Is modern yoga dominated by a culture of backbiting?

BKS Iyengar, one of the founders of modern yoga, has died at the age of 95. Yoga is practised by millions around the world, but modern yoga is markedly removed from the discipline of Iyengar's heyday

On Wednesday evening, in a church hall in north London, I sat surrounded by a dozen or so men and women, of various ages, head bowed, in a moment of silence. It was our regular weekly yoga class, only this one was different: that morning, the founder of our particular school of yoga, B K S Iyengar, had passed away. He died aged 95, at a hospital in Pune, western India. Arguably, his death marks the departure of the last great yoga guru.

Of course, the practice of yoga dates back thousands of years, with some placing its origins as early as 3,000BC. It permeated the West in the 1890s, when a Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, toured Europe and the United States, delivering lectures and private classes. It wasn't until the second half of the 20th century, however, that yoga went truly global.

Iyengar played a significant part in this. Born in 1918, the 11th child of a schoolteacher from Bellur in south-west India, he took up yoga as a teenager. He had previously suffered malaria, TB and typhoid fever, but, as he practised, he rapidly became stronger. At 18, he began teaching. He developed his eponymous system, which revolves around more than 200 central poses, teaching across Europe in the 1950s, and published Light on Yoga, an international bestseller, in 1966.

Guru: Iyengar played a significant part in helping yoga go global Guru: Iyengar played a significant part in helping yoga go global He wasn't the only 20th-century yogi to inspire devotees around the world. In fact, the mid-century represented a golden age of yoga tutorship. Sivananda Saraswati, a Hindu spiritual teacher from Kuppuswamy in Pattamadai, in southern India, authored some 200 books from the 1930s to the 1990s. His 1935 treatise, Kundalini Yoga, provided the founding text of the Kundalini school of yoga. Meanwhile, one of the most popular latter-day yoga forms, Ashtanga vinyasa – characterised by fast-paced exercises and pronounced, controlled, breathing – was created by Krishna Pattabhi Jois, a teacher from Kowshika, south India. Both men, in turn, owe a great deal to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Lesser-known in the West, it's arguably he who has the greatest claim to being "the father of modern yoga". He taught both Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar at his school in Mysore, south-west India (he was also Iyengar's brother-in-law).

Now yoga is practised by millions around the world, with more than 500,000 practitioners in the UK alone. But if it is more popular than ever, modern yoga is also markedly removed from the discipline of Iyengar's heyday.

The most famous (or infamous) modern yogi is Bikram Choudhury, the 68-year-old creator of Bikram yoga – or "the Master of McYoga", as he has been called. Born in Kolkata, he moved to the United States in the 1970s, founding schools in California and Hawaii. Today, Bikram is taught in 1,600 studios worldwide; reported fans include Andy Murray, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow. Choudhury caused uproar in the early Noughties with his decision to copyright his sequence of poses – a 90-minute series done in a room heated to 40C. He has attracted criticism for his lavish lifestyle – he reportedly owns a "Royal" Daimler that once belonged to Howard Hughes. More seriously, last year, five women in the US filed claims of rape or sexual harassment against him, the outcome of which is unknown.

Meanwhile, some argue that the modern yoga community has become dominated by a culture of backbiting. In 2011, Shiva Rea, a Californian Kundalini teacher said to have taught Madonna, came under attack for teaching in low-cut trousers and sound-tracking her lessons with dance music. There has been infighting among Ashtanga devotees over attempts by Sonia Jones, the philanthropist wife of New York hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, to market it to well-off Americans. She partnered with Pattabhi Jois' daughter and grandson to launch a line of yoga clothes in 2012, which left so many complaining of commercialisation that Vanity Fair ran a 5,000-word article on the rift, headlined "Whose Yoga Is It Anyway?"

Traditionalists grumble about the influx of new, gym-friendly yoga forms, such as "Rocket yoga", a fast-paced Ashtanga variant created by the late American teacher Larry Schultz in the 1980s, or the "hybrid" yoga forms which have become popular, such as Voga (a mix of Vogueing and yoga). Designer yogawear – such as the phenomenally popular Lululemon range – and luxury yoga retreats are, for some, yet further indication of yoga's over-commercialisation.

Do such criticisms matter? Last year, Iyengar himself defended the practice against them. "It all depends on what state of mind the practitioner is in when he is doing yoga," he said in an interview with Indian newspaper Mint. "I think overall the majority of people who are practising it as a subject are following the right line."

I once confessed to my yoga teacher that I felt too embarrassed to tell some people that I did yoga, middle-class, Eat, Pray, Love cliché that it is. But the fact is, doing a downward dog in my local church hall a few times a week makes me feel happier and – yes – more balanced. If Rocket yoga and a pair of Lululemon pants do that for someone else, what of it?

Read more: BKS Iyengar: Teacher who spread yoga around the world
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

    £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

    Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea