How long can you milk the cow? – The global conflict of creating “brands”, demands, and fakes around the ancient science of yoga
As yoga continues its legendary triumph with new yoga studios popping up at every corner, along with the increasing popularity for many of us teachers it apparently has become an issue to somehow stand out from the crowd. Especially if you’re one of those who is trying to make a living from teaching. On top of teaching between 20 and 28 classes per week, you might find yourself having to pay the overheads of running your own yoga studio, promoting both—yourselves and your location, not to mention the considerable costs of traveling around the globe, sitting at a guru’s feet, keeping up with another training, another workshop, another retreat ….
Suddenly it didn’t seem enough anymore to simply offer regular yoga classes. Instead, new concepts, new brands, new niche products had to be invented to gain even the smallest advantage over one’s “competitors”. Even though it should be common sense that yoga is not a competition (in fact, one of the Niyamas, or “self-observances” of Yoga is samtosa—contentment, to accept what happens, to be content with what we have, having a feeling of well-being regardless of the circumstances), as soon as teaching yoga becomes a profession, in my own experience you have to commit to a considerable amount of competitive spirit in order to survive as a business.
Admittedly, not every new yoga “invention” or product is necessary, or even useful, (some might even be dangerous), and this might cause some upset and is enough reason to question the way the yoga industry is presently growing.
Maybe this is why recently in Germany several yoga teachers (including me) received letters and/or e-mails from the DeGYT (German Association of Yoga Therapy) and their lawyers, informing them about the necessity to immediately remove any content from their websites, their business cards, and flyers which contained the word “therapy”, or “therapeutic”, or even just brought their yoga offerings near a medical context, thereby supposedly misleading their clients by giving the impression that yoga could possibly substitute for any kind of professional medical treatment!
The proclamation then highlights the requirements of how to apply yoga/therapy professionally without being afflicted by the German „Heilpraktikergesetz“ (Non-Medical Practitioners Act) in order to avoid disciplinary punishment.
The main criteria as it turns out can be reduced to one major point for discussion: Does the application of yoga by certified yoga-therapists fall into the category of “healing arts“? Or, to put it in other, even more provocative words—Can yoga be medicine?
The German Law (§1 Abs. 2 HPG) contains of a legal definition of the term „healing arts“. Healing arts in accordance with the law is „any activity that is performed professionally or commercially to assess, treat or relief human illnesses, diseases, or physical injury of any kind, even if they are performed in service of others”!
Presumably to prevent patients and/or clients form damage or harm by receiving wrong treatment, non-professional treatment, or just delayed treatment, legislation was put in place, the „Heilpraktikergesetz“ (Non-Medical Practitioners Act). It determines that an independent practitioner who wants to provide alternative treatment of any kind including yoga therapy, on the basis of this permission only can perform “healing arts”, unless approbated as a doctor.
To fully understand the full impact this decree has on those who formerly offered “yoga therapy” to their students/clients, and now had to eliminate it from their websites, one has to look further into what exactly yoga therapy is? And what makes it so dangerous to the public that a campaign was launched against rightfully trained yoga therapists offering this service to their clients?
The definition of yoga therapy according to the IAYT (The International Association of Yoga Therapists) is:
[…] The application of Yogic principles to a particular person with the objective of achieving a particular spiritual, psychological, or physiological goal.”
And furthermore: “The means employed are comprised of intelligently conceived steps that include […] the educational teachings of yama, niyama, âsana, prânâyâma, pratyâhâra, dhâranâ, dhyâna, and samâdhi. Also included are the application of meditation, textual study, spiritual or psychological counselling, chanting, imagery, prayer, and ritual to meet the needs of the individual.” (http://www.iayt.org/?page=YogaTherapyDefinitio)
According to the Etymology Dictionary the origin of the word therapy is: “medical treatment of disease”, but furthermore from Modern Latin therapia, from Greek therapeia “curing, healing, service done to the sick; a waiting on, service,” from therapeuein “to cure, treat medically,” literally “attend, do service, take care of”.
The paragraph above illustrates and highlights very well how “therapy” in a conventional sense is applied and understood: It contains “medical treatment”, but more importantly it is a “service done to the sick”, which leads to the important difference between conventional treatment and applied yoga therapy (which can also be found in the preamble of the IAYT Code of Ethics):
“Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.”
It “respects the integrity of other forms of healthcare and other health and wellness traditions, and seeks to develop collaborative relationships to achieve the highest quality of care for individual clients/students.”
Put Into Practice
As yoga therapists we don’t prescribe pills, lotions, or ointments, and we don’t perform surgery. We don’t take blood; neither do we inject something into somebodies veins. Our job is not to diagnose illnesses or diseases; instead we try to collect as much information as we possibly can [health questionnaire], whereby we respect the limits, rights and dignity of our yoga therapy clients/students as well as individual differences in age, culture, religion, philosophy, occupation, and mental and physical health.
