“Free your mind and your ass will follow. The kingdom of heaven is within. Open up your funky mind and you can fly.” ~ George Clinton
“Look here, brother. Who you jivin’ with that cosmik debris?” ~ Frank Zappa
Well, I don’t know about all of you, but I have found 2011 to be a year of serious challenge. There are those who might interpret that statement as euphemistic for the type of year they themselves are having which might equate more to words like, “frustrating”, “shitty”, “scary”, or “full of unfathomable changes”. Part of the practice of yoga involves authenticity and embracing these ideas. It involves acceptance of our surroundings and that which is happening so we can learn to work with ourselves and our circumstances in a realistic, genuine way.
Unfortunately, with the superficiality and spiritual materialism in the world today, and particularly on the North Shore of Illinois where I am from (those of you not acquainted with the North Shore, there’s a known culture of pretentiousness that is rampant in the various communities), it would appear that yoga has been infected with the idea that it has nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do with appearing more enlightened and physically superior. It seems that yoga has become not only about competition, but also about showing a level of dominance over other yogis coupled with the elitist notion that if you practice yoga, there is automatically a higher level of betterness achieved. As an active student, practitioner and teacher in the various communities and as a self-proclaimed hypocrite who has been guilty of the actions being discussed, I have borne witness to how toxic the yoga community, not just on the North Shore, but all over the U.S., has become.
Please note that a yoga studio is comprised of its employees and students. We, as teachers at and employees of a yoga studio, have a responsibility to teach the practice of yoga to our students by practicing it ourselves through our actions and interactions with one another. However, this responsibility also extends to the studio owners, managers and administrators. Although some of these people are not certified yoga teachers (even the credibility of a certificate is up for debate nowadays), being kind and respectful to employees and to the practitioners that come into the yoga studio does not require a certification. On the student side, although we are all on separate journeys, a modicum of kindness and perfunctory politeness should still be utilized when walking into a studio. No one is saying that a student has to pretend to be happy or fake any emotion, but what is being said is that it is not okay to act like an asshole to others in the name of entitlement, enlightenment or any other reason. A yoga studio becomes a sacred space when everyone, from the owners to the students, creates an energy of compassion and respect so that the space feels safe upon arrival. One does not have to ever set foot on a yoga mat to create this energy or to embrace a non-dogmatic yogic belief. Compassion is a Universal principle, both in yoga and in every other facet of existence.
What makes a yoga studio different than your average health club or gym? Well, if a safe, expressive space is not created where everyone can explore their own internal space further, then nothing! In order for a yoga studio to run efficiently, it is the responsibility of the owners, managers, administrators, teachers AND students to make this happen. If toxic attitudes are condoned on any level or fortified by more of the same, then the space ceases to become a space for yoga, and morphs into a space of competition, one-upmanship and douchebaggery.
The practice of yoga goes so far beyond simply teaching and/ or practicing the poses. Yoga is a spiritual practice, not a form of exercise in and of itself. If the exercise portion is what initially hooks a student into the practice, that is all well, good, and respected, but that’s also only the beginning. It’s the responsibility of yoga teachers to show the students that there is so much more to the practice than Warrior 2 or Handstand.
One of the other aspects of what yoga represents is a journey towards authenticity. The purpose of coming to the yoga mat and taking the practice is not to become someone else, but to become a better version of your Self – flaws, foibles and all. The practice of yoga is not about achieving perfection. It teaches us to embrace our imperfections, wherein we might realize that these imperfections are what make us so excellent. So what if you can’t balance on one foot? Honestly, who gives a shit if you can’t touch your toes, lift your feet off the floor in Crow Pose, do a backbend, or struggle with down dog?
