"Authenticity" and Yoga

I've been watching the excellent Netflix documentary series "Ugly Delicious" recently. If you haven't seen it, it involves David Chang (of Momofuku fame) travelling around the world with his buddies, eating delicious food and talking about why food matters in various social contexts. He is super entertaining and comes across as very likable and down to earth (at least to me). If you are seeking something new to binge watch and you are interested in the sociology of food, it's a good one.

Korean short rib tacos from the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck in Los Angeles

The first episode of the series is all about pizza; the second is all about tacos. In both episodes, Chang eats, explores, and discusses the various ways that both pizza and tacos have been reinvented in recent years by chefs who are skilled in culinary fusion. He visited the famous Kogi BBQ "Korean Taco" trucks in Los Angeles, and devoured (and praised) pizza topped with sashimi in Tokyo. He spent time with Rene Redzepi and the other Danish chefs from Noma as they set up a Noma pop-up in Tulum, Mexico, that specialised in Mexican food. He also unabashedly declared that he eats (and likes) Domino's pizza and thinks there is a time and a place for that kind of food. Throughout these episodes, Chang's opinion was abundantly clear: what make food "authentic" is not that it is a carbon-copy of the "original" version. Rather, what is important is that the interpretation of something like a taco or a pizza respects what is essential to that dish; if this respect and knowledge of the tradition is evident, then there is space for individual expression and experimentation, provided it is skillfully executed.

Who doesn't love Domino's pizza?!

All of this made me think about the contemporary yoga scene. There's a lot of discussion, and, I think, a fair amount of judgement, floating around these days about what makes (and keeps) yoga "authentic." Aspiring yoga teachers often think they want to complete their teacher training in India so they can "go to the source" of the practice. I have practiced in classes with several well-known yoga teachers who like to claim that "their" yoga is the most "authentic" for X, Y, or Z reasons. Of course, the opposite is also true: there is, simultaneously, a fair amount of chatter about being innovative, creative, and rebellious, perhaps in an effort to redefine or reinvent how yoga is practised.

I think it's important to honour the traditions of yoga. I'm researching the history of yoga for a module I'm teaching on Erin Prichard's upcoming 500-hr teacher training programme, and my research is reminding me that it's nearly impossible to pinpoint the "origins" of yoga in the deep past because, like all ancient history and prehistory, the archaeological record is fragmentary and sparse. Even much more recent iterations of yoga reflect a dizzyingly diverse array of of approaches. The past 150 years of contemporary postural yoga alone demonstrate how it is a living, breathing tradition that has undergone numerous iterations and reinterpretations.

I think it's more than valid and appropriate (even advisable!) to incorporate a certain amount of contemporary knowledge, in one form or another, to keep the practice modern and relevant. My own personal inclinations lean towards supplementing traditional asana and philosophy with contemporary anatomical understanding to refine how we practice postures and try to keep them safe, appropriate, effective, and sustainable for modern bodies. Someone else might fuse a different aspect of traditional yoga with something from another discipline or tradition in a way that reflects their own personal interests and passions. Maybe what makes, and keeps, yoga "authentic" is similar to what makes and keeps pizza and tacos authentic. Chang argues that the heart of pizza is not specifically Italian ingredients, but rather Italians' super-local sourcing of ingredients and the care they take in crafting a pizza. Following this logic, the most authentic interpretation of pizza in Japan would not be buffalo mozzarella cheese and San Marzano tomatoes, but rather the appropriation of locally available ingredients, such as tuna sashimi and wasabi mayonnaise, prepared with care. What makes a taco a taco is, in part, the egalitarian and everyday nature of the dish, not necessarily the use of mole sauce or crema.

As with most things, authenticity can be retained, even in the face of innovation and experimentation, when we explore new possibilities but ground these explorations within a deeply knowledgable and respectful understanding of the origins. I don't believe you just get to "make up shit that you like and call it yoga." I do believe that if you have studied the history of yoga, understand its roots, and have embodied the practices, consistently, for a long, long time (24 months isn't a long time...), an organic extension and expression of the practice might reasonably involve tweaking it a bit. However, as teachers, this balance can be tricky to manage and must be executed thoughtfully and with care. It is our obligation to educate our students about the roots of yoga, be forthcoming and direct about how our personal interpretation and approach might divert from these traditions, and explain the reasoning behind the choices we have made. As educators, this last bit seems to be the most important part. We are not "artists," strictly, so unlike the chefs on "Ugly Delicious," our top priority cannot always be seeking the maximum expression of our personal creativity. We are teachers. Our priority must remain, first and foremost, teaching from a place of knowledge, integrity, and honesty. Importantly, teaching yoga with this degree of transparency also demonstrates humility and reflects that our interest in personalising the practice is not solely based in stroking and elevating our own egos.

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