Seane Corn is one of the premier yoga teachers of our time, internationally recognized for her passionate commitment to integrating yoga into processes of personal transformation, spiritual activism, and social change. In the 1990s, she played a pivotal role in developing the then-new method of Vinyasa Flow, which has since become the most popular style of yoga in North America, if not the world. In 2007, Seane co-founded Off the Mat, Into the World, a nonprofit dedicated to utilizing yoga and related tools within a justice framework to inspire people to be conscious leaders of change. Seane has been featured on 28 magazine covers and in countless articles, news programs, and documentaries. She has many yoga DVDs available and is deep in the process of writing her first book. In this interview, which took place during her teacher training at Chicago’s Moksha Yoga in March 2015, Seane discusses the challenges and possibilities of contemporary yoga culture.
Is there a necessary tension between popularizing and commercializing yoga, and maintaining the integrity of its transformative potential?
Back when I first started with yoga back in the mid-90s, I was a very serious student, and highly identified with my own studentship. But when I started to teach, I got a lot of opportunities and attention very quickly. Right away, I realized that I’d be able to make a career out of teaching yoga in a way that most of my peers, and even my teachers weren’t going to be able to do – and, for no other reason than that I was young, strong, flexible, pretty, and white.
Yoga was more culturally marginal then. At the time, I didn’t fit the image of the typical yogi. I was marketable. But I was torn because I didn’t feel that way on the inside. I was a purist. I was very aware of the platform I was being given, and the opportunities that were right in front of me. Yet I worried that the cost of taking them would be too high.
Still, turning my back on it felt disingenuous. I was being given a gift, an opportunity to share something that was deeply meaningful to me. To reject it out of principle didn’t seem right. I didn’t want contribute to standardizing yoga around a marketable perception. But I knew that I could reach a broader audience, people that wouldn’t have gone to a yoga class back then because they wouldn’t have felt comfortable.
So I kept going. But, there were big challenges. I started seeing images of myself that had been altered in ways that made me unrecognizable. I was airbrushed, wearing bright colors, smiling a big smile, having my hair blown back by a fan. There was a disconnect between my image and what I felt in my heart. I really struggled with these issues at that time.
And now, 20 years later, most of the images of yoga are still white, blonde, and skinny. There really hasn’t been as much as a shift in all these years as I wish there could have been. I’ve been on the covers of 28 magazines sine 1999 and I’m glad; I think that’s amazing. But there are lots of other women who deserve that recognition, too. They should be on those covers, but because of their body size, or the color of their skin, or their abilities, they will never get my platform. I struggle with that.
What are some of the best ways you’ve found to work productively with your unexpected celebrity and the commercialization of yoga?
The turning point for me came in 1999, when Nike asked me to be part of an ad campaign featuring women athletes at the top of their game. Surprisingly for that time, they wanted to include yoga. And they wanted to photograph me practicing in my room, alone, with the sweat pouring down – really, just the way that I experienced it. And I knew that this was an amazing, incredible opportunity. Yet I also knew that there was a big issue at the time about Nike using sweatshop labor in its manufacturing.
Again, there was this dilemma. I knew that I was being offered this platform that would lead to more and more people asking: Could I practice yoga? What would the benefits be for me? And I knew that I could deliver that message. Yet I worried it would require getting into bed with a company that was working in ways I couldn’t support.
I went to Nike and expressed my concerns. I learned that the company was starting to make changes that weren’t public yet. They were also willing to support some good, new initiatives, like developing a non-PVC yoga mat. So while I still had reservations, I decided to move forward. And exactly what I expected to happen, happened. More and more people started asking: How can yoga change my life? And the conversation expanded.
Since then, I’ve worked with a lot of corporations. It’s easier now that I’m established and familiar with the process. I make it clear upfront that I won’t work with organizations that have any holes in them. If I see problems, I have a conversation about whether they can be addressed. Rather than just saying “yes,” I’ll investigate the opportunity first and ask: How could I engage with it differently? Could I not only use the organization’s platform, but also impact what it’s doing in a positive way?
