Dear Sadie Nardini—Please Don’t Whitewash Yoga.

Via Dee Greenberg
on Apr 9, 2012
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I’m a yoga teacher. I understand the temptation to whitewash the practice, so as not to offend anyone.

I feel moved to respond to Sadie Nardini’s recent post: To the Christian Who Sent Me Hate Mail on Easter Sunday.

First of all, to Sadie, I’ve been following your yoga career for many years now. I discovered you on YouTube maybe in 2004 or so and it’s been fun watching the progression of your YouTube channel and your career. You really have made quite a name for yourself and I understand how much hard work it is to put yourself in the public eye, and to attract a humongous group of loyal followers as you have done. Kudos to you! I admire and respect you as a sister on the path. You are a woman with a mission and there is no stopping you.

I also was both surprised and touched to learn that you overcame a spinal cord illness, to become the super strong and amazingly flexible proponent of core strength that you are today. I appreciate that you are a positive role model for both men and women alike (myself included), and I bow to you.

But (you heard that coming) I feel moved to speak my mind on a few issues that rose to the surface as I read and re-read your post, as well as  the many comments that were posted.

So here it is:

I’m a yoga teacher. I understand the temptation to whitewash the practice, so as not to offend anyone.

Clearly yoga’s popularity is on the rise. Historically, there has never been a better time to be a yoga teacher—and specifically to be a career yoga teacher or to try to make a living teaching yoga.

This is an unparalleled time in history for wannabe yoga teachers. The potential pool of yoga students is mushrooming at speeds never before seen in the 2000 year history of yoga as we know it. Suddenly everybody (and their mother) is doing yoga. My mailman’s wife, my hairdresser, the captain of the football team, the 95 year old lady who lives down the street. Yes, just about everyone you meet these days is either doing yoga themselves, or knows someone who is doing yoga.

There has never been a better time for athletic, spiritual, career minded individuals to sign up and graduate from the various yoga teacher trainings being generously offered through out the United States. To gain certification, the initial investment of time and money seems small in comparison to the huge potential for making a healthy profit, teaching yoga to the masses.

But as the esoteric practice of this ancient tradition continues to be bought and sold by new age corporate yoga moguls, do we run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water?

Let’s face it. Your average God fearing, middle American, may not be quite ready to hear the truth about yoga. And those uber rich ladies at the country club who do yoga because “all the girls are doing it,” may not be quite prepared to hear the answer to the age old question:

“What is yoga?”

But answer this question, I must! And so, if you are easily offended by hearing of a practice and philosophy that is designed in many ways as a method of gently guiding you out of your comfort zone and asks you to look at yourself and the world from a radically different perspective—be forewarned!

I am about to divulge the cold hard truth about what yoga is and what it isn’t. And I am not going to mince any words in the process. So frankly, if you can’t handle hearing the truth, you had best be on your way.

What I am about to tell you, may be frightening. It may seem totally incomprehensible or woo woo. It might sound like a lot of esoteric, new age mumbo jumbo. It might feel like it directly contradicts your religious faith. It might seem supernatural or like science fiction. And quite frankly, it may sound like a load of crap.

But regardless . . . here goes.

According to Swami Rama of the Himalayan Institute in his book Lectures on Yoga:

“Regarding yoga, many people in the West think it is a physical and beauty cult while others think it is a religion. This misinformation serves to obscure the real meaning of yoga.

The teachings of yoga are an integral part of most religions but yoga itself is not a religion.

Yoga practices may be found in the sacred scriptures of most religions. The book of Genesis and the book of Revelations contain such teachings. And in the book of Psalms, meditation is mentioned frequently in Psalm 119:15, 23, 48, 78, 97, and 148.

Yoga is based on Sankhya philosophy which shares many aspects with Judaism. Like yoga, The Kaballah, acknowledges the link between breath and spirit.

Over the years Christianity has produced many yogis such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bernard, Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, Dionysus and Meister Eckhart.

The origins of yoga are considered to be divine rather than human. The purity of this ancient practice has been maintained through the master-disciple tradition and was eventually codified around 200 BC as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect and infinite.

