Has Yoga Created a Culture of Escape?

One of the most valuable things about yoga is that it gives us an opportunity for refuge and renewal.

In coming to the mat, we have the chance not only to step away from the pressures and pains of everyday life, but to nourish and fortify ourselves so that we’re better able to deal with them. This is true whether we do yoga simply for exercise and relaxation, or our practice extends to include deeper commitments such as spiritual growth.

Either way, we take precious time for ourselves in order to grow stronger, healthier, and more vital.

This is beautiful, valuable, and much needed in our super-stressed, hyperactive society.

I’m afraid, however, that the yoga community has an all-too-common tendency to exchange refuge and renewal for escape and denial.

And while they sometimes look the same on the surface, they’re really not the same at all.

photo credit: ericskiff

What’s the difference? Seeking refuge and renewal involves recognizing that life is hard and that to live well, we need to fortify ourselves.

Embracing escape and denial, in contrast, involves cutting what we don’t like out of our conscious awareness, and insisting on telling ourselves and others stories about how reality is whatever we want it to be.

Why do I think this? Here are some examples that I’ve run across in recent weeks:

  •  A woman I meet at a yoga conference confesses that while she’s been practicing with a group that proudly celebrates their commitment to positivity and community, the reality is that there’s so much pressure to be happy together that people go home and cry alone at night.
  • A new friend explains to me that after years of teaching yoga and loving it, she’s become disillusioned with the community because after her studio underwent a hostile takeover, everyone quickly told her to “move on” and “let go of negativity,” rather than recognizing her pain and legitimate sense of betrayal.
  • I read one more well-meaning, but clueless post insisting that the only reason that yoga teachers aren’t rich is because they’re manifesting negative attitudes about money, and that if they’d only become more positive, The Universe would bless them with all the prosperity they could ever dream of.


  photo credit: Lemsipmatt

In my mind, these instances all exemplified the same underlying problem of trying to escape and deny difficult and painful realities – and then rationalizing that evasion as “yogic” because it seems to preserve our little bubble of peace and positivity.

And to me, that’s not yoga at all.

But what do you think?

What distinguishes refuge and renewal from escape and denial?

Has the yoga community created a culture that favors one over the other?

Posted by:

- who has written 8 posts on Yoga Modern.

Carol is a Contributing Editor to Yoga Modern. A Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher, she teaches yoga to incarcerated women at the Cook County Women’s Detention Facility with the non-profit group, Yoga for Recovery. Author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), she’s currently finishing a new book entitled 21st Century Yoga: Paradoxes of Contemporary Practice. Carol holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and taught American Politics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since leaving academia to be with her husband in Chicago and start a family, she’s worked as a research consultant to nonprofit organizations, specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. In addition to Yoga Modern, her online activities include blogging at Think Body Electric and Elephant Journal, maintaining a Facebook Page dedicated to news and discussion about yoga and meditation, and mixing it up on Twitter. Carol lives in Chicago with her husband, two sons, and two krazy catz.

14 Responses

  • Carol, I think this is an excellent point; there is a difference between refuge for renewal vs. escape in denial. Refuge does not mean an escape from the outside as much as space and different context in which to think about ourselves and our extended selves. Denial equals disconnect and that is the antithesis to yoga practice.
    Great post, Hilary

  • Andy says:

    I see your points, but in my mind, any yoga class covers the spectrum of feelings. It starts off being like, "ah this feels sooo good, thank god for yoga,' then it's like 'oh my god I am feeling such a painful sensation in my buttocks, I don't think I can finish this class!' Then it's like, 'concentrate on the breath, you can do this,' then it's relief and pride that you actually made it through. I guess you are talking about things outside the actual practice though.

  • I avoid "is it really yoga" questions, since I think it's basically nothing more than a way making "is it in sync with what I want yoga to be?" appear to be about more than one's own desires. Nonetheless, I do think "is it in sync with what I want yoga to be" is a very relevant question. Ultimately, I think the desire for escape and denial generally precedes the yoga practice.

