Flatland Yoga

Flatland Yoga November 8, 2017

Flatland Yoga

I was one of the pioneers of yoga in my home country of Iceland. I started teaching in 1998 and in 2002 I was part of an effort to create an alliance of yoga teachers in Iceland, roughly three years after Yoga Alliance was formed in the USA.

At the first meeting—which I hosted at my yoga studio—we had an intense debate about what role this alliance should play.

I advocated for a Satsang of sorts, a gathering of truth seekers. I wanted to create a community that included teachers who taught all aspects of yoga, including philosophy and meditation teachers, not only teachers who had gone through 200 hours or 500 hours of teacher training for yoga postures.

I was in the minority. Most of the teachers wanted to form a union of sorts, a professional association that would guard against ‘unqualified’ teachers.

I warned that setting up a yoga-police would gut yoga of its interior spiritual dimension, which is central to its very existence. My prediction was that instead of becoming an inclusive community that valued spiritual growth, we would limit ourselves to being a union of fitness teachers.

In the democratic environment, my argument lost, and, as a result, I decided not to participate in the Icelandic alliance, but I am sad to say that my prediction came true.

Which brings me to my point about what has happened to yoga in the West.

Stripped of Interiors

In an effort to popularize yoga in the West, yoga posture teachers and their alliances have almost exclusively touted the physical benefits of yoga and have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the spiritual philosophy.

Why? There are many reasons. The most common ones are that people wanted to get away from the mythic oriented philosophy, the religious connotations, and the male-dominated guru worship. I sympathize and even agree with some of the criticisms but, as Joseph Campbell would probably point out, the underlying elements need to be reoriented, not thrown out. A rational interpretation would help us see the underlying spiritual truths, but, instead, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.

Over the past fifteen years, the internal dimensions of Western yoga have been systematically removed and replaced with exteriors, eventually creating what I refer to as flatland yoga.

What does Flatland Yoga Look Like?

Flatland refers to a satirical novella from 1800’s about a two-dimensional world.

In my mind, that is what has happened to yoga.

By stripping away the interior spiritual dimensions, yoga is left only with the external dimensions of body and surroundings, which include postures, breathing techniques, diet, fashion, cultural artifacts, mats, etc.

Although the exterior dimensions are quite important, especially when coupled with the interior dimension, yoga has become a shadow of what it was meant to be.

In mathematical terms, the external practices are zero while the internal practices are one. Without one, zero has no value.

In flatland yoga, practitioners are primarily appraised through the use of external measurements, such as the number of poses they know and their degree of difficulty. Even the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the practice are measured in external terms, by the number of minutes a person meditates, the diet he or she adheres to, the clothes a person wears, and number of Sanskrit words he or she knows, all of which are measurements that lack depth because they lack an interior aspect.

Add in a measure of postmodern pluralism, where honoring diverse perspectives is erroneously interpreted to mean that no perspective is better than any other perspective, and you have the chaos of what is yoga today.

Everyone is doing their ‘own thing.’

Yoga has become more about sequencing postures and trademarking new names than about coupling internal spiritual growth with the ability to sit still—which was the original intent of yoga postures.

To top it off, the fitness world, which has made yoga its own, is slanted towards always favoring ‘new and exciting’ approaches to everything. Therefore, fitness yoga needs to constantly change so that people don’t get bored.

This need for endless variety and external measurements has birthed a variety of practices that seem to have little or nothing in common with original yoga. Examples include goat-yoga, rope-yoga, pole-yoga, disco-yoga, beer-yoga, cat-yoga, spinning-yoga, and so on.

Honoring both Interiors and Exteriors

In all fairness, yoga has had to go through growing pains in the West. I understand that. Taking a step back from the mythic worldview was necessary. Yet, it is clear that the spiritual dimension has been edged out, in some cases purposefully, in others, accidentally.

The modern yoga community can reintroduce interiors to yoga if it wants to. Building on the work of current philosophers, especially the integral model of Ken Wilber, transcending the mythic aspects while retaining the spiritual intent of the ancient philosophies, the spiritual dimension can be reinstated.

Yoga would benefit from that.

And the interest is there.

In October this year, I taught classes at a local yoga retreat and later at a teacher training, both focused on a rational interpretation of the spiritual foundations of yoga and the attendees were inspired.

Yoga is not a religion. However, if the practice is brought back from the external flatland it has descended into, this ancient discipline can provide people with practices that can be used to navigate unexplored interiors.

Adding one will give zero more value.

In recent years, my focus has shifted away from yoga and into the area of interfaith and interspirituality, but I hope that this short observation will instigate a healthy dialogue within the yoga teacher community about retrieving the missing spiritual dimension.


Gudjon Bergmann
Author, Interfaith Minister, and Yoga Teacher (E-RYT 500)

Read Living in the Spirit of Yoga to learn more about a rational interpretation of the spiritual principles.

Picture: CC0 License

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