For Ramesh With Love

Via on Feb 10, 2011
Rob Lindsay photo

…Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac

A little voice inside my head said don’t look back you can never look back

…..those days are gone forever; I should just let ‘em goDon Henley

When I read Ramesh’s post in Elephant Journal; Are Traditional Yogis Pretentious Preachers? the little voice inside my head whispered; “I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac”. I felt Ramesh’s concern and anger that people are altering yoga to be whatever suits them.  Maybe it feels like someone’s stealing something personal.  I felt his frustration which awakened my issues which are different from his but may share some common ground. Reading between the lines I felt a wave of nostalgia.

There is an emotional tie many of us have to a time in our lives when yoga was not embraced by the masses and we did not see yoga as a saleable commodity.  As it became a business it was subject to fashion. Fashion is about change and fashion also has cycles. But there is something more. As yoga has exploded as a fashion and a commercial cure for everything from weight problems to mental problems it has been exposed and that exposure is causing us to reflect on something we may have taken for granted. Haven’t we always made yoga to be what we want it to be? I have my own impressions that reflect the passing of time and a changing environment.

There was a time in the late sixties and early seventies when yoga wasn’t a commercial business or if it was, I was unaware of it. There were books and a few gurus and a few unflashy studios that were akin to the old “health food” stores that felt a little dingy and vaguely religious. Yoga sort of went with hippy.  I did yoga because I liked it and there was no more to think about than that.

At the time yoga was part of the counterculture. It was about peaceful resistance and also about love and brotherhood. It was carried here by Indians and we embraced the foreignness as we rebelled against what we saw as a restrictive culture and an immoral war. Mind opening was a big phrase. Yoga was just a part of that. It was about nakedness and escapism and community and yes, “hope and change” to coin a phrase. Yoga was peaceful. Yoga was gentle and meditation was foremost. We read Satchidananda, Muktananda, Yogananda. The picture of a yoga teacher was more Indra Devi than Christy Turlington. In fact the image of a female yoga teacher would be considered dumpy and lumpy today. I don’t believe it had anything to do with outward image. Anyway, that’s my impression. The people who brought yoga to us were messengers of love.

If there was any elitism or discussion of who has been in a state of pure consciousness or bliss or whatever or God help us, whose is more authentic, I missed it and probably because in those days before the internet we weren’t distracted by everyone else’s take on life. It was probably there but I was unaware of it and so I was happier for that. My memories bind me to a time and place that was sweet and my nostalgia enables me to believe that it was a better time but that’s probably not so. It was just an easier time because it was simpler. This was what I made yoga out to be. And then it changed because the environment changed and I changed with it. More than that, I was drawn by so much energy around yoga to explore it further. When I look at Yoga’s history I might venture that the men who initiated yoga might have been horrified to see the lack of discipline in the bunch of hippies who were the early face of American yoga. I think they may have been much sterner than those gurus who later came to America and gave us our impression of yoga.

Aerobics classes hit the scene. Everyone was getting fit. I was dancing. I had always been dancing but now it was a fitness class. I wasn’t doing much yoga although I brought out my meditation mantra for emergencies. My yoga environment had been replaced by a fast paced New York City film business whirlwind. Aerobics dance classes which dancers eschewed as “dance” classes became a way for artistic people to make a living. Aerobics classes were more accessible to the general public and now everyone could dance. It did not dummy down classical or professional dance. It was adjacent.

Yoga was still the domain of the minority. It was a quiet giant. I taught a dance based class for fun and to stay fit. I incorporated yoga balancing poses into the class. I had always found them balletic. I did not think it was disrespectful. However I did not call it a yoga class. I called it the Bodymind Workout. I had come back to yoga by then and my two teachers could not have been more different. Diana Lang taught meditation and energetic awareness. Ana Forrest taught physical and mental stamina intending emotional breakthroughs. Because fitness and the power of physical expression was my focus at that time it was inevitable that I found Bryan Kest and got hooked on Power Yoga. Power Yoga made yoga more accessible to the general public and now everyone could do yoga. Actually Bryan Kest infuses his classes with attention to the Yamas. His “shtick” as someone recently referred to it is his way of saying, no harm, no jealousy of others,no kidding yourself, etc.  Power Yoga did not dummy down the yoga of meditation, reflection and science. It was both adjacent and part of that. It was also an extension of aerobics class. It was an extension of our American psyche in its evolution.

