April 19, 2011

How to Tell if You’re a Yoga A-hole.

I’ve known since the beginning that it was a risk.

Oh sure, this isn’t the first a-hole cultivating career I’ve ever been a part of—you only need to spend a few minutes killing time in the waiting room of the Actor’s Equity building in New York to know that actors can be jerks. But, I would contend that there is no brand of asshole-ery quite so egregious as spiritual asshole-ery. And so, when I began to make my very public switch from self-identified actress to self-identified yogi—I was on the lookout for it.

But my friends, I feel I may be slipping.

Exhibit A: I now spend most of my day in yoga pants. Not workout pants, oh dear Shiva, no…nooooo no no, I would not stoop to getting my exercise at a gym. My workout is a spiritual one, and I would like you all to know it. You should be able to tell by the trendy boot-cut at the bottom of my tan cotton stretchies. Also by the vaguely Sanskrit pendant necklace I’m wearing, the one that means something, um.  Something about Buddha?  Wait—that’s not even, uh, it doesn’t matter what it says, people, what matters is what it viiiiiiiiiibrates. But if you’re still confused, please just glance downward at my wood-soled clogs. That should seal it for you.

Exhibit B: Did you notice how I called myself a “yogi” in the opening paragraph? That’s right. I haven’t stooped to “yogini” yet, but it may just be a matter of time before I’m referring to my fiancé as my “beloved” and my female cohorts as “goddesses”.

Exhibit C: I have heard myself say, in front of a class full of people, a variety of vaguely spiritual (and totally meaningless) things like, “send the breath,” and, “open your heart,” and, “just soooooooften“.

Exhibit C, Subparagraph 1: I have also found myself using the following horrifying sound effects/phraseology during class:

1. putting an “mmm” in a pause between thoughts to emphasize either a. I just said something profound (kill me now), or b. you’re all doing a good job at—whatever you’re doing.

2. adding that galling quiet little “right?” after a sentence: “But the breath is portable…right?…you can take it with you anywhere.”

3. “You guys are doing so good!” I subbed a class the other day in which I must have said this a dozen times.  “You guys are doing so good!” Exclamation point! As if I’m teaching toddlers how to eat with silverware for the first time.

Exhibit D: And this is the worst one—I think there have been days in which I have forgotten, truly forgotten, that I actually do not know anything. I have forgotten that my role as a teacher has not been handed to me because I have any special wisdom to impart.  Days in which I have forgotten, that I am a yoga teacher 1. Because I paid $3600 to become one,  2. Because I love, love, double-love the practice of yoga and just want more legitimate excuses to do it, and 3. Because of numbers 1 and 2 above, there is a possibility that I can create a safe space in which other people can practice yoga as well. And that. Is. It.

My god, who knew it would be so easy to slip up? Who knew that one day you could be going along fine, minding your own business, and the next day find yourself waxing poetic about the alchemy of the breath?  (Don’t ask.) No one is safe, people, not even I—someone who prides herself on being as un woo-woo as possible—not even I am safe from becoming, dunh dunh dunh duuuuuuh—A Yoga Asshole.

I know.  I’m as shocked as you are.

And I want to tell you why I’ve come to this moment—to this place of recognizing my own part in some spiritual jerkiness, and to the simultaneous recognition that there is another way to roll, man. It comes down to the example of two individuals: Mister Bill Withers, and one of the dudes from The Private Chefs of Beverly Hills. Yes, Bill Withers—musical genius, and some dude on a reality show. Unlikely bed fellows but bear with me.

Okay, so—Bill Withers. Bill Withers is, without question, one of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time. If you haven’t heard him, I suggest you go and ITunes the heck out of him, right this minute. I suggest starting with this beauty.  Or this one.  Paul, my fiancé, and I are both big Bill Withers fans, and the other morning, we decided to stay in bed a couple extra hours to watch a documentary about him on Netflix.

I wish I could tell you the whole tale of it—how he one day in his 30’s just finally decided to start writing songs and immediately wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine,” one of the best f-ing tunes ever. How he, until that point, had been working installing bathrooms on 747 airplanes, and really had no intention of doing anything else, certainly not making his money as a musician. But how the universe had other plans for him and so he rocketed to stardom. And how he was never really interested in becoming anything other than what he was, and never really saw himself as anything larger, even with all that fame, but did laugh about how much more handsome a fellow apparently gets when he has a hit record.


There is this one scene in particular in the documentary that really got to me, where after he gets finished with this very real, very honest, sort of sad explanation about why he’s just never been able to be a show-off, the filmmakers cut to all of these clips of other musicians talking about Bill Withers and how great he is. And I swear to god, every single person they cut to, even people whose work I know and who have in the past always struck me as sincere, in comparison to the preceding moments with Mr. Withers, all these other musicians look and sound well, like a bunch of blowhards.

It’s this incredible, visceral moment of comparison: this is what truth looks like, and this is what it looks like when you’re trying, even just subtly, to puff yourself up in the face of truth. It was astonishing. And also sort of skin-crawly, because I knew, without question, that in that scenario I would not be the Bill Withers, I would be Bono (or whomever) holding my guitar in my lap and trying to sound meaningful instead of, as Bill Withers was doing, just being full with meaning.

(This was my “maybe I’m an asshole” moment number one.)

Number two came later that same day, when the mister and I were poking around the Le Creuset store at a local outlet mall, and just happened to get there in time to watch a cooking demonstration by a quasi-famous chef, the aforementioned dude from the Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.

Was it his fault that he burned his first attempt at the pancakes he was supposed to be demoing? I don’t know. I’m willing to blame the equipment. Was it his fault that he was stunningly uncharismatic and delivered his entire demo to one cute chick in the front row?  Yeeeeeeah, yeah, I think so. But neither of these things—the nerves, or the lack of culinary skill—would have stood totally in the way of my liking him or his demo. Both things could have been charming, IF (and this is the big if) he had been graced with just a bit more humility. Because, the whole time, even though it was clear from a mile away that he was nervous and unprepared, he kept trying to sort of “puff himself up.” It was as if he had learned what the costume of “famous television chef” looks like, and was desperately trying to wear it even though it didn’t fit.

And when we finally snuck away, (after the longest 30 minutes of our lives) I had the unfortunate sinking suspicion that I too was trying to wear a costume that I had not yet earned.

I know just a sliver—even after many years of practicing—I know just like the tiniest little piece of what there could be to know about this practice called yoga. Why is your low-back hurting in that pose? I don’t know! I don’t have any idea! What’s your back-leg supposed to be doing in this other pose? I don’t know! I can tell you what my teacher tells me, but really, I don’t know! Sanskrit, anatomy, alignment, philosophy, lineage; I know enough about all of these things to sound smart at a party, but put me in a room with somebody who really knows their stuff—I’m going to look like a toe-twiddling goober.

And this is what I started to realize in the outlet mall parking lot and maybe that’s okay.

Because yoga, on scout’s honor, does not care. It does not matter who you are or how you feel or what you know. You can fail, you can be pissed off, you can be sorrowful; you can bring all of your brokenness and the practice will take you in. And if that is the case, and I know that it is, then I have got to figure that my one real job as teacher, the one thing that I really can do, regardless of how much I know, (or don’t know) about where your psoas connects, is to be honest. NOT because you will then learn some great lesson from me, oh grasshopper, but so that you can feel permission to be revealed, too.  And then all of us, all of us just hanging our tender stuff out there, might really be able to learn something from one another.

And then one of us, at least, might be able to stop being such an asshole.

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