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This is the weekly Amplify newsletter, where you can be inspired and challenged by the voices, opinions and insights of women at The Globe and Mail. A note to readers: Amplify will be sending its last issue to subscribers on March 2. We’re so grateful for the support you’ve shown us for the past seven years, and all past issues will continue to be available for readers on The Globe’s website.

This week’s newsletter was written by Rishika Jani, an event planning specialist at The Globe and Mail.

“Oh wow, you’ll make tons of money teaching yoga there,” was the common reaction I got when, a few years ago, I announced to my social circles that I was moving to Canada from my home country of India.

It’s well known that immigrants can struggle to find work in their chosen fields – especially those who move west from what the world calls “developing nations.” According to my friends and family, however, I had a great backup plan: In addition to my educational and professional qualifications in the events industry, my years of training at a 100-year-old traditional yoga institute in India meant I could also rely on my yogi bona fides to find work.

But while I knew moving was going to expose me to a whole new culture, I wasn’t ready for the cultural shock of a typical Canadian yoga studio.

It was one thing to be in classes full of mostly white students, but I also struggled to find instructors who were people of colour, or really any who were also Indian. As we moved through asanas (postures), the mispronunciations of pose names and the nasally delivered namastes grated my ears like nails on a chalkboard.

Okay, so Sanskrit has its pronunciation challenges – that can be forgiven. But why were these classes, full of watered-down versions of what’s written in the Yoga Sutras (the centuries-old, authoritative Sanskrit texts on the teachings of yoga) so expensive? And why the apparent need to fit in by wearing Lululemon clothing and bringing an on-trend water bottle to class? Yoga had morphed from what I was taught – a discipline, open to all, of humbling oneself and gaining stillness and self-awareness – into a strangely “luxurious” fitness experience for the wealthy.

Not only that, but I had spotted several classes for things that I earnestly thought might be a joke at first – goat yoga classes? Marijuana yoga? Beer yoga ... naked yoga?! The commodification and colonization of it all was almost too much to take.

I was also disappointed to discover that traditional yoga teachings meant almost nothing to the local studios with job openings. In order to be considered a certified practitioner, one needed to show they had paid hundreds of dollars to learn yoga not from an actual guru (as most Indians had back home) but from an organization that offered “registered yoga training.”

Often, these certifications were offered by organizations with tenuous (at best) connections to schools teaching ancient yogic practices in India. (How the Indian yoga community let this happen is a whole different matter, but search the name Swami Vivekananda if you’re interested in the history of yoga going west.)

But the most disappointing finding of all was how easily commodified yoga teaching has become in North America. In order to be considered certified at the most basic level, new instructors here only have to complete 200 hours of training. That may sound like a big number, but it’s less than a month of learning how to teach a practice that traditionally requires years of disciplined study and movement. Yoga, if done incorrectly, can cause not just physical but also psychological harm. It’s akin to allowing someone to drive a car without knowing how the accelerator or brake pedals work.

Yoga was and always will be a “way of life,” and it requires far more than a month of instruction to pass its deep teachings onto others. In a traditional environment, the practice is passed on from a guru to a shishya (student). The pupil must go through years of training before being given approval by the teacher to teach others.

I was taught according to the aforementioned Yoga Sutras – beautiful texts that break the practice down into eight “limbs,” each corresponding with eight steps to self-realization through a systematic and disciplined process. The higher up the steps one goes, the more sophisticated the process becomes. Interestingly, asanas (the physical fitness limb of yoga) is the third step and meditation is all the way up at No. 7 – yet these are two of the most easily and quickly commercialized aspects of yoga in the West today.

Before I get accused of gatekeeping, I should tell you that I do think the spread of yoga as a discipline has positive potential: We exist in a crazy world, and everyone could use more mindfulness and movement in their everyday lives. But watering down a traditional practice to make it more palatable and commodifiable strikes me as not just unethical but also irresponsible.

What is sold as “yoga” by most studios in Canada has become completely divorced, in my view, from what the practice has traditionally taught. It raises important questions that I think are worth mulling over. When we strip a practice of its philosophical and cultural roots, do we end up starving ourselves of the wisdom it was originally supposed to impart? What harms are we potentially doing when we commodify and dilute a cultural practice to make it more appealing to the mainstream? I’d argue that we risk losing our appreciation for it in its entirety, which can lead to misunderstanding its teachings and values.

I still practice yoga on my own, undeterred by the new culture I find myself in. I would advise anyone interested in learning yoga to do their own research into the teachers they’re practising with – which institutes did the instructors attend? Where do their certifications come from? And if you do find a good place to learn yoga from a traditional perspective, make sure you keep going back – it could be one of the best decisions you ever make.

What else we’re thinking about:

There are some books that I keep going back to when I feel that I’ve lost touch with my yogic roots. I am currently re-reading a version of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with commentary from Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra and Hansaji, just to remind myself of the true essence and meaning of yoga. I also revisit another scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, when I can as it explains what yoga is in its most original, authentic form.


Open this photo in gallery:

Marianne Kushmaniuk for The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the authors' names. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was published with commentary from Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra and Hansaji.

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