What’s Your Yoga Origin Story?

Via on Jan 5, 2011

Every practice starts somewhere. What motivated yours still motivates it, and knowing that is a deep form of svatantrya.

Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's version of Spider-Man: Peter Parker will spend his whole career in atonement.

A story is contained in its beginning.

After I saw The Social Network with my dear friend Rosemarie, a self-described vagabond academic who has a social scientist’s deep insights, she pointed out that all the issues of facebook are told in the story of its origins: it begins as an attempt both to impress and to shame a girl, out of a genesis fraught with class anxiety. As a gambit to impress the members of the old-money clubs of Harvard, the project is a social climber’s attempt both to insinuate himself into that society but also, out of spite and vengeance, to render that society null and void. Facebook is borne out of late-adolescent insecurity and angst and because of that, Rosemarie observed, it will always carry insecurity and angst with it.

Facebook devolves even mature adults back to highschool in some regard: obsessed with how many friends we have and what our friends are doing and what our relationship status is; it has also introduced to adult life the punitive horror of ‘defriending.’ Facebook might evolve but the issues inherent in it are inherent in the manner of its creation and are therefore in some way inescapable. Try to think of how facebook would be different if it had been invented by a middle-aged self-satisfied comfortable person and you die of boredom before you can get there. What powers facebook, what makes it addictive and fascinating, are the problems that sprung it from the mind of its creator. It might evolve to be more than those anxieties, but it will always carry them at its core.

Our yoga practices are like that. Their origin stories are important. Comic-book superhero fans know what an origin story is: the story of how the superhero came to be. Movie studios launch and reboot their superhero franchises with origin stories, so you are likely familiar with them! And while Mark Zuckerberg being a superhero is a matter of perspective, The Social Network is an origin story.

Superhero origin stories are part of our cultural mythology, and they are worth paying attention to, just as you can tell what the issues of good novels are most of the time by looking at their first paragraph, sometimes the first sentence. Sometimes they are there only in a ghost form, a poetic form, an allusive form, but they are there, a capsule of potential energy waiting to be unspooled in the narrative. The origin is the problem that the story—or the practice—is trying to solve. You can tell most what most stories are going to be about by looking at the origin. Although characters might evolve to be more than their origins, they never transcend them, because what those characters are is made in the story’s beginning: Batman’s psychotic break into well-financed vigilantism; Spider-Man’s intense sense of responsibility and failure to his Uncle Ben that melodramatically dogs him like the stain of original sin; Kal-El as the survivor of a dying planet which as a baby he could not save, so he becomes the protector of ours; Wonder Woman’s parthenogenetic birth that dictates that she will in some way always be alone.

It’s interesting to me that no matter how long we practice, what our practice is about is implicit in its origin story. If you want to know about a person’s practice, ask him why he began it. If you want to know where both your triumphs and your issues come from, look at your practice’s beginning.

If you began Yoga because you wanted to perfect yourself, your practice is always going to be about perfection, either achieving it or deliberately abjuring it, but it will always have perfection as a touchstone. If you began the practice because you wanted to have superpowers, your Yoga is always going to be in some right about acquiring and displaying power and achievement.If you began Yoga because you are a generational yogi and one of your parents did it, your practice will always have your parents about it. If you began Yoga to be a rebel? To heal from body image issues or disease or addiction? To find religion? To have a great ass? You get the picture. And your practice will always carry with it some signature of the phase of your life when you began it: as a child innocence; as a teenager bold exploration; or at any time putting yourself back together after disease or harm; or as a mature person a questing after wisdom.

True that you will discover other things along the way: I started Yoga to treat a chronic immunological diagnosis I live with, and shortly after I began my practice all sorts of other glories began to reveal themselves: bhakti aspects; fun physical aspects that were not immediately about healing, but in some regard my Yoga will always be about my health. I am married to it for life because I need it, and being without it is not an option.

If you are going to understand your practice, understand its origins. Yoga comes to us when we are ready for it, ready for the practice. It can’t stick otherwise. So many people go to a yoga class and don’t ‘get’ it; don’t go back because on that day, that particular class, that particular teacher, wasn’t the one that would do it. My guess is also that they didn’t have a good reason for going, because if they had had a good reason, the practice would have leapt up to answer it in whatever form. No matter what your reason was, if you stuck with the practice, it’s a good one.

What hooks us is also what we most need, but not always in the way we might think so. Yoga gives us what we need but sometimes is speaking to us in ways that we might not have the apparatus to decipher. It is both a door and a mirror. To really go through it, you have to look at what brought you to it, because that will begin the answer to the riddle that your Yoga was put in your life to solve. Great stories begin with a question, and the story itself is the answering of that question. At the beginning of this New Year 2011, go back and try to remember what your question was. If you remember that, you will remember the rest of the way to go.

About Laura Marjorie Miller

Laura Marjorie Miller is a yogini, witch, and writer who emerged from the coalfields of Southern Illinois to study English literature at Vanderbilt University. She is now a speechwriter at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She started her study of Yoga in 1999 as medicine for a chronic immunological disorder, fell in love with the practice, and continues as a student and as a teacher. She is a kabbalist, an animist, an avid traveller, and a dedicated animal advocate. You can find her on twitter at bluecowboyyoga.

