March 9, 2011

What yoga means to Rusty Wells.

San Francisco’s prince of yoga breaks it down for us.

As one of the founders of the irreverent community forum Recovering Yogi, people sometimes ask me why I think it’s okay to snark all over the yoga world like I do. I find it shocking when people call me a yoga-hater. I love yoga — depending on how you define it. Yoga seems to mean so many things to so many people.

I’m pretty sure yoga isn’t about having the most bendy backbend or understanding a dead foreign language like Sanskrit. And it’s definitely not about what you wear or what sort of accessories you embellish your practice with. Let’s just start there.

I used to manage a major Bay Area yoga studio that now charges $22 for a yoga class. We would have day-long management intensives with agendas structured around how to entice people to come to yoga, what sort of special tricks to play on them to get them in the door, how to get them to stay once they bit, and how to then get them to buy lots of overpriced clothes in order to up the top line. Almost never did our management meetings ever broach the subject of the actual content of the programming or the quality of the teachers. Making money in yoga is a hard business. You have to be ruthless.

But does that render Western yoga meaningless? Hardly.

I went straight to the source of yoga in San Francisco, so to speak — our city’s most popular yoga teacher and the founder of Urban Flow Yoga in the Mission. Rusty Wells has been teaching for almost 15 and practicing for almost 20 years. His class sizes regularly number in the hundreds and his teacher trainings sell out practically the moment they are announced. Rusty Wells is one of the last bastions of really big name yoga teachers who still somehow manages to retain 100% integrity in his dealings with people and the way he runs his studio (dude founded San Francisco’s only real, successful donation-based yoga studio and is thinking of turning it into a not-for-profit).

From the first day I met Rusty back in the 90s, he has always led his yoga classes heart-first. This—and not just because he’s a savvy marketer or a handsome, charismatic sort—is why he is kind of a big deal around here. And it’s why his studio, Urban Flow, has become a successful, popular oasis in a city fraught with yoga mayhem.

Rusty told me what HE thinks the deal is with yoga in the West:

The reality is that the practice of yoga is ever changing.

Most of us are aware that even over the course of a single yoga practice, the very first and the very last downward facing dog are two entirely different puppies. And even over the course of one’s years of dedicated practice, there can be profound shifts in our commitment level to what we do on and off the mat.

Many of us were first attracted to the woo-woo mystical atmosphere of incense, candles, foreign-accented music (even if these days it is most often the makings of Westerners belting out the great Hindu classics of yore, myself included), and, lest we forget, the physical titillation of being new to the awesome stretchiness and contortion of the body. We naturally gravitated to the exotic, mostly out of sheer boredom with what we saw in our day-to-day lives. So it is of little surprise that yoga has attracted a restless culture. And I suppose it is exotic… at least at first.

We fell in love with this “ancient practice,” but most of what many of us know about yoga is actually rather contemporary. A lot of what we know comes from the recent culture of British gymnastics and even the remnants of the New Age Movement. All of this is so last century!

So what does yoga really mean now?

I began my practice with a very traditional and well-rounded hatha yoga system. It was a splendid balance of the physical poses, the breath-work, the meditation, the chanting, and the service. I later discovered the heat (and then the extreme heat) of the asana practice and the vigorous vinyasa that opened me up to new and exciting levels, all at a startling speed.

My whole body changed and I hungrily wanted more and more of that change. It was addictive.

And then I found myself in the midst of a trend that I hadn’t seen coming. The fad was all around me and I was smack dab in the middle of it. I worried that this fad was trying to hijack the most spiritually unitive and transformational experience I have ever known; a philosophy/science/art that is open to every — absolutely every — single inquisitive mind and heart.

Most of us enter yoga through the physical. We want to get lean and tone and stretchy (although we don’t exactly know why we want to be so limber). The truth of the matter is, being physically flexible can be very healthy at any age. It has numerous (and phenomenal) benefits.

