Can I be into yoga without the supernatural crap?

Edited photo by Ludovica Dri on Unsplash

In 2018, my friend and I went to the Om Yoga show in Alexandra Palace. My previous experience of going to shows there was the Knitting and Stitching show, which has always been an excellent way of discovering specialist yarns and fabrics, and grabbing some bargains. So I was optimistic.

The yoga show was a little different. I could have done classes, although that appealed as much as the knitting or sewing workshops have appealed in the other show, ie not at all. There were various yoga schools and studios and holidays to learn about. And of course clothing brands, props and other yoga paraphernalia available for purchase (some of which were pretty good).

But one of the interesting things about it was that, off the main hall and in the smaller, darker room, was the darker side of yoga. There, you could visit astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers, crystal healing, people who claim to communicate with angels.

If you are surprised, you shouldn’t be. This sort of this, this obsession with the supernatural, is pretty mainstream in the yoga scene. Triyoga, one of the leading yoga studios in London (and the one I probably practice at the most) frequently runs specialist astrology workshops (they don’t seem to have one right now, but here’s a blog post on the topic from last year instead). If you look on their specialist treatment list, angel guidance reading is one of the options.

So my question is, why are yogis obsessed with the supernatural?

Obviously yoga is a spiritual practice and has a rich heritage of supernatural things about it as a result. There’s the chakras, which are energy centres in the body that affect our emotional wellbeing. There’s the vayus, or winds, which flow energy around the body in different directions, again affecting how we feel. There’s the nadis, which are the channels through which energy flows in the body.

While I’m not a big fan of any of them (or rather, I think they are nice metaphors but not things that physically exist), I accept them because they are part of the history and traditional philosophy of the practice.

I don’t think angels are. Or tarot readings and palmistry and all the other mystical supernatural bullshit. Are they?

And if they are not, why is it that yoga has to be closely associated with them?

Is it the rule that a spiritual practice has to embrace all things supernatural?

Are people starved of spirituality and simply binge on anything that is available, regardless of heritage and validity?

Is it something else?

I am genuinely interested so do tell me if you have any ideas.

Why do I care?

A few reasons.

One – it’s kind of embarrassing. If yoga is so closely associated with supernatural woo woo, then people think that that’s what yoga is about. That practicing yoga means you are into astrology and angels and crystal healing and tarot cards. I don’t think I need to tell you that I’m not.

Two – if this is what people think yoga is about, and that misaligns with their own beliefs, they will never try it. I’m not saying that we should purge the practice of its actual traditions, but we don’t need to adopt things that have nothing to do with yoga philosophy, just because they have some random spirituality element to them.

And three – there is a risk that the more you move towards the supernatural, the further away you move from the natural, or science more specifically. I’ve written about this before, the idea that the practice of yoga may be promoting the “natural is best” fallacy and moving people away from science and medicine. There is also some research showing that spirituality can lead to a rejection of science and medicine (the study was done in Greece, where I’m from, where people went to communion at the height of the pandemic in 2020 because they believed that God would protect, and where many people believe in supernatural things like angels).

The last one worries me, a lot.

As I wrote recently, it feels to me like a rejection of vaccination is common among yoga teachers, and a general rejection of scientists and western medicine – the whole “tired of experts” problem. Science seems to be distant, ‘other’, not really offering solutions to the problems people face. The classic science engagement failure that we have been trying to solve for decades.

There doesn’t seem to be much actual research on this (although, to be fair, I didn’t look very thoroughly) apart from a PhD thesis from a few years ago, which found that practitioners are likely to have a high acceptance of alternative medicine. However, this doesn’t mean much beyond potentially a perpetuation and amplification of certain beliefs within communities. Is anyone researching this, I wonder?

And on a personal level, over the past few months, this trend has actually made me question whether I still want to be part of the yoga community and whether I really belong there.

What do you think? What is it about yoga that helps to promote supernatural beliefs?

2 Comments

  1. It goes way back. The third part of Patanjali’s sutras is all about Siddhi’s (superpowers.) I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that the inability for gurus to answer a question “I don’t know” is a major factor [i.e. Probably both because students for some unreasonable reason want / expect omnipotence in a teacher, and teachers who are a bit full of themselves and can’t bring themselves to answer “I don’t know.” And so they end up weaving a cluster of BS in the space of their ignorance.] Some Jnana yogis (e.g. Gotama Buddha) have done better than others, but still.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Someone else said the same to me, I must admit I can’t remember the sutras that well, and I seem to remember being quite annoyed with the translation I had because it was full of crap. So yes, I think there is definitely a lot of true in this.

      Liked by 1 person

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