July 11, 2011

Just because I Practice Yoga doesn’t Mean I have to Like You.

I love yoga. It is a foundation of my life. I’ve been practicing for almost a decade (I’m nearing 25 years old).

I was raised by a mother who practiced yoga and meditation. She taught me basic postures as well as concepts of loving kindness and service from day one. I had a pretty sweet pink unitard and pale green sticky mat when I was in elementary school, so I nailed my sarvangasana before I turned 10. I began studying the Tibetan Book of the Dead when I was in 6th grade. All through my adolescence I was fascinated by the mysterious and mystical, Eastern religions, and the American counter-culture. I started trying everything and anything, from the esoteric to the psychedelic. I eventually studied comparative religion in college, with a focus on Hinduism. I lived off and on at an ashram in Crestone, Colorado; I’ve traveled to India twice in the past few years; I’ve practiced lots of different types of yoga and completed two different yoga teacher trainings to date.

These days I’m fully committed to this path of yoga. I practice Ashtanga and Kundalini yoga for 2+ hours every day and I teach yoga classes 5 days a week. My partner is a serious Ashtangi and bhakta. He’s got more discipline than me so he spends part of every day studying yogic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra. I appreciate this, because he’s always dishing out some serious knowledge. I learn a lot from him.

Our life together is informed by our yoga practice. We follow the rules. We don’t make up our own yoga; we follow our traditions. We do what our teachers and the sacred texts instruct. We don’t eat meat. We don’t drink alcohol. We don’t practice on moon days. We chant and meditate everyday. Normally, when we comment on elephant journal we get accused of being “harsh” or “dogmatic” but we’re okay with this too, because ele (I love it, don’t get me wrong here) can get a little absurd at times.

All this is to say: I really love yoga – it’s legit and it’s my life path. I am certainly aware that my short years of practice have only taught me so much, and that I have a whole lot more to learn and so many teachers to learn from. I embrace this as well. There’s no end to where this practice can take me. I humbly and gratefully acknowledge this.

Even though I honestly realize that there is so very much I do not know about yoga, I still know more about it than a good number of people (not tooting my horn, just being honest). So that’s why I get super annoyed (transcendentally speaking) when someone without any knowledge or yoga experience whatsoever tells me how a yogi is “supposed” to act. This goes for anything, really. If you are a neophyte, be honest about it. Own your ignorance! There’s a lot of wisdom in saying “I don’t know anything about that,” rather than claiming knowledge that is not based in truth or experience.

Recently I had an experience when I was told that my behavior “flies in the face of all that I profess to practice.” So what was my behavior in this situation you might wonder? Well, I stood quietly listening to a very drunk angry woman scream her head off at me, call me names, and drop the F-bomb as a noun, adjective and verb. I never raised my voice, but rather lowered it when I did finally speak back to her, which was only to say (sarcastically, I admit), “blessing to you too” in response to her incendiary “God bless you” – aka – Go f*ck yourself, b*tch.

After this event, I informed this woman’s partner that I refuse to be around her anymore. I told him that it wasn’t emotionally or energetically safe for me to be around someone who holds such vicious and toxic feelings towards me. I encouraged him to examine her behavior and think about what kind of a person would speak in that manner to another person and whether or not this was a healthy and supportive relationship that he would want to maintain. His response was to accuse me of being “closed-minded,” “mean,” and “set on the destruction of their relationship.” In addition, I was told that I needed to “open my heart” and “be more compassionate and loving” towards this woman. And to top it all off – that I was pretty much a BAD YOGI for setting up boundaries.

Just because I practice yoga doesn’t mean I have to love all people and accept everything they do unconditionally and unequivocally. I believe it’s possible to have compassion for and recognition of each person’s inherent Divinity, as well as their suffering, while still calling into question their behavior. I strive to be a kind, loving and giving person but this does not mean that I need to open myself up to be walked all over by others in order to cultivate these qualities within myself. So what, it’s supposed to be, “I do yoga, therefore, come abuse me”? Umm, I don’t think so. When someone toxic gets near me, I say my protective mantras, put up an energetic wall and walk on by.