When I moved to Nashville I found yoga taught in a very different light. I called it Bible Belt yoga because it felt fundamentalist after coming from Los Angeles. An Iyengar teacher actually smacked me on the leg and told me not to come back to class wearing the flowing dance wear I was accustomed to. Talk about repressive! However Nashville, recognized by Nashville natives as the heart center of the country, drew more popular guest teachers, largely from the Iyengar tradition, than any place of its size. Spiritual seekers seek answers everywhere. Once yoga was accepted by the few it took wings. Although yoga was taught as a physical practice it was also embraced as a spiritual practice. The teachers who visited were largely a generation influenced by the yoga schools of India.  Again yoga was neither an aerobics class nor about the outer image. It was however very much about structural alignment and living within the frame of correct posture which is a great metaphor for the overriding personality I saw here 17 years ago: The spirit can be revealed when there are clear parameters. There were very few teachers. You might say it was a controlled environment. I still think I got smacked on the leg because my brand of yoga was deemed out of control here.

Then the yoga schools appeared. With that everything changed. Guest teachers appeared to be yoga stars. They made yoga look glamorous. They were powerful. And what fun to do what you loved for a living. Everyone wanted to be a yoga teacher. In Nashville the community was also evolving.  Whole Foods was replacing the meat and three. Yoga was often replacing the meeting ground of the church. Nashville was becoming home to more people outside the South. Lots of newcomers vying for jobs make for a competitive environment and the need to define one’s brand.

In the seventies when I was a counter culture teenager I wrestled with the idea of entering the work force. I couldn’t see the point. I had vague ideas of a life of writing, journalism, dancing but nothing about a routine or a paycheck seemed correct.  I was given a book by the same boyfriend who had introduced me to yoga. It was called The Master Game, by Edward S. DeRopp. The message left a lasting impression on me. As I remember it:  This is the game we were handed. Make the most of it and play it to win it. Running will not change things. There’s no honor in that. The honor is in getting in the game because it is the one you were born to play. I hated that message but I heeded it. It’s a free market. Do a job.

 

Although it was unplanned I was teaching yoga and it was a business. I tried to ignore the whole mess for years hoping it would go away but saner minds than mine ruled and I was handed a computer and a website by a client who had bought into a virgin web design company and insisted I have one.  Then I needed a name for the website. The name indicated a definition. Now I had also remade yoga. Slippery slope and so it goes. It seemed far from my old picture of yoga. It almost made me think I didn’t want to be part of a club that would have me. So what does that mean?

This is yoga in America. This is what’s necessary to have a yoga business. What shines in the media headlights or congests the internet is distracting and also telling. It’s telling us there’s no going back. We can either hide out or stay in the game. I’m staying for now and I hope anyone who loves yoga and has something to teach about it will do the same. I am part of the change but I am not my own enemy despite my trepidation about being worthy of the title, yoga teacher.   I’m O.K. with being branded because I created an environment that served my community well. It defined me and that was a good thing. It broke the mold but it didn’t ruin it. Once I took the name yoga teacher I held myself accountable. The name Active Yoga was for business, the name Rebel Yoga defined me as someone who represented yoga in a new way.

A young student of mine has a research fellowship at the university here and she is from Pune, India. She is a scientist. She just returned from a visit to Pune and I asked her about yoga in her hometown. She had gone to the Iyengar Institute and several other classes in the area. She was there for Mr. Iyengar’s birthday. She told me that she was a little disappointed in Mr. Iyengar because he talked so much about spirituality. He kept talking “inner body, outer body”. She reported that her mother explained this as a result of Mr. Iyengar not having a formal education when he was young!   It brought to mind the differences in opinion that are debated here in the U.S. about evolution.She told me that in India people think of yoga as exercise. She said women get off work and bring their children with them and take exercise at the Iyengar Institute.  She also said that the majority of folks are in beginner classes. She went on to say that in the last five years India’s economy has improved and so now more people can pay for yoga. They now have yoga at the gyms. She said that people want the most for their money and demand a lot of their teachers and what interests them is fitness. We have an impression of “authentic” yoga in India but are they so different from us? Yoga changes for them now because it is in the hands of the masses and the masses dictate what will sell.  Was this the intention of yoga’s founding fathers?  Still, I think we are on a causeway that keeps winding back to the past as we evolve.

