stimulating show Love in the Wild. ‘I’m extremely competitive’ she barked, climbing out of a pit of snakes. Or my first ever teacher, whose pedestal put Bikram’s golden throne to shame and in typical way-of-the-yogi was transformed into godlike guru as she glided round class, presenting her gold nuggets of wisdom as if she’d excreted them herself.
How I looked up to her. That is, until I took a job at my local health club where she would harass me about potential timetable changes, waggling her finger in anger. By combined force and intimidation she held onto her two expensive weekly yoga sessions, each with roughly 5 regular attendees, and jetted off to the Bahamas for her annual retreat. Then there was the saint I visited who charged £100 for her sacred, soiled bedsheets – but I digress.
Bikram Choudhury. Thankfully even the most devout supporters have cottoned onto the fact that Bikram Yoga was most likely a cult, seeing it as the brainwashing fad its bizarre, law-breaking creator convinced them it wasn’t. And yet there’s something about being shouted at in a stinking hot room with other competitive types that makes you high with ego, falling into the deepest backbend your poor, pressured spine can take. Then there are the territorial vibes when the class begins to fill and the devout Bik-er next to you shoots a look as she squats dominantly on her mat. That’s right bitch. This is yoga.
Push ups and jump throughs, show-off scorpion arm balances that can snap a spine if slightly off centre. The International Yoga competition. Yes, much of today’s yoga is a testosterone-flaring, muscle-pumping masochists game. And yes – some of us are more inclined to practise in this manner, the alphas amongst us with the mindset that suffering equals gain equals extra yoga points. We push through postures straining towards suffocation.
One thing that made me laugh was the research presented by 21st century yoga-basher William Broad suggesting that cobra pose produced a huge spike in testosterone for its female practitioners. 50% in fact. Any goddess who’s practised this pose, pressing their pelvis into the mat while squeezing their legs together might not find it strange that so much sex hormone is unleashed. And yet, after a football match men’s testosterone increased by less than 30%. It does make one wonder, just how yogic is this yoga we practise?
Little is known about the exact role of testosterone in women. Some studies show levels change according to employment status and even the way we stand. All studies suggest that testosterone increases competitiveness and risk taking making people more self-centered and less cooperative. Any physical exercise will raise testosterone levels to some extent and whether this has any part to play in today’s backward, yoga merry-go-round, the fact is much of it is a very physical practice.
Modern yoga is a pathway to perfection that was invented during the fitness revolution of the early 20th century, owing more to martial arts and body-perfecting gymnastics than the spiritual mish-mash we have come to know today. But the spiritual twist on this physical sport seems to have presented a critical problem. For when spirituality is included in an activity it takes on a whole new meaning. People start preaching, the needy start worshipping, and the power hungry start exploiting.
Perhaps more importantly, with the intense focus on turning inwards and honing the body and breath, the levels of self-absorption and narcissism can sky-rocket. Like any spiritual organisation yoga can become cultish quickly, fuelled by a high school popularity mentality that many of us had ingrained from a young age – the mentality that true yoga is trying to quash.