By Ed Staskus
“Now it’s time for change, nothing stays the same.” Motley Crue
Yoga has never been what it has been or what it is. It’s not one thing, even though it doesn’t say one thing and mean another. Not everyone brings the same curiosity interest hunger to it, nor does everyone get the same thing out of it. There are a lot of drops in the ocean of it, which is apropos, given hatha yoga’s beginnings.
Matsyendranath, the founder of hatha yoga, was tossed into the ocean about a thousand years ago by his parents when they determined he had been born under a bad sign. He was swallowed by a big fish, stayed swallowed but survived, and grew up. One day when the fish dove to the bottom of the ocean, he overheard Siva and Parvati, who happened to be nearby, talking about yoga. He made notes, practiced what they preached for twelve years while inside the belly of the whale, and when he finally made it back to dry land became a yoga teacher.
Everyone called him ‘Jonah, Jr.’ behind his back, but his students called him ‘Lord of the Fishes’ face forward.
The Yoga Alliance has nothing on Matsyendranath’s credentials, since he put in more than one hundred thousand hours of groundwork compared to YA’s 200 and 500-hour teacher training certificates.
For about five thousand years yoga was largely a mind game, focusing on energy and awareness. The right stuff was life force, the vital principle, discernment and consciousness. Yoga exercise wasn’t a big part of the package. It was hardly part of the package, at all. When almost everybody was working dawn to dusk to just get by, there wasn’t a big demand for vinyasa classes.
In the Industrial Age, when machines make our machines, and we sit in cars, sit in the glow of our flat screens, and sit around telling Alexa what to do, a little get up and go has become a priority. Yoga has become primarily a physical practice, for good reason. “Birds born in a cage think flying is a sickness,” said Alejandro Jodorowsky. But, many people still crave strength and movement skills. Coupled with the mental fortitude the practice brings to bear, yoga has become a go-to for tens of millions.
In the last one hundred-or-so years yoga has become whatever anybody says it is, from Yogananda to BKS Iyengar, from Pierre Bernard to Bikram Choudhury, from Lilian Folan to Tara Stiles. In the 1970s it was Ashtanga Yoga, in the 1990s it was Power Yoga, and in the 2000s it was Anusara Yoga.
Back in the day it was build your own internal fire. Today it’s the warm and hot and very hot room. Tomorrow is up for grabs, given the implications of climate change.
In the last twenty-or-so years it has become a cornucopia, yoked to acrobatics and paddleboards, booze and barnyards, therapy and retreats. There are conferences and festivals. It’s the ever-changing life-changing magic of the practice. If yoga is about transformation, it is living up to its mission in the new millennium.
In the same way that when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change, the age-old practice is going through some changes.
AntiGravity Yoga and Fitness, developed by Christopher Harrison, a former gymnast and dancer, in 2007, is about getting hitched to a fabric swing hung from a ceiling and stretching and working out on it. The device is called the AntiGravity Hammock.
“Suspend your disbelief, and I can bring you to better health, less pain, and allow you to feel the joy of flying,” he says.
The yoga has its roots in his AntiGravity, an entertainment brand established in 1991, which has conceived and collaborated in over 400 productions since that time, from Broadway shows to the Olympics to the Academy Awards. Chris Harrison designed bungee dance technology and developed hanging silk as a performance apparatus. His AntiGravity Theater and National Aerial Performance Training Center is based in Florida.
AntiGravity Yoga has spread to gyms and studios in more than 30 countries, including Madonna’s Hard Candy Fitness. “It’s not as hard as it looks, and it’s actually not as terrifying as it seems,” observed Jessica Booth after taking a class at Studio Anya in NYC. “Once you’re in the hammock correctly, you’re so much more secure than you’d think. If you do exactly what you’re told, you’ll find yourself doing front and back flips, handstands galore, and even hanging upside down.”
Some people hang on for dear life, while others get a great workout in. You can even fly back and forth like it’s a playground swing set. Since a good part of the exercise is done upside down, everyone feels taller when they’re finished.