I have another student who was raised in East Tennessee. She’s in her fifties and has been dealing with pain and restriction on one side of her body. I asked her if she could feel the restrictions in her leg as she assumed a posture. She answered with the wry wit that’s commonplace here amongst people who consider themselves in recovery from their religious upbringing:

 

“I can’t feel my body. I don’t have a body. I have a heavenly body. I’m Baptist.”

 

To my understanding you really do need to feel your body before you can manage that heavenly body.   Moving my body took me to back to yoga. There is a huge demand to teach people how to communicate with their bodies. That’s what people are asking for. People are asking for roots. It’s tangible and understandable and it’s good. Watching the yoga fashion show doesn’t bother me. It just makes me want to work harder. The minority will have an intellectual curiosity or a spiritual bent to go further, as it’s always been and the material will remain for that to be possible. As long as people care about that, and we will, there will be teachers.  Viva la evolution.

Yoga and rock and roll are married in me for eternity as they had a common influence at a powerful time; love and freedom. I just turn away and I’m hearing lyrics once again:  “It’s more than a feeling” by the band, Boston. Yoga is as much in my emotional as my physical and mental body. Yoga has a home in me.

I’m not worried about yoga. It will live on in text and will maintain its authenticity there. It’s up to the individual to take what he wants from it. It’s more than a feeling that no matter how many times yoga changes hands and styles, the yoga you love exists as long as you do. To quote Ramesh’s excellent declaration; “Not all yoga is the same, not all yoga experiences are the same. That is to cheapen yoga.”

About Hilary Lindsay

Hilary Lindsay created the first comprehensive yoga program in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, choreographed videos for athletes, introduced yoga and meditation to the Nashville public school system and continues to work one on one with private clients including the Nashville Predators. She has been covered by popular magazines and television shows and has worked for a variety of publications as a yoga expert. She authored a chapter in Yoga In America, a book published at the forefront of the discussion among yoga teachers about contemporary yoga in America. Additional writing can be found at www.bitchinyoga.wordpress.com as well as the Journal pages of her yoga site. Hilary teaches classes and workshops in consciousness through movement. Her medium is yoga. Her method is exploring the language of the body in light of the eight limbs. Find her at activeyoga.com.

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16 Responses to “For Ramesh With Love”

  1. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Hilary,
    Interesting post. I'd just question a couple of things you say:
    "This is yoga in America. This is what’s necessary to have a yoga business."
    The Sivananda yoga organization started in America and Canada, and has not sold out at all – 50 years later they are a huge organization, with many ashrams on all continents, and countless centers. Maybe it's just your perception that it's necessary to 'sell out' to have a business, but there are many examples like this one that would indicate otherwise.

    "In India people think of yoga as exercise"
    Well, this is an interesting topic you bring up. The fact is India is becoming rapidly Westernized while the West is becoming 'Easternised'. So of course you can meet an Indian woman who says 'yoga is exercise'. But that's more a reflection of the times we live in now, than the cultural background from which yoga comes.

  2. wow, wonderful! Love the timeline and your view of the evolution!

  3. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    "It is not selling out to put your name on yoga but taking the risk of saying I have a place in this . . . We are the natural dam to the commercialism that we are part of."

    This is so right. I think that Ben's comment indicates the understandable protective instinct that so many of us have about yoga. But Hilary's response (and post, if you read it without jumping to preset conclusions) are showing us the complexities of being involved in the evolution of yoga – needing to name your studio, have a website, be true to your self – as well as the simplicity – which, in the end, is the faith in the experience of our practice.

    Of course, there will be cynical operators out to make a buck off of yoga who don't care about it at all. But that's mostly not what we're dealing with. Instead it's a situation of a fast-changing practice that teachers are taking in many different directions at once – which makes many understandably nervous that what's valuable will get lost. I share that nervousness myself.

    But the truth is that yoga has always evolved, it's just happening much faster now – which is in line with the rest of the world, which is also changing much faster than before. And in the world as in our little yoga corner of it as well, that creates unanticipated misunderstandings and problems as well as opportunities.