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17 Responses to “What’s Your Yoga Origin Story?”

  1. Love this, Laura! It's so true. I came to yoga originally to help with chronic pain, and that initial impetus has been a touchstone in my practice ever since. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Joan says:

    my journey to yoga began because of back pain that i could no longer manage. my life revolved around this overwhelming physical pain that was rooted in emotional pain — but i didn't know that at the time. yoga helped me to slow down, breathe, stop seeking perfection and feel what was hurting. to find an experienced iyengar teacher in the small town where i lived, now that i look back on it, was somewhat of a miracle. my practice will always be rooted in the discipline and structure of iyengar (though i enjoy other ways of practice) because i found safety there, and in safety, healing.

  3. Hi, Laura. This is a fascinating and very well-written article, but I guess I fundamentally disagree with your basic premise, which seems to be that we're always stuck, to some extent, in the same place we began.

    I think the human spirit, and mostly certainly its Yoga spirit, has infinitely more capacity for transformational growth that you're giving it credit for. I don't doubt the part of your thesis that says we can learn something from the past. But I don't believe anyone is stuck there forever.

    Maybe I can't relate to it because I started Yoga solely at my tennis club to improve my flexibility for tennis, whereas now my Yoga consists primarily of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. It's true that I have taken philosophy back to enhance my tennis (see Yoga Tennis), which I guess you would take as confirmation that I'm still stuck in my Yoga origins. But that seems like a stretch to me.

    Most of what I do with Yoga today has nothing at all to do with its origins. And I guess I'm philosophically opposed to the idea of being stuck where one began. I think it's highly restrictive to human spirit and attainment.

    Still, enjoyed your article very much. At least it made me think!

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

    • K Sequoia says:

      I understand this, Bob. It was my initial reaction as well, definitely. (I 'm all about transformation.)

      For me personally, I do think that where we begin — our Personal Ancestor, if you will — is something to always honor, which is how I ultimately saw this essay. I'm not stuck, for instance, in where I was perpetually when I first began Yoga (see my comment below). But I can see the evolution from that point, and learn from it, thereby furthering my transformation. The beginning, the origin does not forever define me — it informs me. And I did find it interesting that a sense of needing to come back into my body is the essence of what has happened in my Yoga Journey.

      I realize, though, that I am also taking the heart of this essay and running with it, based on my own perspective of said transformation.

      .02
      K Sequoia @ soulwyfe services

  4. Laura, nice, I like your writing, even went back and read some of your other posts. I have to say on this one I am a bit lost, my gut feeling goes with Bob up here, what he says is what I definitely feel at first sight, then again, I decided to give myself sometime to think and really consider this, so I will be thinking about it. Definitely makes one think! nice to meet you

  5. Yogini says:

    @ Bob Weisenberg, I started with yoga–regularly, and not my first introduction to it by a long shot–because I was a swimmer who kept getting swimmer's shoulder for no good reason. I came to the practice with weak wrists and no real core strength … then I just kept getting more and more involved. That it makes me feel all stretchy, purified, almost Baptismally washed–all without the hassle of drying off and changing from a swim absolutely hasn't hurt the cause either … Add to that, the philosophy–like peeling the layers from an onion … it could last the rest of your life after that …

  6. Tangled Macrame says:

    Laura's focus on ORIGIN stories is a reminder that even as a practice grows, it maintains its roots. However, if storytelling teaches us anything, it's that stories change. Therefore what began as a flexibility for tennis story transforms into a philosophy story. Like a bodhisattva manifesting a series of stories/lives on the path to Enlightenment, so the yogi has the potential to manifest a new story for their yoga. The labels, focus, goals, and motives change, but the spirit remains. You are, after all, still you. Thus the new story is still connected, perhaps by a grafted stem or a scattered seed, to the old.

  7. K Sequoia says:

    Well done! I was floored to come across this today.

    I have been yearning to return to yoga again — after a slooow slide, over the last 8 years, away from a focused practice. Musing over this recently, I was thinking on how amazingly stressful this last year has been — the most in over 20 yrs.

    And when did I first come to yoga, what was my beginning? Just about 22 yrs ago, as I was coming out of a very rough child/young adulthood, filled with abuse and addiction. I had no one around me that did yoga, talked of yoga — it was not on my horizon. I stumbled upon it and felt a yearning to finally BE in my body, it was as if I knew Yoga was the Way. What a blessing. I still have memories of the nights alone, standing in front of the mirror as I took deep breaths, learning to love my spirit embodied. So scared, so humbled. Happy to be alive, to be choosing life. Breath.

    I am handling my current stress better than ever (those were self-inflicted wounds I made; now it's Life and Time, bills and duty), due to all kinds of spiritual tools I have learned over the years. The one thing I have not been doing is yoga. And just yesterday I thought, "It is time; time to come back to my body with renewed wisdom and insight. Time to cherish the breath, the body again."