Man falsely identifies with the body and is therefore unaware of his divinity. Through meditation, man can cast off his ignorance and become aware of his true Self.

Yoga represents the union of the individual self with the supreme universal Self. The supreme universal self is considered to be absolute reality

A similar mystical union is mentioned in the Bible.

Man in his ignorance chases the fleeting shadows of wealth, position and power but can derive no real happiness from finite objects.

Yoga therefore implies the removal of impurities, the stilling of lower feelings and thoughts and the establishment of a state of perfect balance and harmony.

The greatest problem for the beginner is his inherent restlessness of mind. This is why the attachment of the mind towards worldly objects is the arch enemy of yoga.

The goal of yoga is self realization.”

Therefore, if you are looking for a yoga butt…this is the wrong practice for you. You’d be better off signing up for the glutes and thighs class at your local gym. As Swami Rama said: “The goal of yoga is self-realization.” Hopefully yoga teachers are staying true to the goal of yoga.

But now getting back to Sadie’s article, I take issue with the following quote:

“Yoga is not Hinduism, necessarily. They were originally separate practices. Yet over time some people and lineages have fused them together, even many of today’s well-meaning yoga teachers who are not Hindu or Buddhist but still insist on bringing both into their classes.”

According to Eknath Easwaran, the great Hindu scholar and meditation teacher, the Bhagavad Gita is an Upanishad (a genre of Hindu literature) and part of the Mahabharata (national epic of India from 200 C.E.). According to Georg Feuerstein PH.D., the Gita belongs to what is called the tradition literature of Hinduism. Feuerstein also refers to the Gita as the most famous of all yoga scriptures and Easwaran refers to it as the text on the supreme science of yoga.

So to say that yoga and Hinduism were originally separate is a misnomer. My understanding is that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.

And regarding Mike’s statement and your response:

He continues: “These are postures that are offered to the 330 Hindu gods. Yoga poses are really sacrifices or offerings to the gods.”

Wow! I wondered why I always say “your yoga practice lasts 24-7.” Because I’ve been trying to appease 330 million gods! No wonder it takes so long!

Mike, don’t worry. I am not a Hindu.

Sadie, I understand that you are making light of Mike’s perspective because he seems overly threatened by the Hindu aspect of yoga. But in this case, he is not that far off the mark. If  we take the Gita seriously, the main message of the Bhagavad Gita is renunciation or non-attachment. And the way we practice this renunciation is by allowing all of our actions to be offerings to the Lord. To live as a yogi is to be continually offering your actions to God.

CHAKRAS
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However, the interesting thing about Christianity or any religion for that matter, is they all basically preach the same thing (surrender to God, live as God intended you to live, etc.).

Mike is clearly not comfortable with the Hindu brand of renunciation.

I’d also like to mention that Dharma Mittra, who is a highly regarded yoga teacher, has the custom of asking students to form a big circle. Then he plays some music —maybe Krisha Das (again these are chants to Hindu deities) and he asks one person to go to the center of the circle and do a yoga posture and offer it to the Lord. This is generally a very high energy, fun time for students and gives them an opportunity to basically “strut their stuff” by perhaps trying a difficult or risky posture in front of a roomful of onlookers. And by offering it to the Lord, there is a lesson here. There is a certain letting go of the ego that happens when we offer the posture to God.

I am quite sure Mike would not appreciate this ritual. However, I would argue that there is nothing inappropriate here and the ritual and the music is totally in line with creating a space for people to experience yoga or “union.”

I also cannot help but take issue with this quote from your post:

“As I am not a Hindu, I usually do not bring Hindu gods into my classes, just as I would not sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or dance

Christian Cross
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the Horah in a classroom that contains all creeds, colors and religions. I do not chant Hindu verses, in the same way I wouldn’t read from the Bible or the Koran during a yoga session. Religion is personal, as is yoga.”

I believe I touched on the “Hindu verses” issue with my example of Dharma Mittra using Krishna Das music, which seems to be very much in line with what many yoga teachers are doing today.

I also believe that in Ashtanga yoga, they chant in Sanskrit on a regular basis. I am not sure if that qualifies as Hindu, but I imagine there may be some overlap there. Shiva Rea also has us do some Sanskrit chanting, which I believe may have Hindu roots as well. And even you, Sadie Nardini, are known to chant an Om or two.

