Yoga: Cult or Craze? - Cult Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo by Taro Taylor.

We’ve all seen them. They strut down the street like proud roosters, likely clad in Lulu Lemon or other equally revealing skin tight exercise apparel. Their foam bricks protruding from their large sack purses. Their yoga mat tightly rolled and clinging to their back. They are the yoga people, and if you have lived on the outside of this world, looking in, you might think they are a part of some special club — dare we say, a cult.

The idea that yoga is a cult is not exactly original. There are the yogis and spiritual leaders who guide the meditations and stretches. There are volumes of terminologies exclusive to the various disciplines within yoga. All not to mention the students, who each have so much to say about how yoga has changed their life and benefited them in so many ways. As a yoga rookie, a 58-year-old male who asked to have his name withheld for this article, was in disbelief by the improvements to his golf swing.

“I like the breathing the most, but I can’t tell you how much my range of motion in my shoulder has improved because of doing yoga,” he tells BTR.

Two years ago, our middle-aged yoga student had surgery to fix a weak shoulder from several dislocations. He had come back to physical activity slowly, but his recovery began to accelerate after starting yoga. While this is something he is happy to talk about, he is not thrilled with his brothers in law (his golf buddies) catching wind of his secret to success. He is afraid they would assume he is some sort of “hippie” now. While he does own some pretty swishy pants, he does not consider himself an aspiring Yogi.

Such is a common misconception about yoga practice. Not everyone who does yoga is seeking to become a master of a type of yoga. Before venturing into how one becomes a master at any yoga form, there are many “types” of yoga that are practiced in the west yet there are three main branches of yoga practiced in America.

There is Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Viniyoga, all of which have numerous variations and disciplines depending on the teachers. From newly dubbed, ‘flow yogas’ focusing on stabilizing muscles and movement to the meticulous routine of Bikram, there is something for everyone.

All of these styles have their own practice routines and more importantly, their own set of students to sing their praises. So how is yoga, a spiritual and physical practice in all of its forms, not a cult when so many aspects of it makes it a perfect candidate.

“People who say that don’t know what a cult is,” says Amy DeFilippi, a yoga instructor and therapist with over 15 years experience. “A cult has a charismatic leader who is trying to get people to believe certain things about the world. Yoga doesn’t do that, it’s a spiritual and practical exercise,” DeFilippi explains.

The definition of a cult is relatively broad, usually identifying a leader, a strict code or doctrines, and while it does not require the consumption of Kool-Aid, it does require some surrender of the personal identity to the group itself.

Some of the best known cults involved spiritual and bodily practices though, like the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which actually began as a yoga and meditation class. This cult is most notable for a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways system.

But fear not, those yoga mats you see being toted around your neighborhood are just mats, and nothing else. They aren’t even particularly religious in nature.

Yoga, as DeFilippi describes it, does not require you to believe in Eastern traditions of religions. It only requires a presence of mind on the moment and the practice.

“It’s about pointing out the beginning middle and end of everything we do,” she says. “I say that everyday. Our breath has the inhale the pause and the exhale, and its looking to [the breathe] that makes this a practice and not some sort of cult.”

However, DeFilippi does give some credence to the notion that Bikram Yoga, a hot version of 26 specific stretching poses done in an exact sequence, is a cult. Really, she more readily associates that with a yogi exploiting western capitalism.

Bikram Choudhury, the founder of this intensely heated yoga style, was one of the first Yogi’s to trademark his name and copyright his sequence in order to profit from it no matter where it is practiced.

“It’s because he’ll sue you. When I was first teaching in Hawaii there was a studio that was doing a hot yoga. They didn’t call it Bikram, because they wanted to be able to throw in different poses and try to change it up to suit that days practice. But Bikram Choudhury sued them,” DeFilippi tells BTR.

It would seem that Choudhury has no flexibility in improving on his system. Which seems unwise, as amateur yoga students have some legitimate complaints.

Participation in yoga has steadily increased since its introduction to the west and with its commercialization through companies like Lululemon, we now have a whole generation that feel comfortable in second spandex skin. So what may seem like a cult is just a fitness craze with a cult like following. Hardly something worth worrying about.