February 18, 2012

Do Football & Yoga Share Anything in Common? ~ Stacey Sperling

It is about a couple of weeks after the 2012 Super Bowl, and in this era of Facebook, I cannot help but notice the distinct divide among my friends, as reflected in their status updates before and during the game. In one camp, there is a lot of woo-hooing about the Giants (I am a New Yorker), and in the other, there are a bunch of posts meant to show how silly the posters think the game, and football, and all the hoopla is, and how they are totally above it all and have no interest in sports, and/or in televised, national spectacles. Many of these are from yogis (I am a yoga teacher).

I definitely understand the latter point of view. After all, a study was conducted that showed men are more abusive to their partners following the viewing of a football game, and more and more evidence is confirming that the brutal nature of a sport that demands extra large men tackle other extra large men to the ground causes a whole mess of brain and bodily harm. And then there is the fact that money that could fund the yearly budgets of whole nations, or perhaps solve a pressing global problem, is instead fed into the gaping maw of football programs, at the college and national levels, and advertising during the games. I will not even mention the crappy half-time shows. But my humanity—and my yoga practice—encourages me to be open to embracing what is always authentic and meaningful, even if it resides among elements that are difficult to embrace, or even offensive.

I used to be an organized sports disdainer. I grew up with a father who was more passionate about football than he was about most things, parenting included, but the game, the rules, and the fervor never permeated my consciousness, or at least I did not think it did. I went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where there were no school-sponsored teams, and I liked that. I thought it helped reflect the unorthodox, non-traditional nature of the school, and perhaps of a more thoughtful, independent way of living life.

I ended up going to graduate school at a super duper, rah-rah sports university: The University of Texas at Austin. Football was LIFE—still is—for many students, faculty and community members. I was largely oblivious, even though the place I lived in for a long stretch of time while a student there was close enough to the stadium that I could hear the announcers and the roars of the crowd on the Saturdays that were game days. Mostly my friends and I grumbled about the traffic and lack of parking on those afternoons and evenings.

In my second year of study, I started student teaching, and many of my undergraduate students were football players. The others were fans. The players were committed to the class I taught—Speech and Public Speaking—because many of them had regional accents, poor grammar and/or lacked confidence and poise, and they wanted to do a good job representing their team and their school when they were out in the world, and especially if they were ever to be interviewed by a reporter. I fell in love with my students. As they grew more comfortable with me, they started to ask questions. First: Did I go to the games? No? Why not? Then: if I cared about them, should I not attend at least one home game and see what it was all about? Of course they were right. One player arranged for me to have one of his family tickets for an upcoming game, and I promised to attend.

Game day rolled around—it was an unusually frigid, icy Saturday. And I was hung over. I wanted nothing to do with anything that required me to get out of bed and leave my apartment. But the faces of my sweet students sat staring imploringly at me in my mind’s eye, so I dragged myself up and out. It was a short, cold walk to the stadium. The game had already begun, so there was much roaring and cheering as I approached, which grew louder with each passing block. It was only when I arrived that I felt slightly awkward about being there alone. There were groups and couples and families everywhere; to whom would I roll my eyes when the crowd sang their silly songs? Who would ironically eat junky sports stadium food with me?

My seat kind of stank—way up high and not a great view. I made it up there and sat down to commence shivering and watching a game I did not really understand. I busied myself with figuring out the jersey numbers of my students, and trying to find them, on the field or on the bench. I became aware of the people around me—the others in the nosebleed seats. They were a diverse bunch. They were young, elderly, families with children, black, Hispanic, and white. Some seemed intensely focused on the game, others there more for the social event. Some were drinking, some not. Here is what struck me about all of them: they seemed really happy to be there. Strangers interacted with strangers. They spontaneously broke out into songs and chants to show their love and support of the team. They seemed completely in the moment. They did not seem to want to be anywhere else in the world.

I had just started practicing yoga that year, and did not really understand what a Sangha was, but in retrospect I see that the folks at the game that day formed just that: a community of like-minded people coming together. While the nature of the game itself can be brutish and violent, the fans exhibited a quality of Ahimsa to each other I have never forgotten; I was a total stranger, and alone, and as the afternoon unfolded, I was taken under many wings, and generously fed various food and drink, while rules and rituals were patiently explained to me, sometimes the same ones more than once. There were a couple of moments when I even experienced a kind of Ishvara Pranidhana: a surrendering to something larger than myself that felt completely right and true, not cultish and mindless as I had suspected the atmosphere would be. It was one of the few times in my life that I understood the positive value of ritual, and the power and comfort it can provide. I am guessing that is something many other yogis can relate too as well. I also became aware of a kind of compassion within me that connected intensely to the Tapas and skill of each team and each and every player on the field that day. It inspired me and gave me a newfound respect for athletes of all stripes.

In the intervening years, I have not become a huge football fan, or a dedicated viewer of any organized sport, for that matter. But I do drop in a little bit every football and baseball season, and I have grown to passionately love the Olympic Games. More important than knowing rules, jersey numbers or scores, though, is being open to the love, dedication and community of the players and the fans, which prevents me from acting with judgment or disdain toward anyone else’s team spirit. Rah!

Stacey Sperling lives in Brooklyn and has been teaching yoga in New York City for 8 years. She is currently heading up the NYC branch of Portland, OR-based Street Yoga, an organization that brings yoga classes to youth in transition at homeless shelters, foster homes and treatment centers. When not working (and sometimes simultaneously), she can be found parenting two adorable and ridiculous children.

Edited by Assistant Yoga Editor, Soumyajeet Chattaraj.

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