After my last post about me and my yoga, Riding the Magic Yoga Carpet–False Gurus, Malaria, Miscarriage & Cults, I received an email from a one of my colleagues and friends from the yoga teacher training in Italy.
He has, after doing our training, delved very deep into the philosophical scriptures and the history of yoga since that, and he is also teaching classes in the US.
He has a lot to say, some criticism and some positive feedback:
“Okay I don’t know what you mean by saying yoga is 5,000 years old. That pre-dates even the Vedas. There are arguments for 3500 years old in that Mohenjadaro seal, but I’m skeptical of that really being anything but the way people often sat. There is much dispute even over what constitutes any kind of yogic scripture — Patanjali is so misinterpreted and blown way out of proportion, for example. It’s only four pages and how many have really read it and digested what it means? A lot of it is about magic, for example, and that issue is rarely addressed.
Everyone interprets it through interpreters. I think there are other texts of greater importance, but almost all the early ones which are about yoga are a mix of crazy and fascinating shit. And then if you come all the way forward, nearly everything Westerners know of yoga is asana and even in India that didn’t start to take shape, pardon the pun, till around the 1700’s C.E. And even that’s pretty obscure stuff. If you’re interested I can go on and I can give you references, but the point is, the yoga nearly everyone does today really dates back about 120 years, in India, England, Sweden, and the USA. It’s very multinational. Read Mark Singleton’sYoga Body– I don’t agree with him on everything either, but it’s eye-opening.
Is there a deeper yoga which has existed for millenia? Yes, and there are some good ideas (e.g. santosha) but on the whole I’m more interested in Buddhist stuff, which actually pre-dates Patanjali. And the I Ching is even closer to my heart. And I love Zen and karate as well.”
Very accurate arguments and he definitely has a point. Asana, which we mostly practice, is just the tip of an iceberg. Or the lava coming out of a thousand-year-old volcano.
I appreciate Ivan’s well-intentioned corrections, but for me that sort of thinking sometimes led to being irritable and over-critical when it came to learning stuff. I thought I was a crusader for a certain hierarchy of knowledge.
I realize that Ivan is actually saying, that for deeper philosophical insights, he turns to Buddhist knowledge, and Chinese, too.
And I know he really likes the practices of asana and pranayama, and encourages them as a tool for westerners to use as a way to get deeper in their physical presence.
I never thought of Buddhism or Taoism as the type of philosophy that I would use in my daily life, despite me studying them as part of my course curriculum. However, I do notice these days, that a lot of the Buddhist wisdom I read and wrote essays about, make the most sense to me today.
However, I wanted to talk about the Yoga journey, and Ivan’s comments reminded me very strongly about how I used to feel in the matter, which was very much what I described in my first post.
One of my main problems during my studies at SOAS, while learning about the actual facts and the history of yoga, about the developments of Indian philosophies, Buddhism and later Hinduism, and what Yoga actually is (which actually isn’t so easy to define). I went to yoga classes where the teachers thought themselves holier-than-thou for practicing asanas. I was hypercritical of this attitude, as the “real yoga”, from what I was learning at university, had nothing to do with asanas.
After letting go of taking classes, after my traumatic events in the place I did my yoga teacher training, I took a break from the public yogaworld and retreated.
There is a Dzogchen Tantra, which I like to think of regarding my journey: “As a bee seeks nectar, from all kinds of flowers, seek teachings everywhere. Like a deer that finds a quiet place to graze, seek seclusion to digest all that you have gathered. Like a madman, beyond all limits, go wherever you please and live like a lion completely free of all fear.”
I’m not comparing myself to a Lion (not just yet) but I was definitely a bee seeking nectar. I was a butterfly, going everywhere. I then spent my yoga moments practicing in my bedroom, with a closed door, for three years.
I forgot, during these years, about my hypercriticalness regarding the “truth” of what yoga “really is”. I just knew I could not take classes, because it bothered me, the way teachers would be calling yoga “their” yoga and pronounce Sanskrit words like they were ordering a skinny latte and a low fat blueberry muffin at Starfucks.
But I actually forgot that I used to be caught up in the history, the dates, and the fact that yoga asanas were never part of the “original” yoga. Ivan’s email reminded me of this, and made me think a lot about what happened in my own yoga-evolution, during these three years, grazing in my quiet bedroom.
I always did more than just asana, though.