“It makes you feel like a total badass,” Jessica added.
AcroYoga is yoga melded with acrobatics and healing arts. It got off the ground in the early part of the 21st century, although Krishnamacharya used to do it in the 1930s, playing the role of the base, while a child played the flyer, doing asanas above him. It’s a vigorous workout usually involving three people, base, flyer, and spotter.
The base is on the ground, on his or her back, while the flyer is the person elevated off the ground, moving through a series of dynamic postures. The spotter is there to make sure things don’t go haywire, and save the day, if need be. The circle ceremony, promoting openness and communication within the group, is what everyone does before class.
Jason Nemer and Jenny Sauer-Klein founded AcroYoga International in 2003. It blended gymnastics with playfulness with yoga. They systematized the terms and training and execution of the practice. They made common poses a matter of teamwork.
It’s the yoga of trust, because you’ve got to trust the person whose hands and feet you are balanced on. You are moving up there, but are being moved from below, as well. It is move play connect. It is leaning on each other, believing your partner will always be there to lend a hand.
It isn’t easy, requiring muscles, core strength, and kinesthetic awareness. It takes long-established practice to new heights. It’s more fun than sweating your ass off at a Bikram Yoga studio, too.
SUP Yoga is doing yoga on a paddleboard, and it’s also more fun than sweating your ass off at a Bikram studio. For one thing, you’re outside, on the open water, in the fresh air, not in a steam bath of a mirrored torture chamber. For another thing, if you fall, you fall into clean water, not face first onto a Bikram-mandated moldy carpet.
Standing up on canoes and rafts and propelling yourself with the help of a pole or paddle is thousands of years old. The Waikiki Beach Boys of Oahu pioneered the modern style of stand up paddle boarding in the 1960s. Although nobody knows who actually premiered SUP Yoga, Rachel Brathen is one of the pioneers.
“My fiancée was always surfing on a longboard with big dogs, and I thought, if he can surf with a dog on a board, I should be able to do a down dog on a board,” she said.
On shore, people asked her, “Do you teach classes in this?”
“Sure!” she said, channeling her inner and outer teacher, which she is, as well as the author of the New York Times bestseller “Yoga Girl”.
A week later she started giving her first classes.
SUP Yoga is a little more complex than posture yoga, which barely requires a mat, if that. It calls for essential gear, including a paddleboard, paddle, leash, personal flotation device, and an emergency whistle. It takes some getting used to. Just about anything that is done on a mat can be done on a board, but the board is wobbly all the time, which engages on-land muscles in a different way. It demands you be intentional with all your movements, and stay in the present, every split second.
Otherwise, it’s over the side.
On the far side, from kooky to cute, is doing yoga while under the influence, and practicing with pets.
Boozy yoga got its start when studios started pairing their classes with cheese and wine tasting afterwards, cocktails at the local saloon after Friday night classes, and mimosas after Sunday morning flow classes. There’s nothing like a pick-me-up after the pick-me-up of a good yoga class, although it can get to be too much of a good thing.
One in eight American adults meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder.
Beer Yoga is happy hour on the mat. Pop-up classes get sponsored by a local bar or brewery. There are 24 hours in a day. There are 24 beers in a case. It can’t be a coincidence. It’s got to be destiny, karma. It’s also got to be a new revenue stream for beer makers. Who knew yogis would be getting into suds?
There is even Drunk Yoga, created by Eli Walker, a yoga teacher in Brooklyn, NYC, for those unconcerned about hitting the bottle hard. A plastic tumbler of wine is near to hand at every mat, although everyone is limited to one glass just before class and one glass during class. All bets are off after class.
“With Drunk Yoga, I wanted to create a safe and silly space for yogis and non-yogis alike to just have fun and move their bodies,” says Eli Walker.
“I’ll drink to that,” say her students.
“We make new friends over a glass of wine and just lighten the fuck up about yoga,” observed Jamey Powell. “And you know what? It worked for me. It is as fun as it sounds.”
