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.

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- 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.

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