An Interview with Ganga by Spa Magazine, Oct 2003


Spa: In September, yoga practitioners from around the U.S. will gather in California for the first International Yoga Asana (Posture) Championship. What do you think about this yoga championship? Do you feel there's any room for competition in yoga?

Ganga: Many yoga teachers are against any form of competition in yoga and are shocked, even outraged, by the idea of a competitive event. This belief may deny the actuality that whether or not we are consciously competing, subtle competition exists in many forms, and to deny that pushes competition underground. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that competition exists, even in yoga. Yoga centers try to be the best, teachers may compete for students, students compete for the teacher's attention and we compete with ourselves. Competition can be a positive force that moves us forward but it can get out of hand and become a detriment. Wisdom may be in learning to keep competitiveness in its place and keep our attention on the more important aspects of yoga.

While I am not a purest against competition per se, I don't think it is wise to encourage competition in the yoga world. This is because yoga is one rare area in which everyone can win. There is no one winner in a yoga class--everyone wins. Competing takes your attention off yourself and your needs in the moment and can even lead to injury. But the real mistake in staging yoga competitions is in missing the fact that the essence of yoga cannot be measured! Who wins in a yoga competition? The person who holds the most contorted position the longest? The person who does the most graceful asanas? If this is the case, the Cirque de Soleil or the Chinese acrobats have already won-they are way beyond most yogis in their physical abilities. I watched an acrobat climb a flight of stairs while holding a headstand without using his arms for support. I've seen a girl bend backward, place her buttocks on her head, and balance a knife on one foot--all while holding herself in a one arm handstand on top of a stack of five balanced chairs that were placed on a spinning table! These performance acts may amaze and win competitions but are they good for the practitioner? Do they serve the purpose of yoga? Many acrobats develop serious spinal problems. Such performance and show may be wonderful but to bring it to the yoga world can steer people away from the essence of yoga. Yoga aims at bringing people to higher awareness, to insight and love, and physical yoga aims at well being, health and wholeness. Advancing in yoga involves learning how to use the techniques and practices of yoga in a more sophisticated and sensitive manner and to learn how to tune the practice to your body. Often a student or teacher in class who can do the most "advanced" poses may also have an unrefined understanding of the subtlety of the practice, even though other students in the class may swoon and claim that person is so advanced.

Spa: What's your opinion of Bikram yoga as a practice?

Ganga: I'd rather answer more generally. What is more interesting than critiquing a particular system is asking the deeper question of why people are looking for, and susceptible to, fixed answers and certainty. Is it because life is unpredictable and full of change? Uncertainty and mystery also bring the joy to life so rather than look for the way we're wiser to learn how to go with the flow. Yoga has a vast array of practices, techniques and postures. You will miss so much if you limit yourself to one particular form and a limited set of poses. There are so many wonderful and very useful practices, available in yoga. If a student is limited to one sequence of poses they miss a great deal. Would you always eat the same sandwich every day? Even though we're witnessing the branding of yoga, no matter what it's called, all the physical practices of yoga are rooted in and still belong to Hatha Yoga--the yoga of sun and moon. A basic tenet of yoga is learning to balance the many polarities of life, some of which include upward and downward moving energy, strength and flexibility, and heating and cooling. Several brands of yoga emphasize intense heating of the body but some people already have too much heat in their systems and they need a cooler practice to reach balance. Practices are tools. Tools aren't intrinsically good or bad, they can heal and they can hurt. We have to learn when and how to use the right tool. I think rather than approaching yoga mechanistically, "do this and get that", we must hold yoga in a more relativistic way. What is right for one, may not be right for another. What is right for you today, may change tomorrow. There is no one medicine that cures everything. Even in our age of advanced scientific knowledge we're still susceptible to snake oil salesmen.

Spa: A recent article in the New York Times said Bikram would like to create the "Starbucks of yoga," with all Bikram studios offering the same experience. What do you think of that?

Ganga: Again, I don't want to speak about anyone in particular, these issues apply to anyone doing similar things. At White Lotus, we challenge authoritarism, dogma, and rigid belief systems. Yoga is said to be the biggest trend ever in America. I think that it's good to see this burgeoning interest. But I don't think it's desirable, nor fortunately is it even possible, to homogenize yoga.

Spa: Do you think there should be experimentation and creativity in a yoga practice? Or is a regimented, predictable approach better?

Ganga: Yoga's message is always about balance. It's important to build a good foundation in good yoga practices and personal insight into yoga before experimenting and going your own way. In any case, there is already a lot of hybridization and experimentation going on in yoga, whether we like it or not. May be it's the Yankee way. We need to find a balance between tradition, innovation and re-visioning. Tradition emphasizes obedience, faith and keeping things the way they were-or, actually, the way someone thinks or asserts they were. Everything is subject to interpretation. We live in times of accelerating change and times when traditional beliefs are having vast impacts, many of them negative, on society. This means we must open tradition to scrutiny and critique and our use of tradition must be ready to mutate, change and grow. That is the nature of life itself. Modern discovery, science and experimentation have already added enormously to yoga's body of knowledge. A great part of yoga's practices and techniques that are considered ancient are actually recent innovations. Some teachers hold the view that all great knowledge and wisdom was elucidated in the past and we must follow the ancient way, the way yoga has always been. But there has always been great diversity in yoga and differing opinion and interpretation. There has never been one yoga. I suggest we honor and learn from the past but we can stand on its shoulders and grow into greater insights and abilities. When a teaching, practice or even an asana has great intrinsic value, it will stand on its own and it will be carried on.

Spa: What do you think of the directions yoga is taking in this country-both good and bad-in general?

Ganga: I think the answer is yes! There is always both good and negative in just about anything. There are great trends and innovations and many things in the yoga world might be questionable. In times of great growth and change there will be mutations, some beneficial, some problematical. I am concerned about the "corporatization" of yoga wherein some big companies are trying to brand, shape, control and profit from the trend. They make the bottom line more important than quality. It's almost like the early days of Hollywood or the gold rush-stars are being born, there's jockeying for position and there is also some wonderful teaching and sharing. I'm heartened by the burgeoning interest that is bringing so many to yoga. There is also more good research and exploration beginning that will prove fruitful. I hope that students will look beyond the teachers they outgrow or have difficulties with and do not give up yoga itself. While some people try to become figureheads or to control definition and content, Yoga remains a vast river. Let the swimmer find the clear flowing waters and avoid the stagnant ponds.