Getting in the groove with pets and barnyard animals are surefire ways to lighten the mood of any yoga class. Yoga with your dog, or Doga, for short, is changing it up from a daily walk and into the yoga studio. They don’t actually do anything once they are there, except maybe keep you company and relax in corpse pose for an hour, but it keeps them from chasing squirrels.
“Dogs really benefit from Doga whether they participate, or not,” says Mahny Djahanguiri, who has been bonding with canines for about five years. “In my class the dogs are dogis and humans are yogis.” The idea is that animals lower anxiety levels and generate feel good hormones.
She has written “Doga: Yoga for You and Your Dog”. The how-to book includes pictures of how to deploy large dogs as bolsters and small dogs as hand weights.
Yoga with animals has spread to horses, cats, and baby goats. Goat Yoga got started at Lainey Morse’s farm in Oregon in 2016 when a friend suggested she host yoga classes. “I said OK,” said Lainey, “but the goats have to join in.” She had eight goats. The goats joined in. Within a year there was a waiting list to get in on the classes.
“The most fun part for me is watching people’s faces when a little goat comes up to them while they’re doing a yoga pose,” she said. “It’s a distraction, but it’s a happy distraction. It’s hard to be sad and depressed when there’s baby goats jumping on you.”
In the past two years Caprine Vinyasa, better known as Baby Goat Yoga, has grown by leaps and bounds. The goat kids might distract you with their melt-your-insides cuteness, might climb on your back when you’re in plank pose, and might leave little pools of goat pee here and there, but they are ideal therapy partners.
Jut watch out when you’re in headstand, as goats tend to butt heads.
Rooftop Yoga, Silent Disco Yoga, Naked Yoga, TRX Yoga, Broga, MMA Yoga, and Soul Flow Yoga are among a myriad of other niche practices that have suddenly sprouted on the scene in recent years. It’s always great to take risks and try new things, but new roads sometime mean superhighways and other times just mean new ruts.
On the other side of redesigned ways of doing things at your local studio, festivals and conferences drawing national and international audiences have proliferated in the past twenty years. Some of the best festivals are Sat Nam Fest, OM Yoga Show, and Wanderlust. They are launching pads for the old school that endures and the cutting edge that works.
The OM Yoga Show is a yoga gathering in London. Studio owners from around the world come to participate and network at one of the biggest such expos in the world. “If you’re in the yoga industry bring business cards with you,” said Sarah Highfield, founder of Yogarise. “Come in your yoga clothes – there are lots of classes on offer. Finally, turn up hungry, because there are plenty of tasty food stands to try.”
Sat Nam Fest is five days of asana, mantras, and meditation, revolving around Kundalini Yoga. Wanderlust is yoga by day and concerts by night, celebrations of mindfull living, living it up, summer surfing with “great nature, great food, great people, and more!” It has grown to 8 festivals annually in the USA and Canada.
Even though there are many ways to sharpen skills nowadays, from blogs to podcasts to instructional videos, one of the best ways is still the live event, workshops and conferences. They are about meeting influencers and experts face-to-face, learning new know-hows and relearning classic ways of doing things, and sharpening the saw. Almost everybody comes home from conferences, from investing in themselves, from being in rooms with the energy of like-minded individuals, with a greater focus.
The Omega Institute hosts an annual Yoga Service Conference. “The conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect with folks whose yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are primarily focused on service to the world,” said Sue Julian of the Yoga Prison Project. The Toronto Yoga Conference has grown to 300 exhibitors and 700 hours of seminars and training sessions. The Yoga Journal Conferences have long been venues to experience the diversity of the practice, get inspired, work on your skills, and experiment with new ones.
The modern world is about change. Yoga is a practice of moxie and awareness. The first step in riding the wave of change is awareness.
In its own domain, yoga in the modern world has been experimenting, experiencing growing pains, shooting off in all directions. It gets hare-brained at times, shooting itself in the foot, electrifying at other times, shooting for the stars. It can do whatever it wants, even though it can’t do whatever it wants. It can only do what works, which is why it is still in business, still breathtaking.
Although new isn’t always progress, all yoga was once new.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.