    And, as such, a yoga practice is at least a healthier means of escaping and denying than some. At the same time, I think that the forced "positivity" popular in the new age community is actually very negative. Generally speaking, if you're suffering and your community is made up of people pretending to be perfectly happy and "positive" about everything while putting down and even socially ostracizing anybody deemed "negative," so that you have to repress your pain in order to conform rather than try to work with it isn't likely to help.

    • In fact, it's only gonna make your suffering grow, until you find yourself, with a fake air of tranquility, big fake smile on your face, and t-shirt reading "mean people suck," viciously telling unhappy people to keep away from you since their suffering is their own fault because of their negative energy and bad karma, thinking that this somehow is how "positive" people behave. And, yeah, the belief system of much of the yoga community is, essentially, "if it feels good, believe it," to which I might add "but don't think too much about it."

      • Thus, I hear yoga people talking about the law of attraction and law of karma, insistin that you'll bring whatever good things you want to yourself with the right attitude–a belief that can certainly put a spring in your step. But then they insist that "this doesn't mean bad things that happen to you are your fault!" The hell it doesn't. The trouble with magical thinking is that it means "your life it whatever you want it to be, and the world is whatever you want it to be, and, therefore, everything that sucks in your life and in the world is your fault."__So, I don't know if it's yoga or not, but it's certainly not positive.

  • yoga-adan says:

    What distinguishes refuge and renewal from escape and denial? –

    difficult question ;-)

    does doing either extreme make one immune to escape and denial? or guarantee refuge and renewal?

    is someone who has decided that to grab all the money they can, because his or her experience tells them the people the money's coming from are irresponsible and are reluctant to learn how to handle that energy, so therefore it is his or her responsibility to take that money and hold it in hands that are willing to work that energy – is that someone in denial? or illusion?

    denial of what? illusion of what?

    is someone who accepts the ideas that the mind is a monkey and the root of our problems, that the body and earth are illusions, and those who put forth energy into social activities that won't "last" and therefore should withdraw from such impermanence – is that person in denial? or illusion?

    again, denial and illusion of what?

    what if a person's soul has brought that person back to learn and resolve not to get involved because of over-involvement in a supposed past life?

    what if that person then has to come back and be a money person to learn not to disengage so extremely?

    i suppose that's why i tend toward the idea of balance, which for me is a process…

    and i don't doubt much i may've led a life or two of extreme ;-)

    it's all a tricky proposition – how much we owe to ourselves, and to each other, and how kindly might we try to find those answers –

    i know i could use a little kindness

    going in and going out ;-)

    good question carol, and looks like a bunch of us are giving it go; thank you much!

  • Amen! Absolutely agree with your post.  Hiding behind or "in" our practice does not for enlightenment make.  

    I, too, have felt the pressure to just get the f over it, because I'm a Yogi.  I have experienced this deeply from within my yoga community, including from my teachers. I have felt like I must not be doing it right, or I would be transformed!  This kind of attitude, although well meaning, can create a culture of shame for still "feeling bad" despite regular yoga practice. 

    Someone said to me recently " no matter what happens in my life, no matter how bad things get, I just have this sense of peace".  Okay. Good for you, not me!  I do my yoga, strive to live with integrity and consciousness, and guess what?  I still feel like shit sometimes!  I still have money problems.  I still fight with my  boyfriend.  I make mistakes.  However, I can authentically say that when I am immersed in my practice and am focusing my attention on my breath, the sensations in my body, the chatter and quieting of my mind,  I am reminded of all the good reasons I started practicing yoga:  Doing something that feels good, that I enjoy, and maybe even helps me to cope a little better.  

    Thank you for this great article! Life's woes will happen, despite the dedication to our practice.   What we don't need is one more thing to feel guilty about!  

