February 3, 2011

The Yoga of Shoes. ~April Arotin

Photo Courtesy Isaac Wedin

Reframing the Yoga-Ownership Discussion

We’ve heard it over and over again. At this point, similar arguments have been raised ad nauseum. The pieces about the ‘theft of yoga’ and ‘Rebel Yoga’ have been two of the most talked about stories in the yogic (and mainstream) press for the past few months. No matter the opinion – reframing the debate is necessary, yet probably not sufficient, to better understand how ridiculous both of these discussions are at their deepest level. They are connected, as is most everything, even if only by a strand as delicate as a single thread of spider silk.

The connection between the debate about ‘losing control of the brand of yoga’ and Tara Stiles’ “Rebel Yoga” is that the heart of the offense lies in what is and what isn’t yoga, and the westernization of yoga. On some level, it is offensive to think that everything that is co-opted by western culture is dumbed down, a watered down version of something better, something purer. This is not the case. Still, we are sensitive to it as it speaks directly towards the shame we may feel as a part of the culture that wants to ‘Mc’-everything. Making a profound vehicle for transformation accessible to any and all people is powerful, necessary and most likely a catalyst for radical change in the here and now.

We all repeat, again, ad nauseum, that yoga means ‘to yoke,’ or ‘to unite,’ yet allow definitions and versions of the practice to pull the fragments of this wondrously complex and infinitely beautiful web apart. A global community that thrives on a practice that means, in its most basic form, ‘to bring together,’ in my humble opinion, ought to be ashamed of finding these two seemingly disparate main stream news articles so offensive, and by doing so, making them divisive as well as causing harm. (I am ashamed that I feel the need to put my own voice in the debate. Honestly.)

I found myself a more than a little offended, as a former and recovering yoga purist, by Tara Stiles’ version of yoga before the NYT gave her the opportunity to expound on her philosophy. It is a philosophy, and one of inclusion and non-judgment and one that the majority of us, myself included, can take deep spiritual lessons from and put them to good use. Even as Stiles eschews the idea of b2eing a spiritual teacher, in the way that she lives what she believes in making yoga accessible to everyone that wants to be moved physically, she is one with profound lessons to teach, as Sadie Nardini’s thoughtful and supportive Elephant Journal article earlier this week proved.

Photo Courtesy TinyTall

Yoga does not belong to anyone.

Not to you, or me, or Stiles or Bikram or Iyengar or any human who has lived or died on this planet. It never will. It doesn’t belong to a sect or a religion or a country or anyone else that seeks to claim it. As I understand it, it doesn’t exclude anyone either, unless they prefer not to participate. We know this, and we know that even our own spiritual practices, while we hold them close, are really just a ripple in the wave of human consciousness that, again, belongs to no one. Arguing this is ridiculous and unnecessary, not to mention repetitive and divisive, especially since we already know the truth.

A few months ago, people rallied against the organization that sought to ‘regain control of the brand’ with the argument that yoga belongs to no one. Now, some of the same folks, (I assume), are basically putting themselves in that same camp to rail against a form of yoga that doesn’t suit their notions of what yoga should be. As Stiles said in the article published in the NYT, “Who made these rules?”

All of this being said, consider the following:

Shoes. Almost every human being has a pair. Archaeologists have even found, as the glaciers melt and move, that our earliest predecessors on this planet wore them. They are made in all corners of the globe, from all types of materials in millions of shapes, sizes, colors, with all kinds of stitches and details to set them apart, by hundreds of thousands workers. (Just for now, let’s set aside discussions of global warming, of third-world conditions and workers rights, for our purposes in this argument.) Almost every pair of feet on the planet, at one point or another, is sheathed in some form of shoe. Many of us, myself included, have dozens of pairs, some with more utility and practicality and sex appeal than others. Some are designer, some are knock-offs. Some have heels to help with our insecurities of height and sexuality. Some enhance human performance. Some are open, some closed, and some are platforms. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of manufacturers of shoes, some higher quality and some lower quality. They are simply a vehicle – one of protection, security and vanity. All are testaments to the nature and spirit of human invention and each pair has value. Companies patent their designs, their innovations and their materials, yet not a single corporation has ever tried to copyright the idea of shoes.

Photo Courtesy Roel Schroeven

The notion of patenting the idea of shoes seems silly, doesn’t it? That is precisely where the problem is within these arguments about yoga. Any attempt at taking control of the idea of yoga, branding and packaging it, is arrogance and ignorance, plain and simple. There is not one true way, and there is not one shoe that fits all. To think this, that one practice is superior to any and all others, is a blatant disservice, not only to the self and to humility, but also to the notions of freedom of thought and speech, and not to mention freedom of religion, if that is indeed a part of the discussion. The old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes seems entirely appropriate in this debate.