Like pranayama, for example, every day, for a few years, or yoga nidra for some years, too. Meditation has always been a big part, but in periods, which come and go. But the asana practice was the major thing for these three years, and actually, in the last few months, it’s the only thing I do (oh ok, maybe some pranayama! I can’t help but doing it!)
And what I have found, and this to me is really important, is that when I practice, I come to a place in myself.
This place is reached by asana, pranayama, yoga nidra, or meditation.
This place is somewhere deep inside my head. It’s the very center of my head. I sink into it, I’m drawn into it, by a certain amount of practice- any of the ones mentioned above.
With the asana, it’s usually required that I do at least 45 minutes, before I get there.
The feeling of this center of my head is one of total calm. It’s not happy, it’s not sad– it just is. I’m there, and I’m not bothered by the outside. I’m there. Not tired, not energetic- just pure Being.
I noticed this place for the first time around six years ago, from regular pranayama. But to then discover it in my grazing, in my bedroom, was amazing.
I can get to “that place” by any of these practices which would go under the umbrella-term “yoga”. Yoga means “union” and this is what “that place” feels like to me. I unite, with myself, with my center, and clean off the mind for a bit. And because I do this every day, in one way or another, I have a spiritual practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s asana, pranayama, meditation or whatever- it’s all a yoga-practice.
And what I discovered further was how using the breath in my asana-practice can really catapult me into “that place”. Sometimes so deeply that I find it hard to get back into my daily routine, because I’m so far “inside”.
So yes, there is a “deeper” yoga, which has Samadhi as its goal.
And this Samadhi doesn’t mean sitting on a mountain top in the Himalayas, eating air and drinking sun- it means a true and pure connection to the Self, free from the Mind. All the possible ways to get there are legitimate, if you ask me.
So I’m now taking classes. I found a studio really close by, and I really like it. Some of the teachers irritate me but I started to really think about why instead of following the anger and irritation. And I made the necessary realization (for me):
A good teacher, of any kind of teaching, has to step aside, and let the “teachings” come through them in a clear way, without putting too much of “themselves” into it.
I had a class with a lovely Brazilian woman, who was just a bit too much lovely and strong in her personality. She was passionate, and too hasty, and made mistakes. I focused more on her voice, her mistakes, her passion than I focused on my own practice.
Then there was the Latin American woman, who was not skinny and not fat, not pretty and not ugly, just really clear and centered. I stopped noticing her after a few minutes, and went so deep into my own practice, that I spent the rest of the day trying to get out of my own bubble (which was only helped by a very big siesta). She had an ability to just channel her teaching, her class, her words, and she stepped aside. That, to me, is an amazing teacher.
About my complaint that teachers call their teaching “their yoga”, Ivan says:
“So no one can lay that much claim to any one way, although some can lay claim to their own yoga, and that’s the way I like it too (uh-huh uh-huh). I think that gives us the license we need as teachers to be creative! Of course, up to a certain critical point — because one should and can argue that freedom necessitates responsibility. People have expectations from yoga, and I think the 120+ year old yoga is brilliant and should be respected. But you can’t get all purist about it. It’s just not real, it doesn’t have real roots in history. I’ve done a lot of research, and yoga history is a mess and a paradox. It’s rather amazing history, actually. Yogis were villains, sometimes falsely accused but sometimes totally for real, and there’s a lot of hijinx and tomfoolery, and no one can get too soapboxy about it. And yeah, that might be a good thing.”
And yes, he is right. I thought about this a lot, too. It’s true.
But what I would like to add, is that the 120+ year old yoga that Ivan suggests is a newer form and perhaps not the original yoga, might just be a natural development of what has been continuing to develop over all of these 3500-something years.
If there was one thing I really understood from my university studies in Indian Religions, it was this: the teachings keep developing, and as they are passed down from generation to generation, they adapt to the current times. One scholar called the Indian Religions (and then I also refer to Philosophies!) a flowing river, branching out into many little side-rivers, flowing in all directions, but from the same source.
Maybe it’s just very simply like this: the current times needed a more physical spiritual practice, a more physical approach to get to the center.
And yes, no one should get too soapboxy about it. No one can claim to “own” it- instead, we are free to just “use” it.
And I have found that both asana and pranayama and other things are like different types of vehicles, all taking me to the same place. But if there is another person driving the car, then it depends a lot on the driving. If the music’s too loud, the person’t screaming at their boyfriend on the phone, or almost crash the car- then I don’t get to this place, because I’m focusing on hanging on to my seat and praying for my life.
And another, even more important thing, is the fact that my physical body is now my main motivator to practice.
