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Yoga, Safety, Religion and Neo-colonialism

SAFETY FIRST
A short while ago the process to introduce a National Occupational Standard (NOS) for the teaching of Yoga was initiated by the leadership of the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) based on the claim that the teaching of Yoga is currently unsafe.  They have agreed to fund Skills Active, a quasi government organisation, to begin this process. 
During a recent Radio 4 interview when I called for evidence that would support this claim, the Chair of the BWY, Paul Fox, offered only anecdotes of unsafe teaching practices. 

Yoga has always been seen as a safe haven ~ different from other movement and exercise systems in that it calls for something else besides simply being fit.  I have been practising Yoga for forty-five years and teaching for forty.  During this time, whenever Yoga teachers have offered their experience that Yoga has helped a great many people with ailments like back pain or anxiety, they have been countered with ‘where’s the evidence?’ ~ and researchers have had to produce rigorous evidence demonstrating Yoga’s benefits.  
  
But anecdotes about ‘unsafe’ teaching by the leadership of one of the biggest Yoga organisations in the country have quickly made the rounds in the media and as a result the image of Yoga has taken an unfair battering.  As I stood in a queue the other day I couldn’t help but overhear two women talking about someone who had just started Yoga.  One woman remarked, “I told her to be careful.  The papers are saying it is dangerous.”

I totally agree with the statement that ‘teachers have a duty of care to their students and an obligation to be safe, competent and knowledgeable’, that appeared in a recent article posted on the BWY Facebook page with a petition for an NOS for Yoga teachers.  I’m sure no-one involved in the teaching of Yoga could sensibly disagree with that statement.  It’s the sucker punch that comes after it that is the problem ~ that the way to achieve this ‘safety’ is through standardisation by a quasi-government organisation ~ that is objectionable.

This ‘safety flag’ is a red herring: current levels and standards of teaching of Yoga are not generally causing injuries.  Not a great deal of proper research has been done in this area but one study seems to indicate we Yoga teachers are doing very well indeed1.  Further, one of the biggest insurers of ‘alternatives’ says that an NOS for Yoga is an unnecessary measure based on their experience regarding claims for injury in Yoga classes, and they have written an open letter to this effect2.

Ironically, while the BWY has warned that some schools are giving just 3-day courses and people emerge as Yoga teachers, a number of 2-day Yoga courses already have ‘industry standard’ approval! 

All of us would like to see standards improve but an NOS through the quango Skills Active, is not going to achieve that.  At a recent meeting with Skills Active, their delegates refused to tell us how or what form this NOS would take, despite repeated questioning from Yoga teachers.  What did emerge was that it would involve creating another layer of bureaucracy Yoga schools and teachers would have to deal with. 

Consider this, physiotherapists ~ highly trained professionals in physiology, anatomy and the dynamics of movement ~ have been refused REPS (Register of Exercise Professionals) membership to teach Yoga exercises unless they go through the Skills Active process!     The physiotherapists have wisely refused this pathway because it offers no further training that will improve the skills they already have. 

Perhaps a better way to improve the standard of Yoga teaching would have been for the BWY to contact the large groups that represent so many teachers ~ like the Independent Yoga Network (IYN) and the Yoga Alliance ~ and find out if there was a common strategy they could devise together.   Why did the BWY not first of all seek an open dialogue that could have led to Yoga schools of all hues coming together to have an exchange on how to improve and ensure standards?  This would have brought out the best of us by practising what Yoga calls us to: open, transparent communication among all those who mean well.

Instead, the BWY went straight to a quango that Yogins had previously rejected.  IT IS THIS ACTION ~ THE CALL FOR A GOVERNMENT DEFINITION OF WHAT CONSTITUTES YOGA AND YOGA PRACTICE (WHICH IS REQUIRED IF YOU ARE GOING TO CREATE A ‘STANDARD’) THAT HAS RAISED QUESTIONS FROM HINDUS ABOUT THE LEGITIMACY OF SUCH A MOVE. 
 
