I’ve never been much of a joiner.
I’m not one to identify myself by the college I attended, the city I live in, the religion to which I most closely align. Groupthink, or the suggestion that we do this offends my notion of individuality and sends me running the other way.
Yoga seemed a good fit for the determined individualist.
I was drawn to the idea that, first and foremost, yoga is a personal practice. It connects us to ourselves and helps strip away all that is inauthentic.
We are often reminded of this at the beginning of class. Instructors council us to consult our intuition regarding what is best for our practice.
“You are your own best teacher. The guru is within,” they tell us.
One of my favorite teachers is fond of saying, “Keep your eyes on your own mat.”
This is his way of reminding us to focus within. (I also a consider it a reminder to stop staring at the 5’10” blonde hottie in front of me making eka pada koundiyanasana seem like a stroll in the park. Her practice has about as much to do with mine as what John Travolta’s cat ate for breakfast. Which is to say, nothing at all. Eyes on your own mat, Paige.)
Yoga is about you and only you, and that is a philosophy I can get behind.
I found so much meaning in yoga, I eventually signed up for teacher training, eager to know more. For weeks on end I delved deeper into asana and philosophy and as a result, deeper into the yoga community.
That is where the trouble began.
I developed relationships with my fellow teacher trainees. I got to know other teachers and students at the studio. We talked over tea and coffee and friended each other on Facebook. In time,some disconcerting similarities began to emerge.
I noticed we all had the same logo stamped on our pants. We had mala beads on our wrists and drapey scarves around our necks. Our status updates became a constant stream of quotes: Rumi, Mary Oliver, Pema Chodron and Sanskrit mantras. I got loka samastad until I couldn’t see straight.
Even our vocabularies began to merge. We were always grateful, manifesting or putting our intentions out into the universe. I was as guilty as the next guy. Guiltier even.
This practice of self-expression started to seem like a practice of imitation; this community, like a cult. I had to get a handle on this nonsense.
My relationship with yoga reached a critical juncture when I attended a kirtan festival in the desert. (Because that’s what yogis do, right? Attend kirtan festivals in the desert?)
There were hundreds of us at this event, each one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. “Namaste,” we said. Coconut water, we drank. Booth after booth peddled the same products so we could meld even more.
My mind swirled. These are not my people. I don’t have “a people.” I don’t want a people. I want to be me!
Literally panicked at what I was seeing, I retreated from the relentless vending of yoga culture, into a yoga class. At least there I knew I could breathe. But my expectations were low and my faith crumbling. The teacher entered the room. He had a ponytail. Of course he had a ponytail. I braced myself for a barrage of yoga clichés and counted the hours until the festival would be over and I would be alone in my car, once again restored to my individual self.
And then something unexpected happened.
This ponytailed yogi spoke and he had a message for us: individuality.
As he spoke, he gently reminded us that yoga was not a club. There was no such thing as a yoga look. That if we lose our identity, our true yoga, we become simply a gross replication of culture, and we miss the beauty and the point.
It was as if he were speaking directly to me. My eyes welled up with tears at having my anxieties (my dukkah, if you will) so clearly voiced. With every word, he reassured me that yoga actually was a place for me. I didn’t have to run for the hills. He understood.
I took my first deep breath of the day.
With my chitta vritti silenced, I realized there was a message here for me too: acceptance.
My eyes had been everywhere except on my own mat. I was so consumed by how other people practiced that I clearly forgot my own and I was paying the price. I was suffering.
We are individuals. We are yogis.
Some of us like to join, finding joy and beauty in our commonality. Others, like me, stand a little more to the outside. And this gorgeous thing called yoga is large enough to hold us all.
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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray
Ed: Brianna Bemel