Plenty of yogis understand that some of the philosophy and traditions of yoga reach back to our earliest human predecessors, but like the EVA in our running shoes, many of the asanas we practice these days are a more recent invention. Yoga is practiced in hundreds of forms and styles all over the globe, and the selection of asanas, sequences, alignment principles and spiritual teachings set each of these forms apart. Yet, they are fundamentally, on some basic level, the same, or at the least, strikingly similar.

Some lineages are designed by yogic scientists who are experts in bio-mechanics and human performance, heavy on asana, or the physical poses. Some come from spiritual leaders and our gurus with a more traditional, meditative approach. Some are unfortunately designed by those with only their own fame and pocketbook in mind. Some are simply a vehicle for fitness; others are a well-rounded pursuit of a holistic lifestyle. Some of the forms of yoga are simply a way for people to combat insecurity, vanity and to confront their own notions of self and being in the world.

Not For Us To Judge

Photo Courtesy R.M. Calamar

Every western lineage of yoga, from Bikram to Anusara to “Yoga for Regular Guys” (as offensive as it may be) has value on some level, in that they put emphasis on the importance of moving the body. By doing so we are uniting our intentions for health with our actions, even if some nuance of the philosophy behind it does cause offense.

As much as the purist in me hates to put all of these facets of the jewel that is yoga in the same sentence, the truth of the matter is, in a society where many are overweight, sick (physically or spiritually) and suffering, getting people united with their bodies through asana can never be a bad thing. The only harm that comes is when we fail to recognize the inherent benefit of teaching the mindfulness that comes with being united with our bodies to everyone, however they choose to find it. I wholeheartedly agree with this other article, by Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis, also in support of Stiles’ take on moving the masses.

Not everyone needs the yoga teacher as a preacher, and, in some cases, a casual attempt may cause offense. Personally, I only have taken offense once, out of perhaps hundreds of classes with dozens of teachers, to a yoga teacher’s spiritual soapbox, only because it was a soapbox as such. Inauthentic and irrelevant while begging for blind agreement, it made me question their experience not only with the philosophy and tradition of yoga, but later in the class with the bio-mechanics of yoga. I walked out, afraid someone would be hurt, and I didn’t want it to be me. Most days, and most classes, I can find some wisdom in the words of any teacher, even the new ones right out of teacher training with their shiny yoga teacher toolbox. It’s true.

Some days, I put on my trusty running shoes, and take the terrain quickly, grounded and well-supported. On other days, I lace up my combat boots from a wholly different lifestyle and force myself to take on the world. Once in a while, I slip on those red stilettos and dance until dawn, even if I know I’ll be sore in the morning. Often, I cozy up in a pair of beat, dirty white slippers gifted from a mutual bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. Just because you wouldn’t ever wear them, doesn’t mean I don’t find comfort and beauty in them. In much the same way, just because I couldn’t pull off your pink pleather platforms doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t rock them.

In much the same way, my experience is that certain days call for different practices and teachings from different lineages. When I need to get to the heart of my practice, feeling the desire to really be immersed in learning the scientific and practical, I take a class with an Anusara or Iyengar teacher. On rare occasions, I feel the need to be pushed to the brink of my own sanity and drilled into form, as painful and hot as it is, a Bikram class is the answer. On days when I crave radiant joy, even if I know I’ll be sore the next day, Jivamukti, Forrest Yoga or just plain flow suits me well. Often, I find myself lounged out, supported by bolsters and pillows in a restorative class. Every once in a while, I get back to basics with a beginner class.

Photo Courtesy Steven Depolo

There is nothing cheap or diluted about making use of all the lineages of western yoga and learning everything I can to make this practice my own. Respecting and valuing the teachings from many lineages gives me an insight into how to discover precisely what speaks to me. After all, that is the whole point. There is no one path, and no one-size-fits-all physical or spiritual program will ever emerge.

One thing is certain about my practice as a student, and about my shoe closet. Some of the teachings, the ones that have the most inherent personal value, are ones that I hold on to, like the Doc Marten’s from high school I tucked away after a decade of wear. Every once in a while, they come back to mind. I pull them out as a gentle reminder of what has value and what has been best use to me over time as I walk this path.


April Arotin is an (aspiring) artist and philosopher, with a really expensive piece of paper to prove it. A yoga teacher, perpetual student, and lover of learning in general, she is currently learning, by trial and error, how to open and operate a community yoga studio and art gallery in a somewhat blighted neighborhood. Passionate about rust-belt revitalization, urban gardening and corrupting others for the common good, she relocated from San Francisco, and is proud to call Cleveland, Ohio, her home. April is honored to be a part of the fledgling experiment in rust-belt revival called Open Yoga Gallery. For more information on the project, visit www.openyogagallery.com.

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