Interview with Ganga by Spa Magazine, Oct 2003
Spa: In September, yoga practitioners from
around the U.S. will gather in California for the first
International Yoga Asana (Posture) Championship. What
do you think about this yoga championship? Do you feel
there's any room for competition in yoga?
Ganga: Many yoga teachers are against
any form of competition in yoga and are shocked, even
outraged, by the idea of a competitive event. This belief
may deny the actuality that whether or not we are consciously
competing, subtle competition exists in many forms,
and to deny that pushes competition underground. Whether
we like it or not, it is a fact that competition exists,
even in yoga. Yoga centers try to be the best, teachers
may compete for students, students compete for the teacher's
attention and we compete with ourselves. Competition
can be a positive force that moves us forward but it
can get out of hand and become a detriment. Wisdom may
be in learning to keep competitiveness in its place
and keep our attention on the more important aspects
While I am not a purest against competition per se,
I don't think it is wise to encourage competition in
the yoga world. This is because yoga is one rare area
in which everyone can win. There is no one winner in
a yoga class--everyone wins. Competing takes your attention
off yourself and your needs in the moment and can even
lead to injury. But the real mistake in staging yoga
competitions is in missing the fact that the essence
of yoga cannot be measured! Who wins in a yoga competition?
The person who holds the most contorted position the
longest? The person who does the most graceful asanas?
If this is the case, the Cirque de Soleil or the Chinese
acrobats have already won-they are way beyond most yogis
in their physical abilities. I watched an acrobat climb
a flight of stairs while holding a headstand without
using his arms for support. I've seen a girl bend backward,
place her buttocks on her head, and balance a knife
on one foot--all while holding herself in a one arm
handstand on top of a stack of five balanced chairs
that were placed on a spinning table! These performance
acts may amaze and win competitions but are they good
for the practitioner? Do they serve the purpose of yoga?
Many acrobats develop serious spinal problems. Such
performance and show may be wonderful but to bring it
to the yoga world can steer people away from the essence
of yoga. Yoga aims at bringing people to higher awareness,
to insight and love, and physical yoga aims at well
being, health and wholeness. Advancing in yoga involves
learning how to use the techniques and practices of
yoga in a more sophisticated and sensitive manner and
to learn how to tune the practice to your body. Often
a student or teacher in class who can do the most "advanced"
poses may also have an unrefined understanding of the
subtlety of the practice, even though other students
in the class may swoon and claim that person is so advanced.
Spa: What's your opinion of Bikram yoga as
Ganga: I'd rather answer more generally.
What is more interesting than critiquing a particular
system is asking the deeper question of why people are
looking for, and susceptible to, fixed answers and certainty.
Is it because life is unpredictable and full of change?
Uncertainty and mystery also bring the joy to life so
rather than look for the way we're wiser to learn how
to go with the flow. Yoga has a vast array of practices,
techniques and postures. You will miss so much if you
limit yourself to one particular form and a limited
set of poses. There are so many wonderful and very useful
practices, available in yoga. If a student is limited
to one sequence of poses they miss a great deal. Would
you always eat the same sandwich every day? Even though
we're witnessing the branding of yoga, no matter what
it's called, all the physical practices of yoga are
rooted in and still belong to Hatha Yoga--the yoga of
sun and moon. A basic tenet of yoga is learning to balance
the many polarities of life, some of which include upward
and downward moving energy, strength and flexibility,
and heating and cooling. Several brands of yoga emphasize
intense heating of the body but some people already
have too much heat in their systems and they need a
cooler practice to reach balance. Practices are tools.
Tools aren't intrinsically good or bad, they can heal
and they can hurt. We have to learn when and how to
use the right tool. I think rather than approaching
yoga mechanistically, "do this and get that",
we must hold yoga in a more relativistic way. What is
right for one, may not be right for another. What is
right for you today, may change tomorrow. There is no
one medicine that cures everything. Even in our age
of advanced scientific knowledge we're still susceptible
to snake oil salesmen.
Spa: A recent article in the New York Times
said Bikram would like to create the "Starbucks
of yoga," with all Bikram studios offering the
same experience. What do you think of that?
Ganga: Again, I don't want to speak
about anyone in particular, these issues apply to anyone
doing similar things. At White Lotus, we challenge authoritarism,
dogma, and rigid belief systems. Yoga is said to be
the biggest trend ever in America. I think that it's
good to see this burgeoning interest. But I don't think
it's desirable, nor fortunately is it even possible,
to homogenize yoga.
Spa: Do you think there should be experimentation
and creativity in a yoga practice? Or is a regimented,
predictable approach better?
Ganga: Yoga's message is always about
balance. It's important to build a good foundation in
good yoga practices and personal insight into yoga before
experimenting and going your own way. In any case, there
is already a lot of hybridization and experimentation
going on in yoga, whether we like it or not. May be
it's the Yankee way. We need to find a balance between
tradition, innovation and re-visioning. Tradition emphasizes
obedience, faith and keeping things the way they were-or,
actually, the way someone thinks or asserts they were.
Everything is subject to interpretation. We live in
times of accelerating change and times when traditional
beliefs are having vast impacts, many of them negative,
on society. This means we must open tradition to scrutiny
and critique and our use of tradition must be ready
to mutate, change and grow. That is the nature of life
itself. Modern discovery, science and experimentation
have already added enormously to yoga's body of knowledge.
A great part of yoga's practices and techniques that
are considered ancient are actually recent innovations.
Some teachers hold the view that all great knowledge
and wisdom was elucidated in the past and we must follow
the ancient way, the way yoga has always been. But there
has always been great diversity in yoga and differing
opinion and interpretation. There has never been one
yoga. I suggest we honor and learn from the past but
we can stand on its shoulders and grow into greater
insights and abilities. When a teaching, practice or
even an asana has great intrinsic value, it will stand
on its own and it will be carried on.
Spa: What do you think of the directions yoga
is taking in this country-both good and bad-in general?
Ganga: I think the answer is yes!
There is always both good and negative in just about
anything. There are great trends and innovations and
many things in the yoga world might be questionable.
In times of great growth and change there will be mutations,
some beneficial, some problematical. I am concerned
about the "corporatization" of yoga wherein
some big companies are trying to brand, shape, control
and profit from the trend. They make the bottom line
more important than quality. It's almost like the early
days of Hollywood or the gold rush-stars are being born,
there's jockeying for position and there is also some
wonderful teaching and sharing. I'm heartened by the
burgeoning interest that is bringing so many to yoga.
There is also more good research and exploration beginning
that will prove fruitful. I hope that students will
look beyond the teachers they outgrow or have difficulties
with and do not give up yoga itself. While some people
try to become figureheads or to control definition and
content, Yoga remains a vast river. Let the swimmer
find the clear flowing waters and avoid the stagnant