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am deeply touched.

    Blessings,
    K Sequoia @ soulwyfe services

  8. Rebecca says:

    Awesome. Except fo the fact that this question is going to be dogging me (at least) for the rest of the day! ;)

  9. Laura Marjorie Miller Laura Miller says:

    Wow, everybody! I am so thrilled that you grokked this article, and even if you didn't, that it provoked thought. We *do* expand through our practice into potentials of ourselves, of our souls and hearts, that we could not dream possible prior to starting. But our practice comes to us for a reason that I suspect has something to do with karma. Even Patanjali talks about karma, clearing it, and not acquiring new karmas…. As a kabbalist I also embrace the concept of _tikkun_, that each of us comes into the world with a completion we have to make, a wholeness we have to discover. Where our Yoga comes in is a key to what our major _tikkun_ is. It often is the shadow side of our greatest virtue.

    A priest I once had said that each priest/pastor/minister has one homily that she spends her whole life giving: one sermon that all her sermons are variations of, one main thing she is trying to figure out, or theme that however disguised it may be even to her, is a dominant strand. We may tell many stories in our lives but it is worth examining whether they are all variations of our one archetypal story, our one tikkun, our one great karma. Something as important as our yoga practice is surely of that level of importance.

    You are all so gracious to share with me. Blessed be to all of you! Laura

  10. Michael Nott says:

    Surfing a wave of good fortune and merit created by karmic winds I arrived on yoga's shore.

  11. Nobel Ang says:

    Hi Laura,
    interesting and provocative article. But I have a couple of issues with what you say. First, I'm with Bob Weisenberg in believing that the human spirit, and definitely the spirit of yoga, has much more transformative potential than you seem to be giving it credit for. In many things in life, people's present intentions for doing whatever it is they are doing now are often vastly different from their intentions when they first started. Why should this be different with yoga?

    Secondly, I would like to bring attention to something you said in the article. You said that, "you can tell what the issues of good novels are most of the time by looking at their first paragraph, sometimes the first sentence." I don't know exactly which novels are included in your "most" (Stephen King? John Grisham?), but "most" definitely does not include many of the novels that we now recognize to be classics: Hugo's Les Miserables, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, to name just a few. If you look at the opening line, or even the opening paragraph of any of these novels in isolation, you will have NO IDEA what the rest of the novel is about.

    I'm not bringing this up to quibble about a minor point. Rather, I think what you say in this one line is symptomatic of a broader concern that I have with your article and the worldview that it represents. You seem to be super-imposing an information-age worldview — one characterized by the instant gratification and sound bytes that things like FaceBook and Twitter are so conducive to — on an age-old tradition like yoga, whose wisdom far predates (and, dare I hope, will outlive) this information-age worldview which seems to infect your writing. Of course, if we look at yoga through the lens of the information-age, then it might very well be true that our yoga practices will never transcend our starting points. But are we then doing justice to yoga by being open to the full extent of its transformational possibilities for our lives? Or are we merely being anachronistic in the worst possible way?

  12. Alden Wicker Alden says:

    Laura,

    Wonderful post. You're clearly a wordsmith!

    I love this idea of our origin stories inhabiting our practice as a part, either as roots or just a small kernel at the center. However, I hope that we can transcend our origin stories in a way that comic book characters cannot. Life is messier and more unpredictable than even the disparate time lines that branch off one comic book characters "life" over several decades.

    I came to the practice with body issues, and after three years cannot shake the small voice that says "If I keep practicing, I will be leaner and more attractive." But at the same time, yoga taught me that self love instead of self hate was the way to balance my body. After a decade of pushing, pain, yelling, hits, competition, trash talking and do-what-the-coach-says philosophy of sports, yoga brought me back to my core.

    I hope some day I can completely shed the quest for a perfect body and instead devote myself to inner wisdom.

    (PS, I read this post to my boyfriend, a comic book nerd and former DC comics employee. "She nailed the comic book references," he said. "She knows her stuff.")

  13. David Fink says:

    Thanks for this article & comments.

    As a student of how yoga heals trauma & a practitioner who has experienced remarkable healing from trauma in my practice, it has given me a lot to think about.

    What i have come to realize (so far) is that my yoga teachers who have all practiced for at least 20 years or more seem to believe that the practice can clear trauma from the mind, body, psyche and/or soul almost effortlessly, while most of the psychologists I read see the practice as one more tool for processing trauma or handling its symptoms.

    In other words, if working with trauma is your origin story, Laura seems to side more with the psychologists, that trauma will always be a part of your practice. This seems like pretty good practical advice, but not the whole story. In the last year or so of my practice I have been having more experiences of the universe as a complex, beautiful & uncontrollable place made up mostly of love. That a particular part of the universe is currently living in my skin with my psyche seems much more significant than any of the physical or psychological problems I have from the trauma.

    makes me wonder if maybe the trick to being a happy super hero is letting go of your story & just starting to enjoy helping people.

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