YOGA AND RELGION

This brings us to the thorny issue of whether or not Yoga is a religion.  The article accompanying the petition on the BWY Facebook page calls for an NOS by falsely redefining what Yoga is ~ arguing that Yoga is not a religion and therefore can be regulated by the government.

Yoga is not the whole of Hinduism ~ but it is certainly an integral part of Hinduism that cannot be divorced from the whole.  Hinduism has six orthodox theologies (called darshanas) and they are usually paired thus:

Samkhya and Yoga
Nyaya and Vaisheshika
Mimamsa and Advaita
 
Arguing from ignorance ~ and from arrogance ~ that Yoga is not a religion, the FB article claims that the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are its reference points.  But in fact, the Yoga Darshana referred to above is precisely that of the ancient sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika ~ another sacred text that the article declares has no affiliation with Hinduism ~ is in fact a medieval sacred text of the Nath Hindus. The article disassociates these texts from Hinduism on the grounds that they are ‘open to all’.  Indeed, these sacred texts ARE open to all: from school halls, to gyms, to fitness centres, to studios all over the world they are celebrated, practised, taught and enjoyed.  But they are nonetheless sacred Hindu texts. 

 
I have said this many times and I will say it again here : Yoga can be practised and taught by anyone, not only by Hindus.  It can be embraced by those of a religion other than Hinduism and by those of no religion at all.  It is BOTH open to all AND simultaneously an integral part of Hinduism.  An appropriate metaphor might be that of shot silk: a beautiful weave developed in India in the 7th century.  The warp and weft are woven in different colours ~ look at it one way and it’s one colour, look at it from a slightly different angle, and it’s another.  Which one is it?  It is both!
Yoga is different from Pilates or Zumba or any other fitness regime that Paul Fox mentions in one of the many videos he has posted on the BWY FB page.  As part of a religion Yoga cannot be subject to government regulation of its definition and practices.  To attempt to impose such regulation, under the guise of safety, is to distort and exploit the generous nature of Yoga.     
 
YOGA AND NEO-COLONIALISM
 
I am a lover of what is now called ‘cultural exchange’.  I enjoy Neapolitan pizzas and Gujarati dhokra, I love to dance and sing to American rock and Punjabi Bangra (in the solitude of my own ashram), as well as chant the ancient Rg Veda.  I was born into Catholicism but have been a practising Hindu for over forty years. 
This is how the human family developed over centuries ~ through vital cultural and intellectual exchanges with each other.  The precious zero, developed by ancient Hindu mathematicians and which opened up our modern mathematics, was brought from India to Europe via the Middle East by Muslims ~ a fantastic example of human exchange.  But this exchange also calls for respect and understanding that we cannot dictate ~ through the mechanism of our governments ~ the practice of another’s religion. Any call to deny the Hindu origins of Yoga can justifiably be called neo-colonialism. 
I do accuse the BWY leadership of such neo-colonialist hubris when, in the spirit of Yoga, they could have done something else entirely.  If the BWY leadership had shown the respect that Yoga practice usually engenders in us, could they not also have called on the Hindu Council to assist, with other Yoga schools, in the process of ensuring good and sage practice?
As Yogins, let us not exploit Yoga’s universalism against its Hinduism in order to co-opt Yoga into a ‘British’ form.
This campaign for an NOS has been launched in a way that does not represent the best of Yoga ~ it doesn’t even represent the best of humanity!   We can do better than this.  When enemy combatants can find new ways to collaborate, dare we as Yogins do less?  Can we really find no other way to assure the public that they are safe in our classes?
Yoga calls on us to enter a deeper part of ourselves where the concept of ‘self’ and ‘other’ has little significance.  Let us all ~ including the leadership of the BWY ~ enter that place and begin to talk to one another to find a way to keep Yoga teaching in this country growing and in good health.

 

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/26/selling-yoga-teachers-neocolonialism-british-indian-spiritual

  2. http://bgi.uk.com/2016/09/09/open-letter-from-bgi-uk-to-skills-active-regarding-the-proposed-regulation-of-yoga/

 

 

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