Bursting the Yoga Bubble: A Yoga Journal Conference Experience

Photo Credit: Andy Mann

I have had the immense privilege of attending several yoga festivals, events, and other community gatherings over the past several months, but this weekend harkened my first Yoga Journal Conference. I must say, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the oft-criticized publication. If you ask me, Yoga Journal knows how to do it right.

In my opinion, YJ has become the straw-man of the yoga community. As the single most-read and known publication, I think its content often reflects the subtle dynamics percolating in its readership at large. In the past ten years, the magazine’s covers have showcased our desire for a perfect body (see Curvy Yoga’s letter to Yoga Journal), its advertisements our proclivity for self-helpish and new-agey quick fixes. In short, Yoga Journal responds to the wants and desires of its audience. So if we have a problem with the content of Yoga Journal, I think it’s probably time to turn the looking glass on ourselves.

For those of you who haven’t been to a Yoga Journal Conference though, you might find the attendees look very different from who you might see on a the cover of their magazine. Compared to the other festivals I attended this year, I felt myself surrounded by a more mature and sophisticated group of practitioners. The audience was certainly older — many attendees have been attending these conferences for over a decade. As a result, the space for me felt more grounded, educational, and less overstimulating. I felt like everyone I spoke to — from the eighteen-year-old in Paige Elenson’s class to the sixty-seven-year-old sitting at my lunch table — was grasping for answers to the “bigger” yogic questions we so often hear about:

Who am I? What am I supposed to do in the world? How can I be a greater source of joy and happiness for those around me?

Photo Credit: Cleveland Groove

I also noticed a recurrent theme in many of the classes, one that I think serendipitously emerged from a group of individuals who — while they may not interact often outside of conferences like this — have become increasingly distressed by circumstances in the world we all see but perhaps feel helpless or afraid to address. Not to be a Chicken Little, but let’s be honest… the sky is falling. The economy is crashing. Our earth, our climate is in revolt. Addiction, eating disorders, and other anesthetizing forms of dis-ease are on the rise.

While we’re all getting our down-dog on and bowing to the light within, the world outside seems increasingly shrouded in darkness.

I know, I know, people have been saying “this is the worst of times” since time immemorial. But the sentiment I heard wasn’t so much one of apocalyptic panic but rather acknowledgment, acceptance of our responsibility as supposedly “conscious” spiritual practitioners to live in accordance with the ethics and values we talk about. Over and over again, I heard teachers repeating the same message: We cannot continue to pretend the “shadow” or “darkness” isn’t before us. To do so, as one presenter put it, is a pseudospiritual bypass.

I spoke with Tias Little about the need for yogis to unite in organized, intentional political action. Abortion, gay rights, and violence against women, he said, are topics that we should not only be talking about, but taking an active stand for or against. Seane Corn spoke about “a culture that thrives on power-over, power-under,” and Tommy Rosen said quite frankly “we are all, in one way or another, addicts.”

Photo Credit: Cleveland Groove

So if you believe YJ serves as a mirror for what’s happening in our community at large, yogis are increasingly feeling the need to take yoga off the mat and into the world… and simultaneously bring the world onto the mat. The question that came up for for me, as a student and participant in the conference, is just how we’re going to do that.

I can write, they can teach, we can come to the mat day in and day out… but there seems to be a disparity between the sentiments expressed at these gatherings and the actual state of affairs in the world. I hear “we are all one” all the time in yoga classes… but if the we is limited to the fraction of a percent of individuals who walk into a yoga studio, let’s be honest… what is really going to be the impact? The misquoted Gandhi quote “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” sounds nice… but the impact is pretty insignificant if you’re not being that change in the world.

On the final day of the conference, I hiked with several friends and colleagues up to the top of a mountain ironically called “Bible Peak”. Gathered in a sacred circle of dialogue, we gave voice to sentiments I think many yogis are afraid to express. Why, one asked, had there been no black presenters at the weekend’s conference? Are there cultural, historical, economic barriers that keep some ethnicities from getting to the mat? Is it our responsibility — as yogis — to advocate sociopolitical change?

Have we inadvertently trapped ourselves in a safe, secluded little yoga bubble?

Discussants: Kia Miller, Tommy Rosen, Sukhdev & Akahdahmah Jackson, David Sunshine, Yoshi Aono, Chelsea Roff 

We read from the bible. We talked about race. We spoke honestly about the dog-eat-dog dynamics no one wants to admit exists in the business of yoga, and we did so safely, respectfully, with civility and compassion. Perhaps we never came to any certain answers or miracle fixes, but for me, this conversation was a pivotal moment… a realization of what’s possible if we’re willing to go there. We can expand — maybe even burst — the yoga bubble.

As I stated in the beginning of this article, I think Yoga Journal holds a mirror up to the yoga collective, and what I saw in the mirror this weekend was a reflection of a whole lot of beautiful, inspiring, but very likeminded (and sometimes, like-looking) individuals. If we want to shift that, we — as yogic consumers — have to vocalize what we want. Request more scholarships for underserved or minority populations. Ask conference/festival organizers to bring in “non-yogi” speakers on issues we want to address as a community; from climate change, to women’s rights, to addiction.

How can we expect the bankers on Wallstreet or terrorists in the Middle East to change if we’re not actively engaging with those individuals?

