Friday, March 1, 2013

Physical Culture: Power Yoga

Abbie Levesque
Laura Douglass
CSOCS 3452.01

Physical Culture: Power Yoga
Baron Baptiste has several affiliate studios, but his two main studios are located in Boston, with one in Brookline and one in Porter Square in Cambridge. At these studios there are several kinds of classes. For instance, there are specialty classes like “Yoga for Runners.” There are also several classes given on a regular basis. These are the meditation, core intensive, Hour of Power, All Levels, and Power Yoga Basics classes. It’s recommended that one takes a Power Yoga Basics class at some point in their Power Yoga career. These classes are all hot yoga classes, and definitively power yoga. ( The practitioners are all very athletic and for the most part the practices are atheistic, leaning towards agnostic. The studio is kept at about 90-95 degrees fahrenheit, and very humid. The practitioners were almost entirely athletic, white, and between 20-30 years old. The gender split was about 50/50, unusual for a yoga class. The practice itself was very physically demanding. The class I took was at the Cambridge studio, and was a power basics class taught by Samuel Robinson, who was also looked about 25, and was also white and athletic.
The History Of Baptiste Yoga
Baptiste was born into a Yoga family. It was actually his father who originally founded Baptiste Yoga, though the Yoga practiced at the studios today are definitively Baron’s. His family, he says, was full of “health, yoga and philosophical educators” ( Well Baptiste Yoga as a name seems to have been around since the 1940’s, the Yoga practiced by the studios today developed in the early 1990’s, and seemingly coincides with Baron becoming a part of the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff- it was probably this combined with his background in more traditional yoga that cause the development of Power Yoga as a physical practice, which he was instrumental in helping develop and only came to exist as we know it today in the 90’s. In 1998 he founded his Cambridge and Brookline studios. The practice as it exists now is high impact, asana based yoga that is focused mostly on physical fitness with an aspect of self-help to it, mostly tied to an Orientalist view of Indian religions. As of the present day, Baptiste has over 40 affiliate studios and seems as focused on training new teachers as it is on running a Yoga practice. Baron has 4 books out now, all self-help in nature, and has several practices geared towards low-income communities in the US and Kenya. (
The Physical Culture of Power Yoga
Power Yoga is a particularly good example of how the physical culture has modified Yoga. Singleton in particular discusses this, saying that “a preoccupation with the aesthetics of the body is common in yogasana manuals through the 1930’s... Publications such as these purveyed asana as a body-conditioning technique that could deliver happiness through health and aesthetic body perfection” (Singleton, 2010, pg. 129). It is in the pre-occupation with the physical that one can begin to see the shift from traditional Yoga used as a Hindu and Buddhist religious practice to the modern Yoga that is inherent in Baptiste Yoga, where the preoccupation is with the body and the implication that Yoga and the fitness it gives are a path to enlightenment and happiness. The 1930’s seems to have been a turning point in this way for Yoga- post-colonial India realized that Orientalist westerners would buy Yoga as a sort of export. Power Yoga perfectly embodies the physical culture that Singleton discusses, even though Power Yoga as Baptiste teaches it only developed in the 1990’s. Nonetheless, the focus on the physical as a way to reach a sort of clarity and spirituality highly mirrors the physical culture of Yoga in the 1930’s, and Baptiste’s Yoga practice is almost definitely a descendant of the physical culture Yoga that Singleton discusses.
The Spirituality of Power Yoga and its Cultural Implications
Power Yoga as a practice seems to be geared towards a more athletic set. That is, the people who practice power yoga as opposed to other forms of yoga are looking for a workout and not really any spiritual enlightenment. That being said, many of the practitioners are looking to Yoga as a form of self-help style self improvement. Well they’re not looking to it for religion, they are viewing it as a way to be better, and that Yoga is somehow inherently more enlightening than any other physical practice. Self-help sells, of course, and Baptiste has adapted the Hindu and Buddhist culture into one of an almost agnostic, “think positive and challenge yourself” culture, for the most part washing out the Indian elements but leaving behind the central ideas of focus and knowing one’s self. This is extraordinarily evident when one looks at the Baptiste books. They all all in that style and all claim to preach some form of inner enlightenment. Well it is easy to simply critique Baptiste or praise him for the manipulation of Indian culture, it’s also important to recognize that he does it because there is a demand for it, and that demand says something about Western Yoga. Not