Modern Yoga's Midlife Crisis

Modern yoga has reached a critical point in its evolution. Some are even calling it a crisis. With the revelations regarding the abusive behaviour of two of modern yoga’s founding fathers, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, many teachers and practitioners are struggling with the question of “Where do we go from here?” and asking, “If we can’t trust the teachers, can we trust what they taught?”

I believe the answer can be found by going back to the source of modern yoga, T Krishnamacharya, and reassessing what he actually taught, in light of how his most influential students may have misrepresented his teachings.

Krishnamacharya was a renowned scholar, yoga teacher and healer who drew a set of guidelines from the vast yoga tradition that offer a clear and logical framework for how to practice and teach yoga. The heart of his teaching was the overarching principle that yoga has to be adapted to a person’s individual needs, abilities and cultural background. 

“Teach what is inside of you. Not as it applies to you, but as it applies to the other.”
— Krishnamacharya

He developed a set of simple, technical guidelines for how to practice asana and pranayama that ensure the practice will be safe, effective and endlessly adaptable. As he would say, “If you can breathe and move one little finger, you can do yoga!” Not only do these principles have a profound effect on the practice of yoga, they provide a solid foundation on which anyone — regardless of age, body type or ability — can develop a personal practice that will support and enrich their life. 

The fact that these core principles were lost in translation in the export of yoga to the West is, I believe, the root of the issues around injury and abuse that have cropped up in regards to his two most famous students, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. It’s important to note that Jois and Iyengar only studied with Krishnamacharya for a short time and left as young men to create their own brands and pursue fame and fortune. There were students (like his own son TKV Desikachar) who spent much more time studying with him and maintained the integrity of his teachings when they became teachers, but they never had the impact on mainstream yoga the way the charismatic and ambitious Jois and Iyengar did.

A Rite of Passage
Our culture is at a much different place than it was 30 years ago when we enthusiastically embraced the yoga that Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar introduced to America. Much of what we inherited from them is now being re-evaluated through a more trauma-informed, culturally-sensitive and anti-authoritarian lens. 

The American yoga boom was born out of the massively popular YogaWorks studio in Santa Monica which opened its doors in 1987, creating the template for the thousands of yoga studios that would follow it. That would make modern yoga just over 30 years old, which means it would have been ripe for its Saturn return a couple years ago when the stories about Jois and Iyengar started gaining traction. The Saturn return is an astrological milestone that marks a rite of passage in a person’s life where they need to evaluate the authority, traditions and power structures they’ve inherited from family and society so they can begin to develop their own sense of personal authority moving forward. A part of this process is testing the structures we’ve inherited to see if they stand up to scrutiny. In addition, Saturn is currently making its return in Capricorn, an especially potent time for questioning authority and patriarchal structures.

This is an important inquiry and it’s critical that we find answers to the key questions that have come out of it:

  • How can we avoid injury and causing harm to ourselves and our students?

  • How can we make yoga accessible to a broader range of people?

  • How can we teach and practice yoga in a way that respects the cultural background of the student and the tradition of yoga itself?

  • How can we avoid the abuse of power inflicted on naive and eager students by authoritarian and power-hungry teachers and gurus?

The set of guidelines for practice and teaching that Krishnamacharya brought forward from the yoga tradition provides answers to all of these questions. Unfortunately, these principles were lost or ignored when his most influential students introduced their own brands and styles of yoga to the West. The absence of these core principles in the popular commercial styles has led to a great deal of pain and suffering that could have been avoided. The yoga world is now struggling with the question of how to address the mistakes that have been made, and industrious teachers are creating new styles and brands that meet new criteria for accessibility, inclusivity and trauma sensitivity. Some have decided to stop teaching yoga altogether and have moved on to alternative (albeit similar and derivative) mind-body practices.

I don’t think we need to throw out everything that we’ve inherited.

There’s a lot of good stuff that’s worth keeping, and it would be disingenuous to repackage the practices of yoga as “mindful movement” or whatever. The yoga tradition provides us with a comprehensive set of time-tested and true practices that offer a great deal of relief to much of the suffering that people are experiencing in the modern age. 

I suggest that we keep what is useful and simply introduce the principles that were always meant to be there to the yoga that people already know and love. Rather than rebuild everything from the ground up, we can just do a little foundational repair. I like the word “repair” because it suggests re-pairing or reuniting the yoga practices that we enjoy and find useful with the foundational principles that ensure they are applied safely, effectively and appropriately.

As a practitioner for many years, I know these principles work. As a teacher, they give me the confidence that I’m sharing yoga in a way that respects my students, and that what I’m teaching is actually yoga, honouring the tradition the practices are drawn from.

I’m dedicated to sharing these fundamental principles with teachers and students with the hope that it will correct some of the mistakes that have been made in the transmission of yoga to the West by repairing the connection to modern yoga’s source and in turn, answer the questions about how to make yoga safe, effective and accessible for all.

This will be the focus on my upcoming weekend intensive, The Art of Yoga: Principles for Skillful Sequencing at PranaShanti Yoga Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, September 13-15 2019.

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*Thanks to my wife Debbie who offered some astrological insight as I was writing this post. You can learn more about her at her site: