Does Living a Yoga Lifestyle Mean Strict Discipline?
New research sheds light on dedicated practitioners' lifestyle choices.
Posted Nov 27, 2020
Recently, I was invited to examine Dr. Allison Jeffrey’s Ph.D. thesis on women’s Yoga lifestyles. Fascinated by her research, I invited Allison to write a blog post about her findings. She accepted my invitation and shares her work below.
Today, Yoga is a lucrative commercial enterprise that attracts large numbers of consumers, particularly women (White, 2012). A popular perception of these "Yogis" is an individual who prioritises diet, environmentalism, and discipline. Green smoothies, flexible bodies, and hippies with spiritual tattoos are further stereotypes associated with Yoga (Miller, 2016).
With over 20 years of experience both teaching and practicing Yoga as a lifestyle, I have experience navigating the stereotypes of contemporary Yoga. I have read a vast range of research on the positive effects of Yoga practice on various psychological and physical conditions (Ivtzan & Jegatheeswaran, 2015). I have also immersed myself in a variety of ancient texts such as the Yoga sūtras of Patañjali to understand the roots of contemporary Yoga practice. All of this research has helped me to understand how Yoga has shifted over the years to become an extremely varied practice that is simultaneously ancient, commercial, and remedial.
My own struggles with finding a purposeful way of engaging with Yoga led me to find out if other women faced similar dilemmas. My research (Jeffrey, 2020) was inspired by the women practitioners I worked with and I now describe the ways that both ancient and contemporary teachings are equally influencing the choices that ultimately define how they engaged with Yoga. In my research, then, I understand Yoga as a philosophical and ethical lifestyle system.
Although I practiced Yoga in Canada for many years, I had just moved to New Zealand where my research took place. Because I was interested in serious practitioners who have adopted Yoga as a lifestyle, my participants were dedicated women practitioners who have been adapting and adopting the teachings of Yoga throughout their daily lives for 5 years up to 40 years. The participants were different ages, from 23 through to 91, and practiced different lineages of Yoga. My research included me participating in journaling, movement, and meditation practices with the women, conducting group practice sessions sharing about our experiences in Yoga and interviewing the women a number of times over the course of 14 months.
The Yoga practitioners in my research engaged in extremely different daily routines. Some of the women chose to wake early and practice (meditate, move, breathe), while others found it beneficial to sleep in then enjoy a leisurely coffee. Some found a deeper sense of connection through sobriety while others enjoyed an occasional glass of wine. Over a long period of witnessing their varied lifestyles, I did not find common guidelines for living “the” Yoga lifestyle. They did, however, share such values as self-awareness and integrity. Rather than convincing themselves that they must live, eat, and act in certain ways to be considered “good” yogis, these dedicated women prioritised integrity and chose practices based on the lives they wanted to lead.
For example, we shared how we used the teachings of ahimsa (an ancient teaching that is often interpreted as non-harm/kindness) and svadhyaya (self-study), not as ways to berate ourselves, but rather as tools to lean on that help us to navigate the stressors of life. For example, Jyotis (all women chose their own pseudonyms and these are used throughout) understanding of ahimsa has changed:
"I realise that when I was living a very strict yogi life, I was making myself miserable. I was taking it way too far and it just became like an obsession. I remember talking about ahimsa as non-harm and thinking who am I to say that the life of bacteria is lesser than a dog. I started thinking about each sentient being as equally important. I went so far as to consider how even when I’m breathing I am killing. It was with that realisation that I stopped being so strict with myself. Today, my Yoga lifestyle looks very different to what it was back then. I just try the best that I can. Every day I just try to love and care as much as I can today. And every day it might look different but that’s okay because I am sincerely, conscientiously trying my best and that is a yogi life."
Jyoti devoted herself to ashram life and a guru for many years and is now in the process of shifting her understandings of practice. Above, she demonstrates how the ancient Yogic teachings of kindness and self-reflection remain influential in her decision-making processes.
Many participants’ journeys into Yoga lifestyles illustrate similar narratives. After years of dedicating themselves to the teachings of Yoga, they replaced external validation and self-critique for individual integrity and self-awareness. For example, Tara recalled first joining a Yoga class in London to balance an extreme party lifestyle. “Mid-week I’d go to a hot Yoga class and felt like I was detoxing," she said. Today, she is a devout practitioner and teacher. She reflected on extremes in Yoga (both commercial and spiritual) and described how she can be swayed by both of those worlds. I asked her how she finds pathways through these extremes and she explained: “I just go back to what is authentic for me as a practitioner."
Below, Uma also described the importance of finding a personally meaningful engagement with practice. She grew up in a large Yoga community that taught all members how to live Yoga lifestyles according to a well-known lineage. Here, Uma depicted the inspiration she took from spiritual masters she observed during her childhood:
I have seen a few people that I would consider spiritual masters. And it seems like their personality is very much still there. They don’t suddenly become these amazingly holy people. Some of them laugh a lot, some are abrupt, and some of them are kind of quiet. That was interesting to see. I remember them when I’m keeping my goals in mind. When I think of things to aspire to, it’s not like I’m trying to push my whole personality aside. The practices are meant to make me more of what I already am.
Uma described what I witnessed in many of the women through this research. After years of engaging with daily Yoga practice, these women adjusted their Yoga lifestyles to suit their lives. For example, Nutmeg described the changes she experienced after adopting a Yoga lifestyle, “I am living this Yoga lifestyle now and I can take naps, I go for runs, visit friends, go to the beach — it’s a totally different way of living."
These different ways of living Yoga lifestyles disrupt stereotypical representations of Yogis as always disciplined, always calm, and effortlessly flexible. These women’s lifestyles and ways of being cannot be contained by one set of guidelines, nor should they be expected to. Their brilliance is in their variation. The women I worked with demonstrated extremely different ways of engaging with Yoga, but also described how their engagement with Yoga is always changing to accommodate changes in their bodies and lives.
For example, Peanut (a 91-year-old practitioner) described how her approach to physical Yoga practices is changing as she now appreciated Yoga for social and psychological benefits. Today, she values being part of a community that is “open to new ideas” and describes the joy she gets in sharing a coffee with friends after class: “I think this is why I like coming to Yoga, to be around like-minded people." Below, Michael (this is her chosen pseudonym) reflects on change and adaptation in Yoga:
There’s that thing about life today, or life in general, that the only given thing is change and fluctuation. We are always changing in response to our outer world. So, maybe it’s the pace that we are living in that is causing us to choose different tools. I don’t know. I mean, I think we are still using the same tools today as in ancient days, we are just prioritising different ones. And maybe that’s a sign of the times. In terms of taking bits of Yoga as tools that might serve us in our contemporary way with Yoga, I am definitely seeing a lot more meditative and slower practices in the world...like Yoga Nidra [a style of meditation]. And maybe this is what contemporary practitioners need in order to balance the fast pace we are living in.
Michael is an experienced Yoga teacher highly trained in both contemporary and traditional styles, but her Yoga lifestyle was not static. It was clear that these serious practitioners adapted ancient teachings to suit current times. They offered ways that these teachings can remain relevant amongst a fast-paced, contemporary world. As such, any singular definition of “the” Yoga lifestyle may not be relevant for the vast range of practitioners engaging with Yoga today. Although not strictly adhering to the regimented lifestyle in popular guidebooks, the long-term practitioners did not lack discipline. Rather, their discipline prioritised personal integrity, continual internal awareness, and strength.
Considering the immense environmental, political, and social changes that have characterised this year, remaining adaptable and choosing appropriate tools for the time is relevant in communities beyond Yoga. The dedicated Yoga practitioners found pathways that enabled them to contribute to a world that is increasingly unpredictable. If the only constant is change, these women revealed how living with Yoga as a continual process of adaptation has trained them for the unknown future we face.
Copyright Allison Jeffrey, Ph.D.
Ivtzan, I., & Jegatheeswaran, S. (2015). The yoga boom in western society: Practitioners’ spiritual vs. physical intentions and their impact on psychological wellbeing. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy, 5(3), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.4172/2157-7595.1000204
Jeffrey, A. (2020). Women's contemporary yoga lifestyles: An embodied ethnography of becomings (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Waikato, New Zealand).
Miller, A. (2016). Eating the other yogi: Kathryn Budig, the yoga industrial complex, and the appropriation of body positivity. Race and Yoga, 1(1), 1- 22. http://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12046
White, D. G. (2012). Yoga, brief history of an idea. In D. G. White (Ed.), Yoga in practice (pp. 1–23). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.