If you follow the yoga scene in the United States, you will have likely noticed a steady stream of class offerings that B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and the other lions of yoga in the past century would never have envisioned.
Frequent coverage in mainstream publications is indication of the spectacle these types of classes elicit.
Most recently, the Wall Street Journal had a full write up on Beer Fit Club (yoga + a free pint during class). And a personal experience piece on what it’s like to take a naked yoga class came both through my Facebook feed and my inbox with concerned comments from Hindus, each decrying them as not really being yoga, being disrespectful to Hindus, or some variation of, “What the **** is going on here? I don’t like it.”
So, what is going on here? Are these sorts of classes really yoga? To answer that, let’s get back to basics and ask, “What is yoga?”
What is yoga?
Yoga refers to a number of different things depending on the context.
It’s one of the six main branches of Hindu philosophy. It refers to any of the four paths of spiritual striving offered in Hindu teachings. And it is used to describe similar spiritual methods in the other spiritual traditions of India as well. In the West in particular, it’s become a synonym for asana (physical postures).
Skipping ahead a bit, Patanjali notes that these changing states of the mind, “are stilled by practice and dispassion” with “effort to be fixed in concentrating the mind” (YS 1:12, 13). Patanjali further describes practice as becoming “firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time” (YS 1:14).
Nothing in these passages specifically refers to alcohol, goats, or being naked—for or against. But, nor is there anything outrightly stated about standing on your hands, putting your leg behind your head, or upward facing dog.
Intent helps define what is and isn’t yoga
Though there are some postures described by Patanjali, asana are more fully described in other texts, some written hundreds of years ago, some decades ago. And of course, now there’s YouTube, where every asana has been demonstrated in detail and is regularly being pushed to new levels of accomplishment — air baby, anyone?
How the physical part of yoga practice is done today is not the same as it was 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or even 20 years ago — even if the spiritual striving in it and the spiritual insights obtained stand the test of time.
Calling standing on your hands adho mukha vrikshasana doesn’t mean, in itself, that you are doing yoga versus something from calisthenics or gymnastics — though there are stylistic differences in how you balance on your hands in each system that can be used to distinguish them.
The defining factor is whether you are practicing these poses as part of a path of spiritual exploration using the body with the ultimate aim to quiet the fluctuations of the mind. Or are you not concerned with the spiritual angle and primarily focused on physical fitness? Both are worthy goals. There is certainly joy in pursuing either of them. But they are different intentions and different frameworks. One is yoga and the other isn’t.
If we don’t disqualify the variety of asana in existence today because of their absence in ancient texts, can yoga involving beer, goats, or nudity be disqualified simply because on the surface they don’t appear to be yoga as traditionally construed?
The most ancient yoga texts don’t mention alcohol
The Yoga Sutra itself is silent on alcohol. Modern writers and commentators on yoga often argue that alcohol is an intoxicant and should be avoided in all aspects of life. But it’s not a universally held belief that being a teetotaller off the mat is a prerequisite to step onto one — which is my viewpoint, provided that moderation in alcohol consumption is maintained.
That said, though you can’t disqualify drinking beer as anti-yoga or anti-Hindu in an of itself, no established lineage condones drinking alcohol as part of an asana practice.
On a practical level, a key question is ‘does drinking 16 ounces of beer as part of practicing asana enhance your concentration and focus during practice?’
While small amounts of alcohol may not impair the physical abilities or concentration of most people, it definitely doesn’t enhance them either.
Aren’t goats just a distraction?
Goat yoga? It’s similar to beer yoga (minus any benefit of hydration). Does having a small goat cavorting about help or hinder your focus on your practice? If it does then more power to you, but I have a hard time believing it does — unless perhaps you want additional distractions than what your mind itself creates and more physical hindrances than tight hamstrings.
Is goat yoga cute or novel, or perhaps pleasurable? Sure. Does being in the presence of animals have therapeutic benefits, as some proponents of goat yoga posit? Sure. But in the majority of instances, in terms of the intent of yoga asana, it’s probably just a distraction on the mat.
Hindu ascetics regularly go naked for spiritual reasons
Naked yoga? Many sadhus go about naked or near naked, or perform austerities to transcend sexual desire, as part of their sadhana (spiritual practice). Which indicates to me that though it may at first seem more out there than beer or goat yoga, naked yoga in some way is probably closer to the tradition than it first seems.
Practicing naked in a group is taking something that in the West is usually hyper-sexualized and recontextualizing it. At least intellectually I can say that’s one of its potentials.
Is that the effect such classes will have if they become more established? Only time will tell.
Can you practice these with dedication or is it just novelty?
One additional potential pitfall that runs through each of these new variations on the physical aspect of yoga — assuming the practitioner’s intent is indeed spiritual and hence they can be called yoga — is that they all seem to rely on novelty as appeal.
Once this novelty wears off, what is left?
We’re back to the millennia-old advice from Patanjali and the questions this advice brings about: Do these new twists on established methods of practicing asana truly help in concentrating the mind?
Can you undertake them “uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time”?
Can you use them as physical postures have always been used in the yoga tradition, as outer preparation for the inner work of sense withdrawal, concentration, and meditation?
If your answer is no — and it probably will be — then while you may be having a good time, you’re not practicing yoga.