As yoga has become popularized and commercialized, do you think that it has remained the same practice that you wanted to share? Or has it morphed into something different?
With Instragram, I see a lot of snapshots of “yoga moments,” as well as sexualization. Someone will be in a pose, but looking at the camera with a big smile. So they’re not truly in the pose. Instead, they’re replicating its shape while looking at the camera, which is actually dangerous.
This depiction of yoga confuses me somewhat. Because what I see is the ego of it, the “look at me,” the celebrity of it all – which, of course, sounds funny coming from me, a yoga celebrity. But for me, being a celebrity is not something to be proud of – although it’s not something I have shame around, either. In yoga culture today, though, it often seems that celebrity is the goal. People seem want to be celebrated, to be acknowledged for their body and their presence. To the extent that’s true, I see it as a real trap, an ego-driven dead end.
But I say that with my own judgment attached. And I often imagine that back when I first came onto the scene, some of my older teachers, who I love and revere, were looking at me and my peers – people like Shiva Rea, Baron Baptiste, and Bryan Kest – and rolling their eyes at us. Maybe they were saying to themselves, “oh no, look at these people, look what’s happened to yoga culture.” Yet, with that generational shift, a lot of amazing things happened.
So I don’t want to be this old fogie, putting all this rejection on what’s happening today. Maybe that photo of the young girl in fluorescent shorts posing with her leg behind her head on the beach will positively impact a lot of people. I don’t want to be so rigid or unimaginative that I can only see it as “wrong.” I like to believe that something else is happening, and that yoga thing is bigger than all of us – that it has its own life force, its own expansion.
Do you believe that yoga has the power to create positive social change?
The process of social change has to begin within the individual. Then we need to manifest that within our communities, and connect with organizations dedicated to social change. And throughout this process, we need to keep lifting each other up.
With yoga, we’ve got a community. Every yoga teacher and studio owner has a platform. Even if you only have a small following, you can still raise awareness and empower others. If we do our internal work and connect as a community, we can start to make shifts. If enough people are committed to this, I’m very sure that we can make a change.
I’m dedicated to my work with Off the Mat because we help people do that deeper transformational work. We support them in discovering what they’re passionate about and how to build activist organizations. We try to get people to look at injustices like racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism – not to shame them, but to develop awareness. We teach students to connect to their vulnerability and understand trauma, both personally and systemically, as it contributes to oppression and violence.
Working with our individual and collective shadows is key to developing leadership. We need to be able to look at our ego, our issues – oh, there’s my narcissism – but not let that energy influence our choices. If we can get really good at naming and dealing with our shadows, so that they’re not infecting our actions in the world, then I think that social change is inevitable. Not just possible – inevitable.
Do you have any words of advice to share with yoga teachers and students today?
I hope that anyone reading this isn’t discouraged by whatever negatives they see in yoga today. Although there are a lot of issues and a lot of misperceptions, the bottom line is that if you practice yoga, you’re going to release stress. And that will make you feel a little better about yourself, and about life. There’s only good in that. If you then have a little more patience or treat someone better for one day, it means the yoga’s working. And everyone benefits.
It doesn’t matter what style of yoga you do because there’s no one right way. There’re a gazillion different rivers that lead to the same ocean. Ultimately, the message is love, peace, truth, equality, freedom, and acceptance. These are the tenets of yoga. So you can study one kind, and see how that works. Then, go check out another teacher. Start to read the traditional yogic texts. Notice what resonates, and what feels in conflict. And just let yoga be one more interesting, cool thing that you do in this lifetime.
And if it’s only meant to strengthen your body and create more flexibility, great. If it only succeeds in releasing tension, wonderful. And if it happens to lead you into a broader spiritual experience, amazing. But all of it is beneficial. And I hope anyone doing it doesn’t think that it has to be one thing or another. All expressions of yoga can lead to a deeper level of joy. And really, that’s ultimately what matters.
Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, and co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. She serves as a board member with the Yoga Service Council, Advisor to the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and teacher with Yoga for Recovery.