Just to be clear, in the interest of full disclosure, I struggle with Down Dog and I’ve been working on it for 7 years. Heck, I struggle with self-esteem, being judgmental, control issues, assaholism, portion control, road rage, obsessive compulsive behavior, allowing people get close to me emotionally, and anything you could possibly associate with a Type “A” personality. If we wrote a newsletter about that with which I struggle in addition to yoga poses, it would be a 37-Part Series. I practice yoga for the purpose of embracing my internal and external struggles. I utilize the practice because it helps me learn how to evolve as a human being in a genuine way. The fact that it helps physically is a very pleasant side effect. However, at least with me, this goal of authenticity only happened after ingesting way too much of the Yoga Kool Aid. “Drinking” the Kool Aid gave me the impression that I was better than I was, better than others, smarter than others and put me under the foolish notion that I was on the fast track to enlightenment.
Drinking all of that Kool Aid taught me one thing: The Kool Aid wears off! The effects of the yoga Kool Aid, while nearly psychotropic at inception, has a horrible let-down effect when it wears off. If you’re not sure what I mean by Kool Aid or are afraid you may have “ingested” some, “Yoga Kool Aid” is a metaphor for a belief that, because you practice yoga, or a certain style of yoga (Anusara, Ashtanga, Flow, any of it), that your style of yoga is (a) superior, (b) leads to enlightenment and (c) this “superiority” and “enlightenment” can only be achieved through the type of practicing that you do. It leads to the belief that you can “help” others if they start believing things the way you do, or if they “drink” the “Kool Aid”.
“Kool Aid” is the antithesis of authenticity. The dogmatic behavior associated with the different styles of yoga leads to the Kool Aid mentality.
The solution to all of this is really, really simple: Be authentic! Be yourself! Oh yeah, and don’t be an asshole! These are not mutually exclusive concepts. You’re fine the way you are. If you go to a yoga class, and you feel good, then you’re doing it right. If you go to a yoga class, and you have an emotional episode while laying forward in Pigeon Pose, you’re doing it right. If you are grumpy, pissed off, had a shitty week, and are angry at the world and you are not even sure why you are practicing, then you are doing it right (the “modicum of perfunctory politeness” rule still applies). It’s not the job of a yoga teacher or student to pretend everything is okay when it is not. It is, however, the job of a yoga teacher to assess the situation and teach from the heart in a way that is safe for the students. If, as a teacher, you are faking your behavior and pretending everything is okay when it is not, then you are not giving your students the safety and space to open up and explore where they may be at on that day. Please note that this does not mean that, as a teacher, you can be cruel or hurtful to your students. It means that you can teach compassionately, teach the practice of yoga, all while still embracing whatever struggles you are experiencing that day. Life is about dichotomies, polarities, and oppositional energy. Interestingly enough, so is the practice of yoga.
All of us, myself included, need to continually re-evaluate why we do what we do, including why we are coming to the yoga mat. Let me shed some light on examples of what I consider to be reprehensible behaviors that I’ve observed (and in some cases, been guilty of perpetrating) at yoga studios, both as a student and a teacher:
If you are going to a yoga studio but then you are rude to everyone around you, territorial about where you practice and nasty to people that may have their mats near yours, I’m pretty sure that this goes against much of what yoga teaches.
If you are disruptive and rude in a class, are answering or playing with your smart phone during class and are showing little to no consideration for others around you, including the teacher, I’m pretty sure that this goes against much of what yoga teaches.
If you are saying nasty things and gossiping about fellow students, teachers and anyone else that comes to mind, this certainly goes against much of what yoga teaches.
If you are derisive about other yoga teachers, because your teacher is “the best”, you are derisive about other students, because they just “don’t get it”, are derisive about other yoga studios because of “things you’ve heard”, or are derisive about other yoga practices, then this probably goes against what yoga teaches.
The yoga practice is a continual evaluation and evolution of consciousness, internal functioning and external actions. This is not always a pretty, graceful process, but we have the yoga to try to find the beauty and grace that does exist with change and transformation.
Part of the yoga process means realizing your own bullshit, acknowledging it and evolving from it. It means embracing who you are and learning to work with what you’ve got. When you find yourself falling into the traps listed above, or additional ones that aren’t in this article, it’s about being realistic enough to acknowledge when this is happening, and be honest with yourself about the situation, whatever it may be.