only is there an Orientalist component to Western Yoga, but there’s also a fascination in the west with someone sharing their “secrets” to enlightenment- that if one follows what this person tells them to do, they will be beautiful and happy. It’s an interesting mirror to the guru culture in more traditional Yoga. Instead of looking inside themselves for a person journey to happiness, western Yogis turn to someone like Baptiste, who claims to have somehow found the secret to happiness. It’s also very low-commitment as opposed to eastern Yoga and most western religions. Practitioners can go when they want, they don’t have to be deeply involved in or wholly believe in the philosophies of their practice, and they can stop whenever they want without fear of judgment from their cohort or families.
Orientalism and the Eat Pray Love culture in Modern Western Yoga
Orientalism has a long-standing culture in the western world. According to Edward Said, Orientalism is “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on. . .  despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a "real" Orient.” (Said, 1979, pg. 3,5) What this means is that western cultures romanticize eastern cultures, in this case specifically India, regardless of whether it’s an accurate portrayal of that culture. It is, colloquially, the Eat Pray Love phenomenon. The West views India as somehow inherently more enlightened, and that they somehow know more about the path to happiness than western culture- an exotiscism that is inherently misplaced and comes from a misunderstanding of their religious cultures being somehow more mystical than those in the west. Thus, the west often turns to India as a path to enlightenment. A criticism of this is that the West often treats India as a sort of spiritual playground for their personal enlightenment, appropriating and often bastardizing the native culture so that they can feel more worldly and wise than other westerners. This adaptation of the culture is apparent at Baptiste’s studio, though it does so differently than some other common practices of Yoga. It’s par the course for a westernized version of Hinduism to show up in Yoga- it’s not uncommon to hear talk about chakras and opening the heart-center with no actual explanation or understand of the religious practices and meaning behind them- to the West, this is just an easy way to enlightenment, with New-Age type ideas and mysticism without any idea of the actual religion it comes from. Baptiste turns this practice on its head- no mention of any of the explicit religious portions, though there were basic descriptions of sanskrit words and ideas, more seemingly to give the class a cultural basis than to encourage enlightenment. But this complete lack of any of the Hindu roots is a type of Orientalism all its own. Yoga poses are meant to be used as part of a religious practice, not unlike prayer in Judaic religions. Stripped of that and practice to aerobically, it’s actually essentially the same as calisthenics or gymnastics. It’s only because of Orientalism that the West views Yoga as somehow “better” than any western practice- they romanticize them and assume they are somehow more knowledgeable, instead of viewing them as being on equal footing. A sort of “noble savage” view, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau would put it. Not that Yoga as a practice is without its benefits- a power yoga class is both physically challenging and calming, increasing strength and flexibility. It’s simply what it is- that Orientalism gives some westerners a flawed view of what Yoga can do and of Indian culture.
The Theories of Yoga in Samuel Robinson’s Basics Class
The class I attended was Power Yoga Basics as taught by Samuel Robinson. He as a Yoga instructor subscribes to some theories that aren’t representative of Baptiste’s Yogic ideas but are nonetheless apparent in his classes. For instance, he is committed to “igniting the light that lives within each of our hearts” ( This closely mirrors J. Krishnamurti, who says “A light to oneself! This light cannot be given by another, nor can you light it at the candle of another. If you light it at the candle of another, it is just a candle, and can be blown out.” (Krishnamurti, 1999, pg. 111). He also focused heavily on pranayama, though without ever calling it that. He did, however, give a small talk about how important Ujjayi breathing is and how the breath and body must flow as one- a traditional idea in Yoga that was almost unexpected in a class that was nearly atheistic in nature. This subscription to pranayama seems to be specific to Robinson and not necessarily specific to Baptiste Yoga. Baptiste as a whole subscribes to the theories of physical yoga as mentioned above. That is, Baptiste believes in a good, healthy body being the key to enlightenment and happiness.

Works Cited
Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Krishnamurti, J. (1999). This Light in Oneself: True Meditation. Boston: Shambala.
Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.
Singleton, M. (2010). Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford UP.

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