February 11, 2011

For Ramesh With Love

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.”

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