Yoga teaches me to see with more clarity. It opens my eyes to the universal soul of each person – the atman. I realize that life is challenging and doing the work to progress is hard and can be scary. I know this all too well. I recognize that the essence of each soul is clouded by layers of attachment, ignorance and suffering, some to greater degrees than others and that we are each on our own individual journey to clear ourselves and come to self-realization. However, I don’t necessarily believe the idea that “we are all doing the best we can,” because it seems obvious that some of us aren’t really trying at all. Most of us, in fact, could actually try a lot harder.

The knowledge that yoga provides me does not mean that I must open myself up and loosen all my boundaries indiscriminately to all souls. In fact, to the contrary, my yoga discipline has given me a sharpened sense of discrimination. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali supports this: “By the practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment” – 2.28 (Satchidananda translation). Through my practices, I am learning how to discern what is elevating versus what is degrading, what supports my growth versus what stunts it. The path of yoga teaches me how to make appropriate choices – what I choose to eat and drink, when and how I sleep and bathe, how I choose to waste or conserve my vital energies, how I engage my senses and my intellect and with whom I choose to associate. This ability to discriminate between what aids me on my path versus what pollutes the energy of my environment is invaluable. The more yoga I do, the less I want to be around big crowds of people, or people engaging in negative, toxic behavior. To be honest, I’m less and less interested in people who aren’t committed to self-knowledge or self- inquiry. Perhaps this is the kind of stuff Patanjali is referring to in Yoga Sutra 2.40 regarding sauca – purity. Vyaas Houston’s translation states, “Owing to sauca, there is a desire to protect one’s own body, being the non-contact with whatever is adverse to that.”

Yoga, as a spiritual path, is not the simplified-new-agey-peace-and-love-vibe-with-no-boundaries-or-restrictions practice, as perhaps it has been portrayed by, or might we say dumbed-down by, the mainstream media. In fact, I would argue that this confusion and mingling of yoga with the New Age movement is adulterating yoga’s true form. So many people seem to think that yoga is all about feeling good, expressing yourself, moving spontaneously, and using “radical acceptance” as a means to justify their faults and weaknesses. In the yoga community these days there’s too much of an “I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s all okay – Namaste!” attitude (all accompanied with a fake, “compassionate” smile and an expensive organic t-shirt with a lotus on it, of course!). Well, that’s not yoga. Call me a dogmatist (won’t be the first time), but if you’re just doing what feels good, getting drunk and then using a yoga class to help quell your hangover, well, you’ve pretty much got it all wrong! Yoga is a multi-branched rigorous path of self-inquiry. As Georg Feuerstein remarks in Yoga Unveiled: Evolution and Essence of a Spiritual Tradition, “These are liberation systems, that means systems that seek to free the individual from all habit patterns of the mind, the body, speech and to return to the authentic identity. . . . All approaches have at their core this impulse to go beyond the ordinary human condition.”

One of the greatest gifts yoga gives me is true authenticity. One of my Kundalini teachers told me something years ago that I now realize is correct. She told me that when you are walking the path and doing the yoga, you start to see through the murkiness, you cut through that stuff and you don’t feel the need to put up with other people’s BS anymore. Yes, it is possible to understand both that people are Divine at their core and working with what they know in this life, and that you need not accept unacceptable behavior from them. I can accept you for the soul that you are on your distinct path, without having to embrace and love your questionable and ignorant behavior. The latter doesn’t really serve me or you in the long run. Avoiding an important conversation out of fear of conflict does not promote peace; rather, too often, this merely enables more disordered and negative behavior and patterns.

So, returning to the story: for me to uphold a socially acceptable, friendly facade (as I’ve been told I should) to a woman who hates me the way she hates me is not only truly insincere, but it’s simply not possible for me at this point. I don’t bullsh*t and I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not just to confirm someone’s silly stereotype of what a yogi is like. In fact, please don’t think of me as nice; go ahead and see me as the fierce, hard-core b*tch you think I am. I would rather be out there with my sword drawn, cutting through the veils of illusion and ignorance than standing on a marshmallow pedestal with my arms wide open ready to embrace you…and all your baggage.

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