boom or bust

could modern trends undermine the future of yoga? Navigating the yoga boom with Donna Farhi

Donna Farhi began practising yoga nearly three decades ago and has been teaching for two. Her latest book, Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living, emphasizes the ethical and spiritual aspects of yoga. Farhi recently returned home to New Zealand after a whirlwind teaching and lecture tour of North America. Visiting twenty cities in thirteen states in just two months, she got a broad look at the state of contemporary yoga practice.

"What I'm seeing in the US and Canada in particular is a veritable groundswell of people who have explored the physical practice very, very deeply," Farhi says. "They've been practising for, say, ten years or more, and then they're left with the question: Is this all there is? Is there something more to yoga than physical asanas? Of course, if you take the practice to the nth degree, asana quite naturally leads into meditation, into broader perspectives and questions that are to do with one's entire life.

"Now juxtaposed next to this, you have another groundswell in mainstream America of people who are being introduced to yoga - really, I wouldn't even call it yoga, I think they're being introduced to calisthenics with Sanskrit names - who are immensely confused about what this practice truly is."

Undeniably, North America is in the midst of a yoga boom. As a young teacher, part of me is excited by this - it's great to see so many people becoming interested in the practice. But with training programs churning out hundreds of new teachers each year, and the number of studios mushrooming, there is less and less consistency in the quality of what is called "yoga."

New styles of yoga are popping up everywhere, each with its own name and brand: Dru, Nia, Soma, Tao, Hypno, Prana Yoga, hybrids of asanas mixed with Pilates, dance, massage, surfing… I have to wonder, at what point is a practice no longer yoga? And are new styles what we really need, or rather a deeper delving into basic practices and core teachings?

I've often heard it said, and thought it myself, that maybe it doesn't matter if people learn a superficial version of yoga at first. The argument, in Farhi's words, is that "even if they're given a poor introduction, maybe they're going to be drawn into a deeper practice eventually." But over two decades of teaching, she has not seen that happening.

Farhi tells me about a recent retreat in New York where several young professionals took part, all of whom had been introduced to yoga at the gym. "After three days, they came up to me individually and said, 'I realized I have no idea of what this practice really is. I've been pushing my body around a yoga mat for years, but actually I haven't had any basic understanding of what the practice is about.' They felt ripped off."

While she is open-minded about the changes taking place in North America, Farhi wants to see the essence of yoga preserved. "On the one hand, it's very wonderful that we have so much creativity in the emerging expression of yoga in the West," she says. "On the other hand, it's my hope that anybody who's introduced to yoga is introduced to it in a way that brings them closer to themselves and not further away."

Farhi encourages people at all levels of experience to think deeply about the effects of our yoga. She suggests we can stay on track through reflection, asking ourselves often, "Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the world in which I wish to live?"

Juniper Glass is a student and teacher of yoga and ascent's managing editor. Originally from British Columbia, she currently lives in Montréal.

Donna Farhi has been teaching yoga since 1982. Although she has studied with several people, her foremost mentor is yoga teacher and physical therapist Judith Lasater. Donna has written three books: The Breathing Book (1996), Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit (2000), and Bringing Yoga to Life (2003). Born in the U.S., Donna now lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she divides her time between two practices that she says have a lot in common - yoga and caring for her horses. Her teaching schedule can be found on the website

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life