    But what's so great about this post is the honest reflection on what it feels like to have been centrally involved in this process for decades now. I think that the yoga community would do really well to follow Hilary's example and have more of these reflective discussions about the contemporary evolution of yoga – it's just interesting, for one, but also helps us to take stock of what's been happening over the past several decades and what it means to us – and to the next generation, as we're going to be passing this legacy on to them.

    • Hilary Lindsay says:

      Carol,
      You have such a calm way of getting to the point. I thank you for that assistance.

      I realized after responding to Ben that the inference that I am selling out is so absurd that I'd really like to address that. He didn't seem to realize that I did not like the idea that I had to participate in the business world at all. I was trying to be a realist which is a maturation process I'm still experiencing even now. Thirty five years ago when probably more than half the people teaching yoga now weren't born I was happily waitressing in a macrobiotic restaurant, eating vegan and never defining it as such, living in a hippy enclave in Aspen, living a simple life in adherence to the principles of yoga without intention.

      I would not have had to examine my understanding of yoga or study in depth had I not been pushed by the fact that it became a business. For that I am grateful. However, my heart is in that place where I walked three miles up a mountain to get home with my only worry, getting the wood burning stove hot before the sweat dried and I got a chill. I am no sell out. I am trying to deal with reality. I am trying to find my place there. We don't always have unlimited choice but we have unlimited choice on how we perceive things.

    • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

      Carol,
      I think that anyone that feels they are 'involved in the evolution of yoga' is on an ego trip. How do you evolve something that is already perfect? You can't. If you think you can evolve yoga then you don't know what yoga really is – please don't take that personally: I don't know you, I don't know your practice. I'm certainly not judging you as a person, but I am responding to a comment you make that is typical of the yoga blogging world lately.

      Yoga has been around (unchanged) certainly for centuries – some, myself included, would argue much longer. The idea that because we in the West have taken a limited aspect of it (let's face it, for the vast majority of people yoga = asana) and called it Yoga does not mean that we have 'evolved' it.

      • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

        Hilary,
        I didn't and don't mean to imply that you personally are a sell out. As I said above to Carol – I don't know you.
        I'm just pointing out that it is possible to teach yoga as a total purist and 'succeed' financially, and in every other way.
        The reason I wanted to point this out (and maybe I really wasn't clear enough, I don't have much time lately) is that I see many yoga teachers diluting what they teach because they think that's what people want. Well, maybe that's what some people want, sure, but once you step onto that path it's a slippery slope.
        On the other hand, if you teach passionately, from the heart, what you believe in and love, it shows. People feel it; you transmit the essence of yoga; and you can't 'fail'.
        With love, Ben

      • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

        Ben: I think that anyone that feels that they have a proprietary understanding of "perfect" yoga is on an ego trip. How can you be so simplistic about something that is obviously so complex? You can't. If you think that you can sum up the vast tradition of yoga in a few absolutist declarations then you don't know what yoga really is. Please don't take that personally.

        Seriously, I'm not sure what you mean by your very strong but equally vague statements. There's been a lot of good work done recently on how yoga has changed over time. This includes both the pre-modern periods and certainly the vast changes it underwent in conjunction with modernity (Mark Singleton, DG White, etc.) Not to mention the experiences of teachers on the ground like Hilary – and pretty much everyone else out there today or in recent memory (including Sivananda). Yoga was adapted to meet the needs of the modern world – that's a good thing, not a corruption.

        At any rate, if you want to claim it's never changed in any significant way then I think that you need to have a compelling response to the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

        • Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

          Hey Carol,

          I'm not sure what you mean by 'a proprietary understanding of "perfect" yoga' – I certainly didn't in any of my comments indicate that I feel I 'own' an understanding of yoga.
          I also wasn't trying to 'sum up the vast tradition of yoga'.

          I didn't want to provoke you (or Hilary, or anyone else), I simply wanted to offer a different perspective on the popular view that we have somehow 'evolved' yoga. In my opinion, we haven't.
          You say yourself that yoga was 'adapted'… adapted and evolved are very different things are they not? I would say that adapted is a much more accurate description of what has happened.