To find the motivation to meditate each day, for the rest of my life, is hard. Really hard.
But to not practice asanas, is in fact, impossible. If I don’t, I get pain, I put on weight, it gets tight, I get a headache, I twist my ankles…and so on. My physical body is what keeps me coming back to my yoga, each and every day, because if I don’t, I feel like I used to feel ten years ago, before yoga, with pain in my shoulders, slightly overweight, pain in my back when sitting, pain when walking, headaches…
I have learnt a lot in the last few weeks about taking my practice out of the wardrobe again. About how it affects me, about what a good teacher is for me, and about how I cannot stay angry or irritated or snobby about it anymore.
And I processed a lot thanks to you, Ivan.
So my Barcelona yoga journey has been a huge coming out of my yoga closet. I have taken many different classes in the past few weeks. My dear friend Christine gave a class pack of 10 classes with an Anusara teacher, who I really liked. The teacher took one look at me, and my rolled up mat under my arm, and informed me that the class was “bastante basico” and I replied “Perfecto.” I wanted to be new, to go slow, to hear it in Spanish. Her classes really made me peaceful, and made me connect to my deeper place, just by her guiding me there. No advanced armbalances or excruciating hipopeners, just a silent connection to Self through introspection and breath.
The Yoga Dinámico Mandiram in Grácia, my neighborhood, was such a Sanctuary for me. I took one class, and then decided to do a one month unlimited class pack. The space is beautiful, tranquil, and peaceful, and the teachers are very professional. I would continue, if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t have much of an income at the moment.
I don’t have much of an income, because I quit that shit job in that stupid bar and decided it is now or never. Live your dreams! This is your life, girl, don’t miss it!
I met with a great Australian yoga teacher who has lived and taught yoga in Barcelona for three years, and got some insider info on what it’s like teaching yoga here. (Not easy!)
She recommended me to join a Facebook group for Yoga Subs in Barcelona, and I just took a chance, and wrote on the wall, and introduced myself.
I was contacted by an Ashtanga teacher, who has his own studio in Sarriá, one of the posher neighborhoods in Barcelona. He used to live in Sweden for 22 years, was from Colombia, and had now relocated to Barcelona. He knew of a kids school, Gymboree, who were looking for a kids yoga teacher.
I went to meet him, see his studio, and then he introduced me to the staff at Gymboree, which led to me being hired as their kids yoga teacher, which I’m absolutely jumping from joy to tell you!
I love teaching kids yoga! It’s so much fun, and I think it’s actually good for me, to not be able to be perfectionist about it.
Quite the opposite, I have to let go completely of all structure and perfectionism, and just allow the kids to start talking about butterflies when we’re supposed to be trees.
I also contacted another yoga studio in the more posh areas of Barcelona and offered my services as a yoga teacher for kids, or adults, in English, and they responded saying they are very interested, and we are now trying to set up a meeting.
So things are opening up.
I guess I am opening up.
I am letting go of my holding on to what yoga is, or isn’t, by just allowing it to be what it is, for me, and for you, for them, and for us.
Whatever it does for me, is my yoga. Whatever it does for you, is yours… It’s a fantastic vehicle to get closer to ourselves.
Each and every time we step onto that mat, we polish the mirror of our sacred self. We polish the mirror of our sacred no-Self.
We remove the cobwebs of illusion so that we can connect to our soul.
We let Shakti dance her asana-dance, so that we can look behind her movement and connect to the silence in our shiva consciousness.
My personal yoga journey, the past 10 years, have been decorated with fascination, naivety, and being judgmental. But I think I can say that now, in retrospect, I think my karmic journey was about discriminating between what is pure teaching and what is Ego based teachings. In whichever form they come — may it be the Upanishads in original Sanskrit, or a sweet Argentinian girl teaching “her own” yoga, doesn’t matter. It’s all yoga, and it’s yours, it’s ours, and it’s mine, too.
We should use it with care, respect, love and laughter.
(Yes, me too, ok ok!)
Editor: Hayley Samuelson
Linda has been practicing yoga for 10 years. She has completed a degree at SOAS, University of London, in Indian Philosophy. She is a certified Vinyasa Flow Yoga teacher, and is currently completing her Master degree in Photojournalism in Barcelona, Spain. She has had a rocky and deep, messy and exquisite journey in her yoga-life, which she woud never had done differently. She is currently writing a book about her experiences with yoga. Visit her Blog at: http://lindadreams.blogspot.com and view her photography at Flickr: flickr.com/lindusja