  • Carol Horton says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I don't claim to have any final answers, and I think that the deeper questions that ygoa-adan raises are great.

    I do, however, think that yoga culture (by which I mean not our individual experience on the mat as Andy describes, but rather the socially shared attitudes that I often encounter in the community) has bought way too much into the fake "positivity" culture that Barbara Ehrenreich takes apart in "Bright Sided." If we don't confront difficulty, we become less attuned and empathetic to ourselves and others. This I think is what YogaforCynics and Whitnie are pointing out in their comments on guilt and self-blame. Any culture that corrals us into feeling that we should be bright, positive, smiley, and shiny ALL THE TIME has an inadvertent cruelty.

    I'm not saying that yoga culture is ALWAYS like this, because in my experience, most of the time it IS NOT. However, I do see this refuge vs. escape issue as a persistent problem that we need to grapple with, both as individuals and a community.

  • Mat Witts says:

    There is an ingenious synonymous construct going on here that has been designed to make us think there is something about life that demands us to manage it in a particularly ethical way. But before we get into semantics, anecdotes and seminal conclusions perhaps we could analyse this beyond the apparent bivalence that this article rests on. What if we were to write about refuge and escape vs. renewal and denial for example? or refuge and denial vs. escape and renewal? The point is that many of these words are brought to the table "armed". The ones that sticks out like a sore thumb here is denial, escape might also be seen as being negatively charged moving through to the more neutral refuge and the most "positive", renewal. Yoga at times is not so much about having all the answers but simply actively avoiding questions? And so taking refuge, escaping and denial in this wider context are all valid responses I think.

  • Chetana says:


    Yes, I think this has been a swinging pendulum in many spiritual traditions. Your post reminds me of the Dark Side of Light Chasers. Also, of a passage I read aloud a lot to yoga circles. It is in Judith Lasater's book Living Your Yoga, fairly early on in the book. To paraphrase, she says that while yoga can help us deal with both physical and emotional pain, it cannot insulate us from the painful experiences of life – aging, loss, not getting what we want. However, it can alleviate suffering. She calls suffering the emotional reaction we layer on top of pain. To me she just explains this whole important concept in yoga so succinctly. Yoga is not a bubble we hide out in – it is a tool to help us use challenges for insight, and be with pain, rather than the excruciating path of running away from it.

    It seems that maybe the Buddhists are a bit more clear on this, or express this more often in lay terms.

    I also find a wonderfully succinct expression of this is offered by Great Freedom. The teacher talks about how the five passions are always with us – we never get to a place in which we do not have these human components. We simply are better able to witness them, as opposed to acting out on them.

    I really enjoyed this post.

    Om, Chetana

  • kkdoggydawg says:

    YES YES YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-41–844525152 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

  • Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Chetana. Your comment makes me want to add that the experiences that I had through yoga caused me to turn to Buddhism in order to have a framework with which to understand and work with them better. Personally, I have found contemporary Buddhist writings to be on the whole infinitely more useful than the usual fare circulating through the yoga community.

    Of course, the idea that these are separate traditions is not really accurate, but that's the way it's playing out now. I would love to see more connections there, as yoga has much to offer the convert Buddhist community when it comes to working with the body as well.

  • Valerie Carruthers says:

    As a culture that thrives on escapism wherever we can find it, it seems part of the yoga community's growing pains to use the very modality intended to reveal the highest, purest truth as a means of escape and denial. I have seen longtime devotees of a revered meditation lineage use the intensity of the Shakti (manifest creative force) that is experienced as an excuse for callous behavior. So easy to hide behind the practice and say, "It was the Shakti." Not taking responsibility for their actions. Yet there is absolutely nothing anywhere within that meditation practice to justify or enforce such attitudes. It's said that the Shakti will "drive out anything that is not love to make room for more love." If the yoga practitioner in denial doesn't wake up they will probably drop out. Yet it's also such people who carry on about wanting to find their authentic self.