March 12, 2012

It Took a Trip to India to Make Me Realize What is Wrong With Yoga in America.

Source: Claude Renault

In India, sadhana can often be found in the most unexpected of places.

The blaring rickshaw horns, the pounding monsoon storms, the insistent cries of chai-wallahs as they peddle hot, sweet tea from metal samovars and even the cows which meander lazily through rush hour traffic, seemingly oblivious to the kamikaze bus drivers and the many strong-stomached commuters who cling to the sides.

Like those coiled, springy snakes in fake tins, India has a habit of jumping out all at once. To the neophyte such as myself (I lived in India for a semester during college in ’99) the sights, sounds and smells—the opulence side-by-side with grueling poverty—can prove profoundly disorienting, especially when contrasted with what has increasingly come to constitute the American experience—a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled studio.

I recall my first early morning yoga class in Madurai, India. It was still dark. I wore pajamas purchased the previous day from a tailor who operated his business from the Meenakshi temple. He used a manual sewing machine. His workspace was not far from the area where elephants conferred blessings upon the faithful. Peanut shells clung to the floor. I loved the temple with its intricate carvings of Hindu deities, the smell of incense and sandalwood.

My belly was heavy with idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes) and sambar (a spicy, tomato-ey sauce) prepared by my Indian host mother. I was concerned instructor would force my tight American body into some sort of yogasana resembling a pretzel. Surely, my internal organs would rupture and fly out of my seventh chakra (or any other available space)? Maybe this would be a good thing. Maybe I would experience samadhi and be permitted to sleep in for the rest of the semester.

The class was mostly Indian with a few American students. We practiced on folded blankets. The men, in wife beater tank tops and baggy shorts, occupied the front rows. The women, in salwar-kameezes (blousy, pajama-style tops and baggy pants) sat in the back. A few of the more daring gentlemen wore white t-shirts and dhotis, a piece of white material wound tightly around the waist and folded up into the waistband, like a skirt. This seating arrangement was intended to promote modesty…for the men, at least.

Class was held out-of doors, on the concrete floor of a covered pavilion. It was adjacent to a swampy wetland which, as I would learn, was also home to a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes. For the next hour and a half, we twisted and turned and pranayamed our way through a series of asana intended to calm the mind and invigorate the spirit. The sun broke over the horizon line. There were many upward dogs and downward dogs. There was a long shoulder-stand. We were encouraged to focus on ourselves, our own breathing, our own space, to tap into the communal energy around us.

And, then, savasana, a new glimmer of awareness. Movement in rest as a bazaar of olfactory delights washed over us: the heady exhaust of diesel fumes, a burning compost pile, incense. How long were we on the ground? I’m not sure (although I do think a cow tried to interrupt at one point). By the conclusion of class, I was covered with mosquito bites! While this did suck (no pun intended), it increased my confidence that I would be able to withstand any sort of savasana divine provenance might throw at me in the future.

True, this was long, long time ago in an empire far, far away. Yoga, Inc. had yet to become a powerful, multimillion dollar worldwide enterprise. It was a kinder, simpler time. The kombucha-sipping, Manduka-mat-toting, cellphone shouting power yogi elbowing people out of the way on the way to the studio had yet to emerge as a cultural stereotype.

As Americans, we are so materially blessed as a people. And, yet, as a culture, we are so spiritually impoverished.

My time in India has compelled me to question today’s American yoga experience which, I feel, has become, too compulsive, too entitled, too commercial, too exclusionary.

Quite frankly, I’ve seen better behavior in a biker bar than among yogis at some studios.

I wish I could say I was joking!

Practice non-judgment, practice forgiveness and practice acceptance, you say?

Yes, yes. I am trying. As a practice, anger must also find a place for expression. For me, anger arises not as a gale force wind, but as a quiet, tired feeling. And anger can be a spiritual practice as well.

How do you mix the good old ‘rags to riches’ ethos of the United States with yoga’s more traditional, spiritual underpinnings? Is there a happy medium? Would Horatio Alger, author of the famous dime store novels where hard work equates to success and success is defined almost exclusively in terms of material success, count Bikram among the worthy?

There is a danger in trying to control that which we should not. As Americans, we place too much trust in leaders, gurus, teachers and the “industry.” Perhaps we discover that our favorite teacher has committed some sort of unconscionable behavior—this may range from eating a steak to smoking a cigarette to sleeping with a student.

We are shocked. We feel disillusioned and disappointed. In reality, we have ceded to them our own personal power to feel the safety of some sort of ‘authority’ and the feeling of belonging. We feel anxious, icky, confused. Maybe we even stop practicing. Many of us were raised in an authoritarian culture by families, teachers and clergy who led us to believe there was a clear formula for being a ‘nice’ person, for getting into college, for reaching one’s eternal reward. Is it any wonder we experience turmoil?

And there is the stuff. Overwhelming amounts of stuff which will improve your practice by leaps and bounds, the rare seaweed that will wick your sweat away.

What would Patanjali ever do if he set foot in a Lululemon store?

What's Your Intention?

I’ll admit, some of their stuff is cute (I am especially enamored of the things that don’t make me resemble a porn star) but, for most people (especially in our current economy) those are some hefty price tags—$90 a pop for a pair of pants, $60 for a tank and $140 for a jacket. Don’t do it! Don’t buy it! So they say.

Wear your $3 Hanes t-shirt and your old gym shorts from high school. Better yet, wear your pajamas. Wear something that allows you to remain the subject of your own experience rather than the object of somebody else’s. True, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb amidst the spandexed bodies going through their power yoga practice like a rogue army at morning training. Then, as many an elder relative used to tell me, you’ll truly know who your friends are. Unless you just really like the clothes for their own sake. More power to you.

Then, there is the tyranny of choice. Advertisers want you to believe you will be more spiritual for choosing their food or yoga mat or special aromatic nose spray with antibacterial properties. Eventually, all of these choices lead to a lot of control issues which tends to make you a difficult person with whom to, for example, go to lunch.

You are not more enlightened or better environmentally because you choose one brand of spirulina (or soy milk or veggie sausage) over another despite what one fancy supermarket (which shall remain nameless) might tell you! I have taught a few outdoor classes. One time, after class, a group of students asked me to do something about birds and the slope of the earth and the ants on the ground. I said I’d take out my Earth remote control next time. We are only visitors in this space for a brief time, so get over it!!!

American studios are clean, shiny, almost antiseptic. Blocks, blankets and mats line up in a pretty row. Maybe it has to be that way so somebody doesn’t get sued. (We are the most litigious society in the world, after all). Something about it seems cold and distancing. Are we shutting out the important stuff, too? Yoga is meant to be taken into the world. Do popular yogis like Sean Corne really need to have “Off The Mat, Into the World” campaigns? Do people really need to be told to get off the damn iPhone before they run into a street sign?

The moral of the story?

Amidst the noise and the disorientation of the world, the bombast and the bluff, meditation, union and connection are possible. Give them a chance! (And, if stray animals happen to roam onto the practice floor, all the better. Maybe the higher vibrational field has attracted them).


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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