How Drop-In Classes Changed Yoga in the West

Posted by on Mar 12, 2012 in Yoga | 3 Comments
How Drop-In Classes Changed Yoga in the West

Along with designer spandex clothes and sticky mats, drop-in classes stand out as one of the signature features of Western yoga.

They’re like for the yoga world.

You can hook up with a yoga class whenever you need a booty call (in this case, your real booty), without the need for a long-term commitment.

While a cute Lululemon top makes you feel sexy, and a Manduka mat keeps you from wiping out during crazy arm balance poses, drop-in classes may not be getting you where you need to go.

Sure, they enhance the bottom line of yoga studios by packing in students who live in the moment, but they can encourage bad habits. Drop-in classes can also keep you from finding a yoga practice that fits your body, mind and life.

Synchronized Yoga Will Never Be in the Olympics

Some drop-in classes are worse than others. The largest yoga class involved 29,973 people doing Sun Salutations in India in 2005. It’s not the size of the class that matters, though. Many drop-in classes create a certain atmosphere that negates the benefits of yoga, and can even lead to unnecessary injuries.

In spite of the push by competitive yogis to bring yoga to the Olympics, it will never be a team sport. There’s an individual component of yoga that gets lost within the synchronized sweating of most drop-in classes.

When you walk into a yoga class, you expect a certain experience. What you get with many drop-in classes is a generic version of yoga that minimizes the connection between student and teacher.

This Is Not the Yoga Practice You Are Looking For

In spite of the many aerobic yoga styles available in the West, yoga is primarily designed to affect the mind.

This is described near the beginning of the Yoga Sūtras (as translated by T. K. V. Desikachar):

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object [of your choosing] and sustain that attention without any distractions.

No matter what you learned in public school, your mind is unique—completely different from the mind of every other person who has lived. In order for your yoga practice to help you achieve sustained attention, it needs to address the specifics of your mind, as well as your body, life, relationships, diet, etc.

Much yoga that is taught in the West “gives the impression that there is one solution to everyone’s problems and one treatment for every illness,” says Desikachar in his book, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Desikachar studied with—and is the son of—Krishnamacharya, who also taught Pattabhi Jois of the Ashtanga tradition and BKS Iyengar.

What makes the yoga teachings of Krishnamacharya unique, continues Desikachar, “is his insistence on attending to each individual and to his or her uniqueness.”

I discovered this style of yoga after years of trying to squeeze myself into an idealized form touted by the Power Yoga world — “every yoga class needs to include downward-facing dog,” and “you should never do Warrior I at the beginning of a yoga class.”

The style of yoga taught by Desikachar is sometimes called “ugly yoga” because in a room of 20 people, you will often see 20 versions of Warrior I—not exactly an ideal Yoga Journal photo shoot.

This tradition, however, respects the individual above all else. Yoga practices are based upon the needs of the student, not those of the teacher.

Step Away From the Drop-In Classes

Focusing on the individual doesn’t mean that yoga teachers can only give private sessions. It is possible for teachers to run group classes and still create an atmosphere that allows students to explore their own path.

In theory, this could happen during drop-in classes. The problem with this yoga free-for-all is that there is no consistent connection between the students and teacher. Students frequently come and go. Their main interaction with the teacher is renting a mat or buying coconut water.

Drop-in classes also perpetuate the idea that the teacher is there to entertain the students. When I teach, I don’t just give my students whatever poses they ask for. Yoga classes aren’t a piano bar.

There’s no tip jar sitting on the altar. Besides, we tend to seek out things that make us feel comfortable and reinforce our sense of self — the arm balance pose that shows off our strength, the people on Facebook who are most like us, or the foods that remind us of our mother.

A good teacher gives you a yoga practice that helps you make progress toward the goal of yoga — sustained attention. Often, this includes the things that you hate most. Teachers serve as an external reference, a mirror that shows you the habits that keep you trapped in one place.

These patterns might include your fixation on poses that clearly hurt — such as Soon-To-Be-Injured arm balance pose — or the way you avoid things in your life that touch an emotional nerve.

In addition, teachers must recognize that each student is unique. In fact, students are different every time they come to class. The you that is reading this today is not the same as the you that didn’t make it to yoga class last week.

And tomorrow you will be new all over again. Above all, says Desikachar, teachers must keep in mind that “yoga serves the individual, and does so through inviting transformation, rather than by giving information.”

If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path. ~Joseph Campbell

Photos by h.koppdelaney and Branáin


    November 4, 2015

    The $5 community class, like many, simply had a leader to mimic, with no expert correction of students’ postures or warnings about injuries or not pushing one’s limits. In an industry where there is cursory certification and no official licensing, yoga teachers can become qualified with a 200-hour online course.

  2. DD
    April 13, 2016

    The title of this article, which refers to how something, (and it could have been anything) “wrecked” yoga, is kind of ridiculous. Wrecked? Bizarre oversimplification. Maybe if one spent a little more time cultivating wisdom rather than criticism, (as the age old sutras advise!), one might come round to appreciate that yoga is as good and as bad as yoga ever was.

    • Shawn Radcliffe
      April 13, 2016

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that “yoga is as good and as bad as yoga ever was.” The use of ‘wrecked’ in the title may be a little over the top, but it was meant to be more tongue-in-cheek than critical.

      However, I would argue that there is a place for criticism in the yoga world. If you automatically accept everything about yoga as being filled with ‘light and love’, you may never develop any wisdom at all because you are not challenging yourself to see the ‘real’ view of the world. You also put yourself at risk of believing whatever your teachers tell you simply because they appear to be ‘enlightened.’

      As for the yoga sutras not having anything to do with criticism, here’s another take on it:

      “Some who practise yoga, particularly in the west, come to yoga from a seemingly New Age perspective, according to which everything under the sun is ok, fine, good and without need of criticism. ‘I’m ok, you are ok’ has been revived by many practitioners of yoga. For such practitioners, yoga is an escape from self-criticism, stress and difficulty. This is not Patañjali’s view of yoga.” ~ Shyam Ranganathan, Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra


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