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March 24th, 2012

The recent Yoga competition and the push to get Yoga into the Olympics has many yogis up in arms, in a nonviolent way of course…

I was recently interviewed about it on a PBS radio show (link to mp3) with many callers expressing opinions. It is commonly the case that many yogis are upset and voice that the “purity” of Yoga is being compromised by competition—which they assert should never be part of Yoga. Or they assert that competition isn’t “spiritual”, isn’t in accord with the eight limbs, or that it strengthens ego.

Whether or not the eight limbs is the definition of Yoga, or if competition, or ego, can or should be eliminated from the fabric of life could easily be debated. But instead of going there, I’m taking a different tack. Is a Yoga competition really serving our best interests and can proficiency in Yoga practice be measured by judges? It can be argued that national and international competitions will bring greater authenticity, relevance and acceptance to asana practice, but is this the right way to get it? Does Yoga even need it? Here are five reasons championships are probably not the right path:

1. How do you measure who is doing the best Yoga?
When you see someone doing a beautiful or graceful pose, especially if it’s pushing the limits of movement and flexibility, it’s easy to assert they are an advanced student, or they are “very good” at Yoga. But what cannot be measured, or cannot easily be measured, is whether the way they are doing that pose is really good for the long term well being of their body. Is, for example, standing on their hands and putting both feet on their head, or wrapping both legs behind their back (full disclosure: I did these and more for years, back in the day) really the measure of “good” Yoga, and is it serving the long term well being of that body? Are these extreme or performance poses what others should aspire to and emulate in their practice? Are extreme poses good for the lifetime health of the spine, disks, and joints? Much more often than not, the answer is no. Is the person doing the best pretzel poses really the winner?

At White Lotus we assert that advancing in Yoga, developing proficiency in Yoga, is learning how to use the asanas, techniques, and practices to better serve the ones body for a lifetime. Learning to listen to internal feedback, to learn to make subtle energy flow, bone and nerve adjustments, to learn to discern the effects of the poses, and to become adept at self balancing and self healing is truly the essence of advancing in Yoga.

2. Yoga is for every body.
It is said there are hundreds of thousands of asanas. I suggest that is a metaphor showing that Yoga is for any and every body. I’ve seen bedridden and wheel chair confined practitioners doing, or should I say “using”, Yoga beautifully. Sure, certain body types can do many more poses, and super models, men and women, can look gorgeous in poses, but this can miss the essence. Any body, at any age or stage can get great benefit from practice. There is no need to compete.

3. Yoga is not a sport. Yoga is not a performance art.
Yoga isn’t really in the same category as sports, dance, or even gymnastics. There is a large performance component to sports. And of course, a large competitive component. Even dance is expressing a theme, form, or metaphor. Whereas the purpose of Yoga is health, well being, self healing, self transformation, awakening and re-awakening. The “winners” are all those who learn to use the tools of Yoga effectively for themselves.

If the winners in Yoga are the those who can do the most difficult positions and moves of flexibility and strength in a graceful and beautiful manner, then circus acrobats have already won. I’ve seen acrobats, in the Cirque du Soleil for example, do the most unbelievable Yoga-like poses with strength, grace and beauty.

4. There is no perfect pose.
There are endless adjustments, modifications and tunings of asanas. The essential reason for this is not “so someone can do the pose” but rather so the pose can do them. In other words the pose should be adjusted to serve the person instead of adjusting the person to fit into the pose.

5. Everybody wins.
The real beauty of Yoga is that everyone can win. There is competition in nearly every arena of life. We’re constantly conditioned to favor winners and shun losers. But in a class of twenty, or one hundred, Yoga students, who is the winner? Everyone! Everyone can be a winner at the same time in Yoga. This possibility is too rare in life to diminish. And, again, can you even say who is doing the best, most proficient practice? May be the stiff, injured, or elderly person in class is the one using the poses in the most subtle and refined manner.

These competitions may be here to stay, but will competitions and championships bring the right kind of attention and motivation to the art and science that is Yoga?

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January 15th, 2012

Don’t get too bent out of shape by all the recent who hah from the New York Times article about the dangers of Yoga. There may be some dangers in using Yoga to get yourself bent into shape, but that is no great revelation and nothing to fear. I’ve cautioned for many years, and wrote in YBB, asanas are tools, not goals, and they can cut both ways. Is a knife good or bad? Yes!

A couple months ago I had the good fortune of getting an advance copy of Science of Yoga from William Broad. The publication date is in February and the book is much more balanced than his NYT article. I think it’s a great book with valuable insights and contributions. It is not anti Yoga. Broad is and has been a practicing yogi for years. The book points out what he sees, and what he thinks science has shown, are dangers to be avoided. This doesn’t mean everything the book asserts is true but it initiates a much needed inquiry and debate. Broad’s book also validates many of Yoga’s benefits. Very often, when I’ve been interviewed, I am asked the question of where I think Yoga is heading in the future. I usually say that the caterpillar may have no idea of becoming a butterfly. We don’t know how our art and science will bloom as it grows and evolves. Then I add that one thing I can say for sure is that science and medicine will continue to discover benefits as well as problem areas and misapprehensions in Yoga practice and belief. Since Yoga has come west, and around the world, it has cross-pollinated with modern medicine, science, and many other disciplines. It has grown enormously in content and quality—it has evolved. This is welcome–a good thing. Understandably, traditionalists who erroneously believe Yoga was completely developed, elucidated, and perfected in the past are upset.

Yogis concerned with using the tools of Yoga to create a more refined practice will welcome new insights, information and debate. There are asanas known to be detrimental and they should be eliminated as should aggressive and rigid approaches to practice. This may be shocking to true believers, but it good news to those who want to move forward. Broad’s Science of Yoga this year, and Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body from last year, contribute to Yoga’s apocalypse—in the root meaning of the word, the uncovering of truth. I have been and remain a proponent of an evolutionary approach to Yoga.

NYT Article:

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June 25th, 2011

Ganga article in 805 Santa Barbara Magazine

Click photo for complete view

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January 23rd, 2011

The following review was written by Dr. Lorin Roche and was published in the December issue of L.A. Yoga:

Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice by Ganga White.

This book comes with an introduction by Sting, who writes, “This book offers a flexible perspective,” which is definitely something you want in a book on Yoga. Ganga has amazing credentials; he is the only person I know who began studying Yoga with a Zoroastrian high priest, and has been teaching Yoga since 1967, when he opened the original Center for Yoga on Sunset Boulevard in LA.

There was Ganga, teaching right in the heart of the city in the late 1960s and beyond, and does he have stories to tell! Instead of name-dropping, I’ll let you imagine all the great characters he met and the teachers with whom he studied. Let’s just say, if you like reading People magazine while standing in line at the supermarket, that celebrity curious part of your brain will find maha-ananda, much joy. Ganga’s foundation hosted many Yoga teachers on their first visits to Los Angeles, including BKS Iyengar in 1976. That other part of your brain, the one that engages in viveka (discernment), will have a good sweaty class, for Ganga takes on the big dharma issues of our time, such as, “What right do we, as Westerners, to Americanize Yoga? Are we degenerating the purity and authenticity of the teachings? And is there any way to know what was taught and practiced in the past?” Ganga has been in this conversation for longer than most of us have been alive or have heard of Yoga and it’s fascinating to read how his inquiry has progressed.

In the late 1960s, he mentioned in a class one day that he considered Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to be the foundation of Hatha Yoga. A few days later, a Swami called Ganga and angrily informed him that Patanjali was not at all an advocate of physical Yoga – Patanjali’s mention of asana and pranayama (posture and breathing) only referred to sitting quietly and stilling the breath for meditation; spending time and energy to cultivate the body leads to attachment, body consciousness and will detract one from the true spiritual path. Whew. Order the book from www.whitelotus.org/books_dvds.html and Ganga will sign it and mail it.

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