But the part of this that pressed my buttons even more is your attitude about playing certain types of spiritual or religious music during class. I do understand Sadie, that you are speaking for yourself and you are not preaching and saying that all yoga teachers should follow suit. But something about your tone made me uncomfortable in parts of your post.

You are speaking as an authority on yoga, and therefore, I assume that there is some implication that playing this type of music during a yoga class is somehow not a good idea.

I must respectfully disagree with you here. I will use Shiva Rea as an example again. I have very vivid memories of the music she has often played during teacher trainings at Kripalu.

Some notable songs come to mind:

  • “Let My Life Be Prayer” ~ Ken Whiteley (gospel feel)
  • “People Get Ready” ~ Eva Cassidy (gospel feel)
    “Ya don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”
  • “Oh, Happy Day” ~ (mentions Jesus)
  • “My Sweet Lord” ~ George Harrison (sings Hare Krishna)

The fact that I remember these songs from perhaps five to six years ago speaks to the power of music and the positive effect it has had on my yoga practice.

And I don’t think Shiva is alone here. I believe this practice is quite common in the yoga world.

Shiva is also known to integrate some Kirtan into the teacher training modules as well as puja (religious ritual performed by Hindus, as an offering to various deities) and some ritual fire ceremonies.

And although I may not have been comfortable with all the rituals that Shiva introduced, I certainly appreciated being exposed to a culture quite different from my own. I did not feel frightened or threatened. Quite the contrary. It felt inclusive and like an honoring of the roots of yoga.

In closing, I don’t feel the need to tie this up in a neat package.

Regarding the relationship of Hinduism and yoga . . . it’s complicated.

Personally, I like Shiva’s approach of mixing and matching the traditions. She has no problem bringing Jesus into the room. And I also love Dharma Mittra’s approach of unapologetically integrating the Lord into the practice.

I know that some Christian yoga students have issues with yoga’s Hindu roots. For me, the answer is not to hide it. I think these students need to examine their feelings and their priorities. It’s all a part of self realization.

I once had a Christian student confront me during class. We had our mats in a circular formation and there was a small altar in the center of the circle with a statue of Shiva Nataraja. This student (who was in the middle of taking yoga teacher training at Kripalu) told me that she was uncomfortable being forced to look at the statue. And I remember being a bit shocked because Kripalu is full of these types of images.

My sense was that she needed to make peace with this inner conflict she had between yoga and her Christian beliefs. I did not feel in any way wrong for setting up the room in that manner. I was not asking her to worship Shiva. I also had a cross on a table in another part of the room.

My intent was to be inclusive. But I also feel people need to respect the roots and the rich history of this practice we call yoga.

~

Editor: Brianna Bemel


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About Dee Greenberg

Dee Greenberg is a freelance yoga instructor and spiritual warrior, residing six miles from the beach, in Delray Beach, Florida. Dee’s resume includes 13 plus years of teaching yoga, four years owning a yoga studio and 40+ years of personal yoga practice. Trained in both Kripalu and Prana Flow (Shiva Rea), Dee’s teaching style is a homogenous blend of both, with a strong sprinkling of intuitive spirituality thrown into the mix. She spends most of her free time drumming, dancing and pursuing various types of fitness, including running and lifting weights. To join Dee for Yoga Trance Dance in Delray Beach check her website. Add Dee as a friend on Facebook.

Comments

65 Responses to “Dear Sadie Nardini—Please Don’t Whitewash Yoga.”

  1. yogaboca says:

    Pankaj, thanks for joining the discussion and shedding light on this subject.

  2. yogaboca says:

    Pankaj, thanks again for your very thoughtful comments. And thank you for sharing that link above.

  3. So clear… well all I can say is that Sadie, your approach worked for me.

  4. Juicy says:

    I practice yoga because it makes me feel good in mind and body. I am not religious so I'm very thankful for teachers like Sadie. We should be able to do healthy things for ourselves without buying into its origins or chanting its mantras. No offense to those who do use it as part of a religious practice just as you should take no offense to us.

