June 27, 2011

Why Yoga Blogging Matters.

Why are you here?

I don’t mean ontologically, metaphysically, or existentially – although we can get to that, too. I mean literally, right here right now – on your desktop, laptop, iPad, SmartPhone, or whatever you’re on – what moved you to click and come to this virtual reading-and-meeting space?

Now please note that I DON’T mean to press any guilty buttons by asking this question (self-recriminations like I should really be getting back to work or doing the laundry or whatever rather than reading blogs). No, no – no. Quite the contrary. I’m asking because I hope you’ll join me in taking a moment (or several) to step back and reflect on the meaning of your own yogging (= yoga + blogging) experience.

Why read, write, and/or comment on yoga blogs? For entertainment, information, edification? To pass the time, learn new stuff, connect with others?

To enhance your practice?

To be part of a collective enterprise that’s contributing to the evolution of contemporary yoga?

Or maybe to voice your rejection of the assumptions such questions imply?

I’d love to know your thoughts. And soon – because I’m revved to report that I’ll be part of a “Yogging Heads” Panel devoted to exploring precisely such questions at Yoga Festival Toronto (YFT) this August!

Yes, following the keynote address (which I’m very much looking forward to) by practitioner-scholar Mark Singleton, author of the ground-breaking Yoga Body, I’ll be hashing out what’s happening in the burgeoning yoga blogosphere along with our esteemed Elephant Yoga editor, Bob Weisenberg, as well as It’s All Yoga Baby blogger extraordinaire, Roseanne Harvey (just back from retirement!). And if that’s not cool enough, YFT Co-Director and (small-r) renaissance man Matthew Remski will be moderating the discussion.

Like the yoga blogosphere itself, Yogging Heads is a new collective experiment, and there’s no knowing precisely how it will pan out. To help get this party started, however, I’m presenting some preliminary thoughts based on my own experience after about a year here in yoga-blogo land.

Regardless of whether you’re able to attend the conference (highly recommended – more info on that here), please consider sharing your thoughts, and helping us co-create a really good discussion.

Bringing the Mind Back In

First, I’ll just lay my cards on the table and flat out state that I believe the yoga blogosphere’s already proved itself to be an important development in the evolution of contemporary yoga, and that it has tremendous potential to become even more so.

Grandiose? Maybe. But here’s my reasoning.

Contemporary yoga practice (at least in North America, the only terrain I really know) is unbalanced. There’s an excessively heavy emphasis on asana, while other aspects of practice remain relatively undeveloped.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that asana isn’t important. On the contrary, it’s the pivotal, vital center of yoga today. For most of us, asana forms the gateway to everything that yoga offers; physically, psychologically, and spiritually.  As such, it’s also the one thing that practitioners have in common – we all practice and value asana.

Yet with the centrality of asana comes an insidious tendency to replicate the weird combo of bodily obsession and disassociation that dominates mainstream culture. Sure, the yoga community earnestly talks the talk of body-mind-spirit integration. Frankly, however, I think we’re still pretty far away from walking the walk.

Certainly, there’s a lot of focus on developing the body through asana and associated practices (e.g., healthy eating, bodywork, outfitting ourselves in cool yoga gear). There’s relatively little emphasis, however, on similarly developing the mind. True, there’s a lot of detailed study of anatomy. Beyond such bodily focused thinking, however, the yoga community has generally hummed along to the tune of “get out of your head” in ways that start to sound suspiciously like “turn off your brain.”

Consequently, the spiritual dimensions of yoga – which are commonly, although not necessarily, tapped into through asana practice – are all-too-often cognitively untethered, divorced from the more rational, analytical, or simply questioning parts of our minds. As a result, there’s a pronounced tendency to shoot straight from a more purely physical practice way too far out into the Woo.

Now, as I wrote recently, I actually cherish the woo-ier parts of my practice. I certainly don’t believe that our experience of yoga should be limited to the analytic or the scientific. At the same time, however, erasing such capacities of mind right out of the picture serves only to starve or silence important parts of our being. And putting them back it doesn’t detract from other aspects of practice – on the contrary, each dimension enhances the others, with the synergy of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

So: I believe that the yoga blogosphere is helping to balance out the lopsidedness of an overly asana-centric yoga culture by providing a forum that encourages us to use our minds in new ways. Because if yogging is rooted in asana, when we’re looking at screens and typing up posts and comments, we’re working much more directly with our minds than our bodies.  And, if you choose to engage with it, yogging will in fact provide some serious exercise for your brain – and, in the process, for your being as a whole.

Personal Growth and Community Development

reblogged from humbleberry

Certainly, there’s no question that I’ve learned an enormous amount from only a little over a year in the yoga blogosphere. Much of this comes from the process that I’ve had to go through in order to work up the courage to blog, post, and comment myself. At least as much has come, however, simply from engaging with what others have put online.

Reading yoga blogs – and looking at and listening to the various videos, art, music, photos, or whatever else they may contain – has produced a huge range of responses in me. I’ve been informed, entertained, uplifted, dismayed, bored, surprised, soothed, and disturbed. While yogging has mainly made me happy, it’s sometimes made me sad. It’s been alternately edifying and disillusioning. More than anything else, it’s made me realize in a much more visceral way that there’s a lot of people out there who care a lot about yoga – but who may or may not share any of my own cherished beliefs and assumptions, hopes and fears, or turn-ons and turn-offs about it.

Concretely, some of the yogging that’s made a particularly strong impression on me during the past year includes:

1) Writing that opens up the dark side of yoga and exposes it to the light of free expression and discussion. Certainly, it’s a good thing to “think positive.” All too often, however, the yoga community seems bunkered down in a hermetically sealed bubble of “positivity” that willfully denies the many pathologies present not only in the world, but the yoga community itself. Recent posts in Elephant Journal and Recovering Yogi have broken the silence that’s previously surrounded many difficult issues, including the seductiveness of abusive gurus, the manipulative lies that can flourish in spiritual communities, and the soul-sucking scenes surrounding certain “yoga stars.” (For me personally, the many comments on my “Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal” post came as quite a surprise – I had absolutely no idea that discussing the psychological pitfalls of the student-teacher relationship would strike such a chord.)

Certainly, publicly discussing such delicate issues needs to be done as mindfully as possible, as there’s a lot at stake. For precisely that reason, however, it’s important to do it. Just as we experience in our bodies with yoga, it’s light, space, and connection that bring healing – not darkness, closure, and disassociation.

Yoga Journal Cover Model Contest

2) Multiple initiatives demonstrating how much the photographic representation of yoga – particularly who’s a “yoga model” and who’s not – matters. I’ve been struck by the sheer number of recent “yoga model” competitions or compilations, with sponsors ranging from the epitome of mainstream (Yoga Journal) to the culturally foreign (Wild Yogi). (Other notable sites include Curvy Yoga, Yoga Dork, and the So Hum Project.) I don’t have any idea what the real numbers are, but it seems like hundreds, if not thousands of practitioners have recently submitted photos of themselves doing asana to such yogging hubs. While participants seems to have seen this as simply a “fun” activity, personally I think that this characterization elides just how important the underlying cultural and identity issues are to people (someone should write a blog post on that!)

While it’s often said that yogis should “be above” such mundane concerns, the facts demonstrate that many people feel there’s a lot at stake in the photographic representation of yoga. This comes out even more clearly in the commercial realm. Most notably, last summer’s L’Affaire Toesox generated such a firestorm of controversy that it seems to have permanently altered what had previously been a running debate over the commercialization of yoga. More recently, the debate over the “Lakshmi Bikini” (not quite the same issue, but related) explored some parallel dynamics in a more culturally distant (and therefore much less controversial) realm.

3) Posts that play with the possibilities of yogging in particularly creative ways. When writing about or graphically representing yoga was confined to books and magazines, there were a lot of barriers to what could be presented. With yogging, however, there’s very few. Basically, if you have time and online access, you can yog. This, combined with the medium’s new multi-media capabilities -the ability to post any combination of text, photos, graphics, videos, and music clips that you want – presents incredible new possibilities for creative expression.

Yoga Dawg with Miles Davis, c. 1960-61

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve found some of the best yoga writing and multi-media expression I’ve ever seen during my time online over the past year. For me, just a few of the standouts have been: Yoga Dawg Howls (for wickedly smart satire and stellar photoshopping abilities), the Yoga 2.0 team (for brilliant writing that makes postmodern ideas meaningful rather than trendy or clichéd), and humbleberry (for compiling breathtaking images that convey the experience of yoga in new forms). I could go on and on . . . but the point is not to make a “best of” list. Rather, the point is that we have a new open space for creative expression, and that yoggers are working it – beautifully.

For me, there’s absolutely no question that engaging with all this stuff (and these are just a few examples, there’s certainly others) in the yoga blogosphere has helped me grow as a person. This is particularly true because not all of it has been fun, or easy. It can be challenging to process the emotions that come up when someone gives you a negative comment, or pushes a view that you hate, or has reactions that you find disturbing. It’s sure good practice, however, to try.

For all these reasons – and more – I definitely consider yogging to be part of my “off the mat” practice.

By the same token, I believe that yogging is helping develop the yoga community in important new ways. By tradition, yoga is a highly decentralized enterprise, with different students following different teachers – or simply their own path. There’s no centralized authority in yoga. And that’s great.

It can make it difficult, however, to really connect as a community. I spent years, for example, going to a studio that had very strong Ashtangha and Forrest Yoga communities. And we never interacted with each other in any meaningful way – ever.

Yogging, however, naturally crosses such lines of method and lineage. True, smaller online sub-communities naturally form, as like-minded people find one another. Which is nice, and as it should be.

It’s also true, however, that yogging has inherently open boundaries. It naturally provides an unprecedented opportunity to connect with other practitioners across time and space.

So: What do we want to do with it? More precisely, what moves you the most?

If you can make it, please join me at the Yogging Heads Panel in Toronto this August so that we can discuss it in non-virtual reality. In the meantime, however, whether you can make it or not, I’d love to hear your ideas. Thanks!

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