          The whole 'Modern American Yoga' thing is really primarily about asana. In the West the approach to asana has been very much adapted. However, that does not mean that it's evolved. I would argue the opposite: i would say that we have (contrary to what you say and I don't mean to provoke, again) corrupted yoga. My evidence for this is simply my personal experience:
          I've been teaching yoga for 12 years, and I have never once had a case of a student injuring themselves in my asana class (and I teach a dynamic, powerful 90 minute asana class – I often have beginners doing headstand after a few weeks). On the other hand I have seen so many people injuring themselves in the modern 'adapted' styles of yoga. It's a corruption because it hurts people instead of healing them, whilst at the same time giving yoga a bad name.

          I am convinced that if yoga is taught properly, in a traditional way, with respect for it's perfect roots, it can never hurt anyone. That's why I said what I said above – I'm genuinely sorry if my words were a bit too strong: it wouldn't be the first time I offended someone by speaking harshly (I'm very Pitta : / ). However, I beg you to forgive that, and consider my comment afresh.

          Ben

  4. Ramesh says:

    Hillary, thank you so much for your article and the love! The love is mutual, the love of yoga, of the last 36 (for me) years of yoga experience, and the love of the future of yoga, which I think is bright, thanks, in part, to people like yourself, Ben, Carol, Bob, and all the other yoga enthusiasts riding this wild Elephant together.
    Truth be told, Hillary, I was actually having fun writing that "angry" article. Some definitely saw the tongue-in-cheek nature of the piece, but most took it too seriously, but that is OK. Most of my pieces on Ej are written to stir debate and the "real" meaning is often in the subtext of what I write. And the main subtext of that piece was simply to say that a) yoga is more than asanas, and b) if you insists that yoga is pretty much asanas and also insist that yoga is whatever you make it, then why do you have a problem with people like me, who say that yoga is asanas, meditation, pranayama, kirtan, etc–the whole shebang. if yoga is whatever you want it to be, then why bother pointing fingers at those who think it is something different than you, just because you have boxed that person into a category called traditionalism?
    You cannot say the world is both flat and whatever you want it to be at the same time.
    At any rate, enough said about that.
    As for perfection in yoga: according to yoga and tantra philosophy, there is only perfection on the spiritual level, in other words, when we experience yoga on the internal level in deep absoprtion, samadhi, when we are One with Spirit. Outside of that realm there is no perfection. You may or may not agree with this philosophical concept, but it is true to yoga philosophy. hence there is no perfect path, no perfect teacher, no perfect yoga practice, there is only a perfect goal–Spirit, God, Brahman.
    The question is then, if you want to experience perfection in your yoga, if you want to experience God, how do you get there? By practicing yoga as fitness, or yoga as a spiritual path. Most people in the west do the former, some a little bit of both, very few the latter. In India, many more people did the latter, that is why we in the west, who think of yoga as primarily a spiritual path, try to emulate those who walked the path before us…. and that requires an intensity of practice on all level of yoga–body, mind spirit, that has yet to emerge in the West on any significant level. Yoga evolves in all kinds of directions at present, which evolution do you want it to go in–that is the question?
    Hilary, thanks so much for sharing your wonderful journey. I truly loved hearing about it! And thanks for all the attention!

  5. NotSoSure says:

    Hillary, fellow Nashvillian here. I've read all your posts and I am becoming a fan. I also read Ramesh here on EJ and I find myselft agreeing with him most of the time. My practice has evolved so that I prefer the Iyengar style more than the flowing styles here in NashVegas. The Iyengar style feesl more "authentic" to me, whatever that means. Maybe I am becoming one of those yoga fundamentalists. Please don't run me off 440 because of that.

    Jan C ( you have to know who I am referring to) popped me in the leg once and it has been straight in Warrior 2 ever since. And it was nice to get a spanking as a free value added service instead of having to pay extra like normal.

  6. Hilary Lindsay Hilary Lindsay says:

    And thank you for reading. Yoga can be as much a part of a life as you like it. Take it home and try it on and maybe you'll let it live in the guest bedroom for awhile. Before you know it, you may want it to move in.

  7. Ramesh says:

    Hilary, the funny thing is, I never thought of myself as a traditionalist before people started calling me so on Elephant. I always thought of myself simply as someone who practiced the various limbs of asthanga yyoga, or tantra as I like to call it, and that others practiced what they did in their own way. Of course, i have my opinions, and I like to stir up debate, which I think is healthy, so i don't mind the label, what matters is the practice.

    Spending time in the woods of the mind and heart is important… for me, it's an ocean….that daily dip in the ocean…

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