But this flexibility of body must be accompanied by maintaining a harmony with strength and balance.

What my own asana stretchiness has taught me, more than anything, is the ability to stretch and change my mind. I have learned about patience, perseverance, compassion, determination, and allowance. I continue to discover a fine balance between my appetite and my aptitude.

If all we get out of the practice is stretchier hamstrings, hips, and shoulders — and we walk away still cynical, mean, disconnected, and unhappy — we are on the wrong path. If your teacher is inauthentic or, pardon me, even an asshole, please find someone else who speaks to your heart in a healthier way and helps you fall in love with your every day existence. Gravitate to what heals you holistically. Choose your influences wisely.

I treasure the evolution of my practice and I love love love all that I have done and what I am currently doing. Every part of my practice has brought me to where I am today. And I like that very much. I practice daily and I kick my own butt every day. (I also believe that sweating every day is a key tool to vibrant health.) Every day I find creativity in my practice. That, to me, is just about the coolest part of this physical practice.

As a teacher, I have even more reason to think about what yoga means to me. The other day, while leading a meditation, I caught myself saying something I’ve said countless times before: “Look for the space between your thoughts.”

When I heard myself say this, I thought: “Okay, I really don’t know what that means. But it does sound good, doesn’t it?” Meaningless.

I revised my direction and offered a meditation on watching the breath rise and fall. Much more practical and accessible. I’m sure the “looking for the space between your thoughts” makes sense to some people, and I sure wish I could say that I have had that experience, but it dawned on me that I really don’t know what that means, so why should I be talking it up? I can also confess that I know nothing about reincarnation, or chakras for that matter. All lovely in theory, but I really haven’t a clue if any of that is real.

And I want to be as real as I am. That’s something that matters to me a lot.

Why do we tend to try and make the Wonder of our lives even more profoundly mystical than it already is? There is no mundaneness in simply Being. It is a miracle that we are here, that we have families and friends, and laughter and tears, and sunrises and sunsets, and even porcupines. Why do we need to reach out for something that we aren’t even sure exists or matters? Yoga has taught me to be happy with what I can experience here and now. It teaches me about my avoidances and attachments and just how adorable I am in either state.

And I also know that my personal practice is much more incredible in my everyday life off the mat. The indelible lessons of the mat have made me kinder and much more reasonable. I listen better. I actually hear what people are saying instead of pretending like I am listening. I don’t talk over people as much, and I have stopped finishing their sentences. I have learned genuine empathy.

My practice has taught me how to be more present and more appreciative of what I have in my life every single day. I still screw up all the time. And I must admit that I still get pissy and hurt and I demonstrate anger and frustration. But much less than ever before. Given the opportunity, I’m certainly capable of, and open to, misbehaving. But all in all, I am a much better person because of my practice.

Every single day I choose to do a little bit better. I’ve grown exhausted with reacting out of feeling insecure and putting my insecurity on others. I do not want to be unkind ever again. No one deserves that. My practice has taught me compassion for the sake of compassion, versus the religion I grew up in, which tried to teach me compassion out of guilt and almighty judgment.

This has required that I pay very close attention to my actions and reactions, my words, and even my thoughts. I’m still quite spontaneous, but I truly notice how my life touches the lives of others. And this I take on as very special responsibility. I raise myself up so that I can raise up my family so that we can raise up our community.

It has become my duty, guided by my own inner compass, that makes me feel good about getting up in the morning and good about going to bed each night.

How I share the practice will reflect this. I vow to be present and humble and enthusiastic and compassionate. I vow not to ever let the community that I am so very blessed to serve venture into exclusivity. It must be all-inclusive for the greater good.

The Gita teaches this noble truth: We are one. We are equal. Nobody’s got any more God than anybody else. Nobody’s got any less.

Yoga is a practice that I hold so dear, and I want to protect it. I want, just about more than anything, to safeguard the lifespan of the practice so it doesn’t end up on a shelf, another fad that ran its course.

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