Photo Credit: Yoshi Aono

I want to be clear, I know there are plenty of yogis who are out there engaging their communities: sharing the fruits of their practice in corporate America, jails, the slums of Africa, with the young child they have at home. This article is in many ways a call to action for myself, as well as an effort to engage a group that I know loves to discuss these ideas… what can we do, as a collective, to kick our practice up a notch?

Form a yoga-inspired political action committee? Facilitate a panel discussion on climate change and provide opportunities to purchase carbon offsets at the next Yoga Journal conference? Share your ideas, thoughts, and suggestions for how we can expand our reach as a community here.

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

14 Responses

  • Rachel says:

    Chelsea, Your words continue to inspire me. thank you for sharing.
    Much love

  • Carol Horton says:

    Great post, Chelsea. I have been reflecting on the "yoga bubble' issue myself a lot in the past few days (it comes and goes with me), so this personally feels very timely.

    Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed that I feel like I NEED said bubble for rejuvenation.(The past few days were one of those times, for sure.) What I tell myself is that as long as I'm aware that I'm using it in that way, then that's OK.

    That said, I would love nothing more than for the yoga community to become more engaged with what's happening in the world "off the mat." Personally, I think that going out to other communities and connecting, as well as engaging with social issues, is even more important than, say, bringing black teachers to YJ conferences – not that I'm not in favor of that, as I am. But let's face it, those who come will most likely be elite too.

    If we really want to engage those who aren't going to make it to any classes, let alone conferences, in typical (pricey, mostly white, mostly college educated, mostly upper-middle class feeling) yoga venues, then we need to go to those communities and offer classes and whatever else is useful to them.

    The question of political engagement is dicey, as it's so divisive, particularly on the most important issues such as inequality and climate change. Thinking of a post on that . . . maybe soon :)

  • Jack says:

    Just goes to show how important perspective and balance can be… it's hard to see these things or come up with solutions when we're stuck in our routines. But by getting away – first to a yoga conference and then to a mountaintop – new perspectives are free to emerge from within us.

    But we all have different mountaintops, and that's where things get tricky. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at YJC scholarships – as long as they're full of name-brand teachers and held up in Estes Park, the same people are going to show up, and the same people are going to be left out. We've got to find spaciousness to talk about these things, but that spaciousness has to be created and held where new perspectives actually exist.

    Think it's time to burst the bubble? Let's ditch the PAC and the carbon offsets and the speakers. Lose the mentality that says, "Let's bring new perspectives to our conference!" We've got to go listen to people we've never listened to before in THEIR worlds. We've got to put ourselves in new environments. And – this is critical – we've got to figure out how to make a Bible Peak in those places. Until we're doing that, our yearly pilgrimages to beautiful, pristine, and wealthy parts of the country to hang out and talk about oneness will be fun, inspiring, and community-building… but also constrained by exclusivity. These conferences will continue to look from the outside like an Enlightenment noble's court, with exotic novelties brought in as fodder for discussion. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But we have to choose what we want.

  • Jack says:

    As for political and social engagement, I think it should have a place in the yoga community.

    Many great teachers have said that yoga is a tool, a vehicle for achieving what we're supposed to – and people often think that means the yoga practice itself must stay somehow neutral. We can go march or vote or whatever, and our practice may have inspired us, but we can't really talk about it with the people next to us in the studio. There are some benefits to this understanding. Everyone's practice is personal, so we all need to have the freedom to take it wherever it may lead us without the perception of imposition from others. At the same time, we get that great feeling of "Yeah! We really are all one!" because everything that might become petty is avoided, and that rejuvenates and inspires us.

    But really, doesn't that seem like a modification for beginners? It may take years for many of us, but I think we want to gradually begin putting away the blocks and straps. We want to carefully begin discussing these issues with the awareness that triggers are everywhere. We want to approach our speech with the same complexity we use in our asana: recognizing that we're not just speaking, we're focusing on how and why we speak – and that's just as important as what we actually say.

    I've often thought that if dedicated yoga practitioners put the same passion they give their asana into their communication skills, they'd probably run the world pretty well. And that shift doesn't sound so farfetched! Ever heard of a Deliberative Dialogue? I used to facilitate them in college. Maybe we should get some yogis together and give it a shot…

  • West Anson says:

    Those who attend the YJ Conferences and the many other Yoga Conferences are but a small fraction of the “Yoga Community”. The people who attend them are wonderful people and I am sure the Conferences are great gatherings. However, the average Yogi can not afford the hundreds and more often thousands of dollars to attend a week-long or weekend Conference.

  • DoriM says:

    Chelsea, I appreciate you shedding light on these questions. When I was in Estes this past weekend I was saddened to see the lack of diversity in those around me. Of course, it makes perfect sense since I see the same lack of diversity in every yoga class I attend and teach. I think a good first step that Yoga Journal could take would be to invite teachers and speakers to the conference that are particularly experienced in how to take yoga to the masses. I know there are many non profits and groups around the country and world that do this well and we could all stand to be exposed to their ideas and expertise in how we too may broaden our reach on an individual level.

  • KaraLeahGrant says:

    Fantastic article. So fantastic. Thank you for bringing all this to light in such an eloquent way.

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