Ted Grand shares on the politics of yoga
Photography by Stasia Garrawa
Ever wonder what runs through the minds of some of modern yoga’s great movers and shakers? We had a chance to pick the brain of Ted Grand, co-founder of Moksha Yoga. With over 75 locations worldwide, Moksha quickly made it cool to be hot since its inception in 2004. The hot yoga franchise, best known for its commitment to environmental stewardship and accessibility of the practice, offers a variety of class options and prides itself on welcoming studio environments. While thousands of yogis are getting sweaty in studios each day, Grand is at home on Salt Spring Island, BC, with his family—including wife and Canadian songstress Tara MacLean—thinking about new ways the Moksha community can help influence the future of modern yoga in the West. It’s no surprise; Ted’s roots are firmly planted in environmental activism and a commitment to making the world a more peaceful place to be. He says that “Yoga is a vehicle for becoming more socially engaged and compassionate,” and we wanted to know more.
Sweat Equity: Ted, you’ve seen an evolution in the yoga community over the last decade. As little as five years ago, the yoga world was still trying to educate the public on why yoga is for everyone. Now that people from all walks of life are practicing, what has shifted?”
Ted Grand: The modern yoga community suffers from an identity crisis and needs to get past its fixation on what “real” yoga is. We can do this by demystifying yoga and being honest about how tradition can both evolve and be honoured. On a basic level, there are two strong voices that resonate throughout most contemporary yoga classes: one voice says that we must adhere to the traditions of yoga that have been passed down through thousands of years of yoga’s rich history, and the other voice says that yoga is simple and powerful and can help affect huge personal transformation through physical effort to achieve certain poses. While there is certainly much overlap, the traditionalists generally tend to ridicule the more physical practitioners, and the modern yogis will at times dismiss the traditionalists as uptight fundamentalists.
The challenge inherent in honouring and indeed replicating traditions is that they hold a deeper value and meaning when placed within the context of the culture and time period from which they derived. When the traditions of chanting and kirtan, guru and disciple relationships, medieval philosophy, and ancient gender and caste politics are woven into the modern yoga world, there is often a disconnect or schism. An irrelevance arises that becomes evident to those who do not understand or value those concepts.
How does this fallout manifest?
Basically, people will discard things if they don’t make sense. This gives birth to the hyper-physical, material approach to yoga, whereby the practitioner doesn’t want to know any of that old stuff, and as a result, much of the beauty and depth that yoga has to offer gets thrown out—the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
Would you say this shift or “disconnect” is why we’re seeing more behind-the-scenes exposés in blogs and books over the past year?
The tension that exists between these two sides plays itself out in much judgment, insensitivity, indifference, and fodder for cynical blogs and a hungry media that are looking to take the steam out of yoga’s increasing popularity.
How does Moksha respond to this growing pain in the Western yoga community?
Moksha Yoga is a system that is trying to find a middle path and demystify some of the holiness that exists within traditional yoga. Though some may mock our emphasis on accessibility, we see no logic in offering classes that contain chanting in foreign and deceased languages, devotion to gods and goddesses that are meaningful in a particular religion. Talking about things like chakras and reincarnation that, for all intents and purposes, exist only in the theoretical realm can be divisive. Sure, there are some students who want and actively seek out that holiness, for that is what they need to enrich their yoga path. There are studios for them as well, but Moksha Yoga’s Level 1 classes are probably not for them. This is not to say that we don›t bring a large degree of spiritual awareness to our classes. In fact, our teachers have studied the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika; they’ve studied meditation, how the science of the body and mind informs our state of mind and heart, and they share a lot of that information with students so that more peace is created in their practice and life.
So you think there are yoga “purists” who might question your methods?
It would seem it is time to dismantle the argument of what “real” yoga is and to allow contemporary culture to aid in that definition. This does not cheapen or devalue the original state of what yoga is or was, simply because there never was a definitive yoga to transmit or pass down. It has had its own wild and disparate evolution long before it ever reached western consciousness. It’s gone through the filtering and morphing of different eras in history, beginning with a shamanic nature worship, splits in philosophy (dualist/non-dualist), and the shame of being a yogi (yogis were looked down on as magicians, thieves, and tricksters not too long ago), among other influences of varied god worship, geographical influences (how many different Trikonasanas are there anyway?), and particularities of influential teachers. Krishnamacharya alone has helped spawn several schools of yoga including Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Viniyoga, and Rodney Yee videos! What we’re experiencing today is a filtration of yoga through a proudly independent and self-obsessed culture, and it will take time to see how the interplay between tradition and hyper-physicality plays out. So, patience is required. There are many iterations of what yoga is already, and I imagine there are more to come!
Do you think it’s possible for yoga to evolve and stay relevant, while still capturing the magic of ancient traditions?
As modern practitioners, teachers, and studio owners, it’s important that we don’t dumb things down and instead offer a non-threatening and welcoming entryway into the majesty and complexity that exists in yoga. We do this by demystifying all of the stuff that many people just accept and take for granted. For example, are chakras real or theoretical, and how relevant are they? Are there elements of cultural appropriation and colonialism when we chant to gods that have nothing to do with our personal religion? Is there any relevance to using Sanskrit to describe concepts or asanas? And are we being precious or overly righteous when we define what yoga “is” and mock others for having a differing viewpoint?
It sounds like you’re facilitating a shift by holding space for practitioners to ask some important questions. Would you agree?
Yoga holds massive value to those who tread its magnificent and storied path. There is also value in deconstructing that path and seeing things for what they often are: outdated and irrelevant practices, theories, and ideologies. What is awesome is rebuilding the path from that place of discernment and finding what really works in the modern world, using traditions as a template in that redesign. In Moksha Yoga, we try to balance that tradition along cutting edge neuroscience/anatomy, neutral approaches to cultivating mindful living, and an emphasis on the power of community. We are practicing the same yoga as they have for thousands of years. It continues to evolve, and we are lucky to watch it all unfold.