In contrary to conventional treatment, which tends to impose something on somebody (the patient), following an article published by Richard Miller, Ph.D., the application of yoga therapy is from one or several perspectives:
- To gain or regain a sense of power, [I prefer the word “strength”] i.e., to develop muscular strength, the ability to concentrate, the ability to manage difficult or challenging situations, etc. This is called the application of shakti-krama
- To deal with specific problems, such as eliminating “impurities” in the organs (doshas) or energy centers (cakras) and channels (nâdîs) of the body. This is chikitsâ-krama
- To look beyond and transcend the physical in order to understand what is beyond the limited sense of self; ultimately to know one’s true self as unchanging Witnessing Presence (purusha) of all that is changing (prakriti). This is called the application of âdhyâtmika-krama.
Let’s become very clear about this – to evaluate someone’s yoga activities (whether they’re practicing “healing arts” of any kind, whether they use the term “yoga therapy”, or any other substitution) not just the labelling is significant but particularly how it is put into practice, what the clients might expect from it, and how it is presented and promoted in public!
And really, further down in the context of the article, one comes across an interesting paragraph, which reads as follows: “The further the appearance of the healer (practitioner) is removed from regular medical treatment, the lesser is its immediate potential danger with regard to collateral damage”.
In other words, when operations cease to create the impression, to replace medical treatment of any kind, but instead are merely based on spiritual impact, then they are not liable to the German Non-Medical Practitioners Act anymore!
That means, the professional use of yoga/therapy can only then put harm to people’s health if the practitioner (“therapist”) didn’t clarify the fact that
- Yoga/therapy is based on a holistic (“spiritual”) belief system, suggesting some kind of “physio-spiritual force” that transcends scientific rationale
- Yoga/therapy doesn’t substitute for professional medical treatment!
To cut a long story short, and to explain the header of this article in which I refer to one of the most famous and sustainable books ever written on yoga, “Light on Yoga” by B. K. S. Iyengar – Right at the beginning in the preface of the book Iyengar takes us right into the essence of what yoga really is:
“Yoga is a timeless, pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years, dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole.”
Probably the first book to systemize this complex practice, which I believe is in the truest sense of the word a science, was the classic treatise “The Yoga Sutras” (or Aphorisms) of Patañjali, dating from 200 BC. Countless books have been written on yoga since, and unfortunately in my very own perception many of the things sold, invented, and created in the name of yoga these days seem unworthy of both the subject and its first and original exponent, as they appear superficial, popular, short-lived, and as I tried to highlight above often misleading.
Yoga is in danger of becoming a whore of our high-speed, highly elusive, highly consumption-orientated, and highly reckless society.
As money-grubbing investors and business people persist to flood the yoga marketplaces with vast quantities of mostly unnecessary products—creating new desires, new brands, new names, the naïve and gullible are seduced into believing; Believing, that one could drink poison, chew glass, walk barefoot through fire, make oneself invisible or perform other kind of magic just by being part of this “yoga-circus”!
We witness the decline of the very first principles yoga is based on (Patañjali enumerated these as the “eight limbs”, or “stages” of yoga for the quest of the soul; The first two stages, the yama—universal moral commandments, and the niyama—self purification by discipline, control the yogi’s passions and emotions and keep him in harmony with his fellow men), and those going untroubled, who trample on those principles. Whilst at the same time a small minority of yoga teachers offering “yoga” in its purest means are forced to stop their knowledgeable actions and return to teaching general-purpose yoga classes without addressing individual heath issues or any individual needs!
Instead of applying yoga therapy as a tool to empower individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing, we become limited to offering yoga, which is “not geared towards tangible afflictions and/or health issues”, but instead towards “general health care”, “reinforcement of life force and/or self-regulating forces”, “reinforcement of mental and inner balance”, “harmonization, alignment, and/or wellness” […]
This throws up a lot of questions, and hardly any answers.
Personally, in the months ahead, I will have to make a choice between following my heart and standing by my convictions and professional calling, and thus face up to 12 months imprisonment if I don’t remove the Yoga therapy content from my site (!!); Or alternatively subject myself to the bullying of an undemocratic institutional setting that will cause me to loose many clients and possibly my job.
The only other choice would be turn my back on Germany and simply offer my treatments abroad, but as a mother of two and a wife, with further commitments in Germany, it doesn’t seem an option for me. Moreover, it would be only a matter of time before the same repressive legislation would cross the German boarder and impact the Yoga community more widely.
It is important therefore to debate the German case now in view of its wider implications for the Yoga community as a whole. Equally, it is important that not only Yoga teachers, but also potential patients and students realise that such legislation will reduce considerably the healing routes available to them.
The German proposal can be seen, on the one hand, as an attempt by the dominant medical institutions to maintain a monopoly over the health practices available to patients. On the other hand, it can also be see as a form of post-colonial cultural appropriation of an ancient tradition that aims to truncate the practice of its curative powers and void it of its very healing essence.
As a Yoga therapist I feel that it is the job of Yoga associations operating at the national, European and International level to take up the challenge of promoting an open, inclusive and transparent platform for Yoga practitioners to debate the topic with a view to influence the legislative proposals in an unbiased fashion.
Please join the conversation and leave your comments and thoughts!
 Offering services of “healing art” of any kind without an approbation as a doctor or a Non-Medical Practitioners Act permission according to the German law [§5 HPG ] is a punishable offense by imprisonment up to one year, or financial penalty. Any existing contracts between the practitioner and the client in this case would be invalid, and the client would be entitled to reclaim their total payment fees.