  5. Nena says:

    Being rather new to the yoga teaching community as well as to this site I'm finding that the focus is so often on what is "authentic" yoga and what isn't. The obsession over semantics and the criticism between the authors here (however well-intentioned) are disheartening. Yoga is different for everyone, plain and simple.
    Your concern with Sadie's "attitude" and the assumptions you drew from her article is your problem, not hers. And I for one don't care about Sadie's knowledge of yoga history; I care about her amazing ability to help thousands find their version of yoga. Same goes for all the other yoga teachers I come across.

  6. Kevin D says:

    Hi Sadie,

    I ran across this today and I find it interesting how something so simple (your particular approach, style and methods), can stimulate so much debate. For me at least, your approach keeps it real and your story of what yoga did for you is not unlike what it has done/is doing for me. Intuitively (and my intuition is very strong), your approach resonates with the core of who I am – you are real, and your approach and methods are helping me take my practice to the next level.

    Though I have been practicing for 3 years, and still humbly refer to myself as a beginner (though when I take inventory of what I can do today, I'm really not), I recently realized that yoga was a part of my life for the past 20 years before I even knew to put a label on it – 20 years ago I was using "stretching and flexibility" exercises that I know now to be classical asanas.

    I took up yoga formally as an approach to healing and grief recovery after my then 25 year old son took his own life. Were it not for yoga and all of its beneficial effects from the physical through to the core of my being, my spiritual and emotional and physical aspects, I would not be where I am today. I also have an L4/L5 disc issue resulting in neuropathy to my right lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, and encounter SI joint inflammation from standing too long or walking too slowly as one might be inclined to do visiting the architectural wonders and museums of Italy (something I came face to face with last year). Were it not for me taking my yoga mat and blocks when I travel everywhere I go, my 2 week italian vacation would have been miserable to say the least. Daily yoga for me saved the vacation.

    I found your material and your approach to yoga recently, but there were at least two other online teachers who also, like you, felt that yoga should be available to everyone. Part of the reason I never entered a yoga studio and learned it at home was the anticipation that I would not only be unable to "perform", but that I would feel stupid because they would be using Sanscrit terms that I "should know before ever even thinking I would be worthy enough to set foot in a yoga studio".

    What I have learned, through teachers like you, and Tara Stiles, and a few others I've learned yoga from is that yoga, when practiced imparts something to the practitioner that as the practice progresses becomes less and less describable through words and labels and more and more intuitive that "something good and positive is happening" TO ME, that is changing my priorities in life of what is or is no longer important, and empowers me to eliminate the "cluttering" things that hold me back from achieving my true potential.

    I find that someone else's criticism of your approach to be distracting, but that's my opinion – way too much discussion has already taken place on this topic to what purpose I am uncertain if only to complicate something that should be very simple.

    Bottom line: it is your approach and you have a following. I am one of those now and your approach both inspires me to continue on my yogic path, and your sincerity and generosity of your heart and your spirit is genuine. The way I look at it, everyone has a choice – they can take it or leave it and move on.

    What I really find interesting is that these so called "Christian viewpoints" of yoga must all come from the same playbook. Last summer I had an Indian co-worker who is a fundamentalist Christian tell me that I "should be really careful practicing yoga because I can drive myself to insanity, psychotic behavior and even start channeling demons". WOW! I wonder which Sanscrit text that comes from!

    I can honestly say with all sincerity that yoga has gotten me through one of the most devastating situations in life I will ever encounter – the loss of my pride and joy to suicide with so much of life ahead of him and so much potential – and continues to this day to improve my overall health, well-being and spiritual transformation, and you are one of the names I wrote in my personal journal yesterday of yoga teachers who inspire me on my journey.

    Thanks Sadie for keeping it real, and putting your heart and soul out there in service of others and letting yoga do its work for so many without making it feel like it is an exclusive club requiring a Rosetta Stone and a secret language for the worthy to participate 🙂

    You Rock!

    Namaste,
    Kevin

  7. Kevin D says:

    Nicely said Nena – the proof is in the results conferred on the practitioner. Plain and simple. After all it is a simple message isn't it? When we are open, the lotus in us blooms on its own timeline. That opening is a beautiful thing and when we look back in retrospect it is teachers like Sadie who have helped guide us on our journey.

