Is Yoga a Hoax?

Sweat, struggle, scandal docos, pyramid schemes, designer tights, sexual abuse, lawsuits, pumping music… What happened to Yoga? Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Something’s not right…

‘Yoga’ is now practiced by tens of millions of people worldwide. We could reasonably expect this ancient practice of uniting with the peace and power of existence to yield some tangible results in human society. This is the practice, after all, defined in its place of origin as “The direct means to perceive reality” (sūtra, qtd. in Shankarāchārya Brahamasūtrabhaṣya 2.1.3), and “the oneness of one entity with another” (Mālinīvijayottara Tantra 4.4) and, “skill in action” (Bhagavad Gītā 2.5).

Yet we cannot ignore the blatant evidence that we live in an unjust and hideously organized world, where racism, inequality, abuse of women, and speciecidal exploitation in all directions are the norm. More people are now seeing that to deny this is to live in a delusion, and that to have been able to deny it at all means they have been insulated. Indeed, only when the facts are clearly faced of unjust arrangements in human societies will we be able to improve them.

So, is Yoga helping? Certainly not in the way we could expect, given the numbers practicing. The dissociative, commercialised excesses of the wellness industry suggest that some core essence has been lost, the key features that make yoga Yoga. We are just not seeing the flow-on effects en masse that come naturally and immediately from authentic practice.

In classes around the world, what is obvious is that people are often developing high levels of physical skill, without any breath development. Without the breath, the river that takes us into the autonomy of the body, then the mind remains firmly in control, doing what it always does. (Where ‘breathwork’ is included, it is usually subdivided from asana and utilised to attain high states or give oneself exaggerated experiences.) Therefore, the yoga that is being practiced remains bound by the same logics of attainment, struggle, competition, individualism, self-improvement and separation that characterise most of our societies.

Stretching; attaining a shape; looking more like an ideal; experiencing an endorphin rush; sweating; belonging to a sub-culture; relaxing: all of these can give a temporary release from the build-up of social trauma in our mind and body. Without judging these feelings, they are grossly insufficient to address the problem at hand — the sense of separation from ourselves and others that we learned from ‘dominator culture’.

The promise of Yoga remains: intimacy with all ordinary conditions, body/breath and real human others; freedom from socialized thought-patterns; participation in the power of the cosmos that is arising as you and me. Intelligent, compassionate, spontaneous action in the world based on love.

We are humans just like those ancient people writing about these things. They had their troubles and traumas, their invasions and disasters, and we have the same capability as them to discover sublimity amidst the mess. They were writing about human biology and functionality, not about a special club that only one in 10,000 could join, and everybody else grind away towards. This logic of linear progress has always been based on a denial of what is already here — the body and all its intrinsic harmonies and connections within the web of life.

When people discover their breath and truly marry it with their movement, in the mood of whole-body prayer, the untapped revolutionary potential of Yoga becomes obvious.


We might learn it in a class or with a teacher, but our practice begins in our own home, under our own steam. What actually happens? We learn how to make the breath the gauge and purpose of the asana. We learn how to move and breathe in the bhav of ‘I am’ rather than ‘I am not’ or ‘I am not yet.’ The breath becomes full and smooth and flows through the body, softening tense areas that had numbed themselves from feeling as a protective strategy and releasing old patterns and karmas. We are humbled, realising how we had inadvertently duplicated the cultures we were born into, with their varying degress of life-denying hardness. We recover our human capabilities of compassion (actual and natural) and non-transactional love, as a tangible flower blooming in the chest and as the whole body. We find ourselves recognising in ‘others’ the aliveness we feel in ourselves and honouring it.

Only through discovering our natural capacity for intimate life embedded in embodied relational existence does it become obvious just how numb and aggressive most of our poor bodies have become. There is no point theorising this, we must experience it for ourselves. When we do, we can’t help it but want to serve others in this way. It becomes obvious that tangible embodied intimate connection, participation in the invisible web connecting us all, is the solution to authoritarianism and hate in this world.

Frustrated intimacy with life, with self and real others, is the precondition for falling under the spell of authoritarianism and pseudo-communities of all kinds. The human need for intimacy with self and other is so strong that it must find expression, and when it is obstructed, it is channeled into pre-prepared substitutes. These substitutes, such as nationalist xenophobic groups or misogynist online chatrooms, compensate for our lack of intimacy with real human others by providing an imaginary sense of belonging and togetherness, where we can ‘share’ without actually having to (or being able to) relate with anyone at all. Our capacity for actual relationship continues to be obstructed.

In his article, ‘The Bioenergetics of Authoritarianism,’ author, activist and psychologist Peter Gabel describes the “invisible but palpable radiance linking the poles of our being as we come into connection and experience one another” and how this experience is “inherently egalitarian… on the same solid ground of Being… a real and felt “we”. Dr Gabel writes on how when we are deprived of authentic relationship, the “force of blocked connection channels itself… toward a common leader.” In other words, the energetic basis of all groups based on a false sense of hierarchy is blocked energy between people channeled upwards to authoritarian leaders. The actual fear of other people is then displaced outwards onto some kind of “Other” or maligned group seen as a threat to the artificial sense of belonging. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the US, where Trump’s constant demonisation of an imaginary and ever-changing ‘other,’ frames them as a threat to a pseudo-unity that doesn’t exist.

So, despite the millions practicing yoga, this type of separatism and delusion is the norm, and we see its dreadful effects all around us. It even structures the majority of yoga brands in the world, within which there is a cultish allegiance to patriarchal teachers (male or female) — evidence again that something is missing.

Unity does exist. Real relationship is possible. Authentic human connection is available. Real unity is a robust tangible feeling of relatedness between people, erotically alive even when not literally sexual, the collaboration of equals who meet each other in the fullness of their shared humanity. We hold all human groups and communities whose sense of ‘unity’ is not based on actual relationship between real humans, but rather on allegiance to an idea, an identity, or a charismatic leader, in deep suspicion, whatever their politics.

Yoga is the simple practice that reveals that ‘ground of Being’ Dr Gabel references, where no-one is second to anyone else. This is not a conceptual frame — the ‘yoga frame’ — it is actual reality. Our Yoga brings us in touch with this and motivates us to reform social systems to reflect what we feel. We are not just attempting to create equality: we are feeling its obvious truth and then letting that be the grounds for our work in the world. We dissolve the fear of other people and illusions of inferiority and superiority driving cults of all kinds.

Therefore your practice and your teaching are completely radical and completely useful in this world. We are forming human connections on a different basis, practicing and sharing the tools that release the obstructions to real connection and enable palpable intimacy, egalitarian mutuality of all kinds.

Throughout Indian and western history, Yoga and yogis have been subject to absorption by hierarchical structures, much as Rome absorbed the genuine radicalism of Christ for profit and control. Over time, these beautiful practices of reality-embrace have been turned on their heads and come to mean the opposite — the denial of life. Culture is contested space. It is up to us to wrest the tradition of yoga back from dominance culture and restore it to the ordinary human life. We pre-empt authoritarianism of all kinds through our mass sharing of the technology of actual intimacy.

So is Yoga a hoax? Well… it depends.

Mark Whitwell

Written with Rosalind Atkinson and Andrew Raba. Originally published on

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Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years, and is the author of four books on Yoga.