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A Problem With Authenticity

Yoga | Yoga for Beginners

There’s a lot of judgement in the yoga world. We talk a lot about how there isn’t any – and I should say, here, that the people I’ve met through yoga really are some of the kindest and most open people I know. But as in any community and any industry, there is judgement and, a lot of the time, that judgement comes from unreasonable expectations. And one of those expectations that seem to come up every day is that of ‘authenticity’.

Anthropologist Richard Handler (1986) writes that “our search for authentic cultural experience – for the unspoiled, pristine, genuine, untouched and traditional – says more about us than about others.”

He is talking specifically about anthropologists looking at societies different to their own; but when we talk about authenticity in yoga, we too are searching for the pure and unspoiled – whether it be an ‘authentically yogic’ experience rooted in what we feel to be ‘real’ yoga, or whether it is the authenticity of the teacher of any yoga class we might attend.

Our Bias Towards The Authentic

Our bias comes, on one level, from a wider cultural preoccupation with attempting to counter a colonial history by romanticising the beauty and tradition of ‘others’ in contrast to the “ugly emptiness” of contemporary Europe and North America. But on a more immediate level, perhaps we’re searching for the authentic, totally genuine and open and straight-up yoga teacher to counter our concerns about the way we, and others, are living our lives.

As Lionel Trilling (1971) puts it, “that the word [!authenticity!] has become part of the moral slang of our day points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences.”

We want yoga teachers to be real, to be telling us the truth – and when we feel like they’re not, we use phrases like “you know, the class just didn’t feel authentic” to put the teacher down, when it might simply have been that we – as individuals – didn’t connect with that particular teacher or class.

I know – because it’s coming up in my thoughts as I write this, too – that you might counter this by suggesting that I’m missing the point; that in the context of yoga discourse, ‘authentic’ just means that a teacher is being true to his or herself. Teaching what they believe. What they feel. And I truly believe that’s exactly what yoga teachers should do.

My favourite teachers, and the ones I’ve learned the most from, are those who teach with their personality; the ones who share something of themselves and who are constantly learning and sharing what they learn, and living what they learn.

The Concern With “Authenticity”

The concern that I have with the concept of authenticity is that it is static. It implies the reification of a way of being, a way of practising and a way of teaching. And this is contradictory in what we do, because yoga teaches us that nothing physical is going to stick around or stay the same forever – including our thoughts, our bodies, and by extension, our practice and teaching of yoga.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend who’d just come out of a popular London yoga class. The teacher was someone she’d practised with for a few months in the previous year, and whose classes she’d loved. This time, though, she wasn’t impressed; she told me, “she’s just not authentic anymore”.

When I asked what she meant, she explained that these classes used to be full of unusual transitions and have a playlist every week, and now the sequencing was different, the music was minimal, and the teacher was less inclined to talk quite as much while she led the class. “It’s just not her anymore”, said my friend; “she’s changed it all”.

It got me thinking – was it really because this teacher was no longer teaching what she liked and what she believed, or was it because the teacher herself had changed – become different, as human beings do – and my friend hadn’t changed in the same way? As students, do we not go through phases of loving a certain class, and then changing a bit ourselves, and moving on because we don’t love it so much any longer? Teachers do that, too.

Does ‘Authentic’ Always Mean ‘Good’?

This word, ‘authentic’, is worrying because it is understood in different ways by different people within the wider yoga community, but has come to be thought of as a vital signifier of a good yoga teacher. In one way or another, in having to ‘be authentic’, a yoga teacher has to be utterly, completely something, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for change – but change is an inevitable part of being human.

In striving for authenticity, in order to live up to the idea that, as a yoga teacher, you must really know yourself and be able to offer a pure version of you to others, it’s easy to fall into trying to project what you think people want you to be.

Without this pressure, maybe yoga teachers could chill out a bit more, and be comfortable with being human beings who learn, change, grow, break, and put themselves back together again like everyone else.

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