Woman in difficult yoga arm balance pose on beach.

There are three general sensibilities that shape the process by which someone comes to an understanding of yoga and its capacity to empower. Each approach offers benefits but, contrary to common assumptions, they do not all lead to the same conclusions or results. For purposes here, these perspectives will be referred to as:




The transcendental perspective presents a way of going beyond the world of time and space. Liberation from pain and suffering is attained through adherence to tenets articulated by a master. Before the skills and knowledge required to obtain the ultimate goal of realization are bestowed upon the selfless devotee, the student is made worthy through rigorous austerities.

The transformational perspective seeks not to go beyond but instead strives to create things anew, so that the aspirant becomes more immune to pain and suffering in life and potentially reaches higher states of awareness. Strict hierarchies are replaced with levels of achievement. Accomplishment in the practice ritual tends to be closely linked to steps along a path, of which the teacher is a guide.

The sacrosanctual perspective does not seek to go beyond or strive to create anew, but rather starts from the premise that what is currently taking place is entirely complete. The practice is a means of easing the pain and suffering that happens with life by providing a vehicle for nurturing an appreciation of the ordinary condition. Understanding is shared through mutual friendship.

Of course, all three perspectives constitute one encompassing interplay. However, the differences between them are what account for the lack of consensus among the broader yoga community on fundamental principles.

From the transcendental standpoint, the transforming and sacrosanct models are ignorant of a singular truth. From the transformational standpoint, the transcending model disavows self-expression and the sacrosanct model is nonsensical because it lacks a linear progression. And from the sacrosanctual standpoint, both the transcending and transforming models deny what is already in place and amount to a subtle form of aggression towards ourselves.

Identifying these discrepant views is not just a matter of intellectual fancy. They are determinative both of the experience that is being provided to the public and of the impact that yoga is having on our culture. Yes, broadly speaking, yoga is universal. However, the wisdom of providing power-style yoga to recovering drug addicts or soldiers with PTSD is highly questionable. And the prevalent narrative that starts with a sincere desire of people to feel more centered and relaxed in their lives but is quickly transformed into a never ending quest for poses, awareness, stillness, liberation, or enlightenment is profoundly lamentable.

If someone has been attending yoga classes regularly and still feels like they kind of suck at yoga, chances are that the classes they are taking are responsible for making them feel that way. And the viewpoint of the teacher, whether it be voiced or not, is at fault.

Having a yoga mat tucked under your arm has become a symbol for self-improvement. Yet another box to check on a long list of things that are supposed to push us to be our best. This explains the overriding emphasis on ever-challenging practice sequences and intense adjustments. The torturous nature of the majority of yoga classes provides a perfect psychological pacifier for our feelings of inadequacy. Unfortunately, keeping seekers stuck in a loop of bandaging over wounds that are simultaneously being aggravated is not empowering anyone.

The modern yoga world is on the cusp of a new era (see Not Your Parents' Yoga.) The question is what role this uncharted territory will play in the lives of people. There is little chance that those who are firmly rooted in a transcendental or transformational sensibility are going to simply drop their positions and embrace a sacrosanctual perspective. But for anyone who is not so already aligned or are dissatisfied with the long-term results they see from the time, effort, and money they invest in yoga practice, some serious consideration as to the context and mentality of their endeavor is certainly warranted. And if yoga is going to be more than just another insidious perpetuation of low self-esteem, or a vehicle for selling us stuff by dangling abstract carrots to reach for, then those who assume the role of yoga teacher need to be questioning what they are doing more and taking interpersonal responsibility for the instruction they are providing.

Life cannot be made any more miraculous than it already is. That we have come into existence and currently reside here together is a wonder beyond all comprehension. To be empowered means a full embrace and expression of ourselves as inherently whole, without conditions. Only with this recognition will yoga practice actually serve to facilitate the embodiment of our given worth and purpose.  

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About The Author

J. Brown's picture

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

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