  8. Humility my virtue says:

    Meditation is not yoga. Meditation is a means to a higher level of existence to which all must aspire to be rid of the suffering of the soul. Meditation is a non-physical mechanism and in its purest form cannot be taught. True meditation is only passed on by those that have achieved this higher level of existence. It is achieved by extinguishing the five senses and thus cannot be perfected by any faculty that we here possess.

    You do not need yoga for meditation but you certainly must possess a fortunate destiny to meet with the true knower who alone can enlighten you to its bliss.

  9. Erin Sweeney says:

    Hi Dee, I'm coming to this fascinating discussion so late that I don't expect to get a reply from you – sad about that – but I wanted to let you know first THANK you for your post. Whether I agree with it or not doesn't really matter to me. What I truly appreciate about your post is that it speaks to an issue that comes up a lot for yoga teachers. WHAT do we do with people afraid of the religious components of yoga? What indeed! Of course you can't answer that and neither can I. I think all we can do is take it on a case by case basis. But one thing is for sure, telling them that yoga isn't religious so they shouldn't be afraid is nonsense. Sadie was definitely trying to reassure Mike with her post but the truth is, she doesn't need to do that. It's his job, his work; not hers. He was throwing his work at her when he sent her his anger and fear. All she needs to post back is… thank you for your comments. You said it in your post.

    "I know that some Christian yoga students have issues with yoga’s Hindu roots. For me, the answer is not to hide it. I think these students need to examine their feelings and their priorities. It’s all a part of self realization."

    Christians take issue with a lot of things. This is part of their faith. I'm so grateful it isn't part of mine. I think you are right about how to react in those words. "Thank you for your comments." Is what I feel is best. And we need not get defensive. Yoga is beautiful and we know it. SO beautiful. Never has it caused a war. We are asking people to love themselves and others – that is spiritual and to me it is religious. The religion of love… maybe love is the one true religion. And humans are beautifully good at it much of time.

    I start all my yoga classes this way:

    Citta Vritti Narodhah
    The cessation of the vacillations of the mind
    The purpose of yoga
    We set our intention to quiet our mind
    I invite you to OM with me 3 times

    And one last thing. During my yoga teacher training 5 years ago I got to meet Dr. Edwin Bryant http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~edbryant/workshops/yo… a scholar at Rutgars. He has a very lengthy book on the yoga sutras… rough to get through it. Anyway, I may not be explaining this well but he felt that Hinduism was a more modern term used as a blanket to describe a large variety of different belief systems and practices from ancient times. I guess maybe what we call all this stuff doesn't matter much though. We are human and we get upset and worked up – we all have our buttons and I have plenty of them. If I'm doing my yoga, the thing it does for me is to help me not overreact when my buttons are being pressed. If I do overreact then I need to do more yoga… I think… WAIT… I know what to do and I sit my beautiful yoga butt down and breathe.

  10. Sadi O. says:

    My question is, if I do not believe in God or any higher power does that mean I can not be fulling into my yoga practice?

  11. Julie Jones says:

    Wow! A lot of busy minds here. I practice Yoga everyday, and I am a Buddhist. I also love the Hindu Religion as well. I say my chants, wear my Mala Beads and have a Buddha Altar and a Ganesh statue. If one is offended with Hindu being a part of Yoga, then let them be. Not everyone is on the path that another is. Like Einstein said of ……Buddhism…. “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.

    “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism. So if one is offended then they are offended, no need to worry about it or try and reach out to them, they are just on a different path right now in life.
    I love the fact that I chant and am a Buddhist, I was formerly a devout Christian, but converted about 2 yrs ago, and I am a very Compassionate Being now and have changed my life for the good in such a good way.
    Namaste' in truth and love and light and peace.
    Julie….March 2014

  12. Julie Jones says:

    Wow! A lot of busy minds here. I practice Yoga everyday, and I am a Buddhist. I also love the Hindu Religion as well. I say my chants, wear my Mala Beads and have a Buddha Altar and a Ganesh statue. If one is offended with Hindu being a part of Yoga, then let them be. Not everyone is on the path that another is. Like Einstein said of ……Buddhism…. “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology

  13. AMY LOVE says:

    I have to agree with Sadie's explanation. Because I am also a certified yoga instructor, and a substance abuse counselor, I am well aware of cultural differences, and cultural bias. In substance abuse treatment, many concepts include acknowledging a higher power. Although I am a Christian, I certainly cant ask my clients to consider my God as their God, or use my God as their higher power. If I did so, how would my clients that originate from other countries, cultures, and beliefs, feel about me encouraging them to conform to a new God, and a new religion? I am confident that It would be offensive as well as discouraging to any client with cultural differences with specific beliefs. Although the practice of yoga originated from another culture, yoga instructors have to be aware of cultural and religious bias that may offend a general audience from the network or you tube.Persuading any audience made of different cultures with different beliefs would have a negative outcome, and essentially turn off a general audience. Im not saying that it would cause any kind of repercussion to teach the class about the culture,religion or location that birthed the practice and introduced the practice. I think it would be an interesting topic for any yoga instructor's class, I fully support awareness and education. Everyone has the right, and what a glorious oppurtunity, to practice yoga, however assuming or persuading any audience, specifically a yoga class to practice and conform to any instructor's religion or belief, could be offensive, and most likely it would eventually down size your class members . Awareness is an absolute essential for one who really studies yoga, and is a bonus for an instuctor to educate the class on this practice and its history. Going beyond education and awareness could offend class members, or any interested individual, and may label the instructor as culturally biased. I never considered Sadie's practice as white washing, instead I have been inspired by her energetic, light hearted practice, I love that she can practice and instruct , all while incorporating her humor inserts and fun personality. Keep it up Sadie! I've been working out with you for many many years! I admire how you instruct and practice, without any type of ego.Because this practice is so significant for overall health, well being and healing, I am currently in the process of introducing the practice to my clients in substance abuse treatment. Im very excited to do this! You inspired me to acquire my level 1, and almost completed level 2. I am not saying by any means that the Hindu or any type of religion should lack any kind of gratitude, in fact I support awareness of where the practice came from, and what culture introduced this glorious practice, I have a huge amount of gratitude for the practice being introduced, and used by many different religions and cultures. SADIE KEEP ON ROCKIN YOUR YOGA!!!! XOXO a
    AMY LOVE SAVANNAH GEORGIA

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  15. MicheleP says:

    There is nothing yogic about this response to Sadie, because yoga is about compassion, following a spiritual and personal path, and being inward; not regurgitating someone's text from a book, or judging.
    Disagreement is fine, but perhaps the disagreement should have been kept private and cultured into compassion.
    There were a lot of points that the writer (Dee) made that made me wonder how she herself actually views yoga.

    Mentioning all the people that now "do" yoga – not "practiced" but "do"… assuming that people who take classes are doing it superficially, etc.. what a sad worldview.
    Also, the assumption that "doing" yoga means going to class… or assuming yoga is or is not religious. Yoga is a tool used in a religion just as a candle is a tool used in some religions (everything from Catholic serves to worshipping the devil) but the candle alone is not a religious focus. One can light a candle in their home without practicing christianity or atheism – as example.

    Anyway, it sounds more to me that a differing of opinion had to be made into right/wrong, rather than the very core of what yoga is, which is a path of personal growth and expression of self, of peace.

    We can all go into details about religions, limbs, texts, swami's .. hello, this is all external. If you practice yoga and want to chant om, it is just as valid to practice yoga and pray. There isn't a yoga police nor should there be. You follow who resonates with you, who inspires you… and don't disregard someone you disagree with, simply don't follow them.

    Did I seriously just read nit-picking of playlists? oh my ….

    There are many correct yoga paths, more than stars in the sky.

    Practice yoga, not asana and depend upon texts, trust yourself and let it be… yoga comes from within, that's where the alleged texts first were born. They are someone else's inner world, and if you choose to adopt that fine, but don't discount that other inner worlds are wrong.

    If I had the will
    I'd write a yoga haiku
    to defend sadie
    🙂
    lol

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