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
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

    £20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

    Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